O Shenandoah! Dirt Road Journal

treeO Shenandoah! Dirt Road Journal



(kil, kiln) n. a furnace or oven for drying, burning or baking

At first, our only fires were the small ones we created in the hibachi grill to ignite charcoals for our evening meals. Occasionally,
we piled teepee-fashion the deadwood debris from our pebbled river beach and created in the evenings a huge bonfire that rippled and reflected in darkly running water and sputtered skyward in crinkling streamers of red and orange and gold. Later, throughout our first winter, we heated our small A-frame house with a wood-ravenous fireplace. Exhausted from that season's cutting and hauling and fire-feeding, the following year we constructed our first stove from a 55-gallon drum lined on the inside with firebricks on which to place kindling and wood. We formed a flat tin cooking surface that bolted to the top and, for the door and damper, installed a mail-order cast iron kit. The barrel stove, efficient and warm on the coldest of deep winter nights, stayed with us until pin-sized peepholes to the inside fire appeared on its surface. Finally, we bought a space-saving hearth-hugging all cast iron stove, solid and sturdy enough for several generations of use. Always, when the stove is in use, there's a kettle of some kind with water simmering from the wood heat, dispersing moisture into the dried air. When a storm or flood has cut electricity to the house, there's a
pot of stew as well.

In our fireplace and in the barrel stove, we started fires with dry pine, then added any dry wood except cedar, which burns too hotly, too quickly. For long winter nights, we threw in greener woods to keep the fire going as we slept. With our cast iron stove, we burn only dried and seasoned oak to keep its intricately efficient inner design unclogged. We check the pipe from stove to chimney for pinholes once a year, cleaning or replacing it as needed. Our outdoor conflagrations are a potluck of woods available, but dry oak is best for grilling.

Campers use a variety of traditional and ingeniously unique tools for their cooking. Of course, there are gas and charcoal grills, but most keep a campfire burning as well. There are dual-spatula type utensils for grilling sandwiches and tripod steel stands with mesh grates for placing over the fire and cooking chicken or steaks. Whittled to a sharp point, straight green branches are stripped of leaves and used for hot-dogs and marshmallows. Potatoes are frequently wrapped thickly in aluminum foil and placed in the charcoals of the fire. Assistance from the fire department is a half hour's drive away. Homesteaders and campers alike watch and tend their fires zealously and, on leaving, sprinkle them with water to ensure that the wind won't catch a coal and set nearby dry grass or brush aflame.

Chimney fires in the narrow flues of older homes are common throughout the burning season. For some elderly farmers, that season is year-round, as they use their wood-burning stoves for summer canning. The brave and adventurous of backwoods folk may start a chimney fire intentionally to burn out the accumulated creosote, clearing the flue so that the wood will burn faster and not smolder. In many older homes, one or two ancient chimneys may be centered in the house to radiate heat throughout high-ceilinged and cavernous rooms. It is common for new owners to have the flues relined, as they may have cracked with age and near-continuous use. Neglecting to inspect and replace cracked liners has sadly predictable consequences, particularly in homes with central wood heat. Scattered throughout the valley are large charred squares circling a blackened and bowed chimney, usually of stone.

Many area residents donate their time and skills in assisting local volunteer fire departments with their battles against larger conflagrations. Each year fires, some set intentionally, scar hundreds or thousands of acres in George Washington National Forest and Shenandoah National Park. Those in the Park are particularly arduous to contain and extinguish as modern ground fire-fighting equipment is not used. Smoke and soot billow out, drifting onto generously spaced, postcard-perfect homes. A haze darkens the sky and silts the two lane byways that wind in graceful languor
on the valley floor.

Download FireRing ScreenSaver -- An intriguing DOS program that runs in Windows (original zipped version 8/4/95, 19,917kb). It was created by Jeremy Kusnetz of Columbia, MD.

Midi music file, "Only One"


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Original material O Shenandoah! Country Rag April, 1996. All rights reserved.