Cumberland Times-News

November 30, 2013

Old houses and furnaces and a different world

Maude McDaniel, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— Nine houses and four dorms. That’s how many places I have lived in my lifetime, and I remember each of them, well, not vividly but with great fondness. Not a one of them was a bad experience, in fact, good things happened at each place. (Bad things too, but that’s life.)

I have lived in Wheeling, WV (two houses), four different college and seminary dormitories at Gettysburg, Pa;. Sunbury, Pa.; Bloomfield, N.J.; College Park, Md. (two houses), Pittsburgh, Pa., and Cumberland (2 houses).

I loved every one of them, but (don’t get mad, Cumberland reader!) Pittsburgh was my favorite at the time. We only lived there three years, but I started to get some writing published and some singing done; the kids were still at home, but able to take care of themselves, and had good schools; my husband had regular hours (as a counselor) and the house, although not technically as nice as others, was our first self-owned place. (Not a parsonage.) Although I could never get away with it on House Hunters, it was my dream house in some ways, a bedroom for each child, a large lot, many trees, backed up to a nature reserve. (Even if it had a kitchen the size of an outhouse — I LOVED it, folks, I loved it!)

It took a lot of adjustment getting here from there, but it worked! I learned to love Cumberland just as much, and both my readers out there, plus a lot of others. And in its own way, there is no place more beautiful. There should be some way to get this across to the rest of Maryland — last spring I had some friends in from around the state, and they were amazed at the beauty and the interesting things Cumberland had to offer — they had lived within a hundred or so miles of Western Maryland most of their lives and had never realized how different and beautiful it is out here in its farthest reaches.

But I digress, as I have been known to do. Because what I started to talk about was the houses I have lived in. The main difference I can come up with in the nine of them was their heating systems. My first house, in Wheeling, back in the 30s was a big one down in the middle of the city and I will never forget its furnace and adjoining rooms in the basement. The steps down into this area from the kitchen upstairs ended in a rather normal finished room where Mother did the wash and hung it around on lines year around — she never hung it outside, which I think was missing a lot of fresh air for the sheets, but sure beat dragging everything up about eight steps from the basement — and then back for folding and so forth.

We kept my first dog, Spot, and his successor, Jeep (see Rusty’s latest column for doggy details) down there and all was pretty normal, even when you passed from there into the brick-walled room where the furnace lived. My dad and my brothers attended to this. They went down three or four times a day, I think, and shoveled in the coal, and I have to admit the fire inside the furnace was rather fascinating, if I was careful to go in the room with Daddy, and not alone. (A door from the laundry room was essential here, but there were no other doors beyond.)

The furnace room was, of course, filthy with coal dust, and it didn’t help that the brick-lined coal room was right next to it, and it was even filthier. The day after the supplier delivered coal through the side window was pretty much unliveable in that part of the basement. Until the coal dust settled you couldn’t even walk through there without getting dirty. And you had to walk through it sometimes because, on the OTHER side of it, for some unaccountable reason, was this room with shelves where Mother kept the fruits and vegetables she canned in the summer!

This was the only reason I could even walk that far into the black hole. (Food does that to me!) Through the years, it rather took on the semblance of an acceptable Hades, and up in my (clean) bedroom it was like some mysterious hellhole under the house which I tried not to think about too much.

Nowadays we have vampires and zombies, which, if you don’t mind my saying so, seem pretty amateurish, horrorwise. These are not your mother’s monsters, the good old specters of Frankenstein, Dracula, Godzilla, who were experts in their field. And who, as far as I was concerned in my early youth, all lurked in our coal room. Covered with coal dust.

On the other hand, canned peaches for dessert were worth the fright.

Maude McDaniel is a Cumberland freelance writer. Her column appears on alternate Sundays in the Times-News.