Our family heated the house with a coal furnace. The furnace was a whole-house forced-air heating method. The furnace was in the dug-out basement. The house was built before the basement was dug. My grandfather was working at the Kingsport Press, and would come home in the evenings and dig until he was satisfied he had dug out a large enough space to pour a small concrete floor that would hold the furnace. It had a stoker bin that you filled with coal from a pile beneath my bedroom floor. The coal was stoker grade, which meant it was crushed into pieces the size of gravel. Several shovel-fulls would fill the stoker bin and over time a conveyor device would feed it into the firebox. I used to listen with intense interest to the bangs and clangs as my dad would remove the cinders from the firebox, placing them in a bucket to carry out to the ditch, then filling up the stoker bin with new coal.
This heat source required annual trips to the coalfields in Lee and Wise Counties. The cattle truck would be turned into a coal truck for these trips. A heavy tar-paper would be lined upon the cattle racks on the back of the truck. I don’t remember how it adhered, but the process of installing it took a good bit of time, and my grandfather’s patient pace seemed agonizingly slow to a little boy. Soon he was ready to go, and I would climb up what seemed like a mountain of truck to find my way to the big seat where I would “ride shot-gun” to the coal mine with him. The truck was slow, like my grandfather’s pace. We drove through Weber City, through Moccasin Gap to Gate City where we would look for the Quarry Pond as we continued on down the new highway (US 23) through the road construction at Speer’s Ferry and across the Clinch River, up by Clinchport, and on to Duffield. At Duffield we sometimes went left, across Powell Mountain to Lee County, or on to the right and through Big Stone Gap. Either way, our destination was usually a certain hollow past the “Great Stone Face” between Pennington Gap and St. Charles where a little wooden coal tipple and loading chute was stationed along the little gravel road near a weigh station located along a little creek.
My job was to wait in the weigh station house while Pappaw waited his turn to back into the loading chute and finally get his truck filled with the grade of coal he was after. He hauled coal for our family, for his house and for some other people in Morrison City, including his own mother who used the larger grade of coal in her shallow fire place and cook stove. After begging for a “dope” from the coke machine (one where you put your money in and opened a little door to pull your selection out by the bottle head), and a snack from the Terry machine, I would sometimes explore the creek behind the building. The creek bank was about twenty feet below the building, lined with gravel and weeds. I even explored the large coal-covered bank near the railroad bridge, which I tried to walk across, even though there were big holes between the cross ties. At four or five years old, it was hard to stretch across those cross ties and make much progress walking across the bridge, but I also got scolded for being on it, my grandfather believing a train might come and run me down.
Back in the truck for the ride home, I would usually fall asleep before we got back to Duffield, missing the ride back through the construction and waking up about the time we crossed the Holston River below Weber City on the trip home. This was in the age before car seats, my nap taking place across the big seat in the truck. I could have been thrown to the floor if we had stopped suddenly, but my grandfather always knew how to drive with a load, carefully, patiently, and always watching for me as we winded our way home.
Back in the house, coal unloaded one shovel-full at a time, the furnace would be started up on a cold day in Autumn, and our family would enjoy the warmth brought out of the ground in spite of winter’s punishing cold temperatures. I have never been as warm as I was in the thirteen years we lived in a coal-heated home.