Special to the EagleHerald
Ten Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, Death Valley, Calif., each approximately 25-feet tall, were used to make charcoal from wood to smelt lead and silver from nearby mines. Built in 1877, they were only in operation for 2 or 3 years. These kilns are similar to those used by the Menominee Furnace Company, which operated a charcoal iron smelter in the neighborhood of present-day Sheridan Circle on 1st Street and 18th Avenue. The company was launched by A.B. Meaker in 1872. Meaker was a Chicago business man who ran the charcoal plant a little over a decade. (Photograph by Daniel Mayer, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5789009)
Special to the EagleHerald

Ten Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, Death Valley, Calif., each approximately 25-feet tall, were used to make charcoal from wood to smelt lead and silver from nearby mines. Built in 1877, they were only in operation for 2 or 3 years. These kilns are similar to those used by the Menominee Furnace Company, which operated a charcoal iron smelter in the neighborhood of present-day Sheridan Circle on 1st Street and 18th Avenue. The company was launched by A.B. Meaker in 1872. Meaker was a Chicago business man who ran the charcoal plant a little over a decade. (Photograph by Daniel Mayer, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5789009)

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The chills of winter have a way of turning the electronically-operated and reliable indoor thermostat to the olden days when heating the homestead wasn’t as easy and comfortable as present-day life. Years ago families relied on an old-fashioned thermometer handed out with the name of a sponsoring business at the top.

Old newspaper pages sucked up barrels of ink to provide later generations with interesting and colorful stories of how their ancestors kept warm (and cooked meals) during the brutal winters of the past. Newspaper files (in my mind) remain the best source of information when it comes to chronicling the history of our two counties. 

Wood and coal were the main source of fuel when I was growing up in the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The use of fuel oil started to put pressure on the old standbys and in the 1940’s a shortage of fuel oil forced families to change back to their old habits. 

Jean Worth was a talented editor and columnist for the Menominee Herald-Leader at the time of the fuel oil crisis. He penned an intriguing column about the different species of wood that was turned into firewood. He tapped the memories of various old-timers he knew could deliver an intrinsic description of life in the throwback era. One of his contacts was Billy Lehmann, the self-proclaimed walking historian of Menominee. And not many people of that time dared to doubt Billy’s word. 

Wood was the first real fuel here. The first sawmill on the Menominee River was the one built by William Farnsworth and Charles Brush in 1831. Wherever a sawmill existed there were loads of mill waste that was converted into fuel. The last big mill on the river was the Sawyer-Goodman Company, which occupied a spacious layout on the south banks of the river stretching from Ogden Street Bridge to the Eighth Street slip off Water Street, which also served as a favorite swimming spot for the Menekaunee neighborhood in the torrid months of summer. 

The sprawling Sawyer-Goodman operation turned off its lights in the early 1920’s, although a small segment of the company continued after the downsizing. The mill sold wood to its industrial and commercial clients to feed their boilers, and sold 16-inch wood to homesteads for fuel consumption. 

According to Worth, the sawing of lumber did not provide as much waste proportionately for fuel wood as did the sawing of shingles. Shingles were first made of white pine, a product that easily ignited and generated heat rapidly, but was fast burning. Mills later turned to cedar for making shingles. Cedar shingle blocks burned quickly and brightly. Pine, wrote Worth, was good for kindling wood, but had no staying power. 

A voluminous number of M&M area families burned loads and loads of cedar shingles because even if it wasn’t considered to be good fuel for burning it was cheap to buy at a time family incomes were paltry. Those were the days when the whole nation was suffering from poor economic conditions and a favorite slogan was, “eat it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

Then came a shift in the logging and sawmill industry where it went from a diet of white pine and hemlock and hardwoods and the wood supply improved. The old wood wagons took on a standard design of a narrow box with flared boards over the wheels on which a row of wood was piled. The rest of the wood in the load was tumbled in from a hopper at the sawmill without piling. 

In the summer months, housewives bought green wood from the sawmills. The wood was piled in the backyard to dry and then transferred to the woodshed. The wood was delivered sopping wet because it was green timber (except cedar) and had been dunked in the mill pond before going to the mill for sawing. 

The younger hands in the family linage had a long list of chores to preform. Among the many was cutting, chopping and then stacking the wood in the backyard or moving it to the woodshed. It consumed hours of work when the lads would have preferred playing ball in one of the vacant lots in the neighborhood. 

The woodpiles that stood in almost every backyard in the two towns were a target of young rowdies on Halloween night. Many of them went tumbling down under the pushing hands of youngsters. Many families still lacked indoor plumbing and outhouses served the family. The outhouses were also targets on Halloween for some of the hoodlums.

According to Lehmann, farmer wood was never a big item of fuel in the M&M area because the many mills located here sold most of the firewood for heating and cooking purposes in the family homes. Most farmers cut their own wood for their personal use and didn’t sell much of it. They usually cut wood in the winter months and it was ready for burning for the following chill season.

Reaching back into history in the pre-Depression era, charcoal was an important fuel. Many farmers cut wood for supplying the Menominee Furnace Company, which operated a charcoal iron smelter in the neighborhood of present-day Sheridan Circle on 1st Street and 18th Avenue. The company was launched by A.B. Meaker in 1872. Meaker was a Chicago business man who ran the charcoal plant a little over a decade.

Meaker’s operation burned charcoal in 32 larger 25-cord beehive-type stone kilns strung along Spencer Avenue (19th Avenue) and Waite Avenue (20th Avenue). He used the charcoal to smelt iron at his plant on the shores of Green Bay. The smelter operation consumed a lot of hardwood and cordwood, and area farmers had the supplies to support the need. 

When the Chicago & North Western Railroad built its line along the Menominee River in 1871, its locomotives burned wood. The first coal dock in Menominee was erected by F.C. Nowack. he built his dock along the bay shoreline of the present-day 1st Street at the edge of 16th Avenue. The pioneer businessmen also sold building brick, cement and related building supplies. The first cement to arrive in Menominee tied up at the Nowack dock. A Buffalo, NY, firefighter brought it here from Stettin, Germany. The cement was packed in barrels. 

The first coal for Menominee also unloaded at the Nowack dock. Lehmann said the sailing vessel hauling coal arrived in 1975. Workers unloading coal at the Nowack docks used baskets slung into the holds and pulled up by horses. Each held about 200 pounds of coal with a bucket for each hatch. It took three days to unload 400 tons of coal.

The stories of yesteryear never run out of fuel. Toss another log on the fire and the stories will continue.