Opinion: Furnace fun: Coal, ashes and clinkers


A guy is coming out Thursday to check our furnace to make sure it’s ready for next winter. He’ll examine all the gizmos and gadgets, adjust the doodads, install a new filter and call it job done. All we have to do come fall is turn on the thermostat.

It wasn’t that way when I was a kid. Back then our furnace burned coal. Several tons of it were delivered in a huge truck late summer and poured down a chute into our coal bin.

The coal bin, by the way, was a large, dark room in the cellar. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling and cast eerie shadows on the soot-infested walls.

Our furnace was known as “the octopus” because eight large pipes carried the heat to individual rooms in the house above. There was no thermostat. We controlled the temperature by opening or closing the register vents.

We fed coal into the furnace one shovel load at a time. That was my job every day before and after school. Dad banked the fire at night and got things going before breakfast each morning.

I had another job on Saturdays. The ashes that had been shaken down every morning and night had to be shoveled into buckets and carted out to the ash pile in the back yard.

Everybody in the neighborhood hauled ashes. Some folks used them in their gardens. Dad made soap from ours. Nasty smelling stuff that Mom used to get tough stains out of Dad’s work clothes and my jeans.

Every couple of weeks I had another Saturday job. Dad would let the furnace die out overnight so that I could remove the clinkers the next day. Clinkers were big fused lumps that had melted together from the impurities in the coal.

They were always still hot – some still smoldering – and I usually got a few small burns on my arms and hands. It was a nasty job, made worse by the fact that clinkers were utterly useless for soap, gardens or anything else. They were also ugly, like something left over from a volcano.

There were a couple of well-to-do families in town. The rich kids were okay but they had better bikes and wore better clothes. They also didn’t have to shovel coal every day because they had stokers. Stokers were large bins you filled once a week. An electric auger operated by a thermostat fed coal into the furnace.

They didn’t have to shovel every day, but the problem with stokers was they created bigger clinkers and more of them. Twice as many as we had.

Yeah, it was fun to show up on Saturday mornings and watch them work.