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THROUGH THE WOODS: The Woodpile

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Woodpile. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

IT SEEMED LIKE A HUGE PART OF OUR LIVES revolved around the woodpile. As a neighbor once remarked, he never knew anyone who worked harder than my father, Donald Kern, and mom was right beside him. Work was also shared down the family, and whenever the weather permitted and there was time between planting, growing and harvesting, we cut wood for the next winter. The house was actually a combination of two houses put together by grandfather Frank Kern, and needed 3 stoves to heat it. It was hard to figure out how many cords it took, but there were huge piles of wood to be stacked up east of the barn. We took the team of Belgian draft horses and iron wheeled wagon to the woods where father chopped away (no chain saws then) until there were wagon lengths of limb wood. The bigger trunks got pulled out one at a time and split.

We had one of those “one lung” engines we called the popping machine, and another early gas engine to run a belt to a buzz saw to cut the wood to stove sized chunks. Later there was a tractor for the job plus a chain saw. When we were old enough, we began tailing the saw and picking up the cut chunks as father fed the limbs through. One very cold day it was a close call when he almost sawed through a numb finger. He was a sickly shade of green as mother, a Registered Nurse, phoned the doctor. There weren’t any antibiotics to be given and whatever she did, it worked and he healed. There was no OSHA, helmets, safety goggles, ear protection, or anything close to them. You had to be very alert, follow instructions and have great reflexes.

Other hazards were wood pieces kicked off the saw, sawdust up the nose and in the eyes, and splinters. We used the sawdust in the barn under the cows, and the wood smelled different depending on what kind it was. The “iron wood” as we called it was really different because it was so hard and heavy. It was actually American hornbeam and had beautiful smooth gray bark and was a pleasure to hold. It had no rough dirty bark or splintered ends, and burned for a long time.

Every Saturday father got a load of wood and backed it up by the house. We kids had the job of unloading and carrying it onto the porch to stack for the coming week. Smaller pieces went into the wood box to start the fires, and the big pieces were stacked by size. This way you could zip out in the cold and easily pick out the sizes you needed. Usually mother kept the fires going. When fires went out we shoveled out ashes and carried them outside in metal coal scuttles or pails. They got spread on walkways so we wouldn’t slip and the rest placed on the gardens. It was one of the best materials ever for getting a good grip on ice. We eventually switched to an oil furnace, but never completely eliminated wood. The wood pellets are easier to use, but people are missing out on an incredible experience and connection to the natural world if you don’t use the woodpile, a renewable, organic source of energy

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