Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Rag and a Rock in My Reservoir

Grandpa Doc, my great-grandfather, had a favorite cousin by the name of Bessie.  By the time I came to know Bessie, she was a little antique lady who lived in a little antique house on the edge of a Southwestern Iowa town which was not our own.  She was the sort of person who had several reasons to feel sorry for herself, but who couldn't find the resources of personality or the asset of extra time in order to have a pity party.  Instead, her outlook was always bright and humorous, and the result was that I now wish that I could have spent many more hours listening to her reminisce than the few with which I was blessed.

She was once telling my grandmother and me about the summer that she and her husband had lived in the mountains of Colorado at some sort of mining or logging or oil drilling post.  Conditions had been primitive at best, even by the standards of seventy or eighty years ago, and the reason that they only stayed for the summer was because choosing to stay into the fall was the same as committing oneself to stay until the next summer because the roads became impassible with snow earlier than in most other places.

I had recently purchased the Qualified Range when Grandma and I went to visit Bessie, and Grandma is fond of bringing my woodburning cookstove penchant into conversations with people whom she feels might be suitably impressed, curious, or horrified at this bit of knowledge about me.  (I have to admit that with the right crowd it can be quite a diversion in an otherwise humdrum discourse.)  When Grandma brought up the woodburning cookstove that day, it was sufficient kindling to launch Bessie into a detailed memoir about her Colorado summer because it was there in that camp that she had had the most experience with a woodburning cookstove.

Bessie's husband's job (I'm sorry that I don't remember what it was) was of the sort that resulted in him coming home filthy every night.  Fortunately, her husband valued good personal hygeine.  Unfortunately, the cabin where they made their home did not have running water.  Thus, his nightly bath water had to be pumped from a well some yards away, lugged to the cabin, heated on the woodburning cookstove, and poured into a portable bathtub before the grime that Bessie's husband's person had accumulated could be removed.

As Bessie recalled the toil that bathing involved, she said, "And the water that we had up there was so hard that a cat couldn't scratch it."  Both my grandma and I dissolved into giggles at that Bessieism.

Lovely story, Jim, but why are you sharing it here?  you may ask.  What does this have to do with woodburning cookstoves?  I'm getting to that.

I tell the Bessie story because our well water here at our farm is also hard.  I do believe that a cat could scratch it, but it is full of minerals nonetheless.  Therefore, I am learning about how to handle hard water in the reservoir of a wood cookstove.  As I have stated before, reservoirs were traditionally used to heat rainwater when it was available, and rainwater is naturally soft.  Not everyone had the luxury of a rainwater cistern, though, and so one occasionally does come across advice from our ancestors about how to minimize the build up of lime on the inner lining of the reservoir.

My brother bought Mildred Armstrong Kalish's book Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on and Iowa Farm during the Great Depression in an airport on one of his many travels on behalf of the Iowa Corn Growers' Association.  He lent it to me, saying that he figured I'd get around to reading it before he would.  Two years later, I proved him correct and discovered that Ms. Kalish had included quite a bit of information about cooking on a woodburning cookstove amongst her memoirs of growing up during the Great Depression.*  One such memory dealt with hard water in cookstove reservoirs.  She said that what her family used to do was to tie a piece of cloth around a clean rock and place it in the reservoir.  The cloth would collect the lime deposits rather than the sides of the reservoir.

I was immediately skeptical, but I've seen (and scrubbed) the inside of our teakettle, and I knew that we didn't want that kind of mess in our reservoir, so I decided I'd give it a whirl.  Nancy and I sacrificed a portion of an old cotton tea towel, and she tied it around a rock which had endured a thorough bath.  Into the reservoir it went, and there it stayed from March until last Sunday afternoon.

The rock in the rag in the reservoir.  Ahh, I love alliteration.

Last Sunday afternoon, I decided that it was high time to thoroughly clean the whole stove (stay tuned for an entire post about that process), including the reservoir.  As you can see in the picture above, the reservoir has accumulated lime deposits on the side and bottom of the copper lining, so I was not impressed with the effectiveness of the rock-in-the-rag technique--until I removed the rock.  I was AMAZED at how much lime had truly accumulated in the cotton around the rock.  The material literally felt like it had been saturated with sand, and it had to be put through a wash cycle to get it all out. 

Needless to say, once the cloth was dry, it was re-tied around the rock and submerged in the reservoir again.  I'm going to try to remove and clean the cloth more frequently and see if that helps reduce the rate at which limescale is building up in the reservoir.  Indeed, there is a rock and a rag in my reservoir.

*The book was very interesting insofar as its content about the Great Depression, but I wouldn't recommend it because of the sprinkling of unbiblical theology which it included.


  1. I enjoyed this story! Bessie must have had some great stories. I was wondering about the reservoir, though--these may be dumb questions, but where is the reservoir on your stove, and what is its purpose? I've only cooked on a wood-burning step stove from the 1840 time period, and it doesn't have anything for keeping water. Thanks!

    1. Andrea,
      Those are certainly not dumb questions. The reservoir on my stove is the part that sticks out on the right side of the stove next to the oven. Its purpose is to heat water for various household tasks, but not for drinking. The smoke and heat from the firebox (on the left side) first travel across the top of the oven and then down between the right side of the oven and the left side of the reservoir. When we push a lever under the reservoir to the right, a baffle directs smoke and heat underneath the tank on the reservoir to make the water hotter. Thanks for the question!

  2. I remember we had a stove like that and we used to take the hot water and put it in a galvanized tub behind the stove to take our baths, but I don't remember how we got it out of the reservoir into the tub. I was just a kid. Did it have a drain on it, or how did we get it out?

    1. Actually, from what I've seen, very few stoves were equipped with a faucet on their reservoirs. The water was dipped out of the reservoir with and hand-held dipper which was often much like a small sauce pan. My aunt Meme kept hers for many years after she no longer had a cookstove, using it to boil eggs and such like tasks because it had a healthy build up of lime scale inside it.