Posted by: acooksca | 07/19/2010

Historic Iron Kitchen Ranges

John Muir Home Kitchen

“You know, some historic California houses still have original iron ranges” Hank Dunlop remarked. At that moment we were at La Mar Cebicheria in San Francisco sampling ceviches which, by definition, never see heat. I can’t recall what connected uncooked seafood to rare wood-coal fired stoves but Hank had caught my attention.

Hank has worked in the field of restoration and preservation since the 1960’s. He is a noted expert on nineteenth and early twentieth century California interiors. “There are some very impressive ranges in restored homes. The Bidwell Mansion in Chico has what’s called a Brick-set Stove. John Muir House in Martinez has a French-set Range that appears to be the original.” Hank worked on the interior restoration plans for the Bidwell Mansion. “Both of these kitchens date from the 1880’s”.

My grandmother’s copy of the White House Cookbook, printed in San Francisco in 1915, was written for use with iron kitchen ranges. In the practical advise section you find “Articles Required for the Kitchen” which includes: 1 stove, 1 coal shovel, 2 coal hods and 2 coal buckets.

It was not until 1910 that gas ranges were first manufactured. They were impractical until 1913 when the automatic oven temperature regulator was developed. It took another 20 years for gas to replace wood-coal burning kitchen ranges in the majority of American homes.

Bidwell Mansion, Chico

John Bidwell was one of the first American pioneers to cross the Sierra Nevada into Alta California. Bidwell worked as business manager for John Sutter at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 and personally carried the first gold sample to be assayed to San Francisco. Later that same year, Bidwell struck gold on the Feather River. By the 1850’s he had purchased 30,000 acres in the Northern Central Valley called Rancho Arroyo del Chico. He planted vast fruit orchards, wheat fields, built a hotel, post office, flour mill and eventually, laid out the town of Chico.

Bidwell was an influential Californian all his life. He was appointed a brigadier general of the California State Militia in 1860. In 1865 to 1866, Bidwell served as the California representative to The House of Representatives in Washington. His rank required a grand house in which to welcome visitors. In1868 work was completed on The Bidwell Mansion, a three story, 26-room showpiece that had gas lights, running water, flush toilets and an air cooling system.

The Bidwell Mansion today is a state historic park. One wall is dominated by an elegant six-foot tall iron stove, put in during an 1880’s kitchen remodel. It is set into in a brick cubbyhole. There is an expansive flat iron cook-top. Below, heavy doors close off fire boxes where wood or coal burn. Two large ovens stand above the flat top and utilize the heat that rises from the back of the fire boxes through a flu. At the top are smaller warming ovens that probably kept a toasty supply of John Bidwell’s favorite “up-to-the-minute-biscuits”.

John Muir Home, Martinez

The well known naturalist is linked with conservation of many cherished sites. John Muir’s camping trip in Yosemite, with President Theodore Roosevelt, led to the area’s preservation as a National Park. Muir helped found the Sierra Club, campaigning to establish many national monuments, including what would become Muir Woods. His books and journals were cornerstones of the American conservation movement. Today the Muir home is a National Historic Site.

 “This was what John Muir called his scribble room. It looks the same today as when he did his writing here” Irene, a guide at the Muir Home told us. “This was a successful working farm and from his second story window he could look down over the property. In fact, in the hills above the house is Muir Station, an old stop on the railway built to transport the farm’s produce to market. In particular the farm was known for its peach orchards.”

The kitchen has the original iron range, set on a platform of white bricks. As we peered into the ovens Irene mentioned that the Black Diamond Mine on the north face of near-by Mount Diablo provided coal for the stove. The cook kept the stove going for long hours every day to provide meals for the family, their guests and farm workers. A Chinese man, prehaps the long-time Muir family cook, smiles proudly from a photo behind the stove.

“They would have baked corn bread and pies, had fish from the river and the Bay and like all farms, kept chickens and pigs” Irene explained. “I grew up in Martinez myself and remember the hills just behind here being full of deer and pheasants so they would have those on the table as well. The cooking would be simple and abundant.”

You can wander about the John Muir Home and property on your own but Irene shared delightful details of the house and family that we would have missed. The visitors’ center also has a worthwhile short film about the life of John Muir. The site is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

The opulent Bidwell Mansion is packed with period-perfect furnishings. The interior of the mansion is seen by taking a tour which points out the many ingenious inventions in the home and tells of legends surrounding the mansion. The mansion is closed Thursdays and Fridays.



  1. I live in New England and I STILL do all my cooking on a 1910 coal fired cast iron Glenwood kitchen range. it heats all my domestic hot water as well for it is fitted with a cast iron hot water front connected to a large 60 gallon range boiler. Once you master managing a coal fire , you can cook as well and in some instances better than on a modern range. One can even broil quite successfully year round with the broiling odors and smoke going right up the chimney. I am amused when kitchen “historians” often refer to coal ranges as black iron ,dirty ,smoke belching behemoths. In most instances they have never really cooked on one or they didn’t learn how to use one correctly. In addition to cooking meals, they can warm plates, dry mittens in winter , raise bread dough and heat several rooms very efficiently,

  2. Nice article, Karen. I love all houses, and of course, old stoves. Roons and I will have go sometime. It’s not so far away, but seems like we never go in that direction.

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