[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Prometheus Bound: Confessions of an Antique Stove Nut

Jim Scott

As regular as the rising sun, each morning I sit in front of my warm wood stove and scan the daily classifieds for antique cast iron stoves. Ah ha! Found one! A 1910 Home Comfort cook stove for $600 in Hamilton. Hmmm, a little pricey and distant, but maybe it's worth it if the body isn't full of bullet holes, the nickel hasn't rusted and peeled off, and the fancy trim pieces haven't been stripped and sold in a boutique. Two days later my wife Anita, the seller, and I are dragging this 500-pound behemoth from the leaky shed to which it was consigned when removed from its honored place in the house 60 years ago. There it had rested since, accumulating rust and pigeon droppings, a home to mice. We skid the stove up a set of ramps into our pickup truck. This is typically when the accumulation of dirt, soot, disintegrating asbestos, and animal feces pours out of every aperture upon those pushing from below. A half day later Anita and I alone are unloading this filthy monster into my chicken-coop-turned-shop. Now the long, laborious task of restoration begins. The effort already expended and greater effort yet to come are time and money consuming, not to mention exhausting and unpalatable. I ask myself again, why for 30 years have I collected, restored, and filled outbuildings with tons of late 19th- to early 20th-century antique stoves.

Unlike coins or stamps, cast iron ranges and heater stoves present certain differences and formidable difficulties in their acquisition and restoration. Although their weight and typical condition do not make stoves an immediately attractive collectible, they generally are not hard to find. In addition to the classifieds, word of mouth and keeping a sharp eye on back yards and porches provide most of my contacts. I also know a professional mover and an estate agent who tip me off when retired folks and heirs don't want to haul a parlor stove to Sun City.

The restoration process begins by carefully dismantling the stove. Not all screws turn after decades of heat and rust, and certain pieces are commonly riveted. I then sand-blast all the cast iron and steel parts to prepare them for high-temperature flat paint. If the stoves are porcelain, then steel wool and much elbow grease must be used instead. An amusing Hobsonian set of alternatives occurs with the preservation of cook stoves. Years of steam and spilled liquids generally rust the iron and the nickel plating. However, the messy homemaker who allows the grease to build up and bake on creates a horrible cleaning problem, but also provides a perfect preservative for the metal and plating beneath. I'm never sure which situation I prefer.

I try to find missing pieces in my own parts inventory, but this is not always successful. Stoves are a bit like automobiles. They generally all look the same, but the makes and models are countless. Therefore parts appear to be interchangeable, but never quite are interchangeable. Much of an antique stove is made of sheet steel, but the functional heart of these beasts--the fire box, cooking surface, doors and drafts--is made of cast iron because its melting point is much higher than that of steel. Though cast iron can be cut and ground a bit, it cannot be fabricated like steel. A cast iron part either fits or it doesn't. Thus the greatest asset of an antique stove is that it is still complete. But that is unusual; parts that are easily detachable, such as the ornamental "crowns" on a heater stove or cooling racks and towel bars on cook stoves, are often set aside in the first move and never again reunite with their host.

Cast iron is also much like ice or plate glass: strong but brittle. Many stoves therefore have cracked or broken pieces. I weld steel, but it takes a real pro to do a good job on cast iron. For delicate parts on a stove worth significant investment, I have Don Jaeger, the best in the business at Metalworks of Montana, do my work. Then comes the decision about the dazzling nickel trim, which is the immediate attraction of old cook and parlor stoves. And here is another dilemma, a no-win no-win situation of this hobby.

The nickeled crowns, "wings," trivets, towel bars, "skirts," rings, and manufacturers' badges are often rusted beyond recovery. Once the nickel has peeled off, a serious restoration requires re-plating. (There are alternatives, such as silver paint, but nothing comes close to the brilliant luster of nickel.) But plating is dreadfully expensive. A full nickel job for a cook stove easily costs $1000, and this doesn't include drilling out rivets for 40 to 50 pieces, packing, and shipping them--in my case--to Classic Plating in Billings, one of the two plating shops left in Montana. Even a small potbelly stove with rusty legs and door handles can be a $200 job. So the cost of plating is one thing, but the conundrum it presents is compounded by a strange paradox involving other costs.

Perhaps due to the stoves' sheer weight and volume, or to something sentimental, sellers generally demand high prices for unrestored stoves. But of course nobody else buys them except stove nuts. For years I've followed very carefully the local classifieds, antique stores, eBay, and other web sites for cast iron stoves for sale. They are high priced and simply do not fly off the shelves. Last December a $900 Majestic in poor condition languished and died in the Missoulian ads. Even I didn't look at it. Most antique shops don't take cast iron stoves anymore for the same reasons of bulk and market. So, a stove aficionado buys, let us say, a popular brand cook stove in pretty good shape for a barely tolerable price of $600, puts another $500 into selected nickeling, and adds about 20 hours of labor and supplies. If the labor is regarded as free and the hobbiest doesn't rely on his stove sales to pay the mortgage, he can ask $1300 for the restored piece and hope "to make" $200. But it will never sell, because no one else would pay $600 in the first place for a rusty stove, let alone $1300 for a shiny one. And here is the cruel irony of this business. All the curious will drone nostalgic over the good ol' days when Granny cooked for the farm crew on a stove "just like this one," and food never tasted better. But they will walk away and say that they are too dirty, too much work, too heavy, and besides--which is usually true--their insurance company forbids them. As for their hunting camp, they will say that propane is the only way to go. And so the inventory grows, and the delusion continues that the old stove business will lead to an early and comfortable retirement.

At the peak of my collection, I had nearly 50 stoves and a few tons of spare parts. Despite what I have just said, two years ago I managed to sell at cost or below many stoves, particularly because these did not have expensive nickel restoration. (In fact, our esteemed senior editor bought a light green porcelain cook stove for his cabin north of Plains. Bless him and his wife, who affectionately remembers her grandmother's cook stove and wanted to find a similar one.) Currently my "reserve" collection comprises seven cook stoves, a dozen parlor and potbelly stoves, and several other odds and ends, such as a railroad line-shack coal stove. This is the 11th winter that my 1895 Garland parlor stove has heated our home and dogs. The Windsor potbelly in the dining room is for spring and autumn mornings, and the Monarch range is something that we play around with usually on the holidays and weekends. This year Anita baked our Christmas cookies in the Monarch. Some of our outbuildings have parlor or cook stoves piped in and are fully functional, but for no apparent reason.

I prefer to collect stoves dated between 1900 and 1935 from Midwest foundries, primarily those in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and Minneapolis. These are the stoves, rather than those from Eastern foundries, that generally have made their way out West. Popular brands that many still recognize are Monarch, Home Comfort, Universal, Majestic, and Peninsular. These are the '57 Fords and Chevies of stove collectors: classic, common, and affordable in their day. Serious collectors usually look for older and more unusual stoves. One of my stoves, however, is a bit out of the mainstream. It is a huge Bergstrom Royal cook stove, manufactured in Neenah, Wisconsin, where another foundry there cast most of Missoula's manhole and sewer covers. I bought this stove not only because I like its steam-locomotive appearance, but because I have corresponded with the great-grandson of the original company owner. The foundry no longer exists, but Richard Bergstrom now operates an automobile empire in Wisconsin, with Neenah still the hometown headquarters. In his Cadillac and Mercedes showroom sits a shiny black and nickel Bergstrom cook stove.

All stoves must have fascinating stories connected to early American domestic life. Our 1895 parlor stove, mentioned above, came out of the 14-room, white clapboard house in Bearmouth (35 miles east of Missoula on I-90) at the base of the Garnet Road. The stove's former owner, Hazel Marsh, told me that this fancy stove was fired up only once a month when the priest came 50 miles from Deer Lodge on the Milwaukee Road train to celebrate Mass in the parlor.

In addition to eBay (under antiques; then type stove), the web is full of professional and pricey antique stove dealers. Again, judging by the stagnation of their inventory, which I have monitored daily for years, business does not appear brisk. Crating and shipping costs, assumed by the buyer, must also depress sales. Nevertheless, these dealers do beautiful restoration. To name a few, I recommend <http://www.antiquestoves.com>; <http://www.keokukstoveworks.com>; or <http://www.uwyo.edu/~weissc/>. Other businesses are indispensable for stove restoration. For example, the Amish non-electrical company in Ohio (<http://www.lehmans.com>) sells isinglass for parlor stove windows, and an East St. Louis business specializes in repairing chipped porcelain. No hobby is too arcane not to have newsletters, such as The Antique Stove Exchange <http://www.theantiquestovexchng.com/home.asp>.

To return to my early interest in antique stove restoration and collection: In the mid-1970s I did the stove work for Al's Sales in Missoula. This antique and second-hand business occupied a collection of garages and sheds loosely attached to a rambling building on the southeast corner of Front and Orange streets. It was the heyday of old stove recon and sales. It was a time that only stovers could dream of. The energy crunch was at its height, air-quality and insurance regulations were permissive, modern air-tight efficiency stoves were not commonly manufactured and franchised yet, coal was still easily available, post-hippie antiquarianism had caught on, and ranchers across Montana and North Dakota did not yet recognize the antique value of these clunkers relegated by Rural Electric to their outbuildings. Butte hotels and homes, about to fall into the Pit, were all but giving away their cast iron. In 1975-76 we at Al's Sales averaged one stove restoration and sale each day, a lot of stoves over a period of a couple years. Rather than taking my full wages, I took home stoves. These, however, I later sold off for graduate school expenses.

I suspect that I have not painted a very rosy picture of this hobby, and the reader is probably wondering, as I frequently have, why I find this pursuit so fascinating and pleasurable. Let me muse about this under two headings, "wood stoves" and "antiques." In Montana a "wood stove" can create a domestic organization and focus for eight months of the year; in fact, all year, if one considers gathering the fuel. It is no coincidence that the Latin word for "hearth" is focus. In addition to the obvious warmth and food preparation, the ancient hearth was the area where a variety of religious, legal, and other important ritual actions took place for the family, as well as for guests and strangers./1/ Metonymically focus may refer to the family or the house itself or other important fires, such as a funeral pyre or altar flame. Our English hendiadys "hearth and home" even suggests that the two are inseparable. But in our age of solar panels, electric baseboards, and heated concrete floors, do we have any focus left in the home? The fire required for survival in the areas of the earth most of us inhabit is now hidden from view and operates automatically.

Perhaps the TV, the dining room table, or the weight machine may be today's domestic focus, but they do not have the same unifying effect as wood stoves. Except for a specific and usually rather brief activity, the household members are otherwise scattered throughout the home in their own comfortable compartments--not to mention that the contemporary home rarely has just one television. If the TV ever did challenge the wood stove as the home's focal point, those days are long gone when Mom, Pop, and kids all huddled around the 10-inch screen to watch "Lawrence Welk" or "Gunsmoke" on the one or two stations that came in with the help of rotating antennae attached to the house chimney. Satellite broadcasting has now dispersed the family to everyone's own viewing room, where hundreds of channels are available for every member's interests.

My wife and I begin our day with a scramble to get dressed quickly near the dying heat of last night's fire. The fire is then stoked or rebuilt, and by the time the animals are fed and the coffee is made, the radius of heat extends about 15 feet from the parlor stove. This is where Anita and I sit for the first two hours of the day, eating breakfast, reading the paper, talking about the day ahead, and sometimes just staring at the fire through the isinglass windows. Periodically there is a dash onto the cold porch for a log or two. This procedure more or less repeats itself at dinner time and again later in the evening before bedtime. This means that about a quarter of the waking day is spent within the radiance of the stove. Admittedly we engage in modern life from our warm rockers, such as watching the news on TV, making cell phone calls, and going online; but it is always the stove that determines our location and our first need and pleasure.

Early in January I unexpectedly had to do some stovepipe maintenance. With the central heat of the natural gas furnace turned on and the parlor stove cold, the routine of home life disintegrated. Anita was in one room; I in another. We didn't feel like reading or talking much, and even the dogs were in various corners. Except for feeding the barnyard animals and ourselves, no other space and schedule seemed imposing. Due to the lack of this focus, around August--or July--I have had enough of summer and look eagerly ahead to the first autumn morning that requires a fire in the little potbelly in the dining room. Domesticity is restored again.

As for that second heading, "antique," these old stoves are a lovely blend of form and function, "useful art," as I once heard them described. The evocative effect of antiques is probably somewhat different for everyone. Why would one want to deal with the inefficiencies and potential dangers of these non-air-tight, hard-to-regulate stoves? Do they convince us that a simpler and better life really once existed? Do antiques fulfill our need for penance in a carefree computerized age? Was Pius X right when he said that Modernism was the synthesis of all heresies? What do we think we are escaping from and returning to when we enjoy an antique? At the very least this capturing of fire creates a sense of self-sufficiency, a kind of Promethean victory over the tyranny of the electric thermostat.

Of late, Anita and I have talked about moving to a smaller place. I still have 27 stoves, about four tons worth, not including parts and tools. She has a dozen horses, which weigh more than my stoves and have to be fed. (Her reply is that at least horses can go up a loading ramp by their own ambulation.) Radical inventory reduction appears to be in order. If you see an ad in the paper saying, "Free antique stove with the purchase of a horse; you load and haul," you know that we are packing up.


  1. For a philosophical discussion of focus, see Albert Borgmann's "Focal Things and Practices," Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 196-210.[Back]

[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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