The Riverwest Coal Man

The coal man was a lot similar to the ice man — you’d have to order your coal, they’d carry it in on their shoulder.  Every house had a coal bin under a window in the basement.  The coal man would go to the window and there’ would be walls inside so the coal would be restrained and not go all over the basement.

The coal truck was interesting.  It had a mechanical system which would raise the bed of the truck to get the coal up to the height of the shoulder of the coal man.  So then he’d put on his shoulder pad and take his canvas bushel bag and fill it with coal.   He’d get just enough to fill the canvas bags.  He’d open a basement window and put a canvas protector around the window so he wouldn’t get the house all dirty.  Then he’d place a shoot into the coal bin. He’d get that set up then he’d dump the coal in so it would slide down into the coal bin.

On the inside, there was a hopper and you could take a coal shovel which had a large scoop on it and fill it up.  Originally, you’d throw a shovelful in the furnace but then we got real modern and got a stoker.  A stoker had a worm gear that went from the hopper into the furnace. So now you’d fill the hopper and the worm gear would feed the fire.


It’s a steel rod and it’s got metal that is like a spiral so as it turns it just keeps pushing the coal forward.  When we moved to Humboldt, we didn’t have a stoker.  You’d have to take a shovel-full of coal and throw it in.  First though, you’d have to open the furnace door and take the clinkers out.


The fire would burn and form into big clumps called clinkers.  You’d get some tongs and take the clinkers out and put them in the ash bin.  Now the ash bin, like we still have downstairs here, is a concrete wall which was there for the ashes and the clinkers.  It doesn’t come out like sifted ashes but comes out in big chunks. You’d break them up and use the tongs to get them out and put them in the ash bin.

When your Mom and I were newly married, our rent was…oh I don’t remember what our rent was, it wasn’t a lot.  I got a 25/mo credit each month if I’d take care of the furnace.  That was my job when we first got married while I was still in school.  I’d take care of the stoker and clean up the clinkers.  I got 10/mo for that.  From the back of our house on 4th St over to Green St, the two houses were very close.  It was a women’s house owned by a friend of our landlady.  Your Mom’s good friend Bennie lived there.  I got hired by our landlady to take care of their furnace too so I got 20 bucks/mo taking care of the two furnaces.

So 20/mo would be equivalent to what now, Dad?

Oh, I don’t know.  I could check it if I was still at the office.  We had a chart that showed the basic increase in cost of living starting starting at 1900. They’d get an index out of that so you could see what the changes were.  We could make estimates out of that.  If we had a job we had done in 1955 and now it’s 1975, say, we could look at the cost in 55 and use the multiplier to find the original cost by that.  It was a way to keep track of inflation.

Hmm…what would 20/week cover then….?

I think Mom made 120 a week or month, I don’t remember.  Oh honey, I wish you were here to tell me.

It must have been 120/month, Dad.  Dancers can live on 120/week today.


The Ice Man

I want to tell you about the coal men and the ice men.  They’re really two stories so I’ll start with the ice men.  When I was a little kid, there weren’t any refrigerators – we had ice boxes. They were kept in the hall so the icemen wouldn’t have to come into the houses to fill the icebox.  Everybody had an ice card — which had a front and a back, a top and a bottom — that you could turn over and around to let the iceman know how much ice you wanted. We usually got a 50-60 pound chunk which would last us the week.  The iceman had his route, he’d look for his customers and know how much ice to bring in.  He used big tongs to pull the ice out of his truck.  He’d put a pad on his shoulder and throw that ice up on top.  I remember it would start melting as he carried it in and up the stairs.  I don’t remember how he got paid but he always kept the icebox full.

So, it was a simple process.  The ice-house was on the east side of the river and the north side of North Avenue – now there’s a dormitory there – Northwestern Coal and Ice.  Originally, they would cut the ice out of the river and then store it there.  We had an ice pick and when we wanted some, we’d just pick it off.

Washington Island did that up until recently.  They would cut blocks of ice out of the Lake and put it in the ice house.  They had big beds of sawdust to put the ice on so it wouldn’t melt.

Dad, I remember always having an icepick around when we were growing up.  You would use it to make an extra hole in our belts.

Right, later on when we moved from Humboldt to the farm, I got a hole punch to use when I needed to tighten up the horses bridles.  After that, I used it on our belts. It made a much cleaner hole.