It happens every year. As the fall nights get increasingly crisp, one by one the chimneys on the street start puffing away just at sunset and the neighborhood fills with the earthy smell of wood smoke. And while that winter aroma may be one of the most comforting you’ll ever know, depending on the date it can also reek of shame. Perhaps it’s our inherent frugality or maybe just our damn-fool pride, but I’ve never known a New Englander who hasn’t had a fixed date in their mind of when it’s okay to turn on the heat. And that date, more often than not, is completely ludicrous.
I had a neighbor once who each year would audaciously strive to hold out until Christmas. He’d huddle in his home in hoodie and knit cap, enduring the cold like it was some kind of Lenten penance, until finally he just couldn’t take it anymore. With heavy heart, he’d slouch out into his yard and begin the sad, slow chore of dismantling his pristine woodpile.
While my neighbor may have been more ambitious than most, I believe that no matter the date when we light our first log or click the switch on the thermostat from “off” to “heat,” we do so with a bit of defeat in our hearts.
In honor of this yearly battle, I dug this photo out of the archives at the Jones Library in Amherst, MA. Judging from the light coat the boy is wearing and the lack of snow, we can assume this photo was shot sometime early in the season and can take comfort in knowing that our ancestors don’t roll over in their graves when we turn the heat on before Thanksgiving.
Shot around 1894 in Chesterfield, MA, the photo is the work of Clifton Johnson, a documentary photographer and illustrator born and raised in Hadley, MA. According to the Jones Library, which holds his collection, Johnson was especially interested in capturing scenes of country life. He wrote and illustrated hundreds of articles and books during his career, including a series of American and European travelogues. The photo above was included in his book, The Farmer’s Boy.
So fess up, readers. Have you broken down and lit the stove or are you still holding out? Do you have a magic date? If so, how often do you actually reach it? And most importantly, when you do finally start using the wood stove, do you make your kids haul in the logs?
This post was first published in 2014 and has been updated.