Woster: Set the temp and forget it

"Eventually, as it always does, the furnace caught up, the temperature throughout the room stabilized and life on the river was fine again."


When the temperature falls well below zero and the wind howls in from the northwest, the electric furnace in our house struggles to keep up.

That happened just recently, and it had me talking to myself as I walked past the living room thermostat every five minutes. I guess I thrive on disappointment. The numbers weren’t changing, but I kept checking. Eventually, as it always does, the furnace caught up, the temperature throughout the room stabilized and life on the river was fine again.

Later that day, when I sat down to watch the evening news, I reflected on how good I have it with a furnace that sometimes doesn’t quite measure up to the thermostat setting. I mean, I grew up in a house with a tiny propane furnace that serviced a rambling, single-story place with bedrooms at the far ends and not a heating duct in sight.

That would have been in the late '40s and early '50s back on the farm. My dad told me that some of our neighbors still used wood stoves, so I guess we were well-off. And my story is simply one of those that any farm kid from that era could tell and every other farm kid would recognize immediately.

The furnace that heated our home rested under the house in a narrow space dug out of the Lyman County earth. A wooden door set into the ground next to the south door opened onto a narrow set of stairs to the furnace room. I call it a furnace room, but it was barely big enough to let a person squeeze around the furnace, even if they sucked in their gut. Well, sure. Who’d want to dig any more than required, right?


The furnace vented into the main house through a grate that rested half in the kitchen and half in the living room. Hot air poured up through the grate, and if you stood right there, you were toasty warm. But if you’ve ever camped in the woods on a chilly night, you know how it is to huddle around a fire pit. All the heat is right there. If you’re close enough, you’re warm, at least in front. Your back might be freezing, but your face is almost too hot.

That’s how it was with our furnace. And the farther from the furnace grate a person went, the cooler the temperature. Did I mention that the bedrooms were at the far ends of the house? I’m sure the bedrooms were warmer than it was outside, but sometimes I wasn’t sure.

We had flannel pajamas, thick and bulky. I’m pretty sure the sheets were flannel, too. I have to believe the person who wrote that country song, “Satin Sheets,’’ grew up in the same environment that I did. Satin sheets are one thing. Staying warm is something else.

We had woolen blankets, brown, scratchy things my mom called Army blankets. Some nights I wished I had more of them. We also had quilts, piles and piles of them. Many people these days use quilts in decorative ways, hanging them from their walls or draping them artistically over couches and recliners. Our quilts were strictly functional. If a kid scrunched down under a big enough pile of those old things, he’d be warm through the night, even if he felt like the bundled-up kid going out to play in “A Christmas Story."

When Nancy and I moved to our big house in Pierre, we had an oil-burning furnace in a good-sized basement room. A service tech told us the burner had been converted from coal, and the oil tank sat where piles of coal used to be stored. A coal chute opened to the west side of the house. I never did get that opening insulated properly, much as I tried.

That house had hot-water heat, with a baseboard register in every room to provide balanced, steady heat through the coldest of nights. Set the thermostat and forget it.

Sometimes at night, I’d sit and listen to the furnace, a smile on my face. Kids who grew up in farm country will know how I felt.

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