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February 4, 2019

It is cold in Iowa this winter. Iowans are turning up their house heat and putting on more layers of clothes. Have you ever thought about how people made their house warm before gas and electric furnaces made it easy? They had to build a fire. And they had to have something handy to burn in that fire. Fire needs air, fuel (something to burn), and heat or a spark to start the fire. You might have seen an adult use a lighter or a match to light a cooking grill or a campfire. In history, starting a fire wasn’t always as easy.

In the 1700s, over 300 years ago, the Ioway Native American tribe made wood burning fires in their lodges to keep warm. They gathered limbs, and sticks off of the ground for the fuel for their fires. They also used dried prairie grasses. They had to plan ahead to make sure they would have enough dry fuel for the snowy, wet winter. To start their fire, the Ioway did not have lighters or matches. Before European traders came, the Ioway used friction to build a fire. Friction is when two things rub together very fast. The rubbing causes heat. Heat can spark a fire.

Try it! Rub your bare hands together as fast as you can. Did your hands get warm? Don’t worry, you can’t rub your hands fast enough to start a fire. The Ioway rubbed a soft piece of wood and a hard piece of wood together to make friction and heat to start a fire. This could be done with their hands, but a bow drill was much faster.

bow drill

A piece of soft wood was laid on the ground. The fire maker place another harder stick in a small hole on the soft wood and wrapped the string of the bow around the hard stick. The bow was sawed back and forth, turning the hard stick really fast. It created heat. As the heat grew, very dry grass could be placed next to the heat and it would catch on fire. The grass was carefully moved to the fire pit. One of our museum volunteers is showing how to do this in the video below!

When French fur traders came to Iowa, they brought a new way to make a spark for fire. It was a hard piece of metal called a striker. Hitting the striker on a type of rock, called flint, would cause a spark. Letting the spark fall onto a piece of cloth or dry grass would start a fire.

flint and steel diagram

Iowa pioneers in the 1840s also used a flint and steel for fire-making. By the 1850s, a wealthy pioneer might even have a friction match to start a fire. In the mid-1800s, inventors created matches. They figured out that by dipping a piece of wood into a chemical called phosphorous, then rubbing the wood against something scratchy, it would start a fire. The pioneers built wood fires in the open hearth of their log homes to keep warm. Unfortunately, most of the fire’s heat went right up the chimney. A pioneer was lucky if the log house made it 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

By 1900, Iowa farmers had iron stoves to build a fire in for heat. These stoves kept the house warm and farm families cooked their meals on the stove top. These farmers used a lot of wood in their stove.

wood pile

A stack of wood is measured in cords. One cord of wood is a stack of wood 4 feet wide by 4 feet high by 8 feet long. The average farming family could use over 20 cords of wood every year! Ask an adult for a measuring tape and measure out 4 feet wide and 8 feet long and 4 feet tall with your tape. That’s a big pile of firewood! In 1900, a farm family might also buy coal to burn in their stove. Coal is a mineral found underground. Iowa had a lot of coal mines in 1900. Coal burns hotter than wood, but a farmer would have to buy the coal. The way to make fire to keep our home warm has changed a lot since the year 1700. One thing about fire has not changed though! Fire is still very dangerous. Kids should never try to start a fire or play with fire around their house. Fire-making is still for the adults in your family!

Read more posts on the LHF Kids Blog


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