Gettin’ Ready For Winter

by Joanne Nesbit
Abe Martin drawing by Kin Hubbard

There was a time in Brown County when folks didn’t rely on outside sources of fuel to keep warm during Southern Indiana winters. They had their own sources—outside on the woodlot. Just cut it, haul it, split it, stack it, burn it.

As time went on more modern equipment was available for “getting in the wood.” One tool that made the job of harvesting the trees and cutting them into manageable logs was the chainsaw. But it wasn’t an easy transition for all folks to move from ax and crosscut saw to the gas-driven newcomer. Oval and Wanda Brown of Bean Blossom reminisced and wrote in Growing up in Bean Blossom, “Joe bought a chain saw when they first came out. He was told he could cut ten cords of wood a day with it. But he worked hard all day and hardly got a cord. So he returned it. The salesman pulled the cord to see if it would start, and Joe said, ‘What’s that noise?’”

Firewood wasn’t the only preparation necessary for winter. A sound roof was also essential to protect a Brown County family from rain, snow and wind. Noted Brown County photographer Frank Hohenberger’s notes tell about a shingle mill where elm, oak and poplar were steamed and then sliced. The wood had to be cooked about three hours. Brown Countian Dave Smith reportedly could turn out as many as 5,000 shingles a day by himself. He used horses traveling in a circle to operate the “tumble shaft” which in turn, moved the cutting knife up and down.

The wood shingles sold for $2 a thousand when the timber was furnished by the customer. But the price was twice that when the shingle mill supplied the wood. A roof of these shingles would last 35–40 years.

Today shingles are usually of redwood, cedar or cypress and are uniform in size and shape. So were Smith’s, and he didn’t use modern equipment to achieve that uniformity. Shingles are applied from the bottom up and overlap each other a bit as the next highest row is attached.

The sides of a house were important for warmth, too. It was important to have a substantial siding, again, to keep out the elements. Clapboard was usually the siding of choice in Brown County, mostly because it was readily available.

The Columbia Encyclopedia defines clapboard as “board used for the exterior finish of a wood-framed building and attached horizontally to the wood studs. The word, in its original and strict use, refers to a product of New England; boards of similar type made elsewhere are termed siding. Clapboards are particularly characteristic of the United States, having been steadily used since the earliest years of the colonial settlements. Each clapboard overlaps the one below it, leaving a few inches exposed to the weather. White pine is considered the best wood for clapboards; cedar, cypress, and spruce are also used.”

It’s pretty obvious that the encyclopedia hasn’t heard of Brown County native Alex Mullis, who was a master clapboard maker, who never set foot in New England nor used cedar, cypress, white pine or spruce. Using black oak, this craftsman could make 2,000 clapboards in a day, each measuring 26 inches long and 4-6 inches wide. Mullis was particular about the material he used in his clapboards, using only trees with trunks 2.5 to 3 feet in diameter. He used no “kinky” wood, but sought out trees that were about 100 feet high and had straight trunks. At one time Mullis made 10,000 clapboards in four and a half days for a customer.

Now that there was wood cut for the heating and maybe cooking stoves, the roof had shingles and clapboard covered the sides of the house, the only other barrier to the whims of winter were the windows. Glass and shutters were the norm, but sometimes even those could be improved upon.

The Browns remember a Bean Blossom neighbor by the name of Charlie who had a reputation of not being too bright. But they recount a story of how Charlie outwitted a salesman. Seems the salesman was a purveyor of storm windows who pitched them to prospective buyers as “paying for themselves.” Charlie bought the product, but never did pay any attention to the bills for the windows. He just didn’t pay them.

When the salesman returned to Charlie’s place, the Bean Blossom resident reminded the salesman of what he had promised—“they will pay for themselves.” Charlie never did pay for his storm windows.