Families of the 21st century are used to two or more incomes, but families of the Depression and post-Depression days were happy to have one meager income to pay for the necessities of life: food and shelter.
Those who were able to afford a “comfortable” shelter were fortunate to have homes that were heated by coal-burning furnaces.
These were often located in the basement of homes, close to an outside wall where coal could be fed directly into the furnace via a stoker.
Other families were able to afford the newer oil-burning furnaces, the successor to coal burners — the standard of the Depression era.
“My grandfather was very good with customers, but when the Cubs were in town, he would occasionally take me down to the game,” Althoff said.
The company was founded by Althoff’s father, Edward, in 1923. Edward eventually talked his father into joining the company, along with family members John and Leon.
In the 1930s, Wisconsin Fuel concentrated on delivering coal and wood to customers with coal-burning and wood-burning stoves. The company would eventually get into installation and service of coal furnace stokers in the 50s.
The younger Althoff has fond memories of the coal furnaces of the time. “On hot days, we would put big chunks of ice by the blower of the coal furnace and cool off the house,” he chuckled.
As oil heat evolved into the popular mode of keeping homes warm, Wisconsin Fuel added oil, gasoline, and diesel fuel to its delivery schedule while it phased out coal delivery. The company is now run by the fourth generation, Gregg and Scott Althoff, and Scott Carney.
“My dad was uneducated and suffered from job losses at the end of the Depression,” said his son, Don. “He borrowed a couple of hundred dollars, bought a truck, and started selling coal door to door in Buffalo (NY).”
Reginald Newman eventually switched from coal to selling oil-burning furnaces and kerosene heaters in the late 30s. The company he founded is now known as NOCO Energy. Its chairman emeritus, Don Newman, remembers, “He decided to peddle his oil burner service business because oil burners had many more controls than the coal-burning furnaces.”
By the time the younger Newman joined the business in 1954, there were eight employees. Today NOCO Energy employs over 700 people in a number of business entities, totaling $150 million in annual sales.
Oil-burning furnaces did not spring up overnight in the late 30s. In fact, their roots began in the 20s. As early as 1924, Domestic Engineering, an oil burning trade magazine, predicted that by 1930, there would be at least eight million oil burner installations for heating purposes.
In the late 20s and early 30s, International Heating owners Truman Brown and Sydney Heiman increased their marketing efforts of oil-burning fuel with the use of radio advertising. Some of the early names that International sponsored included Gene Autry, Eddie Arnold, and Amos and Andy.
In 1932, International marketed the “New International Blue Flame Burner” for converting coal and wood stoves to gas, using oil fuel. A “chance” happening occurred that directed the company into extending its market from residential oil heating to manufactured homes.
“In 1933, a gentleman drove up to our business with a trailer hooked on a car,” said Brown. “He told us he had to have an oil heater for his trailer.
“At that time, the only trailer heaters were small pot-bellied coal stoves that would only hold a minimal amount of coal. At night, the coal would burn out and the people sleeping in the trailer would almost freeze before more fuel could be added.”
Brown said that the company showed no interest in designing an oil heater for trailers. But Brown persisted, and the company eventually designed a “small, rotund heater on legs with a three-gallon tank hung on the wall behind it.” International was besieged with orders for the heater from other owners of manufactured homes, and the unit eventually received the first U.L. listing for mobile home heaters in 1938.
From 1937 to 39, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen looked for ways to reduce the pollution problem in the city caused by burning coal. While politicians sought to rid their city of coal-burning heat forever, International saw its oil-based furnaces as a solution to coal-fueled heat.
By 1940, Illinois coal was outlawed in St. Louis and replaced with a cleaner-burning Arkansas coal. Soon after, the Mississippi Valley Fuel Company’s pipeline was near completion, and local gas company Laclede Gas was able to provide natural gas fuel to those in St. Louis who could afford to install a gas-burning furnace.
“Business was so good in Chicago that Dad didn’t realize there was a depression until he returned to Cedar Rapids,” said son Paul, chairman of Novak Heating and Air Conditioning, the company his father began in 1934. Still, Novak went out and bought equipment, trucks, a building, and started his own business, selling coal-burning and oil-heat furnaces.
“He had the product knowledge and hired people to sell the furnaces,” said grandson Randy, current company president.
The coal furnaces weren’t much different from today’s gravity furnaces, noted Randy. Coal was loaded into the furnaces and delivery people soon became experts at banking the coal so it would burn longer.
Paul Novak said that the company also had a service department. He noted that most work took place in the summer months. In the winter months, the workers would make ductwork, preparing for the next season of installations.
Like Reginald Newman, Godfrey Novak eventually turned the business toward oil-burning furnaces. Business kept a steady pace.
This was the atmosphere that prevailed when Reginald Beckett decided to open his own business in Elyria, OH, and manufacture oil burners. The R.W. Beckett Engineering Co. would face a buying public that was full of skepticism, by the company’s own account.
Beckett had been working for Fox Furnace Engineering Co. in 1936, but the next year that company decided to relocate to New York. Not wanting to leave his hometown, Beckett decided to start his own business, with the help of Stanton Fitzgerald.
Beckett and his wife, Jean, began working out of their home. Beckett worked with engineers to develop an oil burner for the marketplace.
In its recollection of the early days of the company, Beckett historians said that “The inferior quality of early products reflected the instability of the equipment producers themselves, prompting some ‘bad press’ for the industry, and customer reluctance to change to oil heat.”
Despite some consumer distrust, the idea of a less-cumbersome type of controlled, automatic heat was more appealing than the tedious job of hand-stoking coal burners.
The first burner, the “Beckett Commodore,” was part of the company’s first order — a 50-year order for burners from C.A. Olsen Co., a local furnace manufacturer.
Business continued to rise throughout the late 30s and beyond, despite the looming threat of another World War.
“My grandfather was always successful,” said David Boehmer, current president of the Pittsburgh, PA-based Boehmer Heating & Cooling Co. “During the Depression, my grandparents were helpful to others. Grandma would cook food for the unemployed people who showed up at their door.
William Boehmer “had no experience in furnace repair, although he had worked for the Holland Furnace Co.,” said David. “He was doing a lot of different things in the early 30s and he just decided to start the business with a partner.”
Boehmer explained that the process of repairing a coal furnace was quite different from today’s standard repair procedures on gas forced-air furnaces.
“They used to reset a lot of the coal furnaces,” he said. “The furnace consisted of several horizontal cast sections surrounded by a sheet metal casing. Resetting was accomplished by lifting the bonnet (plenum) of the furnace off of the casing.
“The bonnet was very heavy due to the ballast (sand) on its top. This acted as a buffer between the airstream and the flooring above. The sheet metal casing was then removed, exposing cast portions of the furnace which were removed one by one, cleaned, recemented, and reassembled.”
The two also sold and serviced the stokers, which operated using worm gears to transport the coal into the firebox at regular intervals, eliminating the need for constant shoveling.
Rather than evolving into oil-burning furnace work, Boehmer eventually went into selling and servicing gas conversions. And in the late 30s, the company purchased a number of duct cleaning trucks and entered that business.
“The equipment was the large bag-topped type that was run to the house with a hose,” Boehmer added. “The debris was collected and presented to the homeowner, probably less the coins which fell into the floor returns.”
Duct cleaning as we know it today can trace its roots back to contractors like Boehmer in the 30s.
The decade that began with the Great Depression ended with the growing specter of another World War, but in between, the transformation from coal-burning furnaces to oil burners was major news, and good news for the heating industry.
Publication date: 11/12/2001