Dakota Datebook

Fuel on the Prairie

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Concordia College Professor, Barbara Witteman, wrote “Prairie in Her Heart: Pioneer Women of North Dakota” in 2001. Today we bring you an excerpt that focuses on early cookstoves. . .

Once shelter had been established, food and food preparation were high priorities. Every dwelling on the prairie had a stove. It was the most important part of any home. The kitchen stoves that women used were called ranges. They were heated by fire and had to be lit every day before any food could be prepared. They varied in size. Some ranges were very small and could only bake one loaf of bread at a time. Others were larger. Olivia Rhoads describes the kind of range her mother and grandmother used. As you can tell, a range was a multi-purpose appliance.

It was used for all cooking and baking. A teakettle was on the top of the stove, and the coffeepot brewed at all times. A visitor who dropped in to visit would find the coffee ready. The reservoir was filled with water; this was used for dish washing, to fill the wash basin, for baths, and washing hands. The warming oven held whatever was necessary to keep warm. It was a good place for the bread dough, even parts of the dinners or meals were stored in the warming oven until it was ready to be served. Also it was a good place to dry the mittens and gloves.

Most of the ovens did bake well, even without a heat indicators. In fact, you can’t find bread that tastes as good as the bread baked in the old ranges. Ashes had to be removed every day, the damper controlled so not too much heat was lost, soot had to be cleaned out of the chimneys every so often, and we had to watch so as not to have chimney fires. If there was a fire, we would pour salt or soda on it and close all the drafts. Many a day the oven door was left open to give heat to the room and to dry the clothes that had become wet when we came to the house after doing our chores. We would sit on the oven door to warm.

A task that often fell to the children in the family was that of finding fuel to burn in the range. Since much of North Dakota is not wooded, it was impossible to find an abundance of wood on the prairie. Alternatives were needed, and this was where Mother Nature helped. Anna Sorenson had the odorous task of picking cow chips (dried manure).

In the early years, lots of times we’d run out of coal and we didn’t have kindling so we’d use cow chips. We kids would be sent out in the pasture to get cow chips and sometimes they were a little bit under-done and soft, and you’d have to tip them over with a stick and let them lay and dry for one more day. I saw an old lady that lived in the neighborhood, she’d take them home and set them on a slat up against the house with [the] raw side towards the sun and they’d bake through pretty quick. If they were really good and dry through and through, they made a roaring fire.

Dried corncobs, sage brush, twisted flax straw or slough grass, and buffalo chips were also used for fuel. Margaret Lien told of her grandmother’s twisting of slough grass.

There were no coal mines or anything like that, and it was too far to go to White Earth for trees that were hard enough to have for fire wood to use all the time, so [grandmother] soaked slough grass – she just soaked it a little so she could twist it real tight. She would twist that until sometimes her hands would bleed. That was used for fire in the daytime. They only had this one stove in there that they cooked on and everything. Then at night they put a big chunk of wood in, because that would hold fire for a longer time.

Again, today’s story is an excerpt from “Prairie in Her Heart,” by Fargo author Barbara Witteman.

Source: Witteman, Barbara. Daily Bread. Prairie in Her Heart: Pioneer Women of North Dakota. Chicago: Arcadia Publishing. 2001, p 64. (Used by permission of the author.)

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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