WHEN I was a very young girl in Valdosta, Ga., too many years ago, the local Coca-Cola heiress lived in the only house in town that had a proper central heating system.
The rest of us had mostly fireplaces and stoves. Today, when everyone I know is putting heating stoves - at great cost - into their houses to try and beat the Arabs and Pepco/Vepco, I have a feeling of having come full circle.
It was not that we had very many fireplaces in the Valdosta house. I was a very fortunate child because my bedroom had one of the only two fireplaces. Usually, my father built a fire only in the one in the living room, unless I was sick or was given a special dispensation.
December through February, we'd all dress before the fire. The decencies were preserved because we tended to get up on different schedules. My father was up first, very early, to lay the fire, dress and sit before it drinking warmed-up coffee from the night before in his big easy chair with the ottoman. He roused me on school days with some difficulty, because I took after my mother, who always ate breakfast in her housecoat (her usual Christmas present), and dressed in leisure after dispatching us to our various stations in life.
The house was a wonderful turn-of-the-century overgrown bungalow, with a pleasant front porch, set high on brick pillars in deference to the swampy south Georgia land. Mother loved the house fiercely because it had such big, spacious rooms, with even a finished half-story upstairs, a rarity in Valdosta, where most houses were one story.(A half-story was defined as a finished attic, where the walls weren't a full 10 feet high and where they slanted interestingly.)
But Mother refused point blank to move into the house until the stove inthe kitchen, the only source for domestic hot water, was replaced with an up-to-date electric hot-water heater. Mother, after all, was of the town, not he country, and used to up-to-date appliances.
Eventually, after my grandmother came to live with us, she had an oil stove in the top floor, formerly occupied by my paperdoll city, and we had another in the dining room.
All through my south Georgia childhood, during sudden cold waves, I remember the telephone calls and letters from friends and relatives in north and central Florida asking for "CARE packages" of electric heaters and blankets. Back then, in the '30s and '40s there was a ganeral belief that Florida was a tropical paradise. Even the natives, who should have known better, were apparently lured by the land boom into believing the ads. My husband, whose uncle also lived in Florida, remembers the same sort of entreaties. We would read in The Valdosta Times about the cold snaps (as they were always called) resulting in all the warm goods being snapped up in the Florida stores. I can only presume the heaters and blankets were sent out to sea after each such occurence, because I'm sure the same sort of plea came time and time again.
My father's mother, who lived in a tiny town called Faceville where my grandfather was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher, had a wood cookstove, as well as heating stoves. In town, we mostly burned coal for fuel, but in the country, in the midst of the piney woods, there was plenty of wood. My grandmother was a marvelous cook, in the sort of tradition that produced both ham and chicken for Sunday lunch. At one time, after a revival meeting, my grandfather "got religion" and decreed there would be no cooking on the Sabbath day (by which he meant Sunday), but after eating one cold Sunday lunch, he fell from grace, and the big wood cook stove with its multi-burners, suitable for feeding the family of 14, was fired up again.
Since those days, praise heaven, were back before equal rights, I was not often personally involved with providing fuel for these fiery furnaces. I was not asked to chop wood or kindling under the general and quite correct belief that being a girl, I'd chop may hand off. But from time to time, under protest, I was expected to bring in what was always called "a scuttle" of coal. The coal scuttle, always black, trimmed in rust, sat perpetually by the fire. The kindling and newspaper were kept on one side of the fire in a wood box, also serving as a window seat.
When we moved to Tennessee, my family lived in a tiny little house in the middle of their great big estate of 102.7 acres. There is a general Southern view that to be "land poor" is to be rich, in the most genteel sort of way. Anyway, this cottage was heated with a Warm Morning Heater, a great smoky object taking up half of the rather small living room. The coal smoke was something dreadful, and before you start romanticizing about stoves, you'd better find out if someone in the house, like me, is allergic to coal fumes. I still remember that acrid odor, and my certainty, when it burned fiery red, that it was going to blow up any minute. (It didn't.)
Being one of the first of the back-to-the -city pion eers. I left home to live in a carriage house - we called it a garage apartment - in town, near the university. It was wonderful, by student standards, with pine paneling, and a half-story where I slept. The only heat was an oil stove. Fortunately, by then, I was madly in love with, I am happy to say, a competent man who knew how to operate such a device, without blowing us all up. Shortly, in the heat of emotion, we were married, and I no longer feared the loss of its attentions.
The first house we bought was downtown, an ancient Victorian - now, I understand, a historic landmark. We were thought very peculiar for that day, when all our friends were buying on the outskirts of town in nice new houses with electric radiant heat in the ceiling and no fireplace with which to be bothered. The house had an evil, one-eyed coal furnace. We thought it very advanced because it had a stoker - my husband remembered far too well having to personally stoke the furnace in his father's house and bank the coals before going to bed.
The furnace in our house had but the single hot air grill in the front hall. The 12 rooms all had transoms so you could open the transom to let in warm air but close the door for privacy. I remember vividly spending the summer scraping the many layers of wallpaper off the hall wall - we were too poor to rent a steamer. By September my husband had covered the walls with natural-colored burlap, a splendid device to hide the bad plaster. When we turned on the furnace, it belched once, and our burlap sprouted a wall-to-wall beard.
There was also working fireplace in the living room, one of the small ones - sized, Southern coal-country fashion, only big enough for a coal fire. But it had a very sensible metal cover which could be put in place to keep the other house heat from going up the chimney while the fire burned down. Years later, when we went to England, the dirty, smoky look to most restaurants and many homes looked so familiar to me from my years of battling coal dirt.
The furnace, of course, didn't do anything to warm the kitchen, stuck in an appendage at the back of the house, on the north side. But, as usual with mid-19th-century houses, it had a flue for a stove, so we bought, what we always called, if a bit archly, "the slithy tove," from Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky." We had a fancy electric stove to cook on, but we always kept a kettle on the stove for constant tea, not to mention the humidification.
When the great energy crisis began, we talked about stoves we have known, and the possibility of starting all over again with stoves. Our present house has three fireplaces, but a tree is growing in one, there's a bird's nest in the other, and France Fraze, the fireplaceman, won't answer my telephone calls any more. But if we could install a stove, think how warm we'd be, and how dirty.