Strong on Stoves
by John Betts
Old Town, British Columbia, is located in the kind of back-road mountain countryside that makes you think you’re lost when you get there. Set in the side of the Rocky Mountain Trench west of Cranbrook, there is very little to separate Old Town from the rest of the local scenery except Mike Strong, his wife, and his obsession, the town’s only constituents.
The Strongs’ place is back-to-the-land a tidy hand-built home, a workshop about twice the size of the house, an ambitious garden and a junkyard. It is the junkyard that merits a second look.
It contains a thematic assortment, quite different from the usual rural collection of old license plates and deer antlers nailed to a garage wall. Arranged around a few stripped pickup bodies and extending under the shelter of a stand of lodgepole pine are rows of small, rusting metal carcasses. Near them are their attendant parts: legs, latches, doors, plates, handles. Everything is so dismembered and corroded that it takes a while to realize that this half-acre is the final resting place for hundreds of wood stoves and parlour heaters.
I am trying to determine whether this advanced case of “collectus dementia” is the work of inspired purpose or sad derangement when Mike Strong comes out of his shop. He is wearing a blackened orange boiler suit and a red bandanna. The way they hang on his five-foot-six frame makes him look boyish, almost comic. Welder’s goggles stare distractedly from his forehead. A small respirator hangs on his chest, connected to an inhalator and mask that flop in front of his chin. His bearded face is frosted with dark grit.
He ducks back into the shop to turn off a diesel generator that is pounding away in the background, and I follow him inside. In the outer part of the building are the cast, pressed, nickel plated and enameled remains of another 50-odd stoves and heaters, all more or less intact – certainly more recognizable than their neglected counterparts in the yard.
In the small quiet after the generator is stilled, I step into the crowded inner shop and stand, astonished, in front of what appears to be a freshly minted, turn-of-the-century wood-burning range, complete with the florid nickel-plate garnishing, solid black polished range top, warming oven and cast-metal hearth. Contrasted with the rusting debris outside and the clutter of welding, sanding and grinding equipment surrounding it, the stove is singularly striking in its antique beauty. Yet it had come from the mouldering pile under the pine trees, miraculously raised from the dead by the grinning young man in the orange boiler suit.
According to Strong, there is no antique range or heater, no matter how far gone, that he cannot restore to its original working condition. “If people are prepared to make the commitment to restore a stove, I can do it. The only limits to restoration are time and money.” Considering the distressing evidence in Strong’s boneyard, this is a surprising claim. Over the past 15 years, though, he has resurrected hundreds of stoves, painstakingly grinding, welding and polishing his way through a century of accumulated rust and neglect. His dedication and often stunning results have earned Strong the obscure distinction of being one of North America’s best antique stove restorers and documentarists. Strong prefers a more modest accolade. “It’s more like a hobby that got a little out of hand.”
It was a lifelong propensity for collecting things that led to Strong’s eventual passion for stoves. “I’ve always had collector’s disease,” he says, “ever since I was a kid. If it wasn’t pets or stones or bottles, it was antique cars or fossils. My bedroom was a museum.” But why stoves? “Actually, it was gold that got me started,” he says, and then, as if it will explain everything, adds, “It was the early ’70s. I wasn’t even interested in stoves then. I was prospecting when I started finding the remains of old stoves rusting away in abandoned mine camps and homesteads.”
Others might not share the unique caprice that inspired Strong to begin packing loads of corroding metal miles out of the woods. But Strong recognized craftsmanship and a passion for style in these rusting hulks. They were worth saving, if only to take home to look at.
But that didn’t last. “The stuff was starting to get in the way. I had a small cabin, and all the fragments and panels and tops were becoming a nuisance. One day, I realized, ‘Hey, I’ve got enough parts here to put together a whole stove.'” It was a fateful revelation.
Strong explains the restoration process. “You have to completely dismantle a stove first to see what’s wrong with it,” he says. “There could be cracks, rust and damaged seams that aren’t immediately visible. I guess I could just sandblast the works, but I like to go over the whole stove by hand.” This thoroughness is a good excuse for Strong to lose himself in his work. He likes taking a stove apart, seeing how it operates, finding out how it was put together, noting the craftsmanship or lack of it. In the rusted inner workings of an old stove, Strong finds things very few untrained observers could appreciate.
“You know,” he says, “we could never build stoves like this today. Even the very plain ones are too much work for our manufacturing techniques. It’s not only that the labour costs would be impossible – we just don’t work that way anymore.”
Strong’s own work ethic may be a little out of step with current fashion. “I usually work about a hundred hours on a stove. If I could restore 10 stoves a year, along with keeping the homestead together, I’d be happy.” In the old foundries, it took two men one day to assemble a stove.
Before the so-called “energy crisis,” the only people who worked on wood stoves were scrap-metal dealers. Over the past years, Strong has been inventing his trade, since there is no tradition of stove restoration from which to learn. He theorizes that stoves were so durable, they lasted until they were obsolete and then were discarded. “Some of the worst damage I’ve seen happened when the stove was thrown off the pickup at the dump.”
The revival of wood heat coincided with Strong’s growing interest in stoves. “Fifteen years ago, any old iron appliance that could hold a fire was in demand. I kind of rode that wave into the business. Now, the emphasis is more on the stove’s antique and heritage values. The people who are interested in stoves today see them as historical pieces.”
Strong does three kinds of restoration: museum work, in which the emphasis is on authenticity and preserving as much of the original as possible, right down to the bolts and cone-head rivets; commercial restorations, which allow him a little more improvisation in the rebuilding of a stove he selects to fix “on spec”; and custom jobs, which usually involve a customer bringing in a family heirloom, auction-sale bargain or junkyard gleaning.
Once the damage has been assessed, the stove is rebuilt, part by part. The casting techniques used in antique stoves are virtually lost. Today’s foundries are more familiar with casting fire hydrants and sewer grates than they are with his stove ornaments, and Strong has to spend hours grinding the coarse castings down to something comparable to the originals. Nickel plate that is too corroded is sent to a reliable plating shop. Strong is picky about who gets his work: “A poor plating job will look as if it’s been painted on with a brush.”
But it is Strong’s ability to weld cast metal that really sets him apart from most stove restorers. It is a rare technique, and Strong is among the few who can claim to have mastered it. Other restorers, despairing of their own abilities, send Strong their basket cases. In describing his work, they resort to adjectives such as “miraculous” and “impossible.”
Under Strong’s ministrations, corroded chunks of cast are melded undetectably into their original places. In some cases, foot-long cracks in the original pattern are reformed in a flawless seam. More important, the stove does not warp or blow apart when it is fired up, the ultimate test of the stove restorer’s craft. But Strong’s admirers see him as more than just a technician, working with welding gases and critical tolerances. At the Fort Steele Heritage Town, a living museum near Cranbrook for which Strong has restored 35 stoves, he often astonished the curators. After one of them had run out of superlatives to describe Strong’s work, he concluded, “The real thing you notice is that not only does Strong understand the welding technique, he understands the stove as well.”
It usually takes a practice assembly to make sure there are no surprises when the stove is finally cemented and bolted back together. Strong employs a variety of polishing, buffing and stove-blacking techniques to make old parts look new and new ones look old. Yet for all the expertise and effort he puts into a stove, in Strong’s mind, his work will always need improvement. “I’ve worked on stoves for more than 15 years,” he says, “and you’d think I’d have it down pat by now. But the more I learn about restoration, the longer it takes me to restore a stove.” Nevertheless, as he admits, stove restoration is not a rational pursuit anyway – one suspects that if he ever really tried to remedy the paradox, he would only spoil his fun.
Out in his boneyard, Strong holds up the scorched oven door of an 1880s-vintage McClary range. He seems troubled. The cast panel is discoloured and warped. Its temper is shot. Even for Strong, the door has entered the afterlife. Looking at the patterned relief, I can see why he is upset over the loss. In one comer, a generous sun casts its warming rays onto a resting doe nestled in a glen of rococo swirls. Next to the oven, a swan leads her cygnets through a cast-metal pool surrounded by lush floral relief.
“This stove had everything,” Strong laments. “On the other panels, there are leaping trout and bugling elks. But it can’t be restored. Somebody decided to clean up a cabin by burning it down and fried the stove. It breaks my heart that this one got trashed.” Disconsolately, he puts the piece back. Although he knew the stove was beyond any reasonable hope of repair, Strong lugged the pieces out of the woods anyway.
In the mid-1800s, the North American stove industry developed some casting techniques and technical advances that resulted in a profusion of design and innovation. Prudence and restraint gave way to an enthusiasm for style that often outstripped good sense. The results were stunning. Cast-iron box heaters began to resemble Gothic churches. Parlour stoves became reminiscent of Egyptian obelisks adorned with stylized flowers and phoenixes. Mythological, patriotic and religious themes found expression through an architectural revival of just about all known styles. The era of lavish design exhausted itself by the 1870s, but it set the architectural tone for the next generation of stoves.
Stove production peaked during the remaining decades before the turn of the century. It was an ambitious era that witnessed Custer’s last stand, the invention of the carpet sweeper, the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and the introduction of central heating. In keeping with such great strides, the stove industry switched to more rational designs. Sheet metal replaced some of the cast, mass production methods eliminated most small foundries, and salesmen replaced artisans. Ornamentation and style did not completely lapse into the prosaic, however. Nickel plating became popular, and stoves sprouted lush growths of plated vines, grates and rails. Tiles and translucent mica windows adorned the fireboxes of parlour stoves. Later, enamel surfaces gave stoves a cleaner look.
At the same time, the great expansion of the country was a marketing opportunity, and the foundry owners made the most of it. They met in Toronto to fix prices on cast metal. They fought collectively to break the early trade unions, and they lobbied for protective tariffs. They built some of the largest foundries of their kind in North America and developed national sales networks. Salesmen and carloads of stoves were dispatched westward almost as fast as the CPR could lay track. They introduced marketing innovations, such as the use of brand names and product styles, as they competed for the growing number of towns, train stations, households and meals that needed to be heated.
Despite the stove manufacturing industry’s contribution to the evolution of the Canadian economy, very little of its history remains. Like their stoves, only a few of which survived the great scrap-metal drives of two world wars, most of the old foundries and their corporate records were lost or destroyed. What we know about the industry comes from the private collections of people like Strong, who spend their spare time poking around museums and sorting through family records to collect trade literature and clippings.
A few years ago, Strong heard about an archaeological dig at an old trading post near Glacier House, in the Rockies. He offered to examine any old stove parts that might be found and to identify the stove. The Canadian Parks Service agreed, and its curators were surprised by the extent of Strong’s self-taught understanding of Canadian stoves. “He’s unique,” comments one. “He’s sort of a connoisseur of the ordinary.” It is an interesting tribute, because it is the “ordinariness’ of history, the day-to-day which most of us live by, that is the most difficult to represent in museums and interpretive centres. Common items wear out, and they vanish, taking a lot of social history with them.
In the area of stoves, Strong is recognized as a walking resource centre. He has collected information on the marketing, distribution and production of stoves, going back to the beginning of the industry in Canada. In addition, he keeps a collection of antique trade literature and publications gathered from places as disparate as garage sales and corporate archives.
Currently, Strong is helping the Canadian Parks Service find the appropriate stove for a reconstructed 1880s’ trading post near Fort St. James, in northern British Columbia. Often, though, Strong’s museum work is not so formal. He goes out of his way to examine the displays in museums and historical centres.
Sometimes, he finds a stove that has been put together backwards; other times, he goes through the storage rooms and explains what is there. “People are always dumping stoves off at museums,” he says. “The curators are not sure which ones are worth displaying and which are not. I’ve found beautiful, rare old stoves spread around in pieces in back rooms because no one recognized them.”
Recognition is an ongoing problem. “I always explain the difference between a cookstove and a range,” says Strong. “It’s not just a technical point but a historical one as well. Most people have never seen a true cookstove.” This comes as a surprise, since Strong’s place seems to be covered with them. “The cookstove design originated in North America. It has the firebox in front of the oven and the flue in the back. The firebox and oven had doors on the sides of the stove. The range has the more common arrangement of the firebox and oven set side by side and loaded from the front of the stove. The range design originated in Europe, where cooking stoves were fitted into fireplaces.”
This is basic “stover” stuff, like the difference between a forehand and a backhand to a tennis player, but for those who thought all cooking stoves were the same, the taxonomy of heaters is even more perplexing. There are almost two dozen genera of heater designs, including base burners, parlour stoves, cannon stoves (more commonly known as potbellied stoves) and laundry stoves. Add to these the different species of brands and model names, factor in the stove manufacturers’ tendency to copy each other’s successful designs, and there are grounds for ignorance.
At the peak of the industry, there were 40 foundries in Canada, and they produced millions of stoves. The 1900 McClary catalogue was more than 200 pages thick. The brand name Jewel included 300 varieties of cooking stoves and 60 models of heaters. As well as sending stoves to every part of the Dominion, Moffat exported its products to India, Africa and China. More than half the foundries in Hamilton, which was the iron town of Upper Canada before the turn of the century, were dedicated to the production of stoves and stoveware.
Strong points out the names of the stoves in his junkyard: Good Cheer, Quick Meal, Home Comfort, Canada’s Pride (imported from the United States), Happy Thought, Bright Idea, Radiant. “You get warm and comfortable just saying their names,” he says. It is obvious he enjoys his boneyard. This is his own museum, and he has organized his collection just like one. Parts are recorded the way paleontologists assemble and note the bones they dig up and put away for future reference.
“I don’t think that everybody has to have one of these stoves around just because it’s old,” he concedes. “However, we are in a major transition to new technologies. The Iron Age is truly ending. I think we need to keep some things around as reference points.” This is about as far as Strong goes in risking a philosophical summary of his work – he is happier with the details of history and the nuts and bolts of reconstruction.
‘Today’s good stoves, “he points out, are built on the best designs developed before the turn of the century.” The wooden match was perfected in the early 1800s. The bimetal thermostat was patented in 1837. Baffles, air washes, secondary chambers and serpentine flue-gas exhaust systems were all developed for the earliest box heaters and base burners. Modem improvements include better-insulated secondary combustion chambers and catalytic combustors that promote cleaner, more efficient burning. Still, Strong claims that a well designed old stove, properly restored and installed, will elegantly turn wood into heat with the best of them.
Your heart has been captured by an endearing – if rusty – old stove with perky little finials and foot warmers that look just right. Is it worth buying? Is it worth restoring? Is it worth anything?
Mike Strong advises that restoring a stove is always second choice to finding an original in decent condition. If you are dealing with stove dealers or restorers, look up their references and talk to their other customers. Stoves and their sales personnel have traditionally moved a lot of hot air.
When you are examining a stove, make sure it is all there. Are any legs, doors or grates missing? Cooking stoves were originally sold as a “square” the basic firebox and oven. Warming closets, water reservoirs, shelves and other extras were sold as options. The more complete the stove, the better.
Inspect the inside of the stove with a flashlight. Pull the top off, and look in the firebox, chimney and oven flues. Check for rusted out panels – replacing sheet metal is one of the dirtiest jobs in restoration work. Watch for rust around the chimney flue, where water may have run in from an improperly capped chimney, and around the oven flue, where the constant dampness from a water reservoir can cause problems.
Carefully inspect the grates and other cast-metal parts for warps and cracks, symptoms of excessive heating, which can destroy stoves. Only skilled craftsmen can repair holes and breaks in cast iron. Look for non- original parts and previous repairs. Poor welding and brazing may be worse than the original damage. If the nickel plating has corroded through to grey metal the part will have to be replated, an expensive process.
Don’t be fooled by shiny parts if you still see rust. On the other hand, a stove covered in grime or grease may be a well-preserved dazzler. There is no “book value” for old stoves, and stove prices at antique auctions remain unpredictable. Generally, stoves are worth more if they have cast-iron bodies, nickel plating, ceramic tiles or mica windows. The less sheet metal, the better. Old enamel gas and electric ranges are currently in vogue in some cities, and the demand has increased the price of wood-burning stoves with coloured enamel. On the value of old stoves, Strong is brief and to the point: “If you like it,” he says, “it’s worth something.”