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Of Winters Past

:: I was talking on the phone with my mother, Loretta Reichardt, the other day, and the conversation turned to how we lived in the 50s, and how we heated our home in the winter. I recall that we had a coal furnace, and remember watching my Dad shovel coal into the large, mysterious vessel that lived in our basement on Gareau Street, in St Boniface, Manitoba. I asked my Mom what it was like in the 1930s, when she lived in a little house with her three sisters and two brothers. How did they heat their house in the winter?, and other questions emerged. I asked Mom to detail this for me, and I present to you her words below:

    This afternoon when you called, we had a conversation about our first home when you were just three, and Chris was 6 months old. Yes, we had a furnace in our basement that burned coal. We lived with that furnace for several years before natural gas finally arrived in our neighbourhood. That was, indeed, a red letter day for all of us.

    Then you asked me what it was like in my home when I was just a young girl. How did grandma and grandpa heat our home?, you asked. We had two different types of stoves in our home. My dad put one of the stoves up in the living room in the winter. It was called a Booker furnace. It was your typical pot-bellied little furnace that had the pipes going up through the ceiling, and into one of the upstairs bedrooms and then out through the chimney. At night, my Dad would stoke the furnace until it was unbelievably hot in the house, then my Mother would say to us, “Sneak upstairs and open the bathroom window.” So one of us would open the window, and five minutes later, my Dad would yell, “Who opened the bathroom window?”, and we’d all say, “Nobody, it wasn’t me, Dad!” Then the stove would burn out in the middle of the night, and when it was -30 outside, the house would begin to cool down within an hour, to a very cold temperature. We had many blankets to keep us warm during those nights.

    By the time my Dad woke at 6:00 am, he’d start the fire again in the Booker furnace, and one in the kitchen stove. My younger sister, Carol, and I, wore navy blue bloomers and black stockings to school with our tunics and white blouses. When it was really cold at night, we tried to sneak the bloomers and stockings on before bed so that when we woke up in the morning, we wouldn’t have to step on a freezing cold floor. But before we’d get to sleep, my Mom would check on us first; she’d toss the covers back, check our feet and see the stockings sticking our from our pajama bottoms, and order us to, “Get those off immediately, you cannot sleep in your bloomers.” We would respond, “But we don’t like stepping on the cold floor with our bare feet in the morning”, and she’d say, “You’re not babies, stop crying and just do it”, and sometimes she’d give us a story about her growing up on the farm, and how much harder it was then, and how much easier life was now.

    In the kitchen was a large stove with a warming oven at the top. The stove itself had several rounds on the top which one could open to place the wood in. These were located to the left side of the stove. On the extreme right side of the stove was a reservoir which my parents would keep filled with water. This water would then become hot whenever the stove was lit and you had a good fire burning. There was the oven in the centre of the stove. It had a thermometer on the front and my mother would regulate the heat whenever she was baking bread, cookies, cakes, pies, or cooking meat such as a roast, chicken, turkey, etc. Looking back, it amazes me how she managed to keep the fire in the stove at the right temperature, so as not to overcook or over bake anything.

    We didn’t have a hot water tap in our home so we were always grateful to have the hot water in the reservoir for washing ourselves before bedtime and then again in the morning. We did not have the luxury of a bathtub or shower. We had to bathe in a huge galvanized tub which my dad would place in the downstairs bedroom which was located just off the kitchen. My father would fill a large copper double boiler on the top of the stove. I am not too sure just how many gallons of water it held, but it was enough to fill the tub in the bedroom where we could bathe in privacy. You were always happy if it was your turn to be first in the tub. Being that we were a large family, one tub full of water had to do for three of us, one after another. We took turns being first. Then my father had the job of emptying the tub and then refilling it again with more hot water for the next set of children.

    This was a common practice among those of us who were considered the poor in the community. However, although we were truly poor as far as dollars and cents go, were very rich in so many other areas. My mother kept her six children spotless, our home was always immaculately clean, and because she was so gifted, she sewed most of our clothes. I lie in bed even now and sometimes can almost hear her treadle sewing machine working into the late hours of the night. When we awoke in the morning, there would be a new coat for one of us that mom had made from an old coat someone had given her. She would get these coats, take a razor blade and invite one of us to hold the coat at one end while she carefully ripped the seams open with her trusty razor blade. Then she would take a piece of white chalk, have us stand in front of her while she measured and marked just where she knew she would have to cut and sew. Voila! A masterpiece awaited one of us by morning. My mother was a real genius. We were truly blessed.

After reading this, and after talking with my Mom, I looked around my house, and considered how easy life is in terms of what my Mother describes – I have running hot and cold water, toilets and showers, a dishwasher, a furnace, a washer and dryer, stove and fridge, microwave, computer, television, CD player, tape player, VHS player, DVD player; oh, and clothes and food, too. I never have to step on a cold floor, and only need one extra blanket in the winter. My furnace hums along quietly, and I seldom think about it. For Christmas 2003, I can give thanks for those things, for my health, my family, my good friends and colleagues, my place of work, the city and country in which I live. I wish you a very Merry Christmas, and hope you, too, can find many reasons to be thankful. Oh, and watch for more writing from my Mom – I’ve asked her for further contributions about life in the 30s in Winnipeg.

5 Responses to “Of Winters Past”

  1. Murph Says:

    Wonderful story, Randy, and perhaps an idea for a new blog meme. I may talk to my folks about same. Merry Christmas to you and yours.


  2. randy Says:

    Thanks, and a very Merry Christmas to you and your extended gang o’ fine folks! I’ve been talking with my Mom about this for some time, and have told her I want more stories. I think it would be a good way to document her early life, and in fact, it’s something I’ve been bugging her to do now for years. So we’ll see what happens.

  3. Jena Says:

    Great idea! Hope your Christmas was both merry and full of new wonderful memories to add to all the cherished old ones. All the best in ’04 from the whole bamn bunch o’Bamseys.

  4. Robert Runte Says:

    My Mom tells the story of the time my Dad decided he didn’t want to get up at 3AM to stoke the coal furnace, so loaded enough coal in to keep it going all night before going to bed. At 3AM they wake up to find the house incredibly hot and the furnace ducts glowing red, threatening to set fire to the house. My Dad decides to cool the ducts by throwing a bucket of water on them — of course it instantly turned to steam, sending him to hospital with 2nd degree scalding…. 20 years before I was born, of course. I’ve known nothing but gas heating.

  5. Jena Says:

    Robert’s story reminds me of the pre-gas times Colin and I stretched the season at the lake by keeping the wood-heater going all night and sleeping on the hideabed in the living room, bundled in flannelette sheets and down quilt. Ah, the smell of burning creosote…!

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