Lost Antique Wood Stove Art

Meet the New Englander who has devoted his life to antique wood stove salvage and stove art restoration.


| January/February 1989



antique wood stove art - Richard Richardson working on stove restoration

Richardson in his shop at work on the restoration of a Glendale stove.


WALTER WICK

If the façade of the Good Time Stove Company in Goshen, Massachusetts, resembles a Wild West saloon, the inside and back yard remain pure Yankee — reflecting  compulsive smithery, unbridled ingenuity, an apparent grudge against the cold, and the native impulse to save everything. The yard is the resting place, probably not final, of defunct stoves, broken grates, rusted hinges, and an old lawn mower. The building’s rear workshop is crammed with acetylene tanks, casting molds, grinders, sandblasting nozzles, virgin firebrick liners, two stripped cast-iron ranges awaiting rejuvenation, and exactly one blacksmith, a masked man at the moment welding a seam on a stove jacket. Off to the side, as well as upstairs, shelves sag with spare parts — legs, doors, vents, grillwork — most of them salvaged from stoves beyond repair, some of them fresh recasts, some collected from the leftover inventories of late, great American stove manufacturers.

However, as is the case in most New England homes, it is the front parlor that is the showroom rather than the working center. It is also here, in the front, that 40-year-old proprietor Richard Richardson (a.k.a. Stove Black) displays his stove art — completely restored antique wood stoves and coal-burning ranges. To browse among them is to attend a rally of classic engines of warmth, all poised for fuel, ignition, and radiance. Some are relatively recent, like the sleek, baked-enamel 1928 Kalamazoo cooking range destined for shipment to Mexico, where it will serve as a prop for a Hollywood film. Others, like the black Glendale brooding in the corner, represent the apex of cast-iron stove manufacture in America, a period culminating shortly after the turn of the century. Still others qualify as truly venerable, like the pair of late 18th-century Franklins or, the oldest of all, the 1790 Ten Plate that stands against the rear wall.

"Technically, they're just heating and cooking appliances," says Richardson. "And those you see here are now in tiptop shape, ready to be fired to bake bread, heat rooms, put some soul in our houses again. But I ask you, look closely. Every one is also a time traveler, an artifact that tells you not only something of the history of metallurgy and of the technology of combustion, but also a bit about how we once lived and how households worked. Think, for example, of what it meant for a farm family to acquire a second, slightly smaller range for what used to be known as the summer kitchen, often located on the back porch. It made cooking— and life itself, I would venture, at least for the cook—far more bearable during the hot days of July and August.

"But there's another aspect," Richardson continues, excitement beginning to carry him. "Every stove is a work of functional art as well. A lost art, perhaps, but an art nonetheless. Marvels of engineering and design, in my opinion. In fact, 'Lost Stove Art' is how the Connecticut Valley Historical Society billed an exhibition of several of my stoves not long ago. I think they got the name right."

Lofty sentiments, perhaps, for a man who calls himself Stove Black, yet judging from the appearance of his floor models he is right. These were not mere instruments of utility, meant to labor out of sight in the basement. Rather they were showpieces, as ornate and busy in some cases as, say, Victorian sofas, or as simple and spare in others as, say, Shaker chairs. Whether through the curlicues in nickel trim, the shapes of brass finials or the figures and scenes molded from the stove iron itself, the old builders clearly catered to the tastes of their day.

"Well, they had to if they wanted to sell stoves," Richardson points out. "That's what the stove business was all about, obviously, and still is, as far as I'm concerned. This is how I make a living, you know. Even so, I can't stop admiring the skill, thought, and creativity that went into making these stoves. I mean, they not only worked splendidly, they were beautiful, too. Still are, those that are left."





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