Friday, December 17, 2010

Cutting Firewood: Preparing for Winter, Part 2

By: Garet Livermore, Vice-President for Education


Winter is a good time to cut and get up a year’s stock of firewood. Farmers at this season have less work to perform and wood is easier loaded and drawn when there is good sleighing, than in summer.  But remember one thing: Don’t attempt to warm all creation, by working hard to chop and haul fire-wood, and at the same time leave your dwelling so open that the cold wind will rush in on all sides. By all means make your house comfortable.  Bank it up and have all of its walls tight with good non-conductors of heat. While taking good care of those in-doors that can can talk, and tell their wants, never forget the dumb brutes in your barn-yard and stables. “The merciful man is merciful to his beast.” -- Editor, Genesee Farmer
In today’s world, heating bills are foremost on many people’s minds as we move into the coldest months of winter. People in early America were also concerned with heating, and they needed to work through the year to provide enough wood to heat their homes and make hot water for cooking, cleaning and bathing. Most firewood was cut in the winter when it could be easily cut and transported into barnyards for processing, but a good part of the other seasons were also taken up with splitting, stacking and moving wood around to keep fires in burning constantly through the long northern winter. Early Americans used prodigious amounts of wood to stoke the flames in their fireplaces. In Colonial times, before the improved efficiencies of the Rumford fireplace and later wood stoves, farmers had to cut, split and manage upwards of 40 cords of wood to keep their homes warm and their farms in operation.
To put those 40 cords of wood in perspective we can compare them to today’s heating bills.  According to the U.S. government, each full cord of wood contains about 15.3 million BTU units of heat, so 40 cords of wood equals 612 million BTU units to heat, light and do chores on the average 18th century farm.  If we had to purchase that heat in the form of home heating oil it would require over 5,000 gallons of #2 fuel oil.  With today’s average cost per gallon of home heating oil in New York State hovering around $3.27 per gallon, the average farm would have an annual heating bill of well over $17,000.
Today heating oil is neatly delivered to our tanks and all we need to do is turn up our thermostats when the house grows cold or call the oil company to top off our tank when it is running low. Americans of the 18th and 19th centuries spent a great deal of their time managing their firewood supply and making sure that they had enough wood to get through the winter. Farms in rural areas generally included 15 to 20 acre woodlots as part of the property. In managing their wood supply, farmers generally cut an acre each year with the assumption that it would grow back to be of usable size by the time they came back to that spot in fifteen years. Farmers also bartered for wood and, if they lived near enough to cities to make transportation worthwhile, sold firewood as a cash crop for as much as $6 per cord in the mid-19th century.
The technology of cutting firewood was vastly different in the 19th century.  In the present, people who heat with wood have a wide variety of power equipment available to make the job easier, including chain saws, hydraulic wood splitters and even motorized wheel barrows.  Until about 1870, the most commonly used tool for processing wood was the American Pattern axe.  Axes were very efficient for felling and limbing trees, but were not as good at splitting the trees into usable chunks of firewood.  For this purpose most wood cutters relied on splitting wedges and heavy wooden “beetles” or sledge hammers to split their wood.  Cross-cut saws were not often used for felling trees until the last quarter of the 19th century because they were initially not as efficient as axes and were much more expensive to purchase.


In early America settlers often performed a dual function when they gathered firewood, creating a bank of fuel for the year as they cleared land for cultivation. This was a very labor intensive activity that required help. Neighbors often worked as a group to cut and clear the woods, pull stumps and do the initial plowing to open the land for the next season’s crops. This also allowed settlers to share necessary tools and equipment like oxen with sledges, horses and plows as well as hand tools like mauls and wedges. This made full use of a community’s resources to meet everyone’s needs.
The first energy crisis in America occurred in the 1740s when a growing population and inefficient energy practices caused a great shortage in firewood in New England and other heavily populated areas. Open hearth fireplaces were tremendously wasteful. Fully ninety percent of their heat energy went up the chimney, and the fire tended to pull more cold outside air in through poorly insulated walls and windows. Benjamin Franklin developed his famous stove, then called the “Pennsylvania Fire-Place,” as a tremendous advance in wood burning technology. On being asked about the stove he had the following reply, which is as relevant today as it was then: "By the help of this saving invention our wood may grow as fast as we consume it, and our posterity may warm themselves at a moderate rate, without being obliged to fetch their fuel over the Atlantic." The net effect on the lives of average Americans of this stove - and others invented in the 19th century - was dramatic. By the 1850s the average northern farm required 60% less firewood, which meant that it required 15 cords worth of trees rather than the 40 of colonial times.

5 comments:

Wellnesste said...

Great blog post/ article. Really interesting comparison of the amount of wood used in days of old with a calculation to today's fuel oil costs... wow!!

We cut about 5-10 cords each year to run our cabins with modern tools. Hard work and great exercise. I quite honestly can't imagine attempting 40 cords with axe, saw and horse cart! It seems we've gotten mighty soft in our modern society :>O

Kathy Cretsinger/Katt Anderson said...

When we were heating by wood, my husband always said he was twice warmed. Once when he cut the wood and the other when he burned the wood. We really have it made today with gas, oil and electric heating. I don't want to go back to the fireplace or grate and the wood cook stove. This was very interesting.

jessieflowers said...

We cut and split about 4 cords a year. But, we also buy 2 tons of bio-bricks to burn along with the firewood. It's a bi-product of the cabinet industry. Pressed sawdust into hard bricks.

Thomas Lindsey said...

Very interesting article with useful information. I transcribe manuscripts collected for the War department papers .org project http://war department papers .org , and one of my recent transcriptions is a circa 1796 regulation with instructions that include the number of cords of wood allowed each group of noncommissioned officers ad privates. It was 1 cord of wood for six months of the year, which could be adjusted downward for those in warmer climates. This article gives me information about how cords of wood for fuel would have been prepared for use in 18th century homes and businesses.

During the Revolutionary War, General Sir John Burgoyne's surrendered army was marched from Saratoga, New York to Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts and quartered there, pending their expected repatriation to England and Germany. The amount of wood needed to heat quarters for approximately 2,000 soldiers caused firewood shortages in an area with approximately 20,000 residents. The "Convention Army" was relocated 50 miles west to Rutland. There would have been less pressure on its local fuel supply, and the prisoners were at least two days march from any possible rescue force attacking Boston.

Tomas Lindsey said...

My last comment should have stated 1 cord of word for each month of the six months of the year.

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