I have a stove-pipe collar that talks; it’s one of those very old objects with tales to tell.
The collar was part of my boyhood home in south St. Cloud and now hangs on a wall of my at-home library-office. About 25 years ago, I rescued it when they demolished that house, which had stood on the corner of 5th Avenue and 9th Street, near the college, since the late 1880s.
A stovepipe collar was common in old homes heated with coal, wood or oil. From a first-floor stove, usually in the living room, a six-inch-wide metal stove pipe rose up right through the ceiling and through the room above. The hot pipe carried stove exhaust that was vented from a chimney on the roof. The flat round collar, installed on the floor of the room above the stove, encircled the stove pipe. Serving as an air vent, the collar could be turned clockwise or counterclockwise to let more (or less) warm air into the room from the rising heat of the stove directly below.
The collar I have is a rather rusted wrought-iron one 15 inches wide with a 6-inch hole in the middle through which the pipe extended. Its design is an ornate leaf-and-vine pattern with open air spaces all through the metal filigree.
Of all the souvenir objects I have from the good old days, that collar is the one that “speaks” loudest and most often. Now and then, while sitting in my library-office, I will look up and see that collar hanging there, and it will begin to “talk” – not literally, of course, but it has the transporting power to unlock the past instantly and vividly, as if it’s sharing sweet old secrets.
As a wee tot, late at night, when I was supposed to be fast asleep in my darkened bedroom, I would often grab my pillow, sneak out of bed and lie down by the stove pipe, my head next to that collar. Lamp light from the living room glimmered up through the holes in the collar’s filigree and so would the voices of my parents and their neighbor friends. They loved to get together, drink beer and talk; and I loved to listen to the adult sounds and verbal rhythms of their conversations and laughter, trying to understand what they were gabbing about. One night they kept discussing a neighbor woman, about how she was PG. I was stumped. Next day, I asked Ma what PG means.
“What do you think it means?” she asked, grinning.
“Part German?” I guessed.
She and her friend, Alma, burst out laughing.
“Well, Denny’s close,” said Alma, taking a puff of her Pall Mall. “Ann is part German and the baby will be too.”
My bedroom, which I shared with brother Johnny and later with brother Michael, was always very chilly in winter. We’d wake up and poke our faces out from under those big old patchwork quilts Grandma would make for us. We’d see silvery patterns of frost on the windows.
Then, we’d hear Mom’s voice coming up through the stove collar.
“C’mon, you kids,” she’d shout. “Get up right now! Time to get ready for school. And I’m not gonna tell you again.”
We’d groan, snuggle down deeper under the quilt and wonder what we ever did so bad to be punished with school on a frosty morning. Then, we’d smell the aromas of hot cocoa and toast, wafting up through the collar. Hunger would coax us from our bed.
Some mornings, we’d hear a wind howling, rattling the storm windows like whistling ghosts.
“Sounds like a blizzard!” I’d say.
“Good!” Johnny would answer.
We both loved blizzards. Not only were they fun to watch from the windows, but they meant we wouldn’t have to go to school.
From the living room, on a nasty winter morning, Mom would lift her voice to the ceiling, to the pipe collar.
“You kids awake yet?” she’d ask loudly.
“Yeah?” we’d shout, our little delinquent voices filled with tingling anticipation.
“Well, you’re staying home today,” she’d say. “It’s 20 below out. Too cold for school.”
At which time, Michael and I – happy as Christmas-morning kids – would leap from bed, scramble downstairs, shiver and huddle around the stove, eat our Cheerios and then sit down with our favorite board game, Monopoly.
It was from that stove collar one afternoon I heard the sounds of my parents crying. Scared and stunned, I listened closely and finally figured out Grandpa Saunders had died, not really understanding what dead meant, but thinking, “We’ll never get to go to the farm in Benson anymore.”
That old collar has so many memories, mostly good, embedded in its wrought-iron heart. I always encourage people to save and display souvenirs from childhood. They never fail to keep you connected to your childhood and grounded in the magic past that made you.