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The Soapstone Stove

12/26/01 12:00AM By Edith Hunter

"The native stone that can't be beat
For parlor stoves or holding heat."

Daniel Cady

In 1969 we built our 30x40 foot house in a 30x100 foot old barn behind the Rev. James Converse House. It was at a time when the energy experts were saying that electricity, thanks to atomic power, would soon be so cheap it would be hardly worth measuring. And so we built an "all electric house", a "golden medallion house" it was called, with lots of insulation, and lots of electric heat.

In 1972, after three years of electric bills that climbed steadily (apparently someone was still measuring it), we decided to have a chimney built in the center of the house. Fortunately it had a cathedral ceiling and the chimney had an unobstructed passage to the roof. We installed the soapstone stove that had been sitting, unused, in Aunt Margaret Peirce's Handicraft Shop. And so began my love affair with wood heat and most especially with soapstone stoves; soapstone, "the native stone that can't be beat."

The stove was an old one that had been made at the Vermont Soapstone Company in Perkinsville, out of soapstone from the old quarry on Hawks Mountain, off Quarry Road. Although the Vermont Soapstone Company is still in business, they no longer make stoves. The quarry ran out in 1910, and the soapstone for griddles and other products that are still being made there comes from South America.

When I was a little girl one of my favorite stories was "The Nuremberg Stove" by Louise de la Ramee. It is the story of a little boy in Austria, one of ten motherless children of a poor laborer. The boy is stricken with grief when he learns that his father, to pay his debts, has sold the family's beloved stove. The great porcelain stove is not only functional and has kept the little family from freezing in the fierce Austrian winters, but it is also a thing of beauty and has been an inspiration to the little boy, a budding artist.

He decides to accompany the stove to its new home and climbs inside the firebox before the dealers who have purchased it come to pick it up. Ultimately the stove arrives at the royal castle, for it is the king who has bought it. When the king opens the door to examine the insides the little boy jumps out, throws himself at the feet of the king, and pleads to be allowed to remain with his beloved stove.

Of course the rather impossible tale has a happy ending! The king discovers that the dealers have not paid the father half of what the stove is worth. The dealers had known that it was the work of the great artist/potter Hirschvogel, and they had charged the king accordingly. They are forced to pay the father what the stove is really worth; the boy is allowed to remain at the royal court with the stove, and to study art. Everyone lives happily, and warmly ever after.

Although we had no wood heat when I was a little girl growing up in Boston, I loved the story and read it over and over again. And now that I heat almost exclusively with wood and a soapstone stove, the story has even more meaning for me.

In the story the little boy says: "Oh, dear Hirschvogel, you are almost as great and good as the sun. No, you are greater and better, because the sun goes away all these dark cold hours, but you - just a bit of wood to feed you - and you make a summer for us all the winter through."

The winter ahead will be a difficult and uncertain one for many. I am aware of how fortunate I am to have an ample wood supply and the comfort of my soapstone stove.

This is Edith Hunter on the Center Road.

-- Edith Hunter is a writer and historian who lives in Weathersfield Center, Vermont.
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