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Artistry in cast iron: Antique stoves on exhibit at Fivesparks

“Every antique stove has a story,” said David Erickson, owner of Erickson’s Antique Stoves, located in the old Littleton train depot on Taylor Road. Fourteen of the many Victorian stoves he has collected and restored over 42 years are currently on display at Five sparks, each with a description and history written by Erickson.

In addition to the stoves, the exhibit “Artistry in Iron and Fiber,” which runs through Feb. 4, features woven and quilted works by members of the Nashoba Valley Weavers Guild. Colorful, warm, and soft, the textiles hung on the walls of the large room are a perfect complement to the cast iron stoves.

The stoves on exhibit are “the best of my best,” said Erickson, and they are all exceptional examples of their period and style. Although a couple of stoves are from the 1840s, most are from the 1880s and ’90s, when stove companies tried to outdo one another in design and pattern-making. The stoves’ longevity is attributable to the pure cast iron used. After 1900, the fancy Victorian style was no longer in demand; people wanted more practical stoves with simpler, cleaner lines.

Elaborate scrollwork decorates the coal-burning stove, the Estate Oak Radiator, used to heat Harvard’s first public library, now the home of Fivesparks.

“Art can be iron,” said Erickson; “these are viable pieces of art.” The art is found not only in the shapes of the stoves but also in the smoothness and detail of the molded designs, the inlaid ceramic tiles, and the nickel plate scenes and trim. Behind these finished products are the complex processes of design, pattern-making, and casting, and the challenges of restoration, including the potentially dangerous steps to new nickel plating. Erickson will describe these in a talk called “Warm Glow—My Life Restoring Antique Stoves” at Fivesparks on Sunday, Jan. 23, at 4 p.m.

The antique stove with a story of particular interest to Harvard residents is the Victorian parlor stove to the right of the front desk as one walks into the foyer of Fivesparks. One day in the early 1990s, Erickson took his two elementary school-aged kids, Lauren and Zach, to the public library to do homework. They were downstairs in the stacks when Erickson spotted the base of an old, rusty, cast iron stove off in a corner. The custodian told him there were more pieces in the back. Erickson said it took five years and five presentations to get the library trustees to sell him the stove.

He got all the missing parts needed to fully restore the stove, including the unique finial. Some parts came from Colorado and Oregon, and he bought the missing colored stone “jewels” from a dealer in San Diego. He had the stove in his home for many years and “spiffed it up” in late 2019 to bring to the old library for the Fivesparks exhibit that was later canceled because of the pandemic.

The stove is an 1894 Estate Oak Radiator, as printed clearly on the back. Erickson explained that “Estate” is the name of the stove company in Hamilton, Ohio, that would have shipped the stove to Harvard. The company patented the stove between 1892 and 1894 and would have manufactured the same model for about 10 years. The fireboxes of a particular model stove were available in a range of diameters, each part of a particular series. The front of this stove reads “6 18” which, said Erickson, means it is the largest size—18-inch diameter—of series six. “Oak” indicates a parlor stove that has a large door and would probably burn coal. A “radiator” was a special design for a stove used in public buildings. A fancy outer case served to keep the public from accidentally touching the hot inner chamber.

Erickson has a collector in Minnesota interested in buying the stove, but he said he wants it to go to the old library, where it lived most of its life. It seems likely that the stove was purchased for the Hapgood Memorial wing, built in 1902 with money donated by the library’s generous benefactor, former Harvard resident Warren Hapgood. Perhaps Mr. Hapgood even ordered the stove himself.

An 1844 favorite

Although he said choosing a favorite stove is like choosing a favorite child, Erickson did say the early (circa 1844) two-column stove with the eagle finial is one of only a half-dozen that remain—and only a few of those have the eagle. One is at the Yale library and another at the Albany Institute of Art. Erickson got the stove—or three-quarters of it—from a barn in Bolton. The lower part of the stove is the firebox, and the two serpentine columns function as heat exchangers through an upper chamber. Erickson sent out a query for missing parts—the eagle (the key piece) and parts of the columns. He said it was a lot of work to fit the pieces together since the columns had originally been hand fitted by workmen, with no two exactly alike.

In contrast to a parlor stove, which has a side door through which to feed fuel, the Franklin stove has a large, removable door on the front that can be left off to see the fire. An interesting example is the ornate 1879 “Fire Fiend,” made in Boston. The top of the stove has a fiend’s face (although not at all scary), with swirls of hair surrounding the face. The design is attributed to Arthur Osbourne, a famous sculptor of the era. The swirl motif is carried out on the side and bottom panels and in the two circular fire vent windows in the rounded door.

A remarkable stove is the 1896 Model Grand kitchen range, a rare, special model made to commemorate the Spicer Stove Company’s winning of the highest award at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Made in Providence, Rhode Island, this stove is the only known example complete with all the factory options, such as a deluxe high warming shelf and a water reservoir. It has a beautiful basket weave pattern throughout and—just what every housewife wants!—cherubs dancing around a globe, claiming the stove as the “World’s Best.” Erickson said he found this in a man’s cellar in New Hampshire, complete and in excellent condition.

Erickson bought the old Littleton depot in 1976, and for a while he lived upstairs in what had been the stationmaster’s quarters. He now uses that space for storage of special pieces. He keeps a few stoves on display at the shop, but most of them are stored in bedrooms and the dining and living rooms of his house in Leominster. Many awaiting restoration are stored in his barn.

Most of Erickson’s time is now spent repurposing old stoves to modern use with gas or electric stovetops and ovens. He has one employee at the shop, who has been with him for 32 years. They are a year behind in production to meet orders.

It is clear from his conversations that Erickson is a passionate collector who thrives on the thrill of the hunt. As one of the 250 members of the Antique Stove Association, he has a network of collectors across the country. In tribute to his beautifully restored stoves, Erickson said, “I love coming to work every day.”

The Jan. 23 talk will be limited to 40 people; register at fivesparks.org.

Next week: Artistry in Fiber

David Erickson shows off a built-in coffee roaster feature of the Spicer Stove Company’s Model Grand, World’s Fair Commemorative Range. (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)

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