Anoka County history: Heating with coal to keep out cold

Anoka County is getting cold.

Modern central heat is a convenience that is often taken for granted, but our grandfathers worked very hard for their warmth.

I have been enjoying “Just a Matter of Time,” the memoirs of James Swisher of Anoka, published on his death last year.

Mr. Swisher recounts the manly skill of tending the coal burning furnaces and stoves of his youth.

Because every man was expected to master these devices, he states that “it was part of our education starting at about age eight.”

Wood was used to start the fire, and when it was burning well the coal could be added.

There was soft coal, hard coal, briquettes and coke.

Soft coal was cheapest, burned fastest, and was dirtiest.

Hard coal was next in terms of efficiency and cost; then briquettes and finally coke.

Coke burned so hot and was so expensive that it was rarely used for home heat but was valued in blacksmith shops and some factories.

Pure coke would burn the grates out of the furnace, and for that reason it was always mixed with other coal and used sparingly.

“The soft coal was easier to ignite and made fire starting easier, but the hard coal added at the right time to the fire, caused it to burn longer and cleaner,” Swisher wrote.

The coal was sold by the ton; however, one could buy a half ton of each soft and hard coal.

On delivery, it traveled from the truck by means of a coal chute into the coal bin in the basement.

If delivered in summer, it would be sprayed with water to keep the dust down, but even so, it was imperative to keep the bin door closed or the entire house would be covered in gritty black dust.

If the house did not have a central furnace, then small stoves, called space heaters or base burners, were installed in several rooms and the coal needed to be brought up from the bin in the basement by means of a coal scuttle.

No, a coal scuttle is not a machine; it was a sturdy bucket with a wide spout-like distortion at one end to allow the coal to be poured onto the fire.

Grates in the bottom of the fire bed could be moved back and forth to shake the ash and drop it into the ash pan.

Minerals in the coal were smelted in the heat and formed little metallic chunks, called clinkers, that would not pass through the grates, so they needed to be removed with a long handled tongs.

A buildup of ash could ruin the entire furnace, so daily removal was essential.

Each night, the draft had to be set carefully, and the right amount of coal added to insure that the fire would burn slowly all night long.

In the morning, a little more coal was added, the grate was shaken and the furnace would continue to do its job without restarting from scratch.

It’s a lot easier to twist the thermostat!

Editor’s note: Maria King is a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society.

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