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At the end of a dirt road, 20 miles northeast of Duluth in Gnesen Township, an older couple sits near the warmth of their wood-burning stove in the morning. They sip coffee and work on Sudoku puzzles.
When the coffee is gone, Chris Sherepa breaks from her concentration on a half-finished puzzle and opens the latch to their metal stove. It’s time to stock the fire for the next few hours.
From a pile stacked against the dining room wall, Chris grabs four slender blocks of chopped ash and birch and then sets them on top of the red coals.
“You just keep throwing the wood in,” Chris says.
She closes the latch and the two get on with their day. Chris finds her acrylic painting supplies and sits down in front of a blank canvas.
Her husband, Andy Sherepa, slips on his coat and goes out to light the wood fire in his garage stove. That way, his fingers will be warm as he tinkers with his tools later in the day.
Like their wood burning stoves, the Sherepas are simple, old-fashioned and full of life.
To explain the stoves’ effect on them, Andy references an old saying: “When you heat with wood, you get warmed up three times: when you are cutting, when you are splitting (and) when you are heating. We are warm people.”
The Sherepas, both immigrants – Chris from England and Andy from Poland – have been living in their rural home for 45 years now. And for almost all of those years, they’ve been heating with the wood they harvest from their surrounding 120-acre forest.
“We are cheap and we’ve got wood,” Andy explains in a remnant Polish accent.
And by cheap, Andy means they don’t have much money to spend– but they don’t need it, either.
“Money was never very important,” Andy says.
If money were an important factor in their lives, the couple wouldn’t be living where they are now. Landing in Duluth wasn’t the original plan.
When Andy left the U.S. Air Force in the late ‘60s, their goal was to make it to Canada. But just three hours short of the border, the couple ran dry on money and they had to make due with Duluth.
“We’ve been here ever since,” Chris says and laughs.
As it turned out, Duluth was better than expected. At their home “Polengus Forge” – short for Poland-England-US Forge –they raised two kids, have a garden full of vegetables in the summer, a barn for the chickens, a large garage for Andy’s mechanical endeavors and a never-ending supply of wood for their stoves.
They fell in love with the simple, independent lifestyle. But to stay simple, they had to avoid the mainstream hustle. They had to refuse a life with money.
When Andy’s employer, Jeno Paulucci, was moving his pizza roll production company Jeno’s Inc. to Ohio in the early ‘80s, Andy decided not to follow. He quit his job.
Jeno asked him why.
“'You got a good job. You got good money. Why do you quit?’” Andy says, quoting Paulucci.
Tears start to well in Andy’s eyes as he recalls the conversation with his hectomillionaire boss who couldn’t understand why he’d give up money.
Andy goes on: “And I said, you know, the first thing that came to my mind: ‘Because I like poverty.’ He gave me such a funny look.”
Looking back, the Sherepas made the right choice not moving to Ohio, they said.
Andy – with his snow-white hair, rosy cheeks and strong build – and Chris – with her witty humor and instant smile – are far from impoverished. They are rich with health and happiness.
“We won’t be going out of here until they take us feet first,” Chris says.
The Mark IV
A big part of what makes them happy is their wood stoves. They make this “fairly self-sustaining” lifestyle possible, Chris says.
The stove now inside their home is their fourth stove and bares the label “Mark IV” in the bottom right corner to prove it. Andy built it using scrap metal in 1992 when their previous stove became a fire hazard – the hot fire had melted holes in it. Naturally, Andy chose thicker metal for his latest build.
“It’s under warranty,” Andy said about the Mark IV. “I guarantee you that I am going to go first before this goes.”
Maintaining the stove along with keeping the fire going is a two-year process.
In the late fall, Andy and his son Jan –who lives next door and also heats with wood –harvest trees from their land when the sap is gone and the trees are naturally drying out. They try to get as many hardwoods as they can – ash, birch and maple – because they burn longer than other types. But in order to fill their cache, they have to include plenty of the less preferred poplar and balsam fir, which burn for a shorter period of time.
“If you are selective and you don’t cut everything at the same time and burn it, our woods can supply us forever,” Andy says.
It takes them about six weeks to get enough wood to fill their sheds. Andy estimates he and Chris need about six cords alone. A cord is a pile of stacked wood 8 feet wide, 4 feet tall and 4 feet deep – 128 feet cubed.
It's a two-year process because Andy harvests the wood one year before he uses it. “Next year’s wood is already cut and down so it dries and it’s much easier to heat with,” he says.
Once the trees are down, they cut them into sections, haul them to their homemade log splitter with the tractor, split them and then stack them in the shed.
“It’s still all grunt work,” Chris says. “You pick it up one log at a time and put it on the trailer. You come back. You take it off one log at a time. So, it’s a lot of work.”
Besides heating the home, the wood stove is good for cooking. A kettle sits on top of the main compartment where there's also plenty of space left over for frying with pots and pans.
“It’s perfect for making casseroles, but nothing much bigger,” Chris says.
Bigger meals are prepared in their gas-burning oven.
Keeping the smoke outside
As far as safety goes, the Sherepas have several fire extinguishers placed throughout the house and near the stove. They also clean the chimney twice a year and pay attention to the condition of the metal on the stove.
Even with these precautions and decades of experience, however, a few chimney fires have occurred over the years.
One of these fires happened when they were first living in the house. Construction workers hired to build an extension onto their dining room had wrapped the house roof with plastic. Andy, not knowing about the plastic, stoked the stove before he went to work. The next thing he knew, the roof was on fire.
“I was beating it with my hands, with my shirt, with my shoes – and I got it under control. But I did have blisters there, you know,” Andy says, pointing to the palms of his hands. “It was very exciting.”
“That was one of those kind of weird fluky things,” Chris adds. “He just didn’t think that they’d wrap the chimney with plastic.”
Raised on wood stoves
Although the incidents with their wood burning stoves have been few, they’ve made their impressions on Jan. His wood-burning stove is built outside of his home so that if it does catch fire, it doesn’t take his house with it.
“You don’t have to worry about the pilot light going out or carbon monoxide,” he says. “It’s all outside.”
Safety aside, it’s a cleaner system, too.
“It keeps the mess outside,” Jan says. “You don’t have to haul wood inside.”
His outdoor stove is similar to the Scandanavian hasha stove. An underground pipe transports the heat from the stove to the water tank in his house.
He stokes the stove two to three times a day.
“You get up in the morning and make it up, and then make it up before you go to bed,” he says. “Sometimes you do it once in between or so depending on what the weather is doing.”
Because Jan grew up around wood stoves, the chores involved come with ease.
“You know, it’s not too big of a thing,” Jan says. “If you’ve never done it, it’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I could do that.’”
Then he adds, “It’s a lot cheaper than propane, too.”
Propane vs. Wood
In mid-February of this year, the average price of residential propane taken from three different companies in Duluth – Curtis Oil and Propane, Como Oil and Propane, and Harbor City Oil and Propane – is $3.49 per gallon.
To heat a 1,000 square foot one-level home with an 8-foot ceiling during a cold winter – assuming average insulation efficiency – it could require anywhere from 16,000 to 32,000 British thermal units (BTUs) per hour, according to hearth.com. A BTU is the amount of energy needed to heat one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.
Since it takes about 14 gallons of propane to create one million BTUs of usable heat, according to the U.S. Forest Service, heating this home could be between $500 to $1,000 per month.
Taking this price into account, Jan is right when he says heating with wood from his own land is much cheaper than propane.
According to Chris, the only heating expenses they have include the money needed to sharpen the chain saw blade and to buy gas and oil for the chain saw and tractor. Of course, the time and labor required for heating with wood aren’t factored into these expenses – but they don’t care about that anyway.
To them, the simple life is worth the extra work.
Recent news on wood-burning stoves
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will tighten the regulations on wood-stove emissions in 2015. New stoves will have to be built to produce 80 percent less emissions than old stoves. Old stoves that are grandfathered in can stay for now, but stove sales will be restricted to the newer, less polluting stoves. Read more about this change in regulation, how it's affecting stove-users in America and tips for burning cleaner wood using the links below.
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