Updated: Jul 11
Back in the 1950s, all our cooking was done on a wood-burning stove, in fact there was absolutely no alternative. We had 24volt electric power, generated by the diesel engine which powered the dairy, and stored in car batteries, to provide some lighting in the house. But it was definitely not enough to power any cooking appliances.
The firebox of the stove ran from the front to back. It had a gate at the front, through which you could put in extra wood to feed the fire. It also had two round lids on the top, which could be removed with an ingenious metal lever. The saucepans or frying pans could be placed directly above the flames, to heat more quickly. We used these openings to make toast, spearing sliced of bread on the end of long-handled forks, and holding them inside the firebox. Jaffle-irons, which made toasted sandwiches, went right inside the firebox to cook.
Mum had used this stove so long that she understood how to manage the oven, even without a thermometer to indicate the temperature inside. She could place a piece of newspaper in the oven, watch it to see how long to took to begin to char, and thus gauge how hot the oven was. Eventually, she could determine the heat just by putting her hand inside the open oven door.
The stove had a copper tank (the ‘fountain’) hung along the outside of the firebox of the stove. We kept it filled with water, and the heat of the fire warmed the water, which have us additional hot water through a brass tap at the front. And there was always a kettle standing simmering on the stovetop.
The stove itself was made of black iron. We used a ‘blacking’ polish on the top to keep it in good condition. I found this photo on a Facebook page devoted to wood-burning stoves. It’s not quite the same as the stove I remember, but pretty close.
Almost all our clothes and linen were boiled in the ‘copper’. This was a deep copper-lined vessel, sitting in the open top of an empty oil drum. The bottom of the drum was open as well. On wash days, Mum filled the copper with water, clothes and washing soap (velvet soap), then lit a wood fire in the space inside the drum and below the copper. The fire heated the water to boiling point, which certainly cleaned the clothes thoroughly.
Another place depending on a wood fire was the dairy. The machines collecting the milk from the cows, the separator siphoning off the cream from the top of the milk, the cans storing the cream, all had to be kept scrupulously clean, which also required lots of hot water. We built a wood fire under half an upturned water tank, and boiled kerosene tins of water to be used in the regular cleaning after each milking, twice each day.
We also raised beef cattle on the farm, Dad bought these from other farmers, but when they reached us, each beast had to be ‘branded’ to indicate the change in ownership. This meant using a hot iron against its hide, which raised a scar in the shape of the new owner’s registered brand. As the branding was done in the stockyard, we had to build a wood fire in the middle of the yard, and heat the metal ‘brands’ in it.
All of these activities required a regular supply of wood. We usually found plenty of dry wood on the farm, from dead trees ring-barked twenty or more years before. Some had already fallen, others had to be cut down. Then they were sawn into usable lengths and brought home in the back of the Ford tilly.
We had two woodheaps. One was beside the cowshed, handy to feed the fire heating the water for the cleanups after milking. It also provided the wood needed for the branding fires.
This was where Dad dispatched the roosters when we were preparing for Christmas dinner.
The other heap was closer to the house, in a stack under the pepperina tree. It was also close to the car-shed, so some wood could be moved there to keep dry if it looked like rain was coming. If we had a family of workers living in the smaller cottage, then there would be a third woodheap close to their back door.
And each heap had its own axe, which had to be kept sharp to be useful. It was usually honed against a special block, called the ‘steel’.
It was a general assumption that the menfolk were the ones who would use an axe to break up the solid logs into billets suitable for feeding the fires. But it was often Mum who had to swing the axe to keep the home fire burning.