I Was Raised in a Barn: Chimbleys

Almost the first thing my parents did, when they bought the Barn, was put in a fireplace.  Or rather, they put in a chimney with four fireplaces in it.  Or rather, a stonemason put in the chimney after my father designed what he wanted.

I missed some of this excitement because I was still pretty small and my brother was smaller still; we were not yet at the point where we could cooperate by not dying, so we were left in New York.  But I have been told, often enough, tales of the days when the Barn still had chancy floors and a high rodent population, and an ancient, wizened Italian stonemason laid out rows and rows of field stones–enough for a chimney three generous floors high and ten feet deep–in the meadow.  To hear Dad describe it, Mr. Sermani knew each stone by heart, and would send one of his hulking assistants down to bring them up one by one (“Bruno. Go down, get that nice beige stone, fourth row up, third in”) and built the damned thing by hand. It is held together by cement, but built in such a way as to give the illusion that it’s all just staying together out of a spirit of art or something.

The photo shows the chimney (and one fireplace) from the living room side; on the floor below was a fireplace in the studio.  On the other side of the chimney was the kitchen fireplace and, upstairs, a small fireplace in my parents’ bedroom that I do not believe was lit more than twice in all the years I lived there.

The fireplace we used the most was the one in the kitchen.  In the winter, when we came up on weekends, the first thing Dad did when we arrived was start a fire in the kitchen fireplace.  Then the thermostat on the heating system was turned up, all the bags were brought in from the car, and we had something warm to drink.  We stood, clustered by the fireplace, waiting for the chill to dissipate.  The heat would come up in the bedrooms, most of which were about 10 x 12 feet and therefore warmed up pretty quickly.  But despite baseboard radiators all through the living room and kitchen and hallway, it was an unspoken fact that the heating system was never really going to cut the chill in those rooms: they were just too big. At the very least, the fireplaces made the living room and Dad’s studio in the basement habitable; and there was always a fire in the kitchen.

As years went on and heating oil got more expensive, my father kept the Barn heated by wood fire.  A problem with this–particularly for an elderly ex-smoker with COPD and chronic bronchitis, is that you have a huge amount of stuff in the air.  Ash.  Particulates.  Dust.  Things lungs do not like.  Occasionally when Dad was finishing up one of his epic coughing fits, I would mention to him that wood fire created a somewhat unhealthy atmosphere, but he scoffed.  Dad was a brilliant scoffer.  There were other problems: bringing in firewood to replenish that already used was a constant chore; and heating with the fireplace that one did not leave the immediate vicinity of the hearth often or willingly.  With winter drawing in you could almost hear my father’s traffic pattern contracting.

Occasionally the kitchen fireplace was used for cooking.  Dad had a phrase he attributed to the architect Frank Lloyd Write which he quoted often: “What a boon to the creative imagination is the baked onion.”  Dad would bake onions under the coals, or sometimes potatoes, and he grilled mammoth steaks.  He considered this a manly bonding experience, and attempted more than once to teach my brother the manliness of grilling.  His recipe was to “salt the steak heavily on one side, salt it heavily on the other, and throw it into the fire.”  Throw was delivered with the gusto of Long John Silver contemplating keelhauling.  On at least one occasion he threatened to salt my brother on both sides and throw him into the fire instead of the steak.  I think this was a joke.

I don’t know if Santa Claus ever attempted to descend the chimney (although it was doubtless capacious enough to hold him).  But of course, this being a Barn, there were bats and squirrels and mice that thought that the non-business areas of the chimney were a terrific place to hang out.  During the time when I owned the Barn, I got a chimney sweep to come do routine maintenance; he discovered, as he tactfully put it, “carcasses.”  Plural.  In various stages of mummification.  Or maybe they were simply preserved by smoking.


Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone WarPoint of Honour, Petty Treason,  and a double-handful of short stories which are available on her bookshelf.  Her first two Regency romances, Althea and My Dear Jenny, are now available from Book View Café.  She has just completed The Salernitan Women, set in medieval Italy, and a new Sarah Tolerance novel, The Sleeping Partner (which will be out in October of 2011 from Plus One Press).


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


I Was Raised in a Barn: Chimbleys — 3 Comments

  1. I am impressed that a stone chimney serving four fireplaces can draw so well. Obviously the flues were excellently designed. Did you ever get critters coming -down- the chimneys, especially in summer?