Archive for April, 2015

  • Blog
  • April 15th, 2015

A CONSUMER’S GUIDE TO FIREWOOD

By Joel M. Vance
You can see magic castles shimmering and dissolving, feel your eyelids grow heavy, drift away on soft clouds of fancy, all in the dancing light of a fire.
Fire was man’s first great tool. It kept the sabertooth tiger at bay and the Neolithic Man warm. Today, caged inside a state-of-the-art woodstove, it does the same thing, only the tiger is Fluffy, the family cat drowsing underneath the stove.
Wood heat is like a bad habit. It’s dirty and messy and I love it. I heated with wood for a dozen years and wouldn’t trade my old woodstove for anything but another woodstove.
But gathering wood is dangerous, strenuous and dirty. For the unwary, a wood fire can be more expensive than natural gas, heating oil, or electricity, the three modern competitors.
The homeowner who has seen his chimney, in the throes of a flue fire, looking like something that just took off at Cape Canaveral, might consider anything a viable alternative.
Woodburning. I love it.
You commit to a stove, just as you do to a mate or a pet. You can’t just turn up the thermostat when icicles begin to form on the bathtub tap. You interact with a wood stove. The relationship is active, not passive.
Wood heating began a modern resurgence in the 1970s when the cost of other, more modern and cleaner heat began to shoot upward. Of course, the cost now of wood heat is far above what it was then. The stove I bought for $350 now sells for nearly $2,000. Firewood which once sold for $15 a cord now is $80-250.
Let’s dispel one notion: burning wood in a fireplace is not “heating” a home with firewood. Fireplaces are low-efficiency (perhaps 10 percent compared to 70 percent for a good woodstove), and may even wick heat out of the house. They are esthetic but, even equipped with doors or heat chambers and fans, they are a poor heating substitute for a stove or wood furnace. A fireplace insert is essentially a stove fitted into the fireplace opening and is far more efficient than a bare fireplace.
Remember before you dive totally into wood heat that someone has to stoke the stove or furnace. There are no automatic feeders. So, if you travel in the winter, you must acquire a house-sitter or have a backup source of heat.
Wood-burning furnaces usually are set up either with electric heat or gas as a backup–the second system kicks in when the temperature in the house lowers.
Wood heating costs are dependent on many factors–home insulation, cost of gathering or buying the wood, type of woodstove or furnace, climate, species of firewood…the list goes on. A middle-America, average-sized home with average insulation and an average winter will use perhaps five cords of wood per winter. An average purchase price will be perhaps $100/cord.
So, a $500 heating bill sounds cheap…but does the house need more insulation to make it cost-effective? Is there a reliable source of firewood? Don’t forget the initial cost of the wood-burning device.
I have a good, but not ideal situation. We own 40 acres (30 wooded mostly with oak and hickory) about 10 miles from our home. It takes about 10 acres or more to insure a perpetual supply of firewood (wood that grows faster than you can cut and use it).
But I have a transportation problem. Since life isn’t fair, the times when I need to make a firewood run seem almost always to coincide with a heavy snowfall or ice storm. The ideal situation is to live where the wood is cut. The least ideal situation is to live in a city with no access to free-for-the- labor firewood.
I won’t cut standing dead trees which serve as homes to many critters, bird and mammal alike. I cut scrub trees, such as post oak, to “release” a valuable tree, such as walnut. I cut along travel lanes–road or trail–which makes it feasible to get a pickup truck into the woods, rather than me backpacking green wood out. I don’t cut trees whose roots are holding a watershed together. There is no law that says only men cut firewood, but it usually works that way; however, we often make wood-gathering a family exercise where I cut and everyone else loads, hauls and stacks. It is efficient and minimizes strain.
At its most efficient, buying wood involves two physical actions: picking up the phone to order it and writing the check to pay for it. And pay you will if you don’t observe some cautions. (See the sidebar on acquiring wood)
If you do decide to gather wood, here is what you need:
A fairly heavy-duty chain saw, not the weekend warrior type advertised for trimming branches. You want one with some muscle. It will cost perhaps $500 new.
A way to split firewood, either a maul ($20 or so, plus a few bucks for a wedge or two) or an expensive power-driven splitter ($300 or more).
A uniform consisting of hard hat (from about $7 to $20), protective chaps ($50-80), safety glasses ($5 or so), safety gloves ($20-30) and ear plugs (toilet paper works fine, but there also are earmuffs).
You’ll need a pickup truck because you’ll quickly weary of carrying dirty, bug- ridden firewood in the back seat of the family Mercedes.
We found the hard way that firewood carries unwelcome visitors–termites tunneled under our driveway from the woodpile and infested one end of the house and, as a result, we had a ring of chlordane around the house, applied before it was revealed that chlordane is a carcinogen. Store your wood well away from the house and elevate it off the ground and termites won’t be a problem. Cover the top of the pile with black plastic which protects the wood from rain and also raises the woodpile temperature enough to discourage many insect pests.
Today’s woodstove is a great advancement over Grandpa’s old Franklin-style. The difference is that they feature a secondary burning chamber where the volatile gases that usually go up the flue instead are trapped and burned. They deliver more heat for the amount of wood burned.
And they also have a catalytic element or other pollution control devices, just as your car does. We have a catalytic stove and after it reaches operating temperature (800 degrees Fahrenheit), it is extremely efficient. The elements need periodic replacement and they aren’t cheap–perhaps $100 or more.

No matter how efficient, woodstoves deposit creosote in your chimney flue, so you need to clean the flue annually. A professional chimneysweep will charge from $50-$150 to clean the chimney and stove. If you don’t clean your chimney, you run the risk of a flue fire and those who’ve experienced one say it sounds like a train escaping up the chimney. Fire shoots out of the chimney and sparks rain on your roof–not a comfortable situation.
You can do it yourself with a chimney brush costing perhaps $40, but it’s a messy, tough and potentially dangerous job (you’re working on the roof of the house).
As nice as woodsmoke smells, it is an air pollutant and new stoves and fireplace inserts have been regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency since 1988. Old stoves, furnaces, coal stoves, boilers, cookstoves and open fireplaces are exempt.
The EPA estimates the cleaner stoves are from one-fourth to one-third more efficient than older high-efficiency woodstoves. Wood furnaces offer the most efficient wood heat. They also are the most complicated and expensive. Where the elegant woodstove is a treasured butler, waiting your beck, the furnace is a janitor who does his work when no one is around. All you enjoy of a wood furnace is the heat it delivers.
Mot stoves have a provision either for burning with the doors opened and a spark screen in place, or with glass doors, so you can enjoy the leaping magic of the fire without sacrificing the efficiency of the stove.
Dancing firelight is a superb accompaniment to a book and a glass of wine (firelight seen through a glass of red wine is like looking into a rare ruby). After spending a day cutting, carrying splitting and stacking firewood, I am ready for the second part of the woodburning equation: “one cutting equals two heatings–the sweat of gathering and the warmth of burning.”
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SAFETY
Logging statistically is among the most dangerous professions. Firewood cutting is logging on the small scale. Trees can fall on you (or pieces of them, called “widow makers”), a tree or branch under pressure can kick back with devastating force, and there are a hundred ways to get crossways with a running chain.
Think safety at all times. Use a hard hat to protect against falling objects. Wear safety glasses to deflect flying pieces of wood or anything else. Wear safety gloves that will clog and stop a running chain. Wear protective chaps with Kevlar lining, the material in bulletproof vests. Wear ear protection. Don’t cut chancey trees, especially ones that might kick back or twist and fall on you. Always limb trees from the side of the trunk opposite the limb you’re cutting. Keep your saw sharp and in good working order and ALWAYS remember that the chain is EXTREMELY dangerous.
Even when it comes to the after-cutting phase, think safety. My grandfather lost an eye to a flying billet that he’d split. I have a purple fingernail from a chunk that slipped and pinched my finger between it and the pickup bed. You can bung up your back lifting wrong or too much; you can poke your eye out on branches and sticks; you can drop a heavy billet on your foot–the list of potential dangers is almost endless.
I cut firewood for a dozen years and the purple finger is the worst accident I had, but I also know people who’ve done plastic surgery on their legs with a chain saw and I knew a person killed by a falling tree.
Think safety.
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ACQUIRING WOOD
You can buy it, cut it or, I suppose, have it left to you by a rich uncle. These are the primary sources:
1. Your own land.
2. Neighbors or other private-land sources (perhaps 90 percent of all firewood is cut on private land).
3. Public land, including highway rights-of-way, national forests, state land and even, sometimes, city parks. Check with the agencies involved to see if they issue firewood gathering permits.
* * *
Don’t even think about buying green wood unless you don’t plan to use it for at least three months (six months air-drying is better). Burning green wood, with its high water content, costs you more than two-thirds of the potential heat value.
Buying wood is economical only if burning wood is cheaper than using other sources of heat. The most expensive wood is the three sticks you buy in a bundle at the supermarket. I reckon a cord of wood, bought that way, would cost as much as a small intercontinental ballistic missile.
Wood bought in the country probably will be cheaper than that in town and if you pick it up, it’s cheaper than having it delivered (plus you may be able to high-grade what you’re buying). Ask to load the wood yourself and stack it carefully and tightly. Buy it in the round, if possible, and split it yourself–you save the cost of splitting.
Buy wood stacked in line. If it is cross-hatched, that is, stacked in alternating directions, you’ll get less wood for the given volume.
Ask what species the wood is, whether it is green or air-dried (and how long), ask if there is extra cost for splitting and delivering it and, if it is delivered, will it be stacked (or just dumped in the driveway).
Beware of buying a face cord at the price of a full cord. A full cord is a stack of wood eight feet long, four feet high and four feet deep. A face cord is eight feet long, four feet high…but only as deep as the length of the wood. Other terms for a face cord include “rick,” “short cord,” and “rank.” Beware also of buying a pickup load which looks like a lot in the truck, but may only be a third of a cord. And how much you get depends on whether the wood is jackstrawed, leaving much air space between billets, or tightly stacked in the truck. Beware of the ad reading “mixed green and air-dried wood.”
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THE BEST FIREWOOD
Black locust is a fine common wood (not honey locust with its fearsome thorns). Hickory, ash, some birch species, hard maple and red oak, all tight-grained woods, are good high-heat producers. All except red oak and hickory split easily. Most conifers burn fast and are gummy and offer little heat value. Yellow pine is an exception. White pine is acceptable. Elm is okay to burn, but hard to split. Google “firewood heat values” for charts giving relative heat potential.

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  • Blog
  • April 10th, 2015

That’s Mizzou!

By Joel M. Vance

It is memorialized today by a bronze statue of Beetle Bailey, whose creator Mort Walker spent time there in the 1940s, after he got out of the Army. It once was The Shack; now it is as vanished as Atlantis, the only difference being that no one survived to mourn Atlantis, but many of us think the destruction of The Shack ranks with what the Taliban did to Afghan icons.
Religious pilgrims search for Mecca or the Wailing Wall or some such. In the 1950s, University of Missouri college students found their center of worship at The Shack. It was a secular worship, that of cheap beer. Every campus has a beer joint that epitomizes campus life. There might be a couple dozen hangouts around town, but only one or two are as important to the University experience as classes and the Administration building.
The Shack was directly across the street from Jesse Hall, the administration building which no doubt caused the fustier of the administrators’ daily whim-whams. It was as if the White House were fronted by an Ozark squatter’s shack with rusted-out school buses in the front yard and lean pigs dusting under the porch.
The Shack almost defies description. It had apparently been built of discarded piano crates and it sprawled over a large lot. The roof was about seven feet high–far too low for any varsity basketball player to enter without risking brain damage (assuming there was something to damage). Each booth had a rough wooden table that was so deeply scored by generations of carved signatures that a glass of beer was almost impossible to balance. My name was there somewhere–it was the custom to incise your name, initials or whatever sentiment you wished on the rude tables at The Shack.
Generations of Mizzou students had used their Barlow nut cutting knives to sculpt their initials, names or slogans in the woodwork and the result was a cultural icon every bit as revealing as the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Rosetta Stone.
It should have been a requisite for a degree that you had to have your initials somewhere in the cavernous Shack or you couldn’t graduate, although I doubt if University officials would have acknowledged The Shack. But, like your reprobate uncle with the waxed mustache and the girl on his arm who was no better than she should be, it was tolerated and maybe even envied a little.
Although liquor inspectors prowled the state, looking for violations of the under-18 liquor sales law, somehow The Shack seemed immune to account. I don’t recall any suspensions. The usual penalty was for a beer joint to have its license suspended for a while for selling beer to a minor. It was a slap on the wrist. The Shack, if it ever had a suspension, viewed that as advertising and roared back into business when the penalty expired.
The Shack could have been closed any day of the week either by liquor control or by health department inspectors. It was equally lax in both areas. The place was such a campus institution I suspect the liquor inspectors felt it would be like closing down the University just because someone under 18 years of age bought a Griesedieck longneck.
The Shack sold beer to anyone with the requisite cash and we validated our credentials as The Beer Generation. Hard liquor was for special occasions; beer was the drug-of-choice for day-by-day use and no one, including University authorities, did much to eliminate it. Beer was cheap and most students in the 1950s were not rich. Korean veterans eked out an education on the G.I. Bill with nothing left over, and the rest of us, save for the frat rats who did their drinking at the frat house, were dirt poor from dirt farms.
I had my first beer in Birchwood, Wisconsin, the home town of my mother, when I was 10 years old. My uncles, Hud and Bud Soper, owned the inspirationally-named Hud & Bud’s Bar and dispensed beer, philosophy and commiseration through the 1930s and 1940s.
Uncle Hud died an alcoholic and Uncle Bud a diabetic, but while they reigned at their bar it was the social center of their small northwest Wisconsin resort town. My cousins and I swiped a couple of bottles of warm beer from the stockroom and scuttled to the outhouse in back to drink them.
The beer tasted awful, not improved by the foul aroma of the toilet, but we told each other how good it was, swallowing noisily to suppress our rising gorge. It would be many years before I drank another beer.
If the actual liquid was hard to swallow, the yeasty smell of it was as soothing as aroma therapy. Hud & Bud’s was a quiet, cool haven on a warm summer day during World War Two—like a library only without the books. Burl Ives sang of Rodger Young, a soldier-hero killed in the Big War and Elton Britt told us that there was a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere.
Adults drank Bruenig’s Lager and talked about either how the fishing was or how the war was going, I would play the game machines in the bar, shooting at flitting Japanese Zeroes, absently listening to the chatter of the bar flies as they solved the war situation, family crises and crop damage.
With that upbringing it’s no wonder I was drawn to bars and roadhouses when I reached college age. Skimpy finances proscribed me from buying much beer except on special occasions, but a glass of beer at The Shack was a dime and you could sit there for hours without an employee rousting you for not consuming. They were too busy killing cockroaches.
I’m sure Columbia’s version of the Left Bank intellectuals were busy somewhere discussing Schopenhauer but my crowd discussed Schoendienst (the St. Louis Cardinal’s second baseman). It was not intellectual ferment, though there was a great deal of fermented gas.
I roomed, my sophomore year, with Karl Miller from Dalton. Karl was from the hills above Dalton. Both parents were college graduates. Karl and his two brothers had gone to the one-room school in Dalton before the little rural schools were eliminated about the time we moved to Dalton in 1948.
Karl and I were best friends in high school, roommates for a year in college. Rooming with Karl was a mixed blessing—he never met a football player he didn’t like and when I made the mistake of bringing a Monopoly game from home, our room became the campus Monopoly center for interior linemen. It was impossible to dislodge a 250-pound tackle from my bed when I wanted to sleep or a 240-pound pulling guard from my chair if I wanted to study.
Milo Miller, Karl’s father, had been the captain of the first University of Missouri wrestling team in the 1920s and Karl would coach high school wrestling and become a Viet Nam Marine major and come home with a shrapnel-induced limp and a skinhead haircut, would retire as a bird colonel.
He would join the Marines and a life of right- wing conservatism; I went on to avoid military service as best I could, and develop a liberal cant. I once made the mistake of joking about Ronald Reagan which had the same effect as if I accused the Pope of child molestation to an archbishop. Karl sent me a photo taken when he was the commander of the Marines on Guam. He was shaking hands with Ronald and Nancy Reagan. I emailed back, “Well I recognize you and Nancy Reagan…but who is the other guy?”
An indignant reply nearly fried my computer: “Don’t you recognize the president of the United States!”
We talk about St. Louis Cardinal baseball these days, just as we did in the Shack—but we avoid politics. Baseball was the game of our boyhood. Neither of us was good enough to start on the basketball team, but we did on the baseball team. And as far as someone to root for, there was little choice. Football was an arcane sport to kids from Dalton. We didn’t have enough boys for a team (no one did for many miles in any direction) and we didn’t have television to watch college or professional games. It wasn’t until I was in college that I saw a football game.
Professional basketball was something played by guys who couldn’t seem to grow up. It wasn’t until television reached rural Missouri that I saw the first professional basketball game with the Ft. Wayne Pistons (better known today as the Detroit Pistons).
Professional baseball was everybody’s game and had been for decades. We could listen to a Cardinal game any hot summer night.
The Missouri Boys of Summer were our heroes. We lived and died with the voice of Harry Caray telling us about the Cardinals of the 1950s. Caray was a constant, the voice of the Cardinals from 1945 to 1969. Chicago claims him today as their icon and he did spend 27 years broadcasting White Sox and Cubs games…but only because he left the Cardinals under a cloud. He was fired and the rumors about the reason were as numerous as Stan Musial triples.
His tenure in St. Louis almost exactly spanned the time that I gave a damn about major league baseball, from 1945 when I was 11 years old and beginning to throw hard enough to break glass, to 1969 when I stopped being a newspaper sports editor.
Karl, the ultimate Reagan fan, would appreciate the symbolism of Ronald Reagan, a one-time baseball announcer for Station WHO in Des Moines, visiting Harry Caray in the Cubs broadcast booth on Sept. 30, 1988 (which, by another ironic twist, was my wife’s and my 32nd wedding anniversary). I would rather have heard an interview with Musial or Schoendienst, people who had something to say on something I cared about.
The Cardinals of those middle years were worth rooting for. There was, always, Stan the Man. Stan Musial was the constant in that club, but Red Schoendienst and Marty Marion and Whitey Kurowski were other stars on one of the greatest all-time baseball teams. Musial, Schoendienst and Enos Slaughter all are in the Hall of Fame. Slaughter, who has become known as a flagrant racist (although some say he simply didn’t like anyone on the other teams, black or white), was our kind of player, a throwback to the old Gas House Gang days. He would run through brick walls to win and had a come-in-with-spikes-high mentality. He had played for St. Louis since 1938 and when he was traded to the hated Yankees in 1953 it was a stunning betrayal.
There would be other Hall of Famers later on, most notably Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith and Bob Gibson, all black. Would have been interesting to see how Slaughter handled playing with black teammates who also were all-stars.
A few years later the Polish Falcons, Musial, Rip Repulski and Ray Jablonski, along with hulking Steve Bilko, dominated the Cardinals. Of them all only Musial lived on. The rest died relatively young and today’s Cardinal fans, unless they’re old and not senile, have forgotten them.
Before college Karl and I listened to our respective radios in the late night when the grain trains were soughing through the Dalton Bottoms, hoping that Harry would bellow, “It might be…it could be…it IS a home run!”
Jesus, Harry Caray was the voice of my life! He nurtured me through measles, chicken pox and adolescence. He was a constant in a world often not comprehensible. You could agonize over the frightening claims of Sen. Joseph McCarthy that our country was rotten with Communists, but Harry always was there, night and often day, letting us know how the Cards were doing. The specter of Communism, intercontinental missiles and the Korean War faded into the background when Harry brought the Cardinals into our lives.
Karl and I, in our separate bedrooms, with our separate radios, listened to that voice and turned restlessly as the fortunes of our team waxed and waned. And we’d be bleary-eyed the next day on the schoolbus, but gratified if the Cards had pulled one out the night before.
Our affection for the Cardinals continued into college. Once Karl and I grew weary of studying (we’d been at it for almost an hour) and decided to trudge to The Shack and drink a beer for each half inning of the current Cardinal game. The game already was in the late innings, so we figured to have two or three beers before returning to the dorm for a good night’s sleep from which we would wake, rested and ready to tackle the rigors of advanced education.
Unfortunately the game went into extra innings, five of them, and by the beginning of the 14th inning we were beyond caring whether the Cardinals won or whether we got to bed.
The Shack was the collegiate incarnation of Hud and Bud’s, the Wisconsin bar owned by my uncles. It was not a roadhouse in the redneck sense. No one bounced pool balls off your head; no one challenged you to a fight in the parking lot. It was where you went for a couple (or more) glasses of beer and then off to the dorm to study for Sociology, that arcane pseudo-science that is only understood by magicians and emotionally disturbed persons.
The original Shack dates to the 1920s when the Chandler Davis family opened a sandwich shop which came to be called “The Davis Tea Room.” It was a popular hangout for students between classes and by 1929 it had become a beer joint.
Prohibition put an end to the serving of real beer, but “near beer” at least gave the college students some feeling of a Roaring Twenties beer bust.
Prohibition spanned 13 years, an unlucky number for those who choose to drink alcoholic beverages. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution became law in 1919 and was repealed in 1933. It was called “The Noble Experiment” by those who didn’t frequent The Shack. Franklin Roosevelt entered the White House and a swift legislative move to repeal Prohibition followed. Michigan was the first state to pass the repealer, quickly followed by all but two states (the Carolinas).
Beer came back for real with the end of Prohibition and from that time on The Shack was what it would always be until it closed May 18, 1984. Four years after it shut down a mysterious fire destroyed the grease-impregnated old building and today a circular driveway covers the gravesite. Perhaps it was a grease fire from a hamburger cooked on a phantom range by a phantom student cook. A friend, Jim Auckley, worked at the Shack when he was in college and tells about the cooks having a pet cockroach, though how they told one from another is puzzling.
The Shack was not upscale on its best day, but even its best days were pretty damn good in retrospect and as much as I admire Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey, the statue of Beetle where the Shack once stood is no substitute for the ramshackle old green-painted beer joint which epitomized the 1950s University of Missouri campus. Today the new student center has a replica of the S stop listening hack which they call Mort’s. It has some of the carved tables and some drawings by Walker and some of the contents of the original Shack but it ain’t the Shack
Mort Walker who still is chronicling the tribulations of Beetle Bailey after all these years wrote me a couple of years ago. “The curious thing was that they were honoring me at the opening [of a so- called Shack in the new student center] although I was kicked out of J-school. I had just returned from four years in the Army during World War II and had become editor of the Show Me magazine, a member of the honorary journalism fraternity, a straight a student and had an office in the J-School. The Dean told me to report to his office and he asked what I was doing in J-School. I answered brightly “getting educated sir”. He said, “but I see by your records that you didn’t take my prerequisite course History and
Principles of Journalism.” I replied “I was too busy saving the world for democracy sir.” He yelled “get out!” I came to class the next day and found my office locked and all my belongings thrown out on the floor I applied with Dean Mott for a diploma in humanities and left for New York. I had several other conflicts with the school and here they were honoring me. That’s Mizzou!”

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