Rushville Republican

October 24, 2012

Ward: Coal smoke brings back a lot of memories

Bill Ward
Rushville Republican

RUSHVILLE — One of those crazy things that I remember from my youth is how I loved to smell the coal smoke that used to encircle Rushville. Many homes heated by coal. The trains that roared through town used coal. Many downtown business buildings used coal, and the smoke would always be around in the winter.

Rushville had an electric utility and it was coal fired. Southeastern Power was oil fired, but still was a very interesting place to go.

We used coal when we moved to Main Street and Dad would stoke the furnace several times a day. At night he would bank up coal enough to last the evening so he could sleep and not bother to have to fire the furnace.

Dad decided about 1940 that we needed a coal furnace that fed itself and he found one. It had a bunker that had small coal pieces that seemed to me to be soaked in oil and the machine fed coal into the furnace when needed and it was all automatic. All one had to do was keep the bunker filled, which lasted a few days at a time.

In my mind, we were in hog heaven when there was no coal to shovel. Still had the ashes to contend with, but that was easy enough if you did not have to shovel in the coal.

Dad tended to try almost anything that was new and looked like it might work.

There seemed to be a coal smoke smell to town all winter and until we moved away to California I didn’t realize just how much I missed it. My five years in San Diego and then a couple of years at Butler took me away from Rushville in the winter and that coal smoke smell.

When I ended up in the Army and in Germany I was back home once again. Germany was much like Indiana in climate and it heated almost exclusively with peat, which was a type of coal that was not as hot burning as American coal but did the job. It was usually taken off the top of the ground in small briquettes and sold that way in sacks of bricks. They, of course, made smoke and that smoke smelled just like my beloved coal. Almost all the trains that went any distance were also coal fired, so that helped.

Back in the states when I was in basic training the World War II wood barracks we lived in was heated by coal and those involved in the barracks were responsible for keeping the furnace fueled up and warm. I will admit that the word heat was something we all liked but seldom had. They did not intend to make those barracks comfortable and they succeeded in a great way.

I remember touring a castle of Mad Ludwig’s called Neu Schwanstein and it was an old beautiful castle built on a mountain top overlooking a beautiful lake. Seems Ludwig spent years and millions to make his castle but only enjoyed it a year or two before falling out of a boat and drowning. According to the guide there was something of a question about how he fell out of the boat. But they heated the entire castle with those peat bricks. Each room had at least one coal furnace built into the walls facing inward to a long hall way. The furnace had a door in the hallway that opened out so servants could quietly go through the whole castle on regular routes and keep all the furnaces heated and working well. I spent a whole day just wandering around the castle and really enjoyed it.

It seemed that Germany used wood and coal almost exclusively to heat homes and businesses. There was much more smoke all around Germany than in the US and it was sort of heavier smoke than what I was used to. It may have been different, but I still liked it and enjoyed smelling it during the winter.

Many Germans would purchase their peat at the local grocery or hardware store. They did not have large furnaces such as we had on Main Street, but small usually self-standing furnaces with maybe one in every room. The winter in Kitzingen could be as bad as in Rushville and I never really understood just how the Germans managed to keep their homes toasty warm with peat.

I know it is silly to like such a mundane thing as coal smoke, but I did and still do. Prior to and during the war coal was the main fuel used for heat and industry. It was cheap, plentiful and easily available to the whole state, in fact the whole country. It was fairly well distributed throughout the country and oil was expensive, about 30 cents a gallon for fuel oil, and not all that readily available.

Between 1945 and around 1955 coal lost out to oil in many places, at least in Rushville. I miss the mournful moan of the steam engines whistles as they passed through town. I miss the heavy black smoke those engines left behind them as they left town. Of course, the smoke dissipated rapidly, but still I loved it.

There are so many silly things I remember from my youth; why, I have no idea. Life changes and so does almost everything else, so I guess it is time I sort of decide to forget my past and go modern (or not!).