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for people who care about the West

Letting go of the comfortable

 

In central Washington’s Douglas County you can find ghost houses worn by wind and marooned on small islands of untilled dirt. Their inhabitants once gazed out at the easternmost Cascade Mountains, their peaks just above eye level from the county’s 3,000-foot high plain.

My mother’s family lived in one of those houses surrounded by wheat fields, and we visited her childhood farm often. In Grandma’s basement was an iron-and white enamel stove, a handsome Monarch Malleable with a clear-glassed temperature gauge smack in the center of the oven’s heavy door.

The unused stove hulked in the corner while I ferreted old toys and comic books from cinderblock-and-wood shelves. Nothing sat on the stovetop except for an antique clothes iron, basically a cast-iron teardrop with a wooden handle. A toy or copy of Classics Illustrated left on the stove’s cool black surface would disappear by the next day, returned to its proper place.

Years after Grandma Esther died, my parents retired from careers in western Washington to move into the farmhouse. They updated the old place in many ways, adding central air-conditioning, substituting a washer and dryer for the 1930s clothes wringer and clothesline, and adding water filters to extract minerals from the “hard” well water. But though the Monarch was no longer used, it was kept in the basement.

During a recent visit, while my kids explored the same basement that had filled so much of my time, my mom mentioned something surprising -- that the stove in the corner was a hybrid. Electricity ran four stovetop coils, but a wood-coal chamber heated two additional burners. Mom said Grandpa bought the stove in 1949, just after electrical service reached the farm.

A two-in-one stove intrigued me. Why would anyone continue stacking, lighting and stoking wood to cook when turning a dial could accomplish the same thing? Why use fire after electricity had arrived?

Perhaps it was familiarity. Electricity arrived late in Douglas -- even later than in most rural areas of the United States. When the federal government formed the Rural Electrification Administration in the 1930s, most cities were electrified but fewer than 5 percent of farms were hooked up. By the time incandescent bulbs lit up Grandma Esther’s house, about 90 percent of the country’s farming communities had joined the burgeoning grid.

It turns out that the Malleable Iron Company had been producing hybrid stoves for decades. As early as 1924, the company was advertising the combination Monarch Malleable stove in magazines such as The Country GentlemanThe Farmer’s Wife, and Electricity on the Farm.

So why did my grandparents support an old technology –- wood -- when something new was available right out of the wall? I posed the question to Mom during a later visit. With a sigh, she said, “We begged Mother to get an all-electric stove. She just wanted that woodstove.”

Familiarity brings comfort. In the face of new electrical service, those ads for the Monarch must have reassured farming families that the wood-burning chamber would still be there, even while the electric current flowed. And shortly after bemoaning her mother’s stubbornness about the Monarch, Mom remembered that the same old stove had a hot water tank on the back. She recalled warming herself against that tank on cold mornings while the fire crackled.

Grandma Esther’s stove has become a reminder for me to challenge assumptions, to question my own resistance to change. When confronting something new, it might be worth a peek into the basement of the mind. Somewhere down there could lurk an iron and enamel colossus, something familiar that resists abandonment.

Something such as words on paper. When I review a document, I understand it best by printing it, holding it and scribbling out notes longhand. To share any comments, I either must retype everything or scan and upload the printed-written combination back into the computer. All that complexity. Suddenly, that printer/scanner/fax/copier machine in the corner of my office looks like Grandma’s stove.

A lot of Westerners probably resemble Grandma Esther and me. We must need these transitional objects. Hybrid cars introduce us to battery-operated cars, but still we know the gas station is there for us. The Kindle might allow us a library in our pocket, but we still visit bookstores to browse and hold books in our hands. Maybe the intermediate things coax us from our comfortable corners, helping us toward something new.

For Grandma Esther, it took four years after buying the combination stove, but she finally accepted a shiny all-electric stove into the kitchen, relegating the iron and enamel Monarch to the basement. I wonder what will happen to my printer.

Jim Gearhart is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). A student in the master’s in fine arts nonfiction program at the Whidbey Writers Workshop, he lives near Seattle, Washington.