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Several old Rolfe Arrows contain coal ads from J. T. Grant [Lumberyard]. On November 2, 1922, the ad played on the election theme with the headline, “We Are Candidates for Your Coal Business,” and said the company was selling several kinds of coal. A 1924 ad [at right] identified J. T. Grant as “The Rolfe Coalumberman.”
The Pioneer History describes a coal famine from October 1880 to April 1881 when the temperatures were frigid and there were large amounts of snow. Trains were sidetracked, and their coal unloaded. Some schools were closed for the entire winter because they had no fuel. The 1981 Pocahontas County History said coal was used in Rolfe as late as the 1930s and, “a fuel shortage in the severe winter of 1936 necessitated restricting hours and orders for coal.” The February 20, 1936, Rolfe Arrow reported, “Mayor J. H. Brinkman commandeered part of a car of the M. & St. L. station coal to relieve fuel famine.” “Two cars of coal came in Friday night and was rationed out in 500 lb. lots to those most in need.” “Lou Bagley, en route home with a truckload of Missouri coal, was ‘held up’ in Audubon by authorities. They took his coal – at one dollar a ton over the Rolfe market – and sent him back for more.”
Learning about the connections between coal mines and railroads made me think of how often in Omaha or during our drives in Iowa we see long coal trains delivering coal from Wyoming to power plants in the east. Transporting coal seems to be a primary business of the Union Pacific Railroad. In 2009, UPRR moved its 200,000th loaded coal train out of northeast Wyoming’s Powder River Basin—200,000th in 25 years. That’s nearly 22 a day. According to one Union Pacific web site, “Union Pacific’s 200,000 trains out of the SPRB have carried enough coal to power all the homes in the United States for 5 years.”
If we lived in Ames, we’d see coal trains every day. The Iowa State University Power Plant has operated since the late 1880s. Constructed in 1906-1909 and expanded several times, it uses 155,000 tons of coal from Illinois and Kentucky each year. Does mention of the ISU Power Plant ring a bell? Go to Louise’s 2010 posts on the plant, read her explanations, and look at Mother’s watercolor as well as the various photos (current and historic) of the plant. Notice the large 1920s coal stockpile.
Our first house on the farm had a coal room connected to the basement. I don’t recall anyone delivering coal or shoveling coal into the furnace. By the early 1950s, a large oil tank in the east room of the basement supplied the fuel for our furnace. I was only three when we moved to the farm in 1945 and don’t remember if we always had the oil tank or if we used coal for a while.
Hal remembers a coal room in the basement of his Sioux Falls house. Coal was periodically delivered and deposited into the room from a ground level opening next to the driveway. Hal’s father shoveled coal directly into the furnace and later into a stoker that carried the coal into the furnace. One not-so-fun task was cleaning the clinkers out of the furnace and dumping them into a metal tub to be carried outdoors, where they were picked up by the garbage haulers.
In his book, Three to the Hill, John Wiegman listed the coal room as one of six rooms in the basement of the Rolfe house in which he grew up; however, he did not mention using coal. I’ve asked friends what they remember about coal. Several remember coal rooms but don’t remember using coal. I’d like to hear from readers who remember having coal delivered and shoveling coal into the furnace—at home, in businesses or even at school.
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If you have memories related to coal, but do not want to comment directly on this blog, you may email them to me (Louise). If you’d like, I can post them anonymously (i.e., not reveal your identity) in the “comment” area. email@example.com
A list of sources consulted for this three-part series about coal is here.
(Click here to go to Louise Gunderson Shimon’s blog’s home page.)