Editor's Note:
This is the sixth in a periodic series on energy events in Nebraska.
The Plains' Fuels of Yesteryear...
Local Resources Plus Ingenuity
Equal a Hot Meal and a Warm Bed

For Nebraska's early pioneers, sources of fuel and water were essential for survival. Coming from the eastern U.S., settlers were used to relying on wood for fuel and construction materials for building homes. Pioneers settling the vast and mostly treeless prairie had to devise alternatives to compensate for the lack of this resource.

First, pioneers settled along rivers and streams where water and trees were plentiful. In most areas, the good timber was soon exhausted.

The contrasting landscape that greeted earlier Nebraska pioneers: The Pine Ridge in the northwest (upper left photo) and the barren plains of the east and central parts of the state (lower right photo).

A Rare and Disappearing Resource

It was common for settlers in Nebraska to travel ten to forty miles sometimes journeying for several days in search of trees. Even stumps were uprooted for fuel.

Only in northwestern Nebraska, where forests of ponderosa pine and cedars could be found, were settlers able to rely on wood as a fuel source.

Even sod became a primary building material, substituting for wood in building the prairie equivalent of the log cabin a soddy.

Solutions to the fuel problem varied with the availability of local resources. But all the resources shared one common element labor intensity.

Making Hay While the Sun Shines

Hay was the fuel of choice in central and northern Nebraska until the corn culture supplanted it. However, feeding loose hay into a stove produced excessive smoke and required constant monitoring. To make the hay more compact, it was twisted into twig-like bundles called "cats." After the chores were done, many evenings were spent twisting hay into "cats" which were then stored in the stove's fuel box for later use.

Hay-burning devices came in four basic types: stove attachments, piston-driven stoves, drum stoves and Russian furnaces.

A common hay burning stove attachment was shaped like copper boilers used for washing, but twice as deep, holding about twenty pounds of hay. Lids on a cook stove were removed and the hay-filled attachment was placed with the open end down on the cook stove. A filled attachment could provide enough heat for two to four hours. Local blacksmiths made most of these stove attachments from sheet iron riveted together.

The piston-driven stove was designed specifically to burn hay. It resembled an ordinary cook stove with a firebox in the front and oven on the back part of the stove. Under the oven were two cylinders 8 inches in diameter by 30 inches long that were filled with hay. A spring driven piston fed the hay into the firebox.

An example of a typical piston-driven hay burning stove from the Nebraska Historical Museum collection.

The drum stove consisted of a large cylinder about two feet in diameter which stood upright on a base supported by four legs. The stove came with two drums so that one could be filled while the other was in use. The top of the stove lifted off to allow exchange of the cylinders.

The concept of a Russian furnace was brought to the Plains by Mennonite immigrants. Usually built of brick, the huge stoves were six feet high, five feet long, and two feet wide. The stove was only stoked with grass or straw for twenty minutes two or three times in 24 hours. The structures were very efficient, but never gained wide popularity because of the high initial cost. However, Russian furnaces did become popular after the oil shocks of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Fuel supplies in this region burgeoned as corn replaced prairie grasses. Both stalks and corn cobs were used as fuel. Sometimes even corn on the cob was used when corn prices fell below the cost of other fuels. But, the oiliness of corn caused problems. While corn made a hot fire and burned a lot like coal, the oil in corn created excessive heat and burned holes in the stoves.

Various other devices were invented to make hay and cornstalks easier to utilize for fuel. However, most inventions failed because of faulty design or the inability of settlers to afford them. Two such devices were manufactured in Nebraska.

A hay baler made by the Luebben Baler Company in Beatrice was cumbersome to use since it attached to the back of a threshing machine. The baler shaped straw into rounds for use in a drum stove.

The Farmer's Fuel Press manufactured by Davis Brothers & Fisk in Omaha made "cats" from cornstalks and sunflower stalks. Priced at $20, the press was well beyond the means of most farmers who were accustomed to bundling the stalks themselves.

Wood of the West

Settlers west of the 100th meridian, which is near Cozad, turned to a unique Plains' fuel. French explorers called the animal-made fuel bois de vache wood of the buffalo. Pioneers simply called them buffalo chips.

After drying in the hot Plains sun for a few weeks, bois de vache was practically odorless and clean to handle. Burning with little flame, buffalo chips were ideal for cooking and heating. Much like hay, frequent stoking of the fire was necessary. However, the fuel supply was soon exhausted because buffalo were nearly driven to extinction. Buffalo chips did prove to be a lifesaving fuel source for travelers on the Oregon and Mormon Trails.

With the demise of the buffalo, prairie coal and Herefor d lump cow chips became the predominant fuel on the western Plains. Texas cattle arriving for shipment as well as Nebraska ranches became important sources of the chips. A common sight outside the door of a soddy home would be huge stacks of chips. A typical fall activity for settlers included spending two or three weeks gathering chips before the onset of winter.

Fossil Fuels to the Fore

By 1900, coal began arriving in Nebraska by rail and was distributed to towns near railroads. Oil fields appeared across the mid-continent region and oil became popular for use in heating and cooking stoves. Regional natural gas wells were opened, pipelines constructed and gas lighting became a fixture in wealthier homes.

But in rural areas, corn cobs remained a staple for heating and cooking before being displaced by fossil fuels. By 1960, corn cob piles had largely disappeared with the advent of the modern corn picker that left cobs in the fields.

Tomorrow's Fuel As Well?

On the surface, fuels used by pioneers and today's efforts to produce fuels from biomass and animal wastes give the impression we have come full circle in the fuel cycle.

However, there are some differences. Fuel was a matter of survival for the pioneers. Environmental considerations were not factors, except when smoke filled their sod houses. Animals of yesteryear were usually free ranging, and the dried chips were relatively clean.

Today, fuel is being produced from corn, soybeans and other biomass resources as alternates to fossil fuels. Protection of the environment and avoiding the effects fossil fuels have on the climate are primary reasons for using renewable energy sources.

Unlike free ranging animals, raising animals in large production centers creates other environmental problems such as odor and water pollution.

The use of biochemical converters, or anaerobic digesters, to produce methane gas from the animal waste is one approach to dealing with this expanding industry. More information on converting animal waste to other uses can be found in the box at right.

Further information on fuels used by Nebraska pioneers can be found in: