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Home is Where the “Hearth” Is

By John Bermingham

(April 23, 2024) — As an antiques dealer and restorer, there is something very appealing to me about living in a place with history.  A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to purchase a cute little 1812 Cape Cod in Killingworth that had been renovated in the mid-1980’s while still preserving many of its period elements.

One of these elements is the original stained pine mantel situated on one side of the center chimney.  Smaller fireplaces facing into side rooms share this same chimney, but this main one faced the long room at rear of the house, which would have been the kitchen, dining room and the everyday living space.

Typical of fireplaces of this period, the opening is wide and high with a single stone slab peeking out at the top, just below the wood mantel.  The upper wooden board has faint shadows of an old musket, created by countless sunny days bleaching the surrounding wood, and serving as a reminder of the area’s rugged past.

Mounted into the interior stones of the fireplace is a large and original crane, the iron arm that swings to hold pots and kettles over the fire for cooking.  In earlier times, there would have been various trivets and grates along the sides and front of the fire that would have held other pans and miscellaneous cooking implements.  To the left of the fireplace opening is a tall, narrow door that conceals an interesting feature found in some of these period fireplaces.  It is the beehive oven, which was an essential part of 18th and 19th-century country life.

Called a “beehive” due to its dome shape, the structure was built of brick, with the interior measuring about three feet in diameter and the same in height.  Generally, once a week, the oven would have been lit using wax candles wrapped in paper, kindling and small, split logs, and as the fire gained strength, a small iron door would be propped against the opening to allow sufficient air to flow in.

Once the fire had burned for approximately two hours (or more on colder days), and the wood was consumed, the door would be sealed tight to allow the oven to evenly heat. Without the availability of thermometers, the temperature in the oven was tested by placing an arm into the space and the hopeful baker would begin to count.  If they couldn’t reach twenty, it was too hot. Any more than thirty, it was too cool.  The products created in the oven were essential to the survival of these early residents, as foods high in carbohydrates were needed to endure long, arduous days of farm work.

From time to time, I look at the fireplace and oven and imagine the countless meals cooked in that hearth and the conversations that were no doubt happening at those times.  Were they discussing the War of 1812 and or worrying about a son fighting at Gettysburg?  I can only imagine. But at more than 200 years of age, this old fireplace has been, and continues to be, a witness to more than its fair share of history.

Photos provided by John Bermingham, who is an antiques dealer and furniture restorer in Killingworth.

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