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Betty, one of Chris Wyatt’s Patterdale terriers, warms herself by the roaring stove at Patterdale Hall — a small, idyllic cottage just outside of Yellow Springs that Wyatt and his wife, Karen Russell, tend. (Submitted photo)

The Patterdale Hall Diaries | The heart of the house

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By Chris Wyatt

Nov. 18, 2022

Houses in Midwest America are heated differently from houses in the U.K. It took a while to get used to the massive furnace in the basement that blasted heated air through the house. It was the noise that annoyed me mostly, but the annoyance faded when I realized just how efficient it was at heating the house. Forget radiators, forced-air heating is the cat’s pajamas.

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Now that we have forced-air heating, Patterdale Hall has come into its own. Karen and I brought a lot of honeysuckle down this summer. The stuff I cleared with the chainsaw is pretty substantial — trees rather than bushes. The bigger sections of wood were stacked by the log pile and the brush is on the burn pile. I have been cutting the honeysuckle into stove-sized lengths, placing them in plastic milk crates and bringing them home. I then place them over the forced air heating vents. Usually, it takes about a year for the moisture content of wood to fall to the point that it is useful fuel to heat a house, but it takes two weeks over the vents. I am an innovator and deserve a beer.

Karen has been out at the house for the last three nights. She adores it. Tomorrow it’s my shift out there.

As for tonight, it’s as cold as it has been since February. It will get down to 19 Farenheit (-8 Celcius). We learned last night, that to our horror, you can overheat the stove. Two big chunks of Osage orange are too much, the stove got too hot, the side door expanded, popped open and wouldn’t shut. Karen spent most of the night with no fire, but did have the radiator to provide some heat. As the stove cooled the door returned to its normal size and there is no damage — it’s a design flaw. With that said, Karen got little sleep and so I’m glad it’s her shift at home with the boys and the dogs, I’ll see her in the morning.

Our stove is an extra-large, catalytic, woodburning Dutchwest stove made by Vermont Castings. It has a checkered past and people either love them or hate them. I think that once we are familiar with all of its quirks we will probably love it, but it’s really too early to tell. I’m pleased we have an old American stove though; it kind of adds to the American adventure aspect of owning Patterdale Hall. A state of the art Jotul stove would be magnificent, but would look completely out of place in the great room at the Hall. The battered old Dutchwest stove is perfect really — we just can’t feed it too much Osage orange.

The Osage tree is an interesting one. The Shawnee, on whose land Patterdale Hall is situated, used to make bows from Osage. Its wood ranges from yellow to deep orange and has been used for dyeing cloth for a very long time. Really, the only other thing that I know about Osage is that farmers used to plant it at the edge of fields in rows. They were planted close enough so that when they were mature, “a pig couldn’t run between them” — an idea I love.

How will I spend this brutally cold night, then? Well, aside from writing and tending fire, I have been cleaning up a couple of old axe heads that we found.

Last night, I burned the snapped handle out of one of them. Today I have used Barkeeper’s Friend to remove a lot of the rust. The axe head is made by the American company Plumb who have been around since the late 1800s and the trademark on the axe was introduced in 1917. The axe was the late Jim Prether’s — he owned the Hall and property before my family — so it was likely bought anytime in the last 50 years. It could be over 100 years old; there isn’t really a way to find out unless the style of the axe head is a fingerprint. I’m certain it’s not, though — the axe head style looks like a classic 20th-century American felling axe and it’s 3.5 pounds, whereas older axe heads were often heavier. In addition to tinkering with the axe head I will finish the handle of the axe that I bought recently. It has been sanded with 400 grit sandpaper and linseed oil has been applied a couple of times.

The oil has now cured and so it’s time for layers of beeswax to be applied — this axe handle should last 100 years at least. To apply the beeswax, I dissolve pellets of wax in an equal volume of heated turpentine; when cooled this then forms a paste which can easily be applied to the wood using a cloth.

Once a thin layer is on the wood, one waits for as long as it takes to drink a cup of tea, or tonight: a glass of Captain Stardust Saison, a beer so low in calories it does not alter my blood sugar at all. Every other beer causes my blood sugar to rocket, sadly. After the beer has been drunk, the turpentine has evaporated and the wax is then polished with a cloth. This can be quite hard work as beeswax goes sticky and tacky as it dries. Still, the end result is much nicer than varnish and the smell is completely wonderful. Actually, polishing tacky beeswax is really hard work; my heart is pounding.

*Originally from Manchester, England, Chris Wyatt is an associate professor of neuroscience, cell biology and physiology at Wright State University. He has lived in Yellow Springs for 16 years, is married and has two teenage children and two insane Patterdale terriers.


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