Tending The Furnace, Urbana, Illinois, 1924

by Milo Ketchum

Our home was a single long block from the campus. The site has long since been occupied by an immense auditorium, but then it was an area of homes and boarding houses for students. The house was probably built about the turn of the century, but was not like other houses of that period and reflected the "Chicago Style', the movement that was going on in that city one hundred and twenty miles to the north.

I was then fourteen years old, and like any other boy of the period, I had household chores. In the winter I arose at five o'clock and retired to the basement to stoke the furnace which, hopefully, had been properly banked the night before so it still had lighted coals. If it had gone out, then it had to be relighted, a tedious job that required the copious use of old newspapers and kindling. In any event, I had to shake down the ashes with a long cast iron lever provided for the purpose, open the draft, shovel in coal to get the fire started. If I failed to properly bank the fire the night before, then the house might still be cold when the rest of the family got up. If the fire was too big, then the house would be hot all night and I would again hear from the family. Of course the other factor was the outside temperature.

An added complication was the dampers. The front of the door had an adjustable opening to regulate the volume of air going in to the grate, and on the sheet metal stack there was another opening to regulate the draft up the smoke stack which cut down on the air through the furnace. Both of these must be adjusted morning and night and in cold weather, often during the day.

After the fire was properly made, it was necessary to remove the ashes from the grate and put them in a metal container to be hauled away or otherwise disposed. There were often big clinkers and some of the ash might not be fully burned. These were separated from the rest of the ashes by a device into which you put them by a hopper and turned a crank. The ashes fell through and the good stuff and clinkers were still on top and could be removed.

After the initial shock of being told my new duties, I do not remember feeling sorry for my self. After all it was quite a satisfaction to have mastered all the complications.

The water in Urbana was very hard, so we had a water softener which had to be recharged once a week, but that is another story.

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