Charcoal Burning

Gunther in his book Harz, 1910, gives the following description of the trade of charcoal burning:

While the forestry workers will spend at least one night a week under the same roof as their families the charcoal burners will only see their village on very special occasions during the whole of the summer, half of the year, because the charcoal kilns will burn on Sundays as much as during the rest of the week. But once a week the charcoal burner's wife will be on her way with her wicker basket in order to bring bread, something to eat with the bread and other supplies to her husband. Since one master's charcoal clearing usually consists of four to six kilns that are kept working at any one time but are at different stages, one visit at one of the clearings will suffice to become acquainted with all the work of the charcoal burning industry! - Here we are watching the erection of a kiln: Two poles form the centre of a circular `coal area', round pieces of timber are placed around them almost vertically, layer by layer, in such a way that an air shaft is left between the poles right down to the ground and down on the ground there remains a horizontal air shaft. In another place assistants are busy covering a completed kiln construction about 3 meters in height with twigs and grass and also with a whole lot of earth and coal dust. Once the kiln is ready the charcoal burner (master) will set it alight by means of a folded-up, resin-filled piece of bark that he inserts, with the help a stick, through the air shaft into the pieces of wood in the middle of the kiln.

The construction of a charcoal kiln

Several kilns are already burning away. The one with the white-greyish smoke was lit only the day before yesterday, another one, blue on all sides, has reached the stage at which the charcoal is already 'fermenting'. The control over the fire, 'governance of the fire', is the charcoal burner's special skill. Quite frequently he has to re-route the wind shafts and create draft holes on the leeward side of the kilns. At other times he has to repair cracks in the kiln's covering as the fire keeps wanting to burn the coverings. For this purpose he uses a long pole or he will try to heal the cracks by means of covering them with pieces of turf. The charcoal burner cannot relax either day or night and - like the captain of a ship - he has to divide up the time into 'watches'.

A charcoal kiln in the forest

It is a real pleasure to watch the filling up of the burning kilns in the evenings. You can see the sooty figures enveloped in smoke, by the light of the brightly burning glow of the coal, as they handle their material most vigorously on top of the kilns. For a whole week the kilns must be refilled with wood each day to the extent to which they have burnt down. The charcoal burner will lay his 'steps' consisting of a thick, long log with carved-in footsteps against the kiln, he will climb up these 'steps', will shovel away the covering from the sunk-in lid, will push down the coal with his long pole, will hammer in the wood that his assistants pass up to him, will then replace the lid protecting it with further coverings (of ashes and twigs and moss). All this has to be completed as quickly as possible, since the longer the kiln is allowed to burn away in the open the more of the coal will turn to ashes. When the coaling process is completed the kiln will turn into one glowing mass, a terrifyingly beautiful sight in the dark night.

The charcoal burner's hovel, his living quarters, is not unlike that of the forestry worker. Young spruce of the thickness of an arm are knocked into the ground forming a circular shape. They are bent at the top to make a conical shape and are covered with large pieces of bark on the outside, the gaps on the inside are plugged with moss. A low opening with a small overhang serves as both door and window; in the middle of this hovel a stone construction makes a fireplace and there are benches all around this standing close against the wall. Covered with pine twigs and moss these benches also make up the sleeping quarters, the master on the right, his assistants on the left and the boys somewhere in the background. Several small cupboards contain the eating provisions. In the evenings the tired workers will camp around the crackling fire whose smoke tries in vain to escape and they will prepare their beloved charcoal-burner's soup consisting of slices of bread, water, salt, pepper and butter; they will complete their meal with bread and sausage and a sip of brandy. After this they will make up the fire once more, close the door and soon it will only be the breathing of the sleepers that will intercept the silence and loneliness of the forest.

The 'Hillebille' (alarm), a beech plank and a wooden hammer fixed between two trees, that in the old days used to serve the charcoal burner to assemble his comrades for meals from distant kilns and also as an alarm signal to gather all men of the same trade from considerable distances has not been in use for a long time.

The charcoal burner whose loneliness is usually shared by a shaggy dog is on the most friendly terms with the animals of the forest. The shy deer will play happily within his vicinity and the careful stag will trot through the smoke of the kiln without special concern.