There are certain signs of summer in Norwich that, to the untrained eye, may not seem like a summer sighting at all. You hear rumblings about it at the dump, “D’ya get yers yet?” Same thing at Dan & Whit’s, “This year I got four instead of three.” You see it in the eyes of your neighbors – weary, sweaty, looking a lot like a through-hiker. You hear it over their fences: Clang!... followed by groans and grunts that, embarrassed, you pretend not to hear.
Summer in Norwich brings visions of soft-serve at Dan and Whit’s, eating dinner on the deck, concerts at the bandstand, and woodpiles in your driveway. You heard that right. Woodpiles. Cords. Sticks sized to sixteen inches, maybe eighteen inches. Kiln dried. Green. Seasoned. That’s summer when you’re a Vermonter. As soon as your first row of Sugar Snax carrots start to poke out of the dirt, you already need to start fretting about winter. No time for rest. Winter’s coming! Along with the Norwich Historical Society’s Home and Garden Tour, Norwich needs a Woodpile Tour. There are some seriously impressive sights to see offering wildly different stacking styles.
Jack Shepherd's "Beehive" Stack
There’s the Type-A stacker, the one who has stacked each row five feet high and seven feet long, with exactly one foot of space in between each row. The Type-A stacker is known to measure the length of each stick to ensure a uniform size. The TAS will photograph her handy work and post it on her social media feed. There is the All Business / Get ‘Er Done stacker, aka the No Fuss stacker. This is the person who has perfected the stick toss verses the careful stacking of each stick.
There are no requirements to the woodpile shape, rather it’s all about getting the wood off the ground to let those February winds blow to dry out the wood. Then there is the He-(or She!)- Who-Does-Not-Stack stacker. This person receives a pile of wood dumped in their driveway and then proceeds to claim, “Job done!” This person simply picks at the pile when wood is needed to fill the stove box. He is also known to leave piles of clean laundry on his sofa and sifts through it when clean underwear is needed. There are many stacking styles.
All it takes is a drive around town to see the sights. Really! Here are just two to start with. One should start with the wood pile that is the granddaddy of piles. Said pile is, well of course, the pile that heats Dan & Whit’s. Hang a left onto Turnpike after you pass the dead dog on Main Street (not really dead, rather the dog sleeps in the driveway with ferocity). If you pass the house with the spiders on it – which no longer has spiders, but it’ll always be that house to us – you’ve gone too far. When you come up on the field, it will be completely normal to spend the first few minutes in awe, emitting all sorts of oohs and ahs. The field holds roughly 150 cords of wood. It stays there for at least one year before it is ready for burning. Matt Fraser is in charge of the wood for the store and surely needs a title that reflects the enormity of the job. The Grand Poobah of Woodpiles? The Almighty Stacker? Still working on it. The wood comes from logs dropped off at the site. Matt chops the logs, then splits and stacks the wood himself. Himself!
Some are sized to sixteen-to-eighteen inches, and some are as long as thirty inches. Matt explains he delivers the wood to the store by truck and then he stacks the wood in banana boxes (“six to eight sticks per box. That’s the way my dad prefers it.”). Matt has two wheelbarrows for this task. One of them he estimates is 40-50 years old. “My dad said we can replace it when it breaks. Of course, we just keep fixing it.” The basement at Dan & Whit’s is truly a must-see destination with stacks of wood wherever there is space. You can even buy a postcard that is a bird’s eye view of the field with the wood piles, back when the original Dan Fraser, Matt’s grandfather, maintained the piles.
Dan Fraser’s wood pile postcard
Onward with the tour, further afield, past the dump, up the crooked half mile, one will come upon a wood pile that would be best described as MQW (Museum Quality Woodpile). The constructor of this woodpile, Jack Shepherd, could be considered an artist. Jack’s woodpile is stacked in the shape of a fish, fins and all, inspired by a book called Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. Who would read a book about stacking wood? Admittedly, a judgmental thought, but really... who would read about that? Many, it turns out. This book is on several best-seller lists and turns out to be pretty darned entertaining. Jack has been stacking wood for years and it’s always been a great fitness feat he shared with his wife, Kathleen. But after reading the book last summer, which is written with a gentle Norwegian humor, Jack was intrigued to try out what he calls ‘the beehive.’ This cylindrical style of stacking is not only a beautiful way to tart up your driveway, but, as Jack states, “The wood dries very fast, probably because of the draw and convection of the airflow inward and upward.”
After having success with last year’s beehive, this summer Jack went for the Holy Grail and created the fish. Jack enjoys the fun and the challenge of stacking wood in this non-conventional way. It’s a lot of fussy work with chunks of time spent gently hammering in pieces to get that perfect curve. And Jack has been known to mutter a profanity or two when a log gets knocked out of place (talkin’ to you Mr. Woodchuck). The coolest experience is being recognized around town as the fish-woodpile-guy.
Lots of us heat our homes using wood as our primary heat source. It certainly appeals to the New England value of hard work and being thrifty. The expression goes: wood warms you three times – when you cut it, when you split it, and when you burn it. The next time you look at your recently dumped woodpile in your driveway, reframe this ‘chore’ and look at it as an opportunity. Stacking wood is hard work, no doubt. But it can be opportunity for self-expression... or your anal retentiveness. Any opportunity to walk around wearing deer skin gloves, filthy Carharts, and a stinky t-shirt is one no one should pass up. Really. Give it a try. Spend an afternoon stacking wood. You will suddenly acquire a swagger in your walk... maybe even a drawl in your dialect. Welcome to the secret society – you’re a Vermonter.