This is a serialization of the new book written by Carl Flowers, owner of Silveus Plantation, the subject of "Groton's Anonymous Mistress." This 300-year-old house is accessed by Kemp Street near the boundary of Groton and Dunstable.
By Carl Flowers
Immediately to the right of the fireplace is the Mistress's brick oven. To use the oven, a fire had to be built on its open hearth until the required temperature was reached. Experience made the determination of the correct temperature by sticking a hand or the entire arm into the oven. Between two and four hours were needed to get the brick suitably heated for baking.
The type of wood used to heat the oven played a role in the heating process. Once the fire was started and well on its way to burning, an iron plate was placed across the front of the oven to keep in the heat. Smoke from the burning wood flowed through a flue into the central chimney leading from the kitchen fireplace. When the desired heat was reached, the live coals were brought to the front of the oven by using a long handled hoe. The ashes were removed by a small shovel and placed in the ash chamber directly under the oven. After the ashes had cooled, they were saved for a multitude of uses. One of them was to make soap from the lye that was taken from the ashes.
With the ashes out of the way, food could be put into the oven for the heated brick to do their work. Of course, the iron door was again placed across the front of the oven. If everything was properly done, the baking of assorted foods could go on for hours without reheating the oven. Food requiring the greatest amount of baking time was placed in the back of the oven. Food needing the least amount of baking was in the front of the oven. This day long activity was done about once a week.
When dinner was served, it was straight from the fireplace kettle and into a trencher placed in the middle of the table. The trencher was made from wood, about ten to twelve inches square and three or four inches deep, and looked like a shallow bowl. Everyone in the family ate from the trencher by scooping out their food with a knife blade or a spoon. This practice began to decline during the first quarter of the nineteenth century when everyone began having their own dinner plate.
Another interesting dinnertime feature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is the fact that only the family's head of household sat in a chair at the head of the table; thus, the term chairman of the board. The rest of the family stood around the table or they sat on a bench. This practice also began its decline in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
When the first cast iron stove came to the Mistress is unknown. A good guess is a few years after 1843 when the Fitzpatricks moved in. There's little doubt about a cast iron cookstove being in use prior to the current 1887 stove coming to the Mistress. Two stove plates were found in the cellar a bit bigger than the plates used on the 1887 stove suggest this to be true. It just doesn't seem likely the stove came with two extra plates a bit bigger than the six plates already on the stove. The bigger plates just wouldn't fit. Some stoves had anywhere from one to ten plates, ranging in size from two to twenty-two inches.
Whenever the first cast iron cooking stove came to the Mistress, life was meaningfully better. The amount of bending over was reduced, in addition to all the heavy lifting that had to be done. Hot water was a lot easier to keep and smaller pieces of wood could be used. With the 1887 stove, you wouldn't want to cut the wood any longer than thirteen or fourteen inches in length. Fear of hot ashes popping out onto the floor was no longer an issue. Use of a cast iron stove was a lot easier, cleaner and safer to operate.
Carl Flowers is the owner of Silveus Plantation, Groton's Anonymous Mistress.