My promise to Linda Britt was to find out something about her old wood-burning kitchen stove. We sat in her sunroom on a winter’s day, admiring the vintage Foster Agate cast-iron stove that she purchased online two years ago. A pot of pinto beans bubbled, and the tin coffee pot burbled. The meal would be ready when the cornbread was done.
The real surprise was that Britt, who lives in a completely electrified rural home with all the modern amenities, would want to go “retro.” But she relishes the simple pleasures: collecting eggs every morning from her chickens, feeding wild birds outside her sunroom, glimpsing deer, wild turkeys, geese and ducks in the fields and woods, and watching the waters of Flat Creek roll past her home.
She also derives joy from firing up her antique woodstove and preparing meals.
Britt’s family didn’t get electricity until she was 10 years old. She remembers her brother laboring to bring in wood and fill the stove’s boiler with water. However, Britt always thought she’d like a wood cook stove like her grandmother’s.
“I had been wanting one for a long time,” she explains.
To her, the sunroom with ceiling-to-floor windows was the perfect location for the heavy stove.
“In the sunroom. I can stand there cooking, looking out the windows, and see everything… the fields, the woods and the creek. I love it!”
Britt rises in the morning and immediately lights a fire in the stove. In the fall and winter, the old wood-burner keeps much of the sunroom, den and kitchen warm.
She prepares breakfast, using cast-iron and heavy copper cookware. Eggs, sausage, pancakes and coffee are standard fare. While cooking, she watches the world wake up.
“All I have to do is sit down in the sunroom to enjoy my meal and the view,” she says.
The Foster Agate is older than both of us put together. Britt wanted to know something about it.
“I sit here thinking about the people who cooked on it before me. Who were they? What were their lives like? How many folks has that old stove helped feed over the years?”
We can only guess at the exact age of the Foster Agate, but it is similar to her grandmother’s kitchen stove. Online research shows that the Foster Stove Company of Ironton, Ohio, started making cast-iron heaters and cook stoves in the late 1800s. Their models sold in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
The company’s claim to fame was that its stoves were “made from the finest Hanging Rock charcoal iron,” a locally-produced metal. This is where my online reading stopped. I knew about Hanging Rock in the bend of the Ohio River, and I’ve walked the streets of Ironton, the government seat of Lawrence County.
This part of Appalachia is famous for charcoal iron furnaces. These operations dotted the rural landscape. Today the ironworks’ abandoned stone Roman arches resemble squat castles overgrown with trees and vines.
Built near ore seams, these furnaces could produce in excess of 16 tons of foundry iron per day. Raw ore and charcoal were combined and heated to more than 800 degrees under the supervision of an ironmaster. The furnaces directly and indirectly employed hundreds of people. Company villages grew up around them.
The Mount Olive Furnace at Hanging Rock was one of the most famous. I was surprised by the connection between my own life – when I lived in Appalachian Ohio -- and the Foster Stove Company. I climbed and leaned on the massive furnace stones during numerous hikes in Wayne National Forest.
Mount Olive belched out fiery molten iron used by the Foster Company for its stoves, some which are still in use today. Britt now knows where the metal in hers came from. Finding out about the cooks who used it before her will be more challenging.