I’m not exactly a hoarder. For the most part I’d be happy to get rid of accumulated “stuff” if I could do so with a simple wave of a magic wand. I’m just too lazy to undertake the culling myself.

The fact that I always manage to get through the winter without using up my stack of firewood doesn’t really qualify as hoarding. I hope. The possession of a more than adequate pile of firewood is reassuring, and anyway, as surely as spring will come again, another winter will arrive.

When I was little, we had a cookstove and a narrow, upright heating stove in our one-room house. A gray wool blanket hung down from the rafters by my brother’s and my bed. Sometimes at night my folks and a couple of men who helped with the mine would sit by the warm stove and sing the songs of the day. Buck and I would peek through little holes in the blanket and watch.

The little heating stove was like the one I had trouble with when I moved back to Montana. It tended to smother out. I called my mother and asked how she kept it going. “I kicked it,” was the reply. By golly it worked. The kick knocked down the smothering layers of ash.

Firewood was a topic of considerable interest in Montana’s territorial days. It was a bit of a surprise to learn that St. Louis, Missouri, had burned wood which had been cut in Montana Territory, fashioned into crude boats and floated down the river to the booming Missouri town. Their one-way journey over – the boats were then broken up and sold as firewood.

Since heating, cooking and very occasional laundry were basic needs in the mining camps, there was even bureaucratic involvement in those early days. In 1865, in an act to incorporate Virginia City, the mayor proposed a superintendent position to provide for the measuring of charcoal, firewood and other fuel. It always upends my mental picture of pioneer days to run across such clear evidence that once there was money to be made, a version of civilization arrived immediately.

It should have occurred to me that the miners assiduously panning for gold and the businesses offering to exchange that gold for food, clothing and…..sundries, didn’t just pop into nearby woods to cut a day’s worth of firewood. The Madisonian reported in November, 1880 that firewood had taken a jump to $7 a cord due to a cold snap. Actually, that’s not a bad price. The inflation calculator on my computer says that would $176 a cord today. Firewood is running from $120 to $160 a cord at present.

Under the Timber Culture Act of 1873, homesteaders could add another 160 acres to their homesteads if they would grow 40 acres of trees on the added acreage. Inevitably, some unscrupulous folks simply filed on tree-covered acreage, logged off 120 and retained the trees on the required 40 acres.

The most “impressive” timber poaching document I ran across happened around my childhood home, just west of MacDonald Pass. Over a six year period in the last couple of decades of the 1800s, the Elliston Fluming Company cut and shipped 196,000 cords of wood to the Anaconda smelter.

Anyone who has read this column knows that when it comes to numbers, my math is pretty sketchy, but if my calculations are correct, 196,000 8’x4’x4’ cords would stretch from Hamilton to just past Billings. The Anaconda Company was concerned that it might be charged for this depredation (and an equally large amount cut in the Bitterroot) so their attorneys prepared a preemptive document to cover the purchase. But that’s another story. I’ll save it to tell around a cozy fire.

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Lyndel Meikle lives in the Deer Lodge area.


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