UNION, Conn. — Folks in Union still talk about the time a local farmer came out of his house one frigid winter morning in the late 1960s and discovered that he didn't have to break the ice to water his chickens.
A kiln had blown apart during the night at the Connecticut Charcoal Co. a half-mile away. Its 1,500-degree heat warmed the land, and the late Lloyd Eaton Sr.'s chicken trough.
It has been nearly 20 years since one of those massive brick kilns blew sky-high, but the centuries-old process of turning slabbed hardwood into charcoal still has its risky moments.
"Gasses build up, and if the kiln doesn't vent itself right, you can have problems. I've had explosions, with the doors blowing off, but I've never had the roof go up," said Paul M. Risner, manager of New England's sole surviving maker of pure, natural charcoal.
Charcoal dates to prehistoric times when cavemen trying to warm their rocky abodes realized that charred wood produced less smoke than unburned wood.
In the 5th Century, a female alchemist started using it as eye shadow in England. Three centuries later, the English nobility found that a pot of glowing charcoal could heat castle rooms without the smoke and monoxide produced by coal.
Connecticut Charcoal Co.'s history dates to a devastating hurricane which roared through New England in 1938, felling thousands of hardwood trees in the nearby Quinnebaug Forest. Logging operations resulted in lots of slab wood, which resulted in formation of the charcoal company in 1939.
Today, seven beehive-shaped kilns, rising out of bricks laid 30 feet high, 30 feet in diameter, produce charcoal in a slow, labor-intensive, process.
It takes the firm's five laborers 1 1/2 weeks to load a kiln with 140 to 180 tons of oak, ash, beech, maple or cherry. Each slab is placed by hand, packed as tight as possible so no air pockets will form that can cause gassy hot spots.
Once loaded, the kiln is burned for six to eight days at 1,000 to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Section by section, the kiln is sealed off with mortar in its vent holes as burning is completed. The fire is then smothered by sealing all vent holes. Three days later, water is pumped in. Two weeks later, it is cool enough to unload and bag its 35-ton output.
Connecticut Charcoal is used mostly by copper and brass industries throughout the Northeast. When charcoal is placed atop molten brass and copper, the heating process releases carbon dioxide from the lump charcoal, keeping impurities in the air away from the metals as they are poured.
There has been a downturn in the industrial demand for charcoal because the brass business has fallen off in recent years, Risner says. Since 1980, the firm has been marketing its lump charcoal more heavily for home consumption.
Lump charcoal, in randomly sized pieces, burns hotter and cleaner and lasts three times longer than briquettes, which contain roughly half charcoal and half binders and fillers like cornstarch, lime and coal dust. Its random-size pieces also add a more distinctive hardwood flavor to whatever meat is being grilled.
"You get a high-quality charcoal. The question is whether it will remain feasible to do it," said Risner, plant manager since 1980.
Back-yard use of lump charcoal accounts for about 20% of the firm's sales but hasn't replaced the gradual loss of brass accounts, he said.
"It has been more difficult in a sense because of the shrinking market. I've heard that gas grills are 40% of the home barbecue market and growing. As that goes up, it means there is also a surplus capacity in the briquette industry. That gives us a price problem," Risner said.
Making charcoal is a high turnover job, but one employee, James Pipkin Jr., has worked for the firm for 26 years. "You have to like wood. We have a lot of wood," Pipkin said as he repaired a kiln one sunny morning.
While pushing his product into the backyard market, Risner admits that he personally is not one to go home and throw a steak on the grill after work.
"I tend to get sick of it after making 35 tons a week," he said. "It's like the story of how the shoemaker's children always go shoeless."