The Beast

Local History by Ron Patch. Ron Patch is a Chester native, Chester Historical Society president, and a lifelong antiques dealer. He can be reached at 802-374-0119 or email

When I was little, maybe 4 or 5 years old, I imagined monsters living under my bed. But the real monster lived in our dimly lit, dirt floor cellar. The foundation walls of the cellar were laid-up stone. In the middle of the cellar stood “the Beast.” The Beast was an old fire-breathing coal furnace.

It might have been three feet or more in diameter and five feet or so tall. On top of the Beast was a plenum. The plenum collected the heat and sent it through ducts to registers in rooms on the first floor. There were six of these round metal ducts extending out from the plenum. To a little boy, it was a giant octopus.

Coal furnace showing octopus arms
Coal furnace showing octopus arms. Photo provided

Abby Butterfield of Montany & Montany delivered our coal. The dump truck was loaded with a ton or more of coal. The driver had a metal chute maybe 14 feet long by two feet wide. The driver would open our cellar window and put one end of the chute through the cellar window.

The other end of the chute was hooked to the truck. When the dump body was raised the coal would slide down the chute into the coal bin in our cellar. Our coal bin was in a corner of the cellar. There were two wooden partitions that created a small room maybe 10 feet by 14 feet. When the coal slid down the chute it would fill the bin. How noisy the coal was as it rattled down the chute!

One of my chores was feeding the Beast before I went to school each morning. We used a coal shovel to shovel coal from the coal bin to the furnace. I would open the furnace door and shovel in the coal. If the fire was burning hot with lots of coals, I would shovel in two or three heaping shovelfuls. That would last quite a while. My mother kept the Beast fed during the day.

Coal gas

If the furnace didn’t have a lot of coals, you only add one shovelful. If you put too much coal over low coals, coal gas could develop. Coal gas is created when coal smolders. The gas can collect in the top of the firebox. As the coal burns, it can ignite these gases or release toxic gases into the home.

At Chester Junior High School, now the Academy Building, we had a coal furnace. I remember once when the school was evacuated to allow the toxic gas time to escape.

This was helped by shaking the coals. On the front of the furnace were the ends of the coal grates. There was a cast iron crank handle that slid over the end of the grates. You would turn the crank back and forth. This sifted off built-up ash improving combustion. The ash we spread over our icy driveway.

Converting to wood

In 1963, my father converted the Beast to burn wood. Now I’m older so my workload increased. We burned about 10 cords of wood a year.

My father cut the wood. My job was splitting and lugging the wood to the woodshed and stacking it. We cut the wood in Shrewsbury and trucked it to Chester one load at a time in the back of our 1962 Scout. I handled that wood many times before we ever got to burn it.

The wash

My mother had an old fashion wringer washing machine. We had a clothesline that went from the backdoor to the TV antenna. In the winter, the clothes would freeze on the line.

I remember one winter morning in 1964. I had a pair of white denim type pants on the line. I brought them in about a half-hour before leaving for school. They were frozen stiff.

On the first floor directly over the Beast was a large cast iron floor register. I put the clothes rack over the register and hung my frozen pants to dry. Soon they were thawed out but still damp.

I put the pants on and sat on the register to dry them. The heat felt good. As usual I walked to school that morning. Unknown to me, the damp pants sitting on the register left square rust stains on the seat of my white pants. It wasn’t long before someone was picking on me. I had waffle butt.

This week’s old saying is something Henry came up with last week: “Better six feet apart than six feet under.”

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