Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Memories of Heating with Coal

One hundred years ago there were advertisements in the local newspapers for luxurious kitchen stoves that burned either wood or coal, but had gas for some of the burners. Models such as Glenwood or Majestic also functioned as water heaters. Clues that your original homeowners cooked and heated with coal are a chimney next to the kitchen, places in each room where a small coal stove would sit, and perhaps a part of the basement that would have been the coal bin. Heating with coal was common into the 1950s. Perhaps our older readers can share memories of the town's coal yards and delivery companies by way of letters to the newspaper.

Lumps of coal found next to Willey's Auto Service and Repair. The $100
gives a sense of size. Benjamin Franklin also invented the Franklin stove,
but that was actually a wood burning innovation. Coal did not become a
popular fuel until canals and railroads could handle transportation needs.
Much of the train traffic to and through Maynard was delivering coal to
mills. Not known if the resulting ash was hauled away or dumped locally.
As to what coal is - it depends. Peat is a soggy, boggy layer of decomposing plant material which can be dried and burned. If, however, peat is overlaid by sediment, further decomposed and compressed in an oxygen poor state, it transitions over long time to lignite ('soft') coal, then bituminous coal and lastly anthracite ('hard') coal. Good quality anthracite is approximately five percent water and 10 to 15 percent ash, which is the unburnable residue. Anthracite was mined in eastern Pennsylvania.  

A history of local coal companies is timely because one of them owned a bridge exactly where the new bridge was recently installed for the Assabet River Rail Trail. William F. Litchfield (1857 -1935) started Wm. F. Litchfield, Dealer in Coal and Wood, some time around 1900. One of his advertising slogans was "From mine to cellar." Litchfield had a coal yard behind 125 Main Street, west of the river. Coal was unloaded from trains east of the river, where the town parking lot now is. Coal dust and small pieces are evident in the soil next to Willey's Auto Service and Repair. Litchfield's bridge was built under the railroad bridge in 1906. Apparently, it was still there until 1979, when the railroad bridge was removed. The Historical Society has the original blueprint and contract for the bridge, constructed for a cost of $310.    

Undated photo of Litchfield's bridge (built 1906) underneath the railroad
bridge (built 1849), both spanning the Assabet River, Maynard, MA.
Image courtesy Maynard Historical Society. 
Litchfield also owned a granite quarry in Fitchburg. The granite archway entrance to Glenwood Cemetery bears a sign: "This Gateway presented to the TOWN OF MAYNARD by William F. Litchfield 1928." He and his wife Amy (descendent of the Smith family) lived in the large, white, house the Smith family had owned at 38 Great Road, corner of Summer Hill and Great Road. To this day there is a very large piece of coal set the yard between the barn and the road. 

The Maynard Coal Company took over Litchfield's business. Exact date unknown, but one town record identifies Litchfield as retired in 1923. A clue to the end of MCC comes from perusal of the collection of high school year books in the collection of the Maynard Historical Society. Lists of "Screech Owl" sponsors up to 1965 included MCC at 125 Main Street. Starting in 1963, another of the sponsors was John's Cleaners at 127 Main. According to long-time town resident Paul Boothroyd, John was the son of the owner of MCC, and the dry cleaning business was actually started years before the yearbook sponsorship began.

Present day, John's Cleaners and Tuxedos occupies 125-127 Main, and the current owner says he has a sign in the basement that reads MAYNARD COAL COMPANY. A 1910 photo identifies a two-story wooden building at that site as the Litchfield Block, so at some later time either the building was radically remodeled or else torn down and replaced with the current one-story, brick facade building that additionally houses Merai Liquors and Designing Women.

February 8, 2017: A crane starts to lift and lower the Assabet River Rail Trail
bridge at the same site where the railroad bridge and Litchfield's bridge
once spanned the river. Click on any photo to enlarge. 
Other coal companies in Maynard included Assabet Coal, Haynes Coal, E. Henderson & Co. and the United Co-operative Society of Maynard. A book "Maynard Weavers" tells the story of the Society's beginnings in 1906 and the addition of a coal yard and delivery service in 1923. The book notes that in the winter of 1940-41, anthracite coal from Reading, PA was priced at $13.00 per ton, delivered. The CO-OP's entry into this business led to other companies lowering their prices to stay competitive.     

Coal stoves for home heating are still an option. Anthracite can be purchased by truckload or fifty pound bags. The stoves are akin in design to wood pellet stoves, fueled by shoveling in coal or else using an attached hopper to automatically feed fuel to the fire. The big downside is that ash needs to be removed almost daily when burning coal during winter, and at least once per week during warmer times if the coal stove is being used to heat water. Six to eight pounds of ash are produced per every fifty pounds of coal burned.

A cold start of a anthracite coal fire requires quite a bit of wood first, as the coal needs to be heated to 900F to get started and will then create burn temperatures of 1500-2000F. Obviously, coal specific stove needed. 

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