Those that live here never need want wood, for here is great store.
Emmanuel Altham, Three Visitors to Early Plymouth
Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?
Spongebob, opening theme song
It’s the heating oil, natural gas, propane, solar and electric of 17th-century New England.
Mourt’s Relation (http://www.histarch.uiuc.edu/plymouth/mourt2.html) which chronicles the very beginning of the Plimoth settlement, has over 50 references to wood in its first few dozen pages, many of those specifically about getting firewood:
- The same day, so soon as we could we set ashore 15 or 16 men, well armed, with some to fetch wood for we had none left…
- …there we relieved ourselves with wood and water, and refreshed our people…
- …some kindled a fire, and others fetched wood, and there held our rendezvous that night.
- Our people did make things as fitting as they could, and time would, in seeking out wood…
- When we came to shore, we made us a barricade, and got firewood…
- So being both weary and faint, for we had eaten nothing all that day, we fell to making our rendezvous and get firewood, which always costs us a great deal of labor…
- Our greatest labor will be fetching of our wood, which is half a quarter of an English mile…
The elemental importance of firewood is clear, as is the labor required to procure it. This is no small thing.
When the intrepid folks from the PBS series Colonial House ( http://www.pbs.org/wnet/colonialhouse/ ) were sent on their merry way to the wilds of downeast Maine several years ago–to live in the manner of a 17th-century new world colony–one of the first questions they asked their producers was: Should we be spending this ridiculous amount of time gathering firewood? That question was a revelation for us (and The Colonial House participants!) and really brought home the absolute need and amount of labor required to get firewood in any century!
In our recreated village, the processing, use, and storage of firewood is vital in presenting an accurate portrayal of Plimoth Colony. Crunching some numbers, with the help of some standards drawn from Rob Tarule’s book, The Artisan of Ipswich (http://www.plimoth.com/books-media/artisan-of-ipswich.html) The Riven Word has come up with some interesting extrapolations: If Plimoth Colony has 30 households in the year 1627, and each household uses a minimum of 15 cords of firewood annually, that translates to 450 cords of wood/year. At a standard cordwood measure of 4′ high and 4′ deep, that is a line of firewood 3600′ long, or roughly 2/3rds of a mile. Every year. That’s a LOT of work just getting fuel. Playing with numbers is fun for the whole family!
We go through about 10-15 cords/year in our recreated site. Not so long ago, firewood was delivered to the pilgrim village via a dumptruck in the hours before opening. With a full load, the old Dodge would labor up the hill in reverse, leaving a third of its load at the top, a third in the middle, and a third at the bottom of the hill. Pilgrims would rally to action, lugging the various pieces back to haphazard piles in and around the their houses. Sometimes, heaps of wood would end up in a pile along the street adjacent to the house. Such a delivery method was convenient, to be sure, but in the end it looked, well…delivered.
We wondered if there was something that was at once convenient, practical, AND a better historically accurate display of firewood. Thinking outside of the wood pile, as it were, our renaissance-blacksmith Mark Atchison came up with an alternative to truck deliveries. What if we kept firewood in a few large piles in the village, and what if this pile was something a little more organized than a mere heap? Are there English examples of such wood piles?
A “woodrick” was born.
We cut our wood to an even length and stack it in a circular ring. The biggest diameter woodrick we’ve made was about 14′, but we’ve found a 12′ stack is a bit more manageable. As we pile the wood ring upon ring, we’re careful to stack it level, or even slanted inward towards the center for stability’s sake–not unlike a dry-laid stone wall. When the rings are a couple feet high, we start to throw the knotty and gnarled pieces in the center. (Unlike cheap chocolate Easter bunnies, our woodricks are NOT hollow!) We’re careful to keep the sides even as we work our way up. The rick starts to taper towards its rounded top at about 7′. Making rings, pitching pieces in the center, rinse and repeat: It’s very therapeutic. The last pieces are laid carefully on top to form a “roof”. The pile “breathes”, as it were, and with all that exposed end grain and very few pieces in contact with the earth, it’s a great way to season your haul.
Mark found some English examples of woodricks from just a bit after our period:
What I like about the above woodcut is the use of a woodrick in what would appear to be a limited space. If the firewood was stacked laterally in typical cordwood fashion, it would take up a greater amount of the yard–maybe even cutting into bowling on the green! Those clever Oxfordians!
Mark’s research brought him to far flung places:
…such as a convent in eastern Estonia, where the rick’s pointed tops echo Eastern orthodox architecture. Very, very cool.
So, take not for granted the labor to have and to keep the humble stack of firewood. Like getting water from a spring, it’s an indispensable, if overlooked, necessity.