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Heating with Grass: A Brief U.S. History

Two of the primary concerns of pioneers moving to the Great Plains were fuel and water, both tended to be scarce. People would travel up to 40 miles to haul firewood, or dig up stumps of previously felled trees for firewood. Buffalo and cow chips (prairie coal) were used as fuel until the buffalo and ranching were displaced by homesteaders. During the late 19th century grass was used extensively as a heating fuel on the Great Plains, it was believed to have heating units equal to wood.

Wash boiler stove.

Wash boiler stove.

 

Another type of hay-burning stove.

Another type of hay-burning stove.

Some immigrants had used large brick or stone fireplaces for burning grass in Europe and brought the idea with them. These structures were approximately 6 feet high, 5 feet long and several feet wide, built between two rooms to keep both rooms heated. They were fired by filling them with loose grass for up to 20 minutes. This only needed to be done 2-3 times a day, as the large structure could radiate heat for long periods after firing.

A variety of stoves were patented in the late 19th century to burn grass. Grass could be twisted in stove-wood lengths, with the thickness of a man’s wrist. The bundle remained firm and compact if the loose ends were tucked in. Various devices were invented to twist hay into a compact form and cut to proper length like firewood (see Patent List below). One of the more commonly-used stoves was the “wash boiler” type. Hay was packed firmly into a metal container and then turned upside down and connected to the stove. The stove could hold a fire for two hours if tightly packed, and was used for cooking and baking.

Some of these stoves used “magazines” for refueling. A cook stove would have two pipes (magazines) about 30 inches long attached to the firebox. The pipes were filled with grass and tension applied to feed the grass into the firebox. A supply of filled magazines was kept on hand to keep the fire going. All such stoves were extremely dangerous, as hot coals often escaped during refueling. This stove was a forerunner of the coal stoker stove.

References

  • The Sod-House Frontier, 1854-1890. Everett Dick. 1937. D. Appelton-Century Co., Inc., NY.
  • Fire on the Hearth, The Evolution and Romance of the Heating Stove. Josephine H. Peirce. 1951. The Pond-Ekberg Co. Springfield, MA.
  • In All Its Fury: A History of the Blizzard of January 12, 1888. W. H. O’Gara. 1947. Union College Press, Lincoln, NE.

 

Patent List, US Patent Office Report

  • Machine for Twisting Hay or Straw for Fuel, J.S. Foster, Yankton, Dakota Ter. July 25, 1876.
  • Hay-Burner, M.L. Wood, Jan. 16, 1877.
  • Hay-Stove, J. Stocum, Englewood, IL, July 15, 1879.
  • Hay-Stove, J. Stocum & R.M. Merrill, Englewood, IL, June 1, 1880.
  • Hay-Burner Attachment for Stoves, L.T. Harper, Sioux Falls, Dakota Ter., Feb. 17, 1880.
  • Hay-Burning Attachment for Stoves, D.L Laughlin, Agenda, KS, Aug. 3, 1880.
  • Hay & Straw-burning Stove, W. Teeple, Watertown, Dakota Ter., May 23, 1882.
  • Hay & Straw-burning Stove, J.Lohrman, Redwood Falls, MN, Oct. 17, 1882.
  • Stove for burning Straw, Hay & Cornstalks, N. Compton, Great Bend, KS, Nov. 28, 1882.