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The potbellied stove

Although it may come as a surprise to members of our families, genealogists are — for the most part, at least — normal people with normal lives and normal concerns.

stoveAnd once you accept that notion as true, it follows as the dawn follows the dark that the big topic of conversation among genealogists this past week was … the cold.

That awful biting bitter terrible below-zero cold so very much of the country experienced.1 The snow. The ice. The power outages. The freezing pipes.

But the one thing some genealogists did do this past week that perhaps non-genealogists didn’t, was think about our ancestors and what they did in times of awful biting bitter terrible below-zero cold…

In a time when there was no indoor plumbing, no hot water heaters, no electricity… and no central heat.

And The Legal Genealogist smiled.

Because I know only too well what they did.

Because that’s the way my own grandparents lived and what winters were like in the old battered uninsulated drafty farmhouse where they lived starting in 1950 — and where, on many a winter day (and night) we all were mortally grateful for the device you see pictured in this post: the woodburning potbellied stove.

There was no running water at my grandparents’ farm in Central Virginia when I was growing up. You got water by lowering a bucket into a well on a porch that was open to the elements. And you used the outhouse down by the barn if you could reach it — and a chamber pot in your room if you couldn’t.

My grandmother finally let us put a bathroom and running water into the farmhouse around her 80th birthday — she’d been a widow for years by then.

And what passed for central heat (a propane stove) didn’t arrive in the farmhouse until after my grandmother’s death when she was nearly 97 years old.

For the 45 years my grandmother lived there, with husband and kids, then husband and grandkids, then with grandkids and/or one or more grown kids during the decades she was a widow, the singular source of heat in that farmhouse was a series of potbellied stoves.

During the day, as many people as would fit would gather round the potbellied stove in the dining room — a kind of central community room to the farm. That’s where we ate and where we watched the grownups play cards and where we listened, oh how we listened, to the stories.

If the farm was really crowded, as it often was during Christmas visits, the kids would be banished to one of the two bedrooms that had their own potbellied stoves. I seem to recall best that a big responsibility of older cousins was convincing younger cousins not to touch the stoves.

If you were lucky as a winter visitor to the farm, you got to sleep in one of the bedrooms with a potbellied stove. The theory was that you’d use just enough wood to last until morning by allowing in just enough air to keep the fire burning low but steadily.

It never worked in my family’s room. We would always wake to a freezing room and pray that some adult who knew how to operate the stove would get up and start a new fire before the need to use the chamberpot would force us out from under the covers.

Once the new fire was started, of course, about forty-‘leven kids would pile out of bed and huddle around the stove. You’ve seen those chicken rotisseries where the chickens go round and round to cook evenly? Well, think kid rotisseries: you’d huddle up around the stove until your front got hot and your backside was freezing, then you’d turn around until the opposite was true.

One of the great regrets of my life was getting old enough to “graduate” out of the family bedroom to the middle room. It was, in reality, little more than the second floor walkway above the breezeway, so there was no heated room below to send warmth up through the floorboards — and it didn’t have a stove of its own.

In the summers I really hated that room. There were always three of us in a double bed: my older sister Diana and an even older cousin Kay and me. The bed sagged in the middle. Guess where I got to sleep, as the youngest?

In the winters the sleeping arrangements were a little better, except I was always about half afraid that under the weight of a cousin on one side, a sister on the other and about a half-ton of blankets, I might smother.

And it was so cold. Cold enough that more than one kid actually did stick to a chamberpot. Cold enough that you hoped you had room to bring your day clothes into the bed and dress under the half-ton of blankets before getting up. Cold enough that it wasn’t unusual to wake up with a patch of ice on your pillow where your breath had frozen.

And lest you think I’m exaggerating — after all, how cold can it have been in the southern state of Virginia anyway? — I went and took a look at the weather in the town nearest to the farm that has records going back to when I was a kid and we’d spend late December and early January at the farm.

The low temperature in Louisa, Virginia, in January 1957 was -5F. In 1959, -3F. In 1961, -4F. In 1962, -9F. In 1964 and 1965, -4F.2

So how did our ancestors get through those terrible cold winters?

The way my family did… in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and beyond.

And maybe better than we do today, when we expect — and sometimes can’t get — electricity, running water… and central heat.


  1. And if you live someplace where it was warm, or even above freezing, this past week, kindly keep it to yourself. Trust me on this one. You do want to live, don’t you? People suffering through arctic temperatures do not want to hear about your backyard barbecues and your shorts and t-shirts. Really.
  2. Past Monthly Weather Data for Louisa, VA : JANUARY, 1916 – 2013, Weather Warehouse ( : accessed 10 Jan 2014).
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