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coal / coal hod

A black, or brownish black, solid, combustible substance, consisting, like charcoal, mainly of carbon, but more compact, and often containing a large proportion of bitumen. A live coal, or coal of fire, is a coal still burning. — Webster, 1882

FUEL FOR THE WEST. The Chicago and Northwestern Railroad company is sending fuel forward in large quantities to all stations west of Sleepy Eye, coal houses having been put up at all points. Superintendent Sanborn reports that 300 car loads of coal have been either sent out or was in transit during the past week. – Winona Daily Republican, November 1880

It’s not until the Ingalls family is living on the treeless Dakota prairie that they burn coal for heating and cooking. In the Big Woods, Indian Territory, and on Plum Creek, they burned wood, with the coals mentioned in those stories being the blackened, still-burning lumps of wood on the campfire or in the stove.

Coal is a fossil fuel, which is found in the earth at various depths, and which has been formed by the decomposition of vegetable matter under the changing influences of moisture, temperature, and pressure to which it is subjected. There are differences in the structure and composition of various coal deposits due to variations in these influences. In the Little House books, both hard coal and soft coal are mentioned. Hard coal is anthracite coal, the costlier and better form of solid fuel for general use. It was difficult to kindle but provided a steady, strong heat once it got going. Soft coal is channel, bituminous, or semi-bituminous coal. It also produced a strong heat but cost less than hard coal. However, it contained bits of tar, and unconsumed carbon was present in smoke in large quantities. This condensed on the surfaces of the cooking pots or vessels being heated. These sooty deposits were hard to remove. —Joseph P. Remington, The Practice of Pharmacy (London: J.P. Lippincott Co., 1892).

Pa cuts or collects his own firewood for free; he must resort to paying for both wood and coal in Dakota Territory, both of which were brought to De Smet by the railroad. In The First Four Years (see “The Third Year”), Laura Ingalls Wilder writes that soft coal is $6/ton and hard coal is $12/ton. Coal prices were often included in local newspapers, as shown below. Typically, coal was sold at the lumber yard. In De Smet, it was also sold at the rolling (flour) mill in town. The ad dates from 1884. The railroad also had one or more coal house at each depot town, as engines also consumed it for fuel. During blockades, there were sometimes raids on the coal houses by local citizens.

February 4, 1875, The Redwood Falls (Minnesota) Gazette: Coal dealers in St. Paul have raised 50 cents per ton on the price of coal. It is now $13 and $13.50 per ton, except Illinois coal, which is $6 per ton.

October 1, 1880, Winona (Minnesota) Daily Republican: Coal prices: Egg coal $9, Nut and Stove Coal 9.50, Cannel $8.50.

October 6, 1883, De Smet Leader: Coal per ton – nut $12.15, stove $12.05, Indiana block $8, Illinois soft $7.40. From Wm. Fonger agt, office at coal house.

The Cost of Coal. (from my old blog, November 2005)

I was doing a bit of catch-up research on the Cooley family, so I stopped to read On the Way Home. At the time, I only had two published copies available at the moment (gingham paperback, first printing; and First Harper Trophy edition, 1976, hardback). Both have a typo in them that really jumped out at me. The mistake is also in the diary published in A Little House Traveler (2006).

August 21 – “…Coal is lying around on top of the ground and cropping out of every bank. At the coal mines, or coal banks as they call them, the coal is worth $5. a bushel.” Compare this to something in the August 17 entry – “…There is a coal bank where men mine the coal and sell all they dig for $1.25 a ton.”

I don’t know about you, but if I had been the Wilders and Cooleys, I’d gone back to the $1.25/ton place and gone into the business of selling it for $5/bushel at Fort Scott!

Of course, the handwritten diary entry says that coal was 5 ¢ (cents) per bushel; Laura used the common symbol of a “c” with a “slash” through it, not the dollar sign. I could understand if the published text read $ .05, but it’s clearly five dollars and clearly a typo.

Coal hod. Sometimes called a coal scuttle, a coal hod was a type of metal bucket in which a small amount of coal was stored close to the stove for convenience. They could be plain or fancy, and were often supplied with a small shovel. When empty, they could also be used to haul ashes from the stove. In Little Town on the Prairie (see Chapter 14, “Sent Home from School”), Laura catches the fabric of her skirt on the broken rim of the school’s coal hod, nearly tearing it. It was probably of a style similar to the plain one shown at right; this is part of the collection of the Depot Museum in De Smet. I have a cast-iron coal scuttle with a white enamel lid that belonged to my ancestors. Coal hods or scuttles are popular decorating items today, and can be used to hold a potted plant, firewood, magazines, or other items on display.

Coal Heater / Coal Stove. A coal fire burns differently than one of wood, in that coals burn from below upward and needs a draft of air from below. For this reason, coals are spread out to cover the entire grate of a coal stove or heater and must be laid from side to side and stacked on top of each other in like manner. Otherwise, the air flows around the coals instead of through them. An 1890s advertisement for stoves sold at Fuller’s Hardware in De Smet is also shown.

The stove advertisement below was pasted in pre-1900 scrapbook kept by the De Smet school board. The photo at right is of the stove in the agent’s room at the Depot Museum. Is this the stove from the advertisement? You can see a different type coal stove in the first schoolhouse building on the grounds of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in De Smet.


coal (SSL 10, 13-15, 19-20, 22; TLW 8-10, 12-13, 15-18, 22, 25, 29; LTP 4, 6, 9, 12, 15; THGY 2-3, 7, 9, 17, 24-25; PG)
     coal-black (LHP 15) – The color: a dark, sooty black.
     coal heater / stove (TLW 8-10, 19; LTP 15, 23; THGY 2-3, 7, 24)
     coal hod (TLW 12; LTP 14; THGY 2, 9, 25)
     coal mine (SSL 10) – When Pa is explaining how the railroad engine works, he tells her that coal has to be mined and hauled in, and it takes less coal to run an engine over level ground that it does to run one up and down hills.
     coals (BW 1-3, 6; FB 3; LHP 3, 7, 10, 16, 18; BPC 20; SSL 19; LTP 20; PG)
     coal smoke (TLW 21; THGY 2)
     hard coal (TLW 18)
     soft-coal (THGY 2)