Firewood by Keith Jones

With central heating or even today’s highly-efficient wood heaters, few people now appreciate the sheer volume of wood it took to keep a pioneer mountain household in operation, and the often-backbreaking labor needed to procure it. My granddad Dyer’s mountain farm in Choestoe district of Union County, Georgia, had an open fireplace in the living room, an upright wood heater in the large “new” bedroom he added to his original house, and a hybrid wood-burning stove in the kitchen. The stove had two eyes that worked off electricity, similar to today’s hot plate freestanding eyes, but Granddad never cooked on them. He left that to the kids, and continued to cook on his old reliable iron cooktop and oven.

Granddad’s farm was a bit over 150 acres, and about a third or half of it was in timber. I realize now that the natural timber growth on this tract of land was roughly equal to, or slightly in excess of the amount of wood burned to keep the house warm, food cooked, and the farm running. So he was practicing sustainable growth before the term was invented.

I first became aware of how much wood it took to supply these three heat sources as a small child, visiting at Granddad’s with the uncle and aunts who were about my own age. Blueford, one of two older uncles, was helping cut, split, and stack firewood. I was just large enough to carry one or two sticks of wood and place them within easy reach of the fireplace. I remember how you’d stand on icy winter nights with your back to the fire while your face froze, then turn around and warm your front while your back froze. Sometimes we’d put some popcorn in a little wire basket on a stick and pop it over the wood coals. No microwave popcorn could ever taste as good as that “smoked” variety.

Before long, I was large enough to begin helping cut wood myself. Usually my Uncle Troy, a year younger than me, and I would have this assignment. Granddad, Uncle Blueford, or Uncle Gene (the other older uncle) would have taken the tractor up into the woods after it was cool enough for the sap to have come down. They’d cut several oaks or hickories, and a pine or two, then drag the trees down to the area where we processed them. Side limbs would have been trimmed off to facilitate dragging the main trunk, but sometimes limbs that were parallel to the main trunk or a fork would be left in place. Those limbs that were large enough to provide firewood for the kitchen stove, heater, or kindling for the fireplace were by no means left in the woods. They were cut to length, gathered up into a wagon, and brought to be stacked onto the wood piles that graced the slight hill to the south of Granddad’s homeplace.

Once the trees had been drug from the woods to the woodlot, Troy and I would begin wrestling the logs up onto the pivoting shelf attached to the circular saw. This contraption consisted of a circular saw about 30” to 40” in diameter, set into a metal frame, with a large flat pulley wheel on the other end of the shaft. The pivoting shelf allowed the logs to be shoved over against the cutting saw to be cut to length. I think we sometimes cut logs as much as 18-20” in diameter on this machine. The power was supplied by a rubber belt similar to a conveyor belt that was driven by an industrial 220-volt motor Granddad had scrounged somewhere. The motor had its own little tin-roofed shelter to keep off the rain. To the best of my recollection, that same belt was used to transfer power from the back wheel of an idling jacked-up Chevy pickup truck to the old cane grinder that had formerly been driven by mule or ox-power when sorghum syrup was being produced.

People today would probably be charged with child endangerment if they let 12 or 13-year-old boys handle the circular saw like Troy and I did, but we thought nothing of it, except warning each other to be careful. Logs were cut into three different lengths, depending on their future use. 24” length logs, usually the biggest diameters, were destined for the open fireplace after splitting and seasoning. Logs for the heater were somewhat shorter. Smallest of all were the fat lighter pine used for kindling and the kitchen stove. Sometimes old corncobs were used in kitchen stoves and small heaters, but this is something I remember from other relatives’ homes, not Granddad’s.

After the logs were cut to length, or if additional help was available while that was being done, most of the wood had to be split at least once. The larger “drums” of wood had to be split into four to six pieces of firewood. This was accomplished with either an ax, or a wedge and sledge. I really hated to try to split green wood, since sometimes it simply refused to split. Wood from tree forks is also notoriously hard to split properly. But there’s nothing like the satisfying “chunk” of a log splitting perfectly at the first blow of the ax.

Hardwoods were the main fuel for the fireplace and heater. They produced a lot of ash, which would be processed by draining water through them to yield lye, to be combined with leftover cooking fat to produce lye soap. Pine tended to produce less ash, but more tar and creosote buildup in stovepipes and chimneys. The most excited I ever saw my grandfather was when the main chimney caught on fire with a huge roar. He was right to be agitated, since many house fires began with just such a scenario. In the attic, where we went to check if the fire was endangering the house or not, you could see the roaring flames through cracks in the mud chinking. The next summer after this fire, Granddad tore down his old red-clay-mud chinked chimney, and had his stepson Lloyd to rebuild the chimney with the same rocks, but with modern mortar as chinking. Lloyd was well-known in the community for his ability to construct chimneys that “drew” well and didn’t smoke up the house. That chimney lasted as long as the house did.

Syrup making was a main cash-producer on the Dyer farm. So limbs that other folks would have cut up into stovewood, at Granddad’s were left longer—about 8 or so feet in length—so that they could be fed into the firebox under the evaporator pan at the syrup mill. Troy and I again did the honors, keeping the fire stoked and at just the right temperature, at Granddad’s or Blueford’s direction. (Uncle Gene usually was tending his own syrup mill during my growing-up years.)

In addition to the wood used to heat the house and make syrup, firewood was needed for cooking all year long. The fireplace usually had at least a small fire in it for nine or ten months a year, and the kitchen stove had a fire every single day. When it was time to cure hams or smoke other meats, fuel was needed for the smokehouse, too. And if a farmer dabbled in blacksmith work, he needed a supply of charcoal, which was produced by stacking large amounts of logs into a mound shape, covering the whole thing with dirt except for a tiny chimney hole, and burning a small fire in the middle until all the wood turned to charcoal. This was such a specialized skill that not every farmer tried it. I never saw it done, but heard of families who made this their specialty, just as others ran sawmills or gristmills, or ‘tended store’ in addition to their farming.

All in all, Granddad’s farm consumed several full cords of wood each year. Today, people use chainsaws and hydraulic wood splitters. We had the circular saw, a large step up from the crosscut saws my Dad and Granddad had to use many years ago. But even today, producing firewood is an arduous task. So when the fellow comes with the pickup truck load of split, seasoned oak and hickory, don’t begrudge him the $50 or $75 or even $100. And as you enjoy the warmth from your Buck stove or Warm Morning, give a thought or two to how that wood came to be there for you.


Hope you enjoyed Keith’s guest post-I know I did.


You Might Also Like


  • Reply
    February 6, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    Congratulations, Pat!
    Wow, I am so glad that I don’t live in a time where I am totally dependent on wood for heating and eating.

  • Reply
    Rick M
    February 5, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    I had to take a nap after reading this. It reminded me of my brother and I getting fire wood. My moms family ran two saw mills and we would get the ends of the oak slabs to burn. We would spend Saturdays picking up the end loading them in our truck and trailer.And taking back home and unloading and stacking it under a shed.

  • Reply
    Chef E
    February 4, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    I asked daddy one year if I could chop some wood while we were out at aunt myrtle and he said why did I want to, and I said because I just wanted to fell the axe lift up and split the wood. He let me, but they all laughed as I was barely big enough to lift that heavy thing, but he helped me. I wish sometimes I could go outside and split wood. I never minded hard work; it made me feel alive somehow, and I appreciated how much our ancestors endured in the harsh winters, and all year really!

  • Reply
    February 4, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    Wonderful post! We burn wood for our heat, but not for cooking or hot water~I’m sort of glad, as it seems to take up enough time just cutting what we get for the heat, LOL!

  • Reply
    February 4, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    Hi Tipper, I am here from Sandra’s blog. I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains in Southwest Virginia and live now on the Cumberland Plateau in Middle TN.
    My hubby and I have a wood-burning fireplace —and burn wood almost constantly from late Fall ’til it gets warm in Spring. We LOVE it—and because our fireplace has a fan with it, it really puts out the heat. We seldom have to use our heat pump at all.
    Check out my blog if you have time and I will return to yours.

  • Reply
    February 4, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    I did not have to cut wood, but our only heat was a coal burning pot bellied stove in the center room of the house, it heated all 8 rooms 2 stories. I was in charge of bringing the coal up from the basement and felt like I was being abused. i loved the feeling of heat one side and cool the other. I slept upstairs and when we woke up in the winter there was always ice on the inside of the windows.. enjoyed your story

  • Reply
    February 4, 2010 at 11:34 am

    Very nice story Keith. It brought back memories of our first wood stove. We had a Franklin. Daddy was so proud of it. Got it home,set up, ready to go, and it smoked so bad we had to open all the windows and doors. Come to find out, the stove pipe was too small. I remember us kids laying on the floor in front of the stove and looking at the flames though the cracks in the doors. Mama was playing the old upright piano, and life was good. Then the real work began, I was brush stacker, my little brother and sister were the log haulers. Daddy was the chain saw operator and splitter. Mama made sure everyone was doing their jobs and keeping us warm with coffee.
    Again, great story.

  • Reply
    Dee from Tennessee
    February 3, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    Great post! We’ve never had wood heat but oh how we love to go to Cracker Barrell and sit in front of the roaring fireplace!
    I’ve wondered how in the world the early pioneers kept enough wood for the log cabins. They had a lot more “spunk” than me– that’s for sure. Again, great post and , yes, the guys with the pickup trucks have earned every dime.

  • Reply
    Elizabeth Thomas
    February 3, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    This should be required reading for todays teens who think they have it hard when they have to do little chores.

  • Reply
    Eva Wike, Ph.D.
    February 3, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    Reverend Keith’s comments brought back so many memories of those cold winter days trying to ‘get the wood in’ before dark! As I read his vivid descriptions, I could almost hear the sound the cross-cut saw made when my brother, James, and I use to pull it through the logs. We cut through that tough oak just as fast as any ten and twelve year old youngster in the Cove!
    Regards, Eva Nell Mull
    Matheson Cove (Clay County, NC)

  • Reply
    February 3, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    I have a love/hate relationship with firewood but I think I love it more than I hate it.

  • Reply
    Gwen Mangelson
    February 3, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    Loved the story, as a girl my parents had a fire place we would cut stack and burn about 8 cords of tamarack, pine and fir every winter. When I married my first husband we did the same thing and increased it to 10 cord a winter because it was the only heat we had, there was no furnace just our woodstove. I am not remarried and we have no way to burn firewodd at this time so we give our wood from our trees to people who need it, we home to one day be able to add a room to put a wood stove in. Would be very handy here in southern Missouri when the ice storms come! Thanks for sharing your awesome story and music!

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    February 3, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    What a wonderful story/description of fire wood. Thanks so very much Keith.
    As I read the words I get a real feeling for the work required to stay warm and have cooked food. All most of us do now of turn a button for heat and a stove to cook. I’m almost embarrassed at how easy my life has been!
    On top of all this effort for wood these people grew and preserved their own food, raised and butchered cows, pigs, and chickens, milked, churned, and gathered eggs.
    Makes me tired to just think about it!
    Thanks again to Keith for this post.

  • Reply
    Matthew Burns
    February 3, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    I always hated having to get the wood in every evening after school. I remember when I was a kid, it was the responsibility of me and my brother (who is a year older than me) to keep our house supplied with wood, and to carry in wood for our grandmother who lived near us. We had to carry in enough for the night and the next day. The woodshed sat out from the house and though it really isn’t that far away, when it is below freezing outside and starting to get dark, it made each trip from the woodshed seem like at least a mile. I always done the “lazy man’s load” as my daddy called it, which is piling as much wood into your arms that you could possibly get…to the point of not being able to walk due to the weight…rather than the several trips that my brother preferred to make. We had it figured out pretty well, it took 10 trips for me, and 18 for my brother, but we both finished about the same time. For our daily efforts, we were each given one dollar a week. We both hated the work but we loved that money. It sure made us learn, and learn quick, the value of a dollar.
    The worst part was when you got down to the bottom of a row of wood in the woodshed. Since the floor of out shed was dirt, the wood was always smashed down into it and frozen, but we were told to make sure we got all the wood out of a row before we started on the next one. I never have figured that rule out, because some of that wood was more caked, frozen mud that wood, and Daddy never ended up using it.
    I suppose the best part about carrying in the wood on a cold day was the great feeling afterward when you were standing huddled up to the old wood burner like a frozen horse turd and just starting to thaw out. That was a good feeling. Not good enough, mind you, to make we want to do it again, but a good feeling nevertheless.

  • Reply
    February 3, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    love hearing about your days.. and what you are doing… we do have it easy now.. but that firewood sure keeps us warm as the new stuff does..

  • Reply
    Vicki Lane
    February 3, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    A terrific post, Keith!

  • Reply
    Brenda S 'Okie in Colorado'
    February 3, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    After not being able to view your wonderful blog since October, I am finally able to. I went back through the archives and updated my Blind Pig and the Acorn addiction♥ I love it here and hope this doesn’t happen again 🙂
    I enjoyed todays post by Keith. My maiden name was Dyer from Oklahoma. Creek Indian tribe heritage.

  • Reply
    February 3, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    I look at firewood and see hot showers and warm evenings after chores

  • Reply
    Pat in east TN
    February 3, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    Boy am I surprised!
    We always enjoyed going out and getting our firewood when we lived on our farm. It sure does give you a workout many times over before burning it, but IMO wood heat can’t be beat!

  • Reply
    February 3, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Isn’t it good for us to hear about the old ways of doing things? Sure makes us appreciate the easy life we have now!

  • Leave a Reply