Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Robert Frost (1874-1963)
We moved into our 100-year-old Bellefonte House in Pennsylvania in the enervating heat of August, but we knew that cold winter was coming. The house windows were single-paned, and the radiators weren’t connected to anything. The furnace was missing, and the wooden coal bin in the basement stood empty. How would we keep warm this winter?
My childhood house in California had no furnace. In the morning chill we kids would run into the kitchen in our jammies, sit on a bench, and put our bare toes on the open oven door to soak up the heat. Or Dad would say, “Bring out the heater and hook the rubber hose to the gas jet.” And, “Always be sure to turn the jet off before you unhook it.” We never owned a fire extinguisher.
But here, it’s bitter winter in Bellefonte House, and the water pipes in the lower bathroom freeze. We set a small space heater near the pipes and let the faucet drip to keep the pipes open.
So we feel forced to enter the world of wood heating. We buy an airtight, freestanding stove, place it in the parlor on a heavy piece of slate, and connect it with a stainless steel pipe into the tall chimney. I enjoy bellying up to the hot stove on cold winter mornings. We run a duct from the parlor to carry heat across to the kitchen, and block off the stairway with blankets to keep the heat from all going to the upper story. I bank the fire at night, and in the mornings when the house temperature drops into the fifties, I jump out of bed and run down to add wood to the dying embers, carefully extinguishing any coals that bounce out onto the rug. On the coldest nights, the whole family forsakes the bedrooms to sleep together next to the woodstove, cuddled up in blankets.
Aping our pioneer forebears, we venture into the vast Pennsylvania forests to cut wood, but after several spectacular failures (like when we chainsawed through a rock) we decide that buying wood at forty-five dollars a cord isn’t too bad. People who know warn us, “Ask for a full cord of cured oak; don’t accept ‘a pickup load’ or a ‘rick’ or a ‘face cord.’”
The woodsman stops down below our house, his stake truck filled with oak logs in twenty-foot lengths, twelve inches in diameter. He yells up, “Where do ya want ’em?”
“Up here on the bank beside the house.”
The truck engine powers the hydraulic Anderson Arm which the woodsman uses to seize several logs at a time, lifting them from street level up onto our front lawn, avoiding the low-hanging electric wires. That afternoon, my rented chainsaw rips through the bark and wood to cut the logs into fifteen-inch lengths. I smell the pungent pitch. Then I swing a splitting maul to split the larger-diameter logs. Kimberly, Tim, and Jennifer (she’s three years old) help carry the firewood onto our front porch and stack it against the house.
“Why do we have to do this?” they whine. Clearly, this task is more fulfilling to me than to the children. I withhold my lecture about frostbite and death by freezing. We learn new words, such as rick, chimney brush, and creosote (you can smell it in the smoke rising up the chimney). We do not know that our chimney has no liner, that the mortar is crumbling between the bricks, or that the smoke has deposited thick layers of creosote on the insides of the bricks.
One morning our neighbor Mr. Witmer knocks on our door and yells, “There’s fire shooting out of your chimney!”
I run upstairs, smelling smoke. Tim jumps out of bed and says, “Daddy, there’s smoke coming out of my walls.”
The creosote must’ve caught fire. Are the walls burning? The whole house is going to burn down! We call the fire department and things begin to spiral out of control. We gather all the children and run out of the house, shivering in the cold. I watch as the fire marshal runs upstairs and yells down, “There’s smoke in the bedrooms!” Five eager men pull a huge fire hose into our front door, but the fire marshal stops them just before they flood the whole house. They use a chemical to staunch the flames and the holocaust quiets down.
After they leave I wonder, Have I been too casual about the safety of my family? We review our fire escape routes and invest in two smoke alarms.
I tell Barbara, “We can’t use the chimney again—it doesn’t have any liner, and pieces of mortar are falling out of the cracks.” But what to do? We turn on the costly electric baseboard heaters. We consider vivisecting and rebuilding the chimney.
But Barbara says, “Let’s build a new chimney over on the family room side. That would put more heat where we need it.”
I tell her, “That’s impossible.”
But of course, we end up building the chimney, an act I later refer to as our “Red Sea experience.” I call my friend Rich Kutch: “Could you come over and help? I’m afraid I won’t get this done before winter.” Truth is, I need his encouragement as much as his labor.
The day comes when we begin the construction, pouring a concrete foundation thirty inches down, below the frost line. You can hear the scraping of trowels as block by block the cement-block chimney rises. We install ceramic sections of masonry liner inside, and pierce a hole in the house wall to insert a triple stainless steel neck that connects the ceramic chimney liner to the woodstove.
As the scaffolding rises, we lash it to the house with straps to steady it. Two-by-twelve planks lie across the steel tubing to form a platform to stand on. We use a wheelbarrow to mix up batch after batch of cement. Barbara employs our laughable rope and pulley system to raise each seventy-pound chimney block. The blocks scratch my hands when I grab them up above.
I lie awake nights wondering how we’re going to finish the chimney. I dream of falling from the scaffolding, or of a block toppling down onto Barbara. I wake up in the morning sweaty, with no joy, thinking about the Impossible Task.
In spite of all these challenges, we finally cut a notch in the eaves to pass the chimney up through the roof peak, cement the top block in place, and install the chimney cap. Only after we’re done, I discover I’ve botched the job—the chimney follows the contour of the crooked house wall. I hope it will hold together.
Barbara decorates a “chimney cake,” and we invite the Kutches and our other helpers to come celebrate the finished chimney. During all our years living in Bellefonte House we will heat with wood.
* * *
Early this particular morning it’s fifty-five degrees inside, and I shiver as I throw on a robe and creep downstairs. I open the stove door, smell the dead ashes, and begin putting in kindling, newspaper, and wood chips to try to relight the fire. It soon blazes up, but instead of rising, the choking smoke blows out into my face. Creosote must be blocking the chimney! The house temperature drops. We turn on the oven in the kitchen. We even turn on the electric heating strips.
I’ll have to go up on the roof and take a look. Outside, snow lies deep on the ground. I lean our heavy wooden extension ladder against the thirty-foot-high roof eaves and carry up three two-by-fours, some nails, a hammer, and a big rock. At the top of the ladder, I nail one two-by-four to the side rail of the ladder, and shimmy along it over the ice-sheeted roof up to the ridgeline. Barbara gazes up from below. I think, What am I doing up here, thirty-five feet above the ground? I balance myself on the ridge and drop the rock down the chimney. Thunk—it hits something solid and stops. Barbara checks the clean-out door below—no rock. The creosote must be blocking the chimney!
Balancing on the roof ridge, I nail the remaining two-by-fours end-to-end and shove them into the chimney to break the creosote loose. I hear the rock drop free. Then we completely clean out the chimney using a stiff wire chimney brush tied in the middle of a long rope, I above and Barbara below at the clean-out door, seesawing the rope up and down. This works better for me than for Barbara—she emerges with a black face. With the chimney cleared, the stove lights immediately.
* * *
It’s now thirty years later, we’re on a family vacation, and we decide to drive by our beloved Bellefonte House. The crooked-built chimney still stands, looking eternal as it enters the twenty-first century, now wearing a patina of vinyl siding that covers the unseemly cement blocks. I take a memorial picture of our grown children sitting on the front steps with their kids sitting beside them.
In our memory, the house on the hill was a dowager duchess, having seen better days but still standing proud. We reveled in its large parlor, broad stairs, high ceilings, full porch, and heavy woodwork—features we would never again see in a home.
It’s strange how little money has to do with happiness. Here in Bellefonte House we shared the daily joys of food, rest, play, and work. Here I completed my PhD program. The kids laughed at the little squeaks their guinea pigs made in cages in the yard. They played house here, held “weddings” on the front porch, and explored the nooks and crannies of the attic. We celebrated birthdays, and from here, Kimberly and Timothy left for their first day of kindergarten. Here we entertained relatives and countless guests. At Bellefonte Courthouse Tim and Jeny became naturalized US citizens.
How does one discern God’s will? We didn’t choose Bellefonte house—it was chosen for us. When we moved there I had dark doubts, and yet somehow felt that God had given us this place. It represented to us much more than shelter—it served as a womb where we raised our young family and, I hope, gave witness to God’s love.
In Bellefonte House we learned to weather the winter with a large woodstove. The cold, forlorn house on the hill warmed to us, nurtured us, and became a place of joy.