Restoring the Beehive Oven

From an article in the summer 1996 members’ newsletter by Anita Caroll Weldon

“This chimney is safe for another 100 years” stated restorer Ernie Zuraw, who was covered with soot from head to foot. No, Ernie is not a sloppy worker.  Far from it – his work is meticulous. The soot was the result of a unique method he uses to inspect and repair the interior of antique fireplaces.

Hung from a scaffold spanning over the chimney opening on the roof, a thin aluminum-folding ladder is lowered down into the chimney. Ernie climbs down inside and replaces any missing stones, bricks and mortar. He personally inspects the entire cavity, thus insuring the safely of the fireplace. However, the main part of this project was to repair the 18th century pine mantle piece and beehive oven that were damaged in the fire last September 30. The entire mantle had to be removed to access the oven and to remove old squirrel nesting material that originally caused the fire.

A curious treasure was uncovered amid this debris. Resting on one of the stone ledges behind the mantle was the remains of a shoe or slipper belonging to a very small-footed woman or a young girl. According to legend, it was a practice to place a shoe for good luck somewhere in the structure when building a house.  Ernie and his partner, Scott, remarked that they had once found a pair of baby’s shoes in the framing of an 18th century house they were restoring.

Once the mantle was removed, all the stones were re-pointed and the beehive oven was rebuilt. Traditionally the shape of the oven is achieved by building a rounded dome of sand.  The bricks, starting with a soldier coarse, are stacked around the form of the sand.  When the mortar is dried, the sand is scooped out leaving the shape of the beehive. To retain the old look of the interior of the oven, antique bricks found on site were used to replace damaged ones.  In addition, the original mortar was reground and used again, therefore, all the materials used are appropriate to the age of the house.

Finally, the damaged panel on the mantle was restored. Lisa Westervelt, the painting specialist working with Ernie, was brought in  expertly to paint the area to match the original. The project is complete and the shoe has been tucked back in its hiding place behind the mantle to continue to bring The Bidwell House good luck for many more centuries to come.