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Heat like a Beekman

Posted by josh kilmer-purcell on


When you live in a 214-year-old house that sits on top of a windy hill, you really learn to appreciate things like central heat. Or, as we sometimes call it: "central lukewarmth." There are two furnaces in the house, and yet it's still nearly impossible to keep the wide hallways and oversized rooms at any semblance of room temperature. 

We often imagine what it was like to live in these rooms in 1802, when William Beekman and his family moved into their new, undoubtably "state of the art" home. We think we could handle the idea of no running water. And dinner by candlelit every night could be romantic. But every January we stop and consider whether we could handle month after month after month of sub freezing temperatures...with no heat other than fireplaces.

So today, on what is forecast to be the windiest, coldest day of the year so far, we decided to try to "heat like a Beekman." From sun-up to sundown, we'll shut off both furnaces, light fires in each of the 7 fireplaces, and live how the Beekman brood did.

Join us all back here all day as we live-blog the inside and outside temperatures, and let you know how we're faring. We'll also share some history of this house and how the Beekmans survived. Just one thing to remember as you see the temperature plunging...don't let us fall asleep.

 

4pm Update

Outside temperature: 22F

Inside Temperatures:

Living room with original fireplace -  50F

Downstairs center hallway no fireplace - 43F

Master Bedroom with original fireplace -  62F.

Wood burned total: 434 lbs (We're weighing each load on a bathroom scale.)

Sunday dinner was wonderful, and probably a bit similar to what the Beekman family may have eaten 214 years ago today. Except for the lamb. There wouldn't be any lamb on the table at the Beekman till spring birthing season. There may have been some venison. Or, salted meat from the autumn harvest. Our lamb came from our neighbors at Black Willow Pond Farm

So our menu was:

Lamb Shoulder Roast, roasted in the Tin Kitchen.

Turnips roasted in the Tin Kitchen, doused with fresh cream, salt & pepper.

Potatoes from the root cellar, roasted on coals.

Applesauce, canned this autumn. (The Beekmans may have had dried apples, reconstituted in boiling water.)

Hard Apple Cider, from this autumn's harvest.

Here's a pic:

Now let's answer some of the questions you've left in the comments:

Q. We noticed your dog has a shiny coat. What do you feed her? 

A. She eats Wellness brand dry dog food. But she also gets an egg in her food. Josh's mom swears it helps give a shiny coat.

Q.  Are you wearing clothing of similar materials available back in 1802? Woolies?

A. Kinda. Josh is wearing a wool sweater made by his mom. Brent is wearing a Cobleskill sweatshirt. We're moving around enough tending the fires that we don't seem to need much more.

Q. Are you two the only ones tending to the fireplaces today, plus any thoughts as to how many would during the Beekman era?

A. Yes, we're our own servants. :) Don't know how many slaves/servants Beekman had. But with 10 kids and 2 adults in this house, there wouldn't have been room for too many more people.

Q. What type of wood are you burning? 

A. Seasoned hardwood. We believe it might be maple. We purchased from a neighbor. Very important to burn good wood in fireplaces...less buildup.

Q. When do you take down your holiday decorations?

A. Touchy subject. Brent likes to take them down as soon as possible. Dec. 26th. But this year there is a holiday photo shoot at the house scheduled for February. So Brent is gonna have to live with them for a whole 'nother month.

Q. Where did you learn your fire building skills?
A. Boy Scouts, of course! Always prepared.
Q. Why only sunup to sundown?
A. Mostly cuz we're afraid of what might happen if hidden interior parts of the house dip below freezing. We don't want to damage any pipes. Our thermometer might read above 32 in part of the house, but the interior of an outside wall might freeze. Bad news if there's a pipe in it.
Q. Do you have a fire extinguisher in each room with a fireplace?
A. We have one upstairs and one downstairs. Always charged and loaded.
Q. Questions about painted floors...
A. The floors were painted when we moved in, so we probably can't help much with additional information. We don't know if they're historically accurate or not. In the living rooms they would have had wall to wall carpet fabric. (Not area rugs.) But we don't know if that would extend to upstairs as well. 
Q. Is your house a four square? (Four rooms on each floor of roughly the same size.)
A. Yep. Exactly. With 12 foot wide hallways running front to back, both downstairs and up.
Q. Was thinking…do you have “storm windows”? And, secondly, mightn’t the Beekmans also have some sort of winter curtains (velvet perhaps) on the windows to keep out drafts?
A. Yes, we have storm windows. But the Beekmans had shutters. We don't know which would have worked better to hold in the heat. There would definitely have been heavy curtains. 
Q. I also wonder if the outer doors were double, like a very small “porch” inside the outer door?
A. There probably was not a vestibule...at least not on the front or rear center doors. Those are original to the house, and are exterior doors. The side entrances we use today were probably not original.
Q.  Didn’t the judge have parlor maids to keep the fireplaces burning and clean? The squires themselves tending the fires!!?!! Mrs. Beeton would not approve. Mr. Carson would have a silent conniption.
A. Lol. Life in Sharon Springs (then called "New Dorlach") was a far cry from Downton Abbey. In addition to being about a century earlier, the slaves kept by William Beekman were for economic reasons, not for proper serving ettiquette. While Beekman was a rich man by local standards, he was still just a rural business man, farmer & judge. He would not have been considered elite by Albany standards. And would have been considered a rube in NYC circles.  One historian called our house the "McMansion" of its day. Beekman probably hadn't visited many fine homes. But he used his wealth to build what he thought would be an impressive piece of architecture.
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2pm Update

Outside temperature: 24F

Inside Temperatures:

Living room with original fireplace -  53F

Downstairs center hallway no fireplace - 47F

Master Bedroom with original fireplace - Still 66F.

Wood burned total: 415 lbs (We're weighing each load on a bathroom scale.)

The center of the house is cooling rapidly now. It's really tough to get comfortable...between going outside for more wood and walking through the many different temperatures inside..it's a recipe for pneumonia. Which in 1802, was a recipe for, well, death. Now we have a little better idea about why only two of William and Joanna Beekman's 10 children lived into their twenties. And both of those remaining children died before thirty. Someone should've invented central heat a lot sooner. 

Lunch is cooking. We're using the Beekman 1802 Tin Kitchen, of course. This invention post dated Joanna Beekman by a few years. It was the microwave of the mid 19th century. A miracle for the modern housewife. A bird or roast is placed on the spit in the center of the oven. Then the spit is rotated one notch every ten minute or so. With the reflected heat off of the back of the oven the meat cooked much more evenly than the old-fashion method of placing an open spit above the flames. Plus, the Tin Kitchen catches all of the valuable fat and juice drippings in the bottom. (Fat was very valuable to the early American kitchen.) We decided to lay our turnips in the bottom of the pan and let them roast in the fat and drippings as they fell. Potatoes from the root cellar were wrapped in foil, Boy Scout style, and placed in the coals. 

We've also learned that Önder really doesn't like fire. She is much preferring the great outdoors today. Then again, she always loves the snow and cold weather more than lounging around the house.

 Finally, thought we'd share a story about these bulldog andirons. They once decorated the fireplace at Josh's grandparent's house. He loved the way the marble eyes glowed when the fire was lit. He loved it so much that he used to try to pry out the marbles from their cast iron casing. 

You can't pry marbles out of cast iron. Or at least he hasn't figured out how to yet. 

 

 

Noon Update

Outside temperature: 25F

Inside Temperatures:

Living room with original fireplace -  55F

Downstairs center hallway no fireplace - 49F

Master Bedroom with original fireplace - 66F!!!

Wood burned total: 374 lbs (We're weighing each load on a bathroom scale.)

We sorta figured that heating by fireplace would create an uneven heat in the house. But we didn't realize how uneven. It's incredibly comfortable in some places, and temp dropping fast in others. That's with all of the interior doors open. If we closed some of the doors, as they probably did in Beekman's times, we imagine most of the rooms would be quite toasty. The center hallways, however, would be frozen already.

We're also learning that the rooms with the original Rumford fireplaces are in fact a little more evenly heated. Probably because the fireplace is brick and they're heating up nicely. The newer fireplace inserts, while much warmer when right in front of them, aren't heating the rooms as well. 

And heat rises. It really does. It's actually warmer in the upstairs master bedroom than it was when we had the heat on. Remember this is one of the Rumford rooms. And it's directly above the other original Rumford fireplace as well.

We're getting ready to prepare lunch. We decided to do lunch Beekman-style too. First a trip to the cellar pantry. It's a bricked in room in the basement...about 12' x 12'. Does this door spook you? It did us at first...

The cellar pantry was added to the house in 1871. How do we know? Someone helpfully scratched it into he drying mortar...

Josh's Dad and our friend David rebuilt shelving inside so that we could use it again. We have all sorts of canned goods, root vegetables, cheese experiments, and booze fermenting going on down there.

 Josh also went out to dig up some of the last remaining turnips before the ground freezes too deeply. (It's been a very warm winter so far. Usually we have nothing left in the garden past November.)

We'll be back shortly to show you what we're cooking up on the fires...

 

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10:00am Update

Outside temperature: 28F (warming up...for now.)

Inside Temperatures:

Living room with original fireplace -  59F

Downstairs center hallway no fireplace - 56F

Master Bedroom with original fireplace - 63F

Wood burned total: 315 lbs (We're weighing each load on a bathroom scale.)

 

So far, it ain't bad. Of course we're a little paranoid about fire (who wouldn't be?) so we're up every five minutes checking all 7 fireplaces. That alone has kept us warm. Plus we've had to bring in another 55lbs of wood. 

You all had some great questions in the comment section so we thought we'd answer them all here...

Q. Aren't you worried about freezing pipes?

A. Yep. We'll call off the experiment if indoor temps fall below 38-ish. One thing William Beekman didn't have to worry about was freezing pipes. Frozen chamber pots, yes. (Ew.)

Q. Are there any wood stoves? In the kitchen for cooking?

A. Nope. Wood stoves weren't too common in homes in our area in 1802. Just fireplaces. In fact, there was no kitchen in the house. The kitchen was in a separate building, no longer standing. Apparently, this kept the house cool in summer and reduced the chance of a fire. (At least during the summer months.)

Q. Have the chimneys been cleaned and inspected? 

A. Yes! and Yes! (Thank you for worrying.)

Q. Is the house insulated?

A. Yes, when the house was renovated in 1996, blown-in insulation was installed. And while this definitely keeps the house warmer when the central heat is on, it will work against us trying to heat by fireplace. A drafty house is better for fireplaces. Open fires (especially seven going at the same time) need a lot of air to keep burning well. We'll have to keep some windows open a crack to ensure enough air flow. Which, of course, will lower the inside temp.

Q. Will we be cooking over fire today?

A. Stay tuned!

Q. Do you have fire alarms?

A. Yes, wired directly to the SSFD.

Q. Is there heat in the bathroom? Will you be taking a shower in the cold?

A. No heat in bathrooms. But William Beekman didn't have bathrooms at all. In 1802 his family probably bathed no more than once a week. We will probably adopt the no-bathing tradition today. (For historical accuracy, of course.)

Q. Won't the smoke smell ruin your furniture?

A. Well, it'll definitely seep in. But to us, a little fireplace smell is why we live in an old house. It definitely won't be anything like the soot that collected in 1802 when all of the fireplaces were roaring for months at a time. Imagine that spring cleaning challenge.

Q. How big is the house?

A. It's about 4500 square feet. We do believe that Beekman would have kept the fires goings in most rooms, most of the time. Almost all of the rooms were bedrooms...even on the first floor. He had 10 children, and slaves/servants. So the activity alone probably kept the house someone warmer. The wide center hallways on the first and second floor were actually the "living rooms." And remember, even during the dead of winter, most everyone was outdoors working for a good part of the day.

 

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8:00am - Furnaces turned off.

Outside temperature: 19F

Inside Temperature: 64F

The fires are officially lit. Yesterday we transported four tractor buckets full of wood over to the side door of the house. Yes, we know that William Beekman didn't have a tractor to transport his wood. But you know what he did have? 10 kids. And servants. So we think a tractor makes us even.

Just to fill the fireplaces the first time took 260lbs of wood. We'll keep a running total of how much we use during the course of one day.

As we mentioned, there are seven fireplaces in total. 4 downstairs, and three upstairs. They're all in working order, and in their original locations, but only 2 are their original design. Both are modified Rumford fireplaces - a shallow fireplace design that was popularized in the late 18th century which radiated more heat into a room.

Here's a photo of how the house looked circa 1910...already over one hundred years old...

And below is how it looks today. You can see two of the chimneys, and the other two are symmetrically opposite. Notice how far they're set into the house. They're not flush to the outside wall. Having chimneys that were entirely encased within the rooms meant that once the bricks were heated, they would radiate entirely inside. Having chimneys outside, or flush against a wall meant that 1/4 of your heat production was going outside.

 


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139 comments


  • I’m so in love with your home! Question is: Do you wanna adopt a 47 year old white woman? Ok, so maybe not! Keep doing what you do cause we all adore you!

    Candice on

  • Hello gentlemen! I’ve quite enjoyed following your adventures since I first came across you on TV on Planet Green. I’ve read all of Josh’s books, thrice, and am grateful to be a virtual neighbor. This experiment was brilliant and I loved following along. Thanks for sharing!

    Melissa Gross on

  • Your home is beautiful. Have you thought about opening up the inside of your home for tours?

    Jennifer Barger on

  • And whose idea was this………?

    Jane on

  • You guys don’t have enough layers on!!! I agree we live in houses TOO warm, but our ancestors dressed for cold houses and MODERN materials just don’t compare.

    Patricia Jones on


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