From The Chronicle Volume XII, No. 1, March 1959
by Eloise Stedman Meyers
When you broil that juicy steak over a charcoal fire in your backyard, have you ever thought what an important part this black vegetable fuel played in the history of this great country? Without charcoal we might even now be paying taxes to the English Crown rather than to our representative government in Washington.
Charcoal is as ancient as man’s first experience with fire; its use as widespread a, the world and as recent as our latest experiment adjusting man to space travel to the moon.
In the bronze and iron age these ores were smelted by the heat from burning charcoal. From Indian pottery found, there is proof these early inhabitants of America used charcoal to fire their ovens.
Practically pure carbon, charcoal is a fine, almost smokeless, fuel with a high degree of heat. For generations charcoal heat produced the best grade of iron and steel. Even today many of Sweden’s blast furnaces, which make the world’s finest steel, are charged with charcoal.
Only a quarter of a century after the Pilgrims landed, a group of men gathered at Saugus, Massachusetts, to establish the first ironworks in this new world. The countryside abounded in hard wood forests to supply this fuel to operate the big furnace.
The job of collier was a highly skilled art. The pay of 27 pounds for a hundred loads of charcoal proved the envy of the manager and his specialized workers and the actual time and labor involved was much less than in the latter’s duties. The colliers ran their affairs entirely separate from the rest of the ironworks. They were responsible to the “Agent” only. “Agent,” however, was obligated to the company to see that the colliers gave full measure when the charcoal was delivered to the stone storage house.
From Saugus the discovery of iron and bog ore spread to all parts of New England and New York state. An ever-plentiful supply of wood for charcoal was found with each new furnace. Such became the fame of America’s “fabulous” iron mines in Europe that speculators flocked here to grasp this great opportunity. One man from England became so intrigued by these reports that he came to western Massachusetts in the so-called Salisbury district. Here new townships were opening. Housatonic Township No. 1 needed a name. The settlers, honored by the presence of this Englishman, chose the name of his home, Tyringham.
The Salisbury Ironworks extended from southern Vermont, through western Massachusetts and Connecticut into New York state. It was here that charcoal helped to win America’s Independence. The Salisbury forges became famous casting cannon used by the state and nation. Included in the entire works were hundreds of acres of woodlands to provide charcoal for this thriving industry. A deed of 1761 consists of the privilege of “cutting and coaling two thirds of proper coal wood” standing on the tract of land-about 375 acres. “The wood to be cut and brush piled according to husbandry.” Charcoal was required in such large quantities that it was hauled from far and near. Many bonds, agreements, and contracts for this necessary supply, are found on file. The colliers at the Salisbury furnace regularly employed teamsters. Often journeys for the teams took several days to cover one hundred or more miles. Hamlets in the hills still bear the names, Coltsville or Coltshire, which were stopping places for “oating and baiting” and changing of horses.
From 1776-1777 the demands on the Salisbury Ironworks were so exhaustive that the forests were commandeered to provide the wood for charring. Additional wood cutters, colliers, teams and tools had to be supplied. Here charcoal helped to cast the anchors and chains for the Frigates, Constitution and Constellation. This furnace turned out close to one thousand each of heavy and light cannon. The Yankees were glad to burn the charcoal and sell to this company but there were just not enough Yankee colliers. They had to import a few hundred Swiss and Lithuanians. It was these men who named the big furnace, Mt. Riga. By 1810 when the Mt. Riga bellows groaned night and day, the numerous burning charcoal pits dotted the hillsides at night like stars in the heavens. The pits, sometimes 40 feet high, smouldered and smoked by day. These furnaces and forges supplied the muskets’ barrels for the Springfield and Harper’s Ferry arsenals. Muskets were sent to the Greeks in revolt against Turkey. Practically every forest in the Litchfield and Berkshire Hills smoked to make this possible.
By 1840 many of these furnaces and forges were abandoned. But when the Civil War started, those remaining were caught in another boom, for again charcoal iron “as on call for new cannon. Once more the forges and furnaces ran night and day, the hillsides echoed the thud of the axe, the songs of the teamsters and the rumble of wagon wheels over the stones along every highway leading to the furnaces. Berkshire County’s iron works alone employed fifteen hundred men which was more than in any previous year. Her forges cast the Rodman guns for the Monitor.
The end of the Civil War saw the expansion of the first continental railroad. Charcoal iron continued as best for chilled railroad car wheels. This gave a short boost to the industry, but this vegetable fuel, so highly efficient in a cold-blast furnace, was living on borrowed time.
In 1837 George Crane of Wales succeeded in smelting iron by using hot air blast on anthracite coal thereby producing more tons in less time. Larger and better iron mines opened in the west and Pennsylvania where coal was at their door. Low grade ore could now be made into steel by the American Improved Bessemer method. This steel could be used in many products formerly reserved for high quality charcoal iron. The golden age of charcoaling was taking its exodus, for it was the cold blast furnaces that prospered the charcoal business.
Some historians consider the final blow to the ironworks in New England was the price of charcoal. Once an abundance of virgin timber was at the furnace’s door. This provided charcoal at a fraction of a cent a bushel. In time this supply was exhausted. Our forests came to look like the crew-cut on men’s heads. During the Civil War, New England’s ironworks were forced to import charcoal from Pennsylvania and the north which brought the cost to 3c a bushel. By World War I it soared to 12 c. and 14 c. War-time ceilings kept the cost at 20c. When the ceiling was removed it shot to 31 c. One ton of iron required from 120 to 125 bushels of charcoal. Iron sold for $65.00 a ton, and increasing labor costs pared that margin of profit. Today, with faster production methods, lump charcoal, by the bag, averages 4 c. a pound or 80 c. a bushel.
Although the iron industry consumed the greatest part of the charcoal produced, this is a versatile product; it had other uses then and hundreds more today. The countryman filtered his drinking water through a barrel of charcoal. The former fed it to his hogs. The housewife charred a maple stick in her wood-burning stove, pounded it into fine tooth powder. The brewer found it unequaled for drying hops. Certain enterprising towns made roads of charcoal through marshy forests. One such in Michigan cost $660.00 a mile. Timbers 6 to 18 inches thick and 24 feet long were piled lengthwise in the center of the road to a height of 12 feet. These were well covered with earth and the timbers slowly charred. The charcoal was raked down to crown the· road which became very compact and free from dust. Charred wood has exceptional resistance to decay.
Early in the twentieth century much of the charcoal used in this country was produced as a by-product of wood distillation plants. There were twenty-five distilling plants in the northeast alone, now there remains only one. These chemicals are replaced by synthetics which are cheaper and purer.
Nevertheless, the demand for this black carbon continues. With the advancement of science new means of utilizing this product are discovered. Activated charcoal plays its part in the rocket that shoots to outer space by purifying the air, for man or beast. Its current uses are varied and many, ranging from the metal industries to the medicine field, cosmetics, anti-freezes, art, gardening, explosives, brake linings, but above all – for cooking.
During the 18th century the expanding metals trade in Europe called for such enormous quantities of charcoal that their forests were alarmingly depleted. The government of France decided to commandeer her forests. The flourishing charcoal industry was threatened. A group of French Chefs threw up their hands in horror. No steak could be palatable unless charcoal broiled. So they submitted a manifesto to their government stating “without charcoal their culinary art would be ruined. Thanks to these famous French Chefs the charcoal industry was saved. Today no backyard or patio in America is complete without its charcoal grill, such was the French Chefs’ influence. Yet the underprivileged peoples of the world, since time immemorial have fueled their braziers and heated their homes with charcoal.
Wars cause many upheavals in normal living. In our recent wars wood and charcoal, as a fuel, staged a come-back. When World War II brought a severe gas shortage in Europe, France produced 100,000 charcoal generators for civilian use. Germany equipped 150,000 trucks and 30,000 tractors with the same. Even Switzerland resorted to charcoal generators.
Until the end of the 19th century the iron industry consumed the greatest part of the charcoal production.
Br 1899 we produced only 171,543 tons; in 1909, 448,278 tons which proved the peak year. From the U.S. survey of 1956 production reached 264,990 tons, with the expectation of higher tonnage in 1957. It is interesting to note that an estimated one half of the 1956 production was used for outdoor cooking, picnics, restaurants and dining cars. Industrial use accounted for 35 to 40%. The remaining was for various uses like tobacco curing, poultry feed and water purification. Strange as it may seem the United States alone does not supply our demand. This same year we imported 13,522 tons.
Speed is the watchword of this 20th century. Even as the market has changed, so modern production methods are a “far-cry” from the old pit method used in Europe and early America. The old method required a man with skill and experience. Modern charcoal retort plants and kilns are built of brick, steel, cement or cinder blocks, using an outside heat, usually coal or natural gas. Air intake is automatically controlled. Specially designed, power-driven cars carry the wood to the large burning chambers. The same cars carry the coal out. The fastest production yet devised is by a new plant in northern New England. This company claims to produce charcoal in twenty minutes that traditionally took at least seventy-two hours. This is accomplished by chemically treating the wood and using the latest equipment.
In the history of Jamestown, Virginia, reference is made to a man, “the one that in England had professed the black arte, not of a schollar, but of a collier of Croydon.” Indeed, the traditional method of charcoaling may well be called the “Black Arte,” for construction of a charcoal pit was more than an art, it was a science.
By pit is not meant an indentation in the ground but is the structure for charring. Colliers were skilled, highly paid and in great demand. In fact, many colliers were imported from Europe and Canada. Usually a master collier and one or two helpers coaled together, working as many as eight or more pits at a time. A site was selected in the heart of the forest on a level spot under a hill or elevation. The hearths were five hundred or more feet apart and the collier’s hut was placed conveniently to the pits.
The colliers hut resembled a wigwam, with a base about 8′ in diameter and 10′ high. Stout poles or staddles were cut for the uprights, more slender ones filled the spaces between. The whole outside was covered with leaves to form a tight mat er base for the last covering of top soil. A door just large enough for a man to squeeze through was left on the pit side. The furnishings consisted solely of a wood-burning stove in the center and log bunks at the sides. It was here the collier and his helper lived during the long watch while the pit was burning.
The hearth or base of the charcoal pit was cleared of all vegetation, roots and stones, leaving only a hard, smooth, level surface 30 or 40 feet in diameter. Around the outside of this circular hearth the collier raked a mound of dust. An old hearth was considered ideal as the black dust from the previous burning was perfect for the dust rim. Often wood was hauled some distance to take advantage of an old hearth.
Wood for charring was cut during the winter months and allowed to partially air dry. As the season for firing was from May through October, the best weather months, the collier himself, often spent the winter months cutting the wood, making his baskets, rakes and shovels. The wooded section to be cut was divided into rows or narrow strips about “twenty axhandles” apart, extending the entire length of the tract. The wood cutters felled the trees so the tops would meet or overlap along these dividing lines.
The tree trunks were split into “billets” or sticks from 4″ to 7″ in diameter. The limbs went into “lapwood” from 1-1/2″ to 4″ in diameter, each stick 4′ long. These were stacked and divided into cords. The ends of each piece were cut on a bias to help hold the leaves and dust blanket on the finished structure.
During the late spring months the hauler or teamster was ready with his crude wood sled, drawn by a mule or horse, to haul the “billets” and “lapwood” to the hearth. The road from the stacked wood led through the center of the hearth. The teamster drew the lapwood first which was laid crosswise on top of the dust ring. This acted as a support for the billets and lapwood to lean against. After that he drew both billets and lapwood, walking beside his horse, to the center of the hearth where he could conveniently set each piece on end, stacking deeper and deeper, around and around until the hearth was filled. From here on the collier and his helper took over.
The collier determined the center of the hearth where he threw out enough lapwood to get down to the base. At this point the helper handed down the “fagan.” (A green pole about 18′ long and 3” or 4″ around.) The collier drove the fagan into the exact center of the hearth enabling it to stand upright. Then the helper handed over the cast-off lapwood. The collier used this to construct the chimney around the fagan. This lapwood was laid crisscross in a triangle with ends overlapping. The opening left in the center was about 8″ across. The chimney was built in this fashion 5′ high. Billets were laid upright against the chimney in a slanting position, bottom ends projecting outward. This procedure was continued outwardly, forming a solid ring to the dust mound. Each row protruded at the bottom, forming a mount-like slope. The first tier of wood was called the “foot.”
The collier climbed the “foot” to his chimney where he added another 4′ or so. From this he started a second tier of billets, sloping outwardly in the same manner as the first. This second tier was known as the “waist.” Spaces in each tier of billets were filled with lapwood and small pieces to make the pit as tight and firm as possible. Great care was taken to prevent the finished pit from “realing” or twisting.
Again, the collier, standing on the waist, raised his chimney a few more feet. This time he set his lapwood in or near a horizontal position, radiating from the center of the chimney, building out the shoulders and finally the flat “head” to the top of the chimney. This formed the rounded, mound-like structure. All possible air spaces and cracks were checked over the entire surface and filled in with lapwood. This final process was called “lapping-off.”
The collier made his ladder from an 8″ log to extend from the ground to the chimney opening. He carried chips and fine kindling up this ladder – enough to fill the chimney within a foot of the top. A “bridgen” of billets and several pieces of lapwood covered the chimney.
Now the pit was ready for “leafing and dusting.” The helper, with a crude, long-toothed rake, gathered the leaves from the ground into piles. Then he filled the collier’s basket and scattered them uniformly over the entire surface of the pit, several inches deep. This was followed with the dust from the outer rim of the hearth, thicker over the head and shoulder. A bushel of dust over the head for each cord of wood in the pit was the rule.
Great caution was necessary in “firing” the pit. The collier climbed to the bridgen, carefully scooped back enough leaves and dust and two of the bridgen billets to permit a shovelful of red-hot coals to fall on the kindling. He was particularly watchful that no dust or leaves should fall back into the chimney when he returned the covering.
Before the long watch began the collier needed a good night’s rest so he usually fired his pit at dusk. It was expected the pit would not burn through or need attention before the next afternoon. However, the last thing before taking to his bunk, the collier made sure his pit was tight and no more dust needed. For it was, and still is, the control of the draft to induce slow burning that causes the wood to char rather than burn.
In different localities pits varied in size but the average hearth in this country was 30 to 40 feet in diameter and held from 25 to 50 cords of wood.
Although all species of wood are used in making charcoal today, the hard woods were considered to produce the best quality. Oak, hickory, maple, beech, birch, as in this order, have always been the most desirable for high quality charcoal.
The success in charring the pit depended upon the skill and constant tending by the collier. A burning flame was fatal, a “dead fire” absolutely necessary. The degree of heat or fire was governed by the amount of air allowed to enter. So each night this skilled artisan climbed his ladder, cautiously stepped around the head and bridgen, to seek out any soft spots or “mulls” where the wood had shrunk or settled. When he found one he stomped heavily back and forth on the firm part working slowly toward the mull. Here he carefully and slowly dug out the spot, filled it with new wood, leaves and dust to keep the pit firm. This was called “jumping the pit” and considered a dangerous job. Only with this task completed could the collier rest easily in his bunk.
Throughout each day, at intervals, this man climbed to the chimney, removed the bridgen and rammed the fagan up and down. By the feel of this tool he could gauge the location and extent of charring. To correct an uneven burning, holes or vents were made in the foot where more draft was needed. If the pit burned uniformly a puff of blue smoke occasionally spurted from the vent exuding an odor of pitch or tar. It has been said this gave the coalers a ravenous appetite. When these puffs were white there was too much draft or too dry wood. Wind and rain were detrimental to successful charring.
The length of time required for a pit to “burn off” depended upon the size of the hearth, the kind of wood, or weather conditions. The average time for 30 cords of partly seasoned wood to char, under favorable conditions, was from ten days to two weeks.
But that was not the end of the job, by any means, for charcoal carries fire a long while. It took still more time to cool and rake out the coal. The collier opened the pit where he thought the dust was the driest. A little at a time, he shoveled out the coal along the outer rim. If he found signs of fire he hurriedly threw back the dry dust to reseal the pit and wait. Seldom was water found near the hearths so dust was their only means of quenching fire.
When the coal was cooled, just at sunup, the wagons rolled in. Those who remember the charcoal wagons describe them as varied in size according to the number of horses or mules to pull them. Each wagon was built to extend in width beyond the wheels, with high side boards and a sliding floor. In fact the load was so high and wide that the only view for the driver was straight ahead. The helpers raked the charcoal into three-bushel, shallow baskets. They helped the teamster swing the basket onto his head where he carried it to his wagon. The baskets were porous, the coal left a black carbon dust. Traditional charcoaling must, indeed, have been a Black Arte.
Old Sturbridge is one of the restored or replica old villages that operates an old forge with charcoal heat.