While this story is indeed about one very unforgettable New Years Day, it is really about something much more important as you will shortly come to see. In a few days, I will probably be retelling much of it to a gathering of my own grandkids and great grandkids as an example of just how powerful a message still simmers in its now-distant glow.
When Shirley and I returned to Vermont from my final Air Force assignment in the Northwest, we rented a tiny farmhouse near my own family’s farm, about a mile north of the hamlet of East Braintree, now known by its adopted and more pretentious name of Snowville. It stood in its’ lonesome in the midst of a large cornfield.
The tiny, white-painted residence – no doubt built 50 years earlier to house a “hired hand” – was made up of two rooms plus the kitchen, with an attached wood shed. Surprisingly, for the time and place, it did have an indoor bathroom. New to civilian life, our furnishings were few and modest, but we still needed the most important appliance of all, a good solid wood-burning stove to provide both heat for the home, and a cooking source for the kitchen in which it would be housed.
In what would be one of the most fortuitous decisions of our young lives, we found and purchased a used, white-enameled and majestic-looking “Home Comfort” range, built since the 1860s by the Wrought Iron Company of St. Louis, Mo., and with a lot of help installed all 538 pounds of it in our small kitchen and hitched it up to the brick chimney. While we had both grown up in farm homes where such devices were de rigor, this shiny giant was a big step upward. Its cavernous oven was large enough to roast two medium-sized turkeys side-by-side, or four apple pies at a time – not that we were economically likely to do either. The hefty iron-grated fire box could hold several hours-worth of hardwood chunks, with draft controls so efficient that one could control the rate-of-burn with surprising precision. Between the twin “warming ovens” overhead were three additional controls allowing the fire path to be directed either to the cooking surface, the oven, or the ten-gallon hot-water reservoir at the far right end; or to virtually any combination. The cooking surface featured six cast-iron lids, over which temperatures could be focused from very hot to just simmering, with just a little experience on the part of the chef.
Most important of all, the output of that gallant “furnace” kept the entire home toasty warm on the coldest day, and with proper “banking” through the night. Thanks to my job at a wood-working mill, our woodshed was kept full of seasoned pieces of maple, oak, cherry and ash. And so our first civilian Christmas passed, and all was well, even with a pregnancy - our first - in its last hours.
Signs that the fabled stork was in flight came suddenly on New Years’ night, 1955. We were seven miles from the hospital or Shirley’s family home, the two alternate destinations, so I banked the stove, and carefully left the water running minimally in our old soapstone kitchen sink. (I should mention that our water came from a hillside spring, and was piped several hundred yards underground to the house. I should also mention that the outdoor temperature was 20 degrees below zero that night.)
What neither of us could have guessed was that baby Gary Taft Cooper would not arrive until the morning of January 2nd.
When I arrived home some hours after that tardy delivery, I found that the kitchen door from the wood shed wouldn’t open. Looking in a window I could see why. The drizzling stream of water had frozen from the sink bottom upward, arriving close enough to the faucet outlet, that it diverted the now sub-freezing stream of water to cascade outward, in all directions, then over the edge of the sink and into the linoleum-floored kitchen, reaching even to the entry door which was now blocked by a gigantic iceberg, which I swear was laughing at me in its pristine and shining glory. But it got worse once I got inside; the faucet had finally frozen shut, only when after doing all the damage it could, meaning that we would be cut off from the spring for the remainder of that long, cold winter, and I would be hauling water in ten gallon milk buckets daily until May!
Once safely inside, I got a roaring fire going in that old, faithful “Home Comfort” and began to chip, and sweep, and carry. Between visits to the hospital, I fed the fire and continued the thawing/cleanup process for six days before assembling our family of three in our snug, warm, and waterless little farm home in the cornfield.
The little boy who joined our family that long ago New Years week is now a grandfather himself, and Shirley and I have weathered a lifetime of “adventures” which become laughable only after the passage of time. But you know, if I had one wish. . . it would be that we had never parted with that blessed and beloved “HOME COMFORT”.
Manufactured in several versions from 1864 to the late 1940s by Henry Harrison Culver’s “Wrought Iron Co.” of St. Louis, these stoves were once sold by individual salesmen who went door-to-door. In today’s collector’s market, one might sell for between $3,000 and $12,000.