MADE IN MAINE

REFLECTOR OVEN HISTORY

 

FROM THE SPROUL'S OF MAINE 

REFLECTOR OVEN COOKBOOK.


The reflector oven has been around since the Maine woodsmen and riverdrivers started cutting Maine's forest down, starting back in the early 19th century. Many meals were prepared in their outdoors, and the only way they could prepare baked goods was with the reflector oven. No better method has been invented to be used in front of a campfire, and the results, with the proper procedure, are always excellent.

THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO THE HARDY SOULS OF THAT ERA

The last thing the early woods operators did , before starting their cutting operations, was to setup the camps. In the early eighteen sixties, most camps had a fire in the center of the building with a poor chimmney leading out through the roof. By the eighteen nineties many camps had stoves, one for cooking and one for heat, at either end of the camp. These sheet steel or cast iron monsters, almost always manufactured by Wood- Bishop Company of Bangor, threw out a tremendous amount of heat to the enclosed space. Many camps were constructed with two doors. Inside the first door was a three or four foot space, called the dingle, where meat was hung and other food kept. By the eighteen nineties, most camps served beef and since the woods camps operated during winters only, a side of beef hung here was under refrigeration in the Maine woods. The molasses barrel, the pork barrel, extra flour, and so on were also kept in the dingle. 1

In the early days the cooks needed fewer implements. Two big kettles for the beans and a flouring board for the biscuits, was enough. Flour and other ingredients were kept in a barrel, from which the cook worked. In the early days, sourdough bread was the rule, later most cooks used salerstus and cream of tarter.Baking soda didn't come until later. In camp with a good cook, there might have been molasses cake or even ginger bread or molasses cookies. By the nineties, such delicacies were the rule, not the exception. The food varied little. Beans, pork, and biscuits were usual. In the days of the big fire, the bean hole beans were cooked in the camp itself. In later years, in a hole outside. In some camps by the nineties, items like preserved fruits and codfish were often served, probably as much salt fish was used as salt pork or salt beef. Many of the cutting crew personnel were from New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, where salt fish was a diet staple. Northern camps served a fair amount of "Canada Beef" or moose meat or deer venison. It doubtless came as a welcome change to the ordinary diet. 
2

It was usual for the cook to rouse the men a half hour or an hour before sunrise. After a quick and hearty meal of salt pork , beans, with biscuits, the choppers went to the woods, usually arriving with the sun. If the men were lucky and had a good cook, there might have been doughnuts or cookies to fill one's pockets before leaving in the morning. If not, the next meal came when the cookee appeared at the chopping location with more beans, cold biscuit, and hot tea. The food usually arrived around eleven o'clock. After this meal the work continued until the end of the daylight hours, when the woodsmen would make their way back to camp, usually arriving just at dark ( four to five PM in the Maine winter ) . After another meal of the same food there might be time to smoke a pipe, swap a few lies, or wash out a pair of socks before bedtime, which came usually about nine o'clock. Some woodsmen knitted socks or mittens of their own in the evening. 3

Life was difficult in the woods, and there was little time for play. The loggers life consisted of work, sleep, and " Beans and brown bread for breakfast, brown bread and beans for dinner, and a mixture of the two for supper ", and little else. In some camps, brown bread was offered at times, in place of biscuits. 
4

Wages ruled low through out most of the period. In 1860, David Libbey, a popular cutter, had received $2.00 a day for his work, but he was an above average worker. Twenty to thirty dollars a month and board would have been a closer figure up to 1872. With the coming of the depression of the seventies, at times men went into the woods for as low as five dollars a month, it was either this or the souphouse, which did a thriving business in 1877. It wasn't until the eighties that wages returned to the pre-depression levels. Twelve to twenty dollars per month was the usual quotation through out the rest of the time. 
5

A very large amount of supplies were needed to get out logs. One observer thought that for every million feet of logs obtained, one thousand bushels of oats, ten tons of hay, nine barrels of pork and beef, and forty barrels of flour were consumed. These figures are for an operation using just two pair of horses. Using these figures, the cost of supplies amounted to about four dollars per thousand board feet of logs. These supplies did not include rum for the men, it disappeared from the woods menu during this period. 
6

It took a good deal of toting to get the goods in to the camps. On the operations of Quin and Mitchell at Wytopitlock in 1890, the men consumed a barrel of flour every two and a half days. Each week, they used 400 pounds of beef, four bushels of dry beans, 100 pounds of lard and seven pounds of tea. There was sixty men on the operation, getting out 800,000 feet of spruce and 7,000 cords of pulpwood for the mill at Enfield, over the winter. Some operators used their home farms to raise their supplies. B. F. Osgood of Prentiss, operating on the Mattawamkeag River with forty men, summered twenty-four horses on his farm at Prentiss. In addition, he and his eleven sons raised from 1,900 to 2,700 bushels of oats each year and cut about 100 tons of hay. This is a good example of the combination woodsman-farmer, so prevelent in the Maine woods at the time. 
7


In the winter the main problem was the weather. The Maine woods get extremely cold. In 1884 temperatures more than 40 degrees below zero were recorded for a week. Mixed with the cold weather, there were frequent severe storms, high winds, and deep snow, as in the year 1885. Perhaps the worst year was 1887. One newspaper remarked : "Don't you forget it young man and be sure and make a record of it, or three score years from now when you tell the story to a generation unborn, they will not beleive it, that on the tenth day of March in th
e year of our Lord 1887,the ground through eastern Maine was covered with snow to the depth of seven feet". Perhaps the worst winter in the woods in the 19th century was in 1887 with its combination of deep snow, high winds and low temperatures. Snow to equal that depth did not occur again until 1963. 
8

Enjoying hot baking powder biscuits cooked in a reflector oven is a Maine thing, and is enjoyed by a limited few. As the outdoors is looked to for the ultimate camping experience, more and more people need the reflector oven alternative.

Reflector ovens may be known elsewhere, but the Maine woods depended on them to feed the riverdrivers each spring when the winter's forest harvest was driven to the mills, in rivers with the surging run off of snow melt. Timber was harvested on winter snow, when horses could sled the logs and pulpwood to the " brow," being a high bank where the logs were piled up to be rolled down onto stream, river or lake ice. 
9


The woods camps closed as spring advanced, and riverdrivers herded the logs and pulpwood downstream on the tumbling freshet, a dangerous job only for daring men who knew how. The journey could be long, as on the Penobscot, and the riverdrivers were wet most of the way. A batteaux was used by the cooks and cookees to transport their equipment box and needed provisions as they kept ahead of the drive, down stream and river, as the logs and pulpwood were driven to the sorting gaps.

As the logs came down the rivers, the logs were owned by several woods contractors, and before the logs got to the saw mills, that were built on the river, the wood had to be seperated, and directed to the respective mills. Well, up the river from the mill, a sorting gap was set up and the logs were boomed up and held from floating down river further. To facilitate the tremendous drag the river current had on these booms, piers, a square crib made from logs and filled with rocks, were built in the river at strategic locations where the booms were attached by heavy chains.On the down river end of this boom, an opening, or gap, was made and logs were allowed through one at a time. The owners of the logs would have a boom set up, below the gap and each log was floated to each others respective holding booms. When enough logs had been gathered, the owners b
oom would be directed to his sawmill for sawing the logs into boards. 
10

There was an occasional riverdrive camp along the way, but they were not equipped to serve as bunkhouses or cook shacks. Riverdriving was like camping out. Tents were set up where the men slept. In fairer weather, the men would sleep outdoors on the ground, with only a blanket for cover. The first breakfast came at dawn with hot biscuits and beanhole beans. The second breakfast came in mid-morning, beanhole beans and cold biscuits, brought in pails by the cookees. Dinner was at noon with supper at dusk. An advance crew prepaired "beanholes" at each stopping place, and kept dry wood plentiful for the cooks. There were no cookstoves on the drive. 
11

A beanhole was a dug affair lined with rocks. The rocks were heated with a wood fire, and the cast iron beanpot was lowered among them and covered over and packed around the sides with the burnt down live coals. They were then covered over with dirt, well over the pot cover to retain the heat, and took about eight hours to bake. Stovetop cooking was done on a grill over a campfire, and baking was done in reflector ovens. These were made from steel sheet metal, with the open side facing the fire. A slanted top and bottom caught the heat from the open flame of the campfire, being reflected and absorbed in the biscuits, cakes, pies and bread, being baked. It was a brave sight to see a blazing fire, maybe five feet in diameter, with a circle of ovens doing business like planets around a blazing sun. 
12

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 Excerpts from book "Lumbering in Maine 1861-1960" by David C. Smith, Published by University Of Maine Press
10, 11, 12 Excerpts from Christian Science Monitor edition. March 29, 2002

Have fun, trying your own special recipes as you experiment with baking in your own reflector oven and serve foods that you thought you could do only in your kitchen oven at home.

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