Woodstove Culture: Heating in Historic Northwest Arkansas Homes

A wide variety of heating and cooling methods have been identified in historic houses around the world. Differences in need, in resources, and in development produced innovative means of warming the home that are particular to each place. As a result, architecture varies widely from place to place to accommodate these differences even when the architectural style is the same.

Historic homes in midwest cities like St. Louis and Kansas City often feature coal chutes where delivery services would feed supplies of coal to power the furnace. Steam and hot-water radiators then route the heat throughout the house. This method of heating was facilitated by a large supply of coal that could be brought in on the train lines. Residents of St. Louis relied so heavily on coal burning heat that even the trees planted in historic neighborhoods were selected for their tolerance to the heavy smoke that was produced.

Cities in Northwest Arkansas were far more reliant on wood-burning heat. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, when most of Siloam’s historic homes were built, coal was not as easy to acquire as timber. The timber industry boom in the region began in 1881, the same year that Siloam Springs was chartered as a municipality. As the railroads developed, Arkansas pine was a prized material for building. It was advertised as uniquely superior to other timber.

Learn more about the historic timber industry of Northwest Arkansas at Shiloh Museum of Ozark History.

The thriving industry that grew up around the demand for good quality Arkansas Pine is why Arkansas Short Leaf (Soft) Pine is the official tree for the state of Arkansas. Read more at the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

As a consequence of these factors, historic architecture in Northwest Arkansas is characterized by predominantly wood-frame houses with wood-fire heating elements. While fireplaces are also not uncommon, the period of growth in Siloam Springs that produced the largest number of today’s historic structures came at a time when cast iron woodstoves were gaining in popularity.

“The cast iron heating stove was both a functional and decorative fixture until the mid-20th century. The BTHL collection traces the design evolution of the cast-iron heating stove, which was often referred to as the “parlor stove,” from the mid-19th through the mid-20th centuries. The elaborate cast iron and nickel–plated metal stoves of the Victorian period were among the most popular variations. In the 20th century, the parlor stove was updated to meet the contemporary design aesthetic, including, at one point, a trend towards emulating a wooden radio cabinet.”

“The Heat is On: A Brief History of Fireplace Design” Architect Magazine, May 2016
Vintage cast iron box stove

These woodstoves offered significant advantages over the traditional fireplace. They distribute heat more efficiently than an open fireplace while also reducing the risk of fire because they are enclosed. They were often used to heat food as well, and as a result, box woodstoves were a central feature in the early Siloam Springs home. 

Victorian era kitchen with cast iron woodstove, dated between 1900 and 1910.

Barrel stoves are also very popular in this area. They can be crafted at home and the ability to craft a highly efficient barrel stove is a source of great pride for many mountain folk. Though the origins of these types of stoves also go back to the 19th century they are commonly found in cabins and outbuildings today.

While many homes in Siloam Springs have replaced these historic heating systems with modern HVAC, box woodstoves are still common in the mountain architecture around town. In many cases, a contemporary model woodstove is added to new homes as a supplementary heat source. In these ways, Siloam’s woodstove tradition has continued until today. 

Antique box stoves can be easily found and installed in contemporary houses. Most sell for $100-500, though particularly ornate examples can cost up to $1,000. Additionally, kits for building barrel stoves can be purchased online.

Newer models have been heralded as an environmentally friendly alternative to electric and gas heating systems, lowering a household’s carbon footprint by three or four tons each year (Source: “How to Modernize the Wood Stove and Help Save the Planet” Smithsonian Magazine)

If you are interested in incorporating this tradition into your own home, be sure to consult the Building division for the City of Siloam Springs for guidance on fire prevention and code compliance. If you would like to know more about installing woodstoves, send us a note at siloamspringsheritage@gmail.com. We’ll be happy to help you survey your options and put you in touch with local contractors that may be able to assist you.

Bonus History:
During the Second World War, Arkansas was home to several Japanese Internment Camps. Here are photos from the National Archive of interned citizens cutting wood for the camp woodstoves.

Published by Rebecca Clendenen

All of us who are concerned for peace and triumph of reason and justice must be keenly aware how small an influence reason and honest good will exert upon events in the political field. ~Albert Einstein

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