A century ago, home life in Vermont revolved around the wood burning cook stove. Meals were prepared, bread baked and hands warmed from the heat it produced.
Stoves with names like Gold Coin, Priscilla and Charm Crawford may have faded into obscurity, but they still have an allure for some people, including Bill Wilber, who makes a living restoring them.
The area around Wilber’s workshop in West Glover looks a bit like a graveyard; a final rusting place for about 300 old wood stoves. The stoves lie under a few inches of the snow that crunches underfoot out beyond Wilber’s log cabin. Some he’ll cannibalize for parts, others will be rebuilt.
Wilber’s business, called Once Upon A Time Antique Stove Shop, is devoted to the restoration and preservation of old stoves dating back to the 1800s and early 1900s.
“This round Oak Stove came out of Lancaster, Pennsylvania last week. The guy brought it up,” Wilber says, pointing to one of the stoves in his yard. He'll rebuild it for the owner.
Wilber, who’s in his mid sixties, came north about 30 years ago to escape what he considered the "Fast-paced life" of southern Vermont. He came to stoves naturally.
“I’ve been around stoves since I was a little kid,” he says. “My grandfather used to do this. I’m familiar with the names," he says. "That’s what you want to be if you want to do this stuff. There’s hundreds of stove companies. They’re all different, but they’re all the same, if you know what I mean."
Today’s efficient wood stoves emphasize function over form. But back when every home had one, there was an aesthetic value to them as well.
A rare Walker parlor stove from the 1880s sits in Wilber’s workshop. It sports a filigreed lid and swirling patterns along the edges of the firebox. The real eye-catchers are the cast iron faces that stare from each corner of the stove. “I’ve seen cook stoves with fancy liners in the firebox. I mean, you’re not even going to see the thing,” Wilber says.
The ceiling beams in the workshop are hung with old oven temperature gauges and stove lid lifters with their coiled wire handles.
Wilber restores 45 to 50 old stoves a year. He cleans and sandblasts usable parts and swaps out worn or broken pieces with those from other old stoves, or he fabricates his own. The process might take a few months.
Most of Wilber’s work is refurbishing antique wood burning cook stoves; big solid assemblies of polished black cast, trimmed in gleaming nickel plating, with a firebox, an oven and a reservoir to heat water. They’re marvels of beauty and ingenuity.
Wilbur opens one up to demonstrate the sliding baffles that control the circulation of the hot air and direct heat to different parts of the stove.
Why would someone use a stove like this, one that costs thousands of dollars for Wilber to refurbish and that will eventually become a continuation of the kitchen?
“I think it’s a combination of things,” he says. “A lot of times people say their grandparents had one and they think about when they were a kid. And they do work. You can cook and bake and everything with them.”
Some of the stoves Wilber restores are for their present owners. He also takes stoves people are getting rid of to resell once they’re restored.
Wilber’s sole employee, his neighbor Mike Bevis, says it’s not always easy to part with one. He recalls a time they went to collect an old stove from a woman who lived in Roxbury.
“It was an old wood stove and it had been in her family. She was crying about it. She sat on the porch crying as we were leaving,” says Bevis.
Wood burning cook stoves aren’t entirely a thing of the past; a few companies still make them. Wilbur says as long as there are people out there who appreciate the beauty and function of a Glenwood, Acorn, Clarion or another bygone brand, he’ll stay in business.