Firewood powered the lives of pioneers

By Rick Palsgrove
Southeast Editor

Messenger photo by Rick Palsgrove Victoria Shotsky (right) helps Metro Parks Slate Run Farm Manager Ann Culek split kindling wood on the farm.
Messenger photo by Rick Palsgrove
Victoria Shotsky (right) helps Metro Parks Slate Run Farm Program Manager Ann Culek split kindling wood on the farm.

Early Ohio has been described by historians as being a land covered in “a sea of trees” in the time prior to the arrival of the pioneers in the 18th century.

These vast forests of large trees – including oak, sycamore, hickory beech, ash, chestnut, tulip, cherry, ash, maple, elm, walnut, and buckeye – proved to be a valuable resource to those who settled the Ohio Country. They burned the wood for heating and cooking and also fashioned it into furniture, tools, utensils, wagons, buildings, flooring, fencing, and more.

Today we feel reassured when our furnaces kick on when cold weather hits, but  pioneers had no such luxury and depended on stockpiling enough wood to burn to heat their homes through the winter.

“You could never have enough wood on hand,” said Ann Culek, Metro Parks Slate Run Living Historical Farm program manager. “They (the pioneers) were always working ahead to maintain their supply of wood. It was a lot of work.”

The common implements they used to cut wood included an ax, a two man saw, and a splitter.
“With a two man saw you always pull, never push,” said Herb Wasserstrom, a Slate Run Farm worker. “If you push the saw it will bend. It’s hard to not want to push the saw.”

Culek said the hard woods, such as maple, sycamore, or hickory,  made for the best firewood because they burn more slowly. She said a softer wood, like pine, was not used as firewood because it burned fast and the resin in pine quickly formed creosote in chimneys.

Culek said, though the Ohio forests were once vast, by the 1880s most of state was deforested from the over harvesting of timber.

“Coal became the prevalent source of fuel for heating and cooking,” said Culek, who added some farms did maintain a small woodlot of standing trees for use on the farm.

Jeremy Angstand, a worker at Slate Run Farm, said coal became so popular it influenced building patterns for homes and businesses in towns.

“You’ll notice that in older neighborhoods houses are built closer to the street to make it easier for coal trucks to deliver coal to the house’s coal bin,” said Angstand.

Wood was not just for burning. It also fulfilled other needs. According to information at Slate Run Farm, here are how some of the various woods were historically used: cottonwood – crates, boxes, and pulp for paper; willow – pulp for paper, baskets; pine – used in construction; Osage orange/hedge apple – fence posts, firewood; black cherry – furniture; black walnut – furniture, cabinets, gun stocks, firewood; sassafras – fence posts and rails, barrels, kindling; beech – flooring, furniture, construction; red oak – furniture; white oak – wagons, construction; sycamore – butcher’s blocks, furniture, firewood; red cedar – fence posts, cedar chests; hackberry – firewood, lumber; chestnut – fence posts, railroad cross ties; yellow poplar – wagons, interior building trim; locust – firewood, fencing; hickory – tool handles, wagons, firewood; white ash – tool handles, furniture, baseball bats; and maple – furniture, construction, flooring, firewood.

What about the the buckeye tree? It is a versatile tree that can be worked into bowls, benches, chairs, and cradles. But  in his book, “Ohio and Its People,” historian George W. Knepper wrote, “Ironically, the very popularity of this tree virtually eliminated it from the Ohio scene, but not before lending its identity to the Buckeye State.”

Visit metroparks.net for information on Metro Parks’ Slate Run Living Historical Farm.

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