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History No. 14: American Charcoal Making
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American Charcoal Making (continued)

From the time the pit was first fired until the last piece of charcoal was hauled away by the teamster, with his large swaying wagon drawn by six sturdy mules, the pit had to be tended constantly. A master collier and one or two helpers "coaled" together, working as many as eight or nine pits at a time. The hearths were situated about the distance of a city block from one another throughout the various charcoal tracts, and the collier's hut was placed as conveniently as possible to the group of pits then being "coaled."

preparing a hearth
Preparing a hearth.

The hut was always conical in form, having a base about 8 feet in diameter and a height of about 10 feet. Three-inch poles were used for the uprights, and more slender poles filled the interstices between them. Leaves were used to cover the structure and to form a mat so that the final dressing of topsoil would not sift through the few remaining crevices. A door just large enough for one man to get through was placed on the "pit side" of the hut. A wood stove and rough log bunks were the furnishings of this temporary abode.

The hearth, or base, of the charcoal pit was simply a flat space 30 or 40 feet in diameter and free of all brush, roots, and stumps. An open level spot was chosen, and much care was taken that the surface of the hearth was hard and smooth so as to afford good shoveling and raking of the coal. If one side of the chosen location slanted downhill the opposite side was dug out enough to make the fill on the lower side absolutely level. The hearth had to be level to assure uniform burning.

hauling wood
Hauling in the wood.

The word pit is misleading, for it refers simply to the structure as a whole, including the hearth and the pile of wood; and in no way should it convey an impression of a hole in the ground. When a hearth once had been made, it lasted indefinitely and, in fact, improved with age and use because the charcoal dust which remained after a pit had been burned off was serviceable as a covering for the next pit burned on the same location. Because of the lack of dust on a new pit, wood often was hauled some distance in order to take advantage of an old hearth. Charcoal dust disintegrated little and afforded to plant life a rich supply of food material in the form of carbon. It therefore was necessary, when preparing an old hearth for refiring, to remove the vegetation and debris so that the old dust might be cleaned and raked back in a ring on the circumference of the hearth in readiness for the final covering of the pit.

The collier's responsibilities did not begin until the wood had been sledded in from the woodchopper's ranks to the hearth and there set on end until the entire surface was filled. This wood usually was cut during the winter months and allowed to season until the coaling operations began in late spring. Because of high winter and spring winds and other unfavorable weather conditions, the pits were fired only during the months from May until late October. Colliers often became woodchoppers during the winter in order to receive a full year's wage.

The area of woodland to be cut off for coaling was divided among the woodchoppers into narrow strips about 20 axhandles apart and extending the full length of the tract. The woodsmen then attempted to fell their trees so that the tops would come together along these dividing lines.

placing lap-wood
Method of placing lap-wood on the dust ring.

Lap-wood and billets are the names given to the two sizes of wood used by the colliers to "set up" their charcoal pits. The lap-wood ranged in size from 1-1/2 to 4 inches in diameter, while the billets varied from 4 to 7 inches. All wood was cut in 4-foot lengths. The billets were split out of the main trunks of the trees, and the branches provided most of the lap-wood. The ends of each billet and pieces of lap-wood were cut purposely on a bias so that in setting the pit a rounded top or head could be formed more easily to keep the leaves and dust, which were used as a smudge blanket, from rolling off the structure.

The woodchopper "ranked" his wood as he cut, separating each cord by upright poles so that the owner, in computing the chopper's wages, could count the number of cords readily. The wages were based on the amount of wood cut, 8 shillings and 6 pence a cord being a good price in the early days.

filling up hearth
Filling a hearth with lap-wood and billets.

The man who brought in the billets and lap-wood from the woodchopper's ranks to the hearth was called the "woodhauler." A mule, a horse, or even an ox was used to drag his rustic wood sled which, when loaded, would carry perhaps half a cord. The haul from the ranks to the hearth was made as short as possible and always downhill. Hearths were placed so that they were at the bottom of a rise.

The sled was fashioned crudely with wooden runners extending its entire length, which was about 5 feet. Rough boards surfaced the top and four upright posts kept the billets and lap-wood from rolling off. The joints of the sled were constructed loosely in order to allow plenty of "give" under the rack and strain of a heavy load being dragged over stumps, fallen logs, and rough ground.

The road leading to the pit always went right through the center of the hearth so that the hauler could unload easily and drive out at the other side on his way for another load. The hearth was filled by the hauler, not the collier. Driving his sled to the center of the hearth, the hauler, who always walked beside his mule, placed each billet and piece of lap-wood on its end, starting at the outer ring of dust and working toward the center. The first few loads were of lap-wood only. It was laid crosswise on the top of the ring of dust in order to give a substantial support for the billets and other lap-wood to lean against. Another reason for hauling in lap-wood first and placing it on the ring was the next operation of setting the pit. Here work was begun at the center of the hearth and the pit built out to the circumference, thus leaving the small wood to "lap-off" the outside. When the hauler had filled the hearth with wood, his job was finished.

constucting the chimney
Constucting the chimney.
pit ready for covering
Pit ready for covering.

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