Pioneer Cooking (1)

Workers of the Writers Program, Work Projects Administration, compiled information during the Depression on early Nebraska cook stoves and the fuel they used. One of the early cook stoves (also used for heating) was the hay burner, used because of the scarcity of wood in a Plains country. This resembled an ordinary iron cook stove except for the method of fuel feeding. Fuel was supplied by two iron pipes or cylinders, about three feet long, packed full of hay, and fastened to the rear of the stoves. A spring forced the hay into the fire box as it was needed. Usually a dozen pipes were kept filled and on hand for reloading the stove.

Buffalo chips, before the years of settlement, had been a common fuel. When corn was raised on a large scale, corn cobs were substituted for hay. The hay burner was then replaced by the common iron cook stove. This stove was in wide use in the 1870s in the eastern portion of the state, where wood could be found along the creek banks. Much of the wood, however, was green cottonwood that wouldn’t burn readily. The stocks of wood had to be placed in the oven to be dried out before being used for fire.

In the summer cooking was sometimes done out-of-doors in a “fire trench,” a small pit dug in the ground about a foot deep, two feet long, and wide enough to allow the pans to be placed over it. Mrs. Annie Ducker, who came to Custer County in 1873, recalled that her family baked for several months by using a hole dug in the side of an earth bank with a fire built inside. This use of a rude fireplace was also common among ranchers during roundup and freighters camping along the trail.

Another kind of cooking apparatus, used by the German-Russian settlers, was the brick oven built into a wall of the home. This oven was heated by lighting a fire of straw, hay, or other material and allowing it to burn out. The brick walls of the oven retained enough heat for cooking or baking.

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