Restoring the comfort of wood-fired stoves
Paxico, KS is the Midwestern center for antique wood stoves
by Leigh Elmore
photos by Patti Klinge
Stove showroom at Mill Creek Antiques in Paxico, KS
There's really nothing like the appeal of warming oneself from the heat of a wood-burning stove. The satisfaction is immediate and endures with the fragrance of wood smoke and the soothing crackle of the fire within the metal hulk.
People raised in cities may not have the memories associated with living with wood heat as experienced by most Midwestern farm families and many residents growing up in the small towns and villages that still dot the map. Despite the convenience of more modern heat sources that supplanted wood burning stoves in the early 20th century, there is still a large contingent out there on the prairie who prefer the ambiance created by a wood stove over propane, natural gas or electric heat that most of us have come to understand as the primary sources for heating our homes.
Steve Hund, owner of Mill Creek Antiques says, "It took me 26 years to talk someone else into coming here and opening a store."
One such person is Steve Hund of Paxico, KS, who owns Mill Creek Antiques a large shop comprising five storefronts on Newberry Avenue, the primary commercial street through the tiny town. While Mill Creek Antiques offers a full line of antiques and collectibles from mid-19th century onward, it's obvious upon entering the store that Hund's main love is wood stoves.
In fact, Hund's specialty is restoring old wood burning stoves for collectors and wood heat enthusiasts from around the country. Mill Creek Antiques in tiny Paxico is probably the major restorer of wood stoves in the lower Midwest. At least Hund believes that to be true. And from the look of his client list and the nonstop activity going on in his shop, we aren't going to argue the point.
Of German ancestry, Hund's family settled in the Paxico area on the eastern edge of the Flint Hills in 1872 and they've been there ever since. "The Irish were directed to settle south of the Kansas River and the Germans, who were all Catholics too, were directed to settle north of the river. So Paxico was established on Mill Creek, which is a tributary of the Kansas," Hund said. "I grew up with wood heat," said Hund, who dates from the mid-20th century himself. "When I moved into my first farmhouse as an adult it needed heat so I got an old wood stove."
He acknowledges that many baby boomers were drawn to wood heat in the early 1970s with the serious energy crisis in 1973 and also because of the "back to the land" movement that drew many suburban-raised young people to seek out self-supporting lifestyles on small farm plots. Most of those rural pioneers eventually returned the city and slipped back into establishment roles, but they never forgot the allure of their old rusty Round Oak stoves.
Before and after - On the left is an example of a Round Oak stove in the pre-restoration condition and and on the right is a completly restored Round Oak stove.
And that's something that Hund can bank on these days, and we don't mean embers and ashes. This year marks the 42nd anniversary of Hund's first store in Paxico that opened in 1973. "I started out in my house, an old farmhouse. I would go to a lot of farm auctions, or people would just call me to help get rid of their trove of junk. A person with $100 and a pickup truck could have a lot of fun at a farm auction in those days," he said.
Today his store is filled with beautifully restored cast iron stoves ranging up to nearly $4,000 for a rare example. Hund has clientele located all over the country and customers who are willing to wait as long as six years for their stoves to be restored properly.
"Sometimes it takes that long to find the correct parts to complete a job." Not that he doesn't have a lot on hand, about half of his repair shop is filled with shelves reaching to the ceiling of old stove parts and patterns, organized as only he knows how, waiting for their turn to be re-used.
Hund began selling stoves in the 1970s and started restoring them in the mid-1980s for himself. "Then I started restoring for other people. They would come to me with Grandma and Grandpa's stove that they had found in the basement and would want to get it in operating condition for sentimental reasons," he said. "We do a lot of that." He estimates that 40 percent of his stove business represents custom restorations, and 60 percent are sales.
This working cook stove is a centerpiece and heat source for the store.
On a recent visit to Paxico we entered Mill Creek Antiques to find sausage simmering atop an old Superior wood-fired cook stove and biscuits were browning nicely in the oven. The cast iron frame was beautifully accented with gleaming nickel-plated pieces and trivets. It is an attention grabber for sure.
"Superiors were manufactured in St. Louis and are pretty common in the Midwest," Hund said. "Superior was a brand of the Bridge Beach & Co."
Most of the stoves that he deals with were manufactured in the Midwest. "My first stove was a Round Oak, made in Douwagic, MI, and my second was made by The Great Western Stove Co. of Leavenworth, KS. The Great Western Company was a really big deal in Leavenworth. In fact, the company is still in business making equipment for the milling industry. The old buildings that housed Great Western are still there and are being converted to luxury condos," he said.
"Both Great Western and Round Oak were very good companies that manufactured products that lasted a lifetime," he said. And thanks to his efforts some of them are getting new lives again.
A restored stove made by the Great Western Stove Co. of Leavenworth, KS
A vintage destination
Today, Paxico, a town of just over 200 souls, is pretty much entirely made up of antique, vintage and art establishments. "It took me 26 years to talk anyone else into coming here and opening a store," Hund said. "Today there are eight antique stores, an art gallery and an art studio," he says with modest pride.
Larry and Margaret Winkler own Aunt Peg's Antiques located across the street from Hund's shop. Larry is a native of the Paxico area and got into the vintage trade in 2011. Over a lunch of Paxico Pork Sausage, (a company owned by Hund's brother, John), the Winklers note that the vintage merchants of Paxico don't consider themselves as competitors, but as partners in the longtime health of their community.
Old Western-style store front of Mill Creek Antiques.
Knowledgeable antique hunters, once they pull off Interstate 70 and drive the mile into town, will probably return again and again, because the treasure trove is rich in this little town. Plus the annual Paxico Blues Festival every September is a great draw for pulling in younger and creative customers, they say.
"We want people to come here," Winkler said. "We get a pretty steady flow from Kansas City, Topeka and Manhattan." "A lot of people have driven by our exits, (Exits 333 and 335), for years and have never stopped," said Hund, "and when they finally do, they are impressed with what this town has to offer."
Nevertheless, Hund and the other Paxico antique dealers recognize they live in the 21st century. "Our business has changed so much through the Internet," Hund said. "We get customers through our website, (www.millcreekantiques.com), it's a big part of what we do. We're out there on Ebay and Craig's List too.
"A website can help build interest in your business. If you're an antique dealer and you're not on the Internet these days, then you're doing yourself a disservice."
He acknowledges that the multiple television shows featuring antiques, such as "American Pickers," are brining in clientele that they haven't seen before. "Young couples are stopping in. They are where it's happening these days. That's very encouraging. They are very savvy. The come with price guides in hand," Hund said. "We were contacted by 'American Pickers' as a possible location for them to shoot, but they realized we weren't dusty and junky enough," Hund said with a smile.
Gene Henson, the skilled artisan who restores the stoves.
Back in the repair shop, craftsman Gene Henson busies himself with the pieces of a customer's restoration project. Henson and his wife moved to Paxico five years ago to be near their military grandchildren who were stationed at Ft. Riley. They're now stationed elsewhere, but Henson has found steady work with Mill Creek Antiques and has stayed on the Kansas plains. Henson says that if he has all the parts in hand and if there's not a lot of welding involved he can get most stoves put back together like new in three days.
"We have to disassemble it. Find out what needs to be replaced and then do it," Henson said. "We deal with a lot of rust." Hund says that they restore 75 to 100 stoves a year.
"If you need a part for your stove where do you go? All the stove manufacturers went out of business (or quit making stoves) in the 1930s. Restorers like me have patterns that we can send to foundries to have new parts made," Hund said. "I'm pretty sure I'm the only business in this part of the Midwest who does this at this level," he said. "Not many people have the collection of loose patterns and parts that I do. It's kind of like a treasure hunt for me."
Barber chair and barstools in the "Man Cave".
More than stoves
Mill Creek Antiques offers more than stoves and is a trove of antiques and vintage items that appeal to a broad range of interests. An old barber chair is the focal point in the shop's "man cave" alcove. "The man cave thing is running pretty strong," Hund said. "I don't know how men get the permission from their wives to spend on their personal environments." The shop has several massive back bars that are popular with man caves. "We just sold a really big one that was 11 feet tall."
The shop is also a licensed dealer for Aladdin Lamps, the oil lamps that are very collectible. "Aladdin is a big part of what we do. We carry all the parts. My customers are users more than collectors. These lamps put out the equivalent of 60 watts. The Aladdin Lamp Co. is still in business."
And there are collectors of stove finials, the decorative pieces that would sit on the flat top surface of a wood stove. "Each model of a Round Oak stove had a different finial; they would come in brass or copper. They are very collectible and some people just want the finial and not the stove."
Does he have a favorite stove or brand?
"I like 'em all and I don't collect any of them."
Leigh Elmore can be contacted at email@example.com
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