Monday, May 6, 2013

Chimney's Made of Cats? MEEOWWW! ~ Ramona K. Cecil




While researching my latest released novel, Heart’s Heritage, I came across the term “cat-and-clay chimney.” The phrase sparked both curiosity and a tinge of horror. I couldn’t help envisioning my childhood pet, Fluffy, and scores of his feline brethren plastered among the stone and mortar of a log cabin’s chimney.


Relax, all you cat lovers. Like me, I’m sure you’ll be relieved to learn that no cats were ever injured or killed in the making of any chimneys—at least not that I know of. “Cat-and-clay” actually refers to a kind of chimney construction using sticks and clay instead of bricks or stones. The “cat” part of the term is from the old Scottish language and refers to oblong rolls of pliable clay mixed with weeds, grass, horsehair; anything at hand that can help to reinforce the clay and hold it together.

The cat-and-clay, or also known as “mudcat” and “stick and mud” construction appears to have been brought to America by early Scottish and Irish immigrants. When early pioneers—many of Scots-Irish heritage—build their first homes on the American frontier they found an abundance of clay and wood, but not always an abundance of good stone. Or in some cases they simply needed to construct a sturdy cabin quickly and didn’t have the time or manpower to lug tons of stone to their building site. While the man/men of the family constructed the chimney’s wooden frame, the women and children could easily fashion the clay and grass “cats,” which were a 
lso used as chinking between logs of the cabin’s walls. Even when field stones were accessible, cabin builders would often use them only in construction of the chimney’s hearth and firebox to about four feet high. Finishing the upper part of the chimney in cat-and-clay made the job go much quicker.
           
A man named Oliver Johnson recounts in his reminiscences of Early Marion County in A Home in the Woods, Pioneer Life in Indiana:
“When the back wall and jam was laid up with mud cats to the top of the frame, the chimney was started. It was cribbed up out of oak sticks, two laid one way and two the other, with a layer of soft clay under each stick. As you was goin’ up the chimney, you kept reachin’ down on the inside and outside with handfuls of soft clay to smear on a good coat.”

There were drawbacks in this type of chimney construction, which Johnson also chronicled in his reminiscences admitting: “The heat and the rain would cause the clay to fall out. When that happened, you had to tear down the chimney and build it over. Once in a while it would catch fire, and then you had to run out and grab a pole, jam it back of the chimney and pry till it fell over.”

Spring came late to Indiana this year. We’ve found ourselves continuing to rely on the furnace’s heat deep into April. But the next time a shiver compels me to trudge over to the thermostat to bump it up a degree, I don’t think I’ll grumble. At least I didn’t have to build a chimney made of cats.  



Ramona K. Cecil lives in southern Indiana, where she writes historical romance novels for the Christian market. Most of her stories are set in her native Hoosier state as was her latest, Heart's Heritage, which released in January. You can check out Heart's Heritage and her other books at www.ramonakcecil.com.


23 comments:

  1. Interesting info, Ramona. I've never heard the term cat-and-clay. I really enjoyed those pictures. Do you know where those cabins were built? I can't imagine what a pain it would be to have to rebuilt your chimney, especially in the middle of winter.

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    1. Hi, Vickie. "Cat-and clay" was new to me, too. I believe cabins pictured are from the Midwest. I'd have to go back and check the specific states. However, it seems cat-and-clay chimneys were used in log home construction from the Eastern Seaboard to beyond the Mississippi River; wherever timber was more prevalent than good "chimney building" stones. I agree about having to keep rebuilding the thing. What a pain!

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  2. Ramona, I love the way you weave these historical tidbits into your stories. Heart's Heritage is no exception. Just love that story! Thank you for this nice bit of history!

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    1. Hi, Louise! Aw,thank you so much. I'm glad you like the story. I really enjoy working historical tidbits into my books---something we share in our writing. You do a great job of that yourself, lady. ;)

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  3. So interesting...to think that was their first reaction to tip over the chimney! Thanks for the tidbit today! truckredford(at)gmail(dot)Com

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    1. Hi, Eliza. Yes, I found that surprising as well. I'm guessing someone before them had learned what worked best to put out one of these fires, so that was the first thing they tried. Very odd. Thanks for stopping by. :)

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    2. Eliza, that was what caught my attention too. To think that if the chimney caught fire, the quickest and easiest way to save the rest of the cabin was to tip over the chimney.

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  4. Ramona, that is so interesting. I live in southern Indiana too. I love learning about our history. Thanks so much for sharing.

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    1. Hi, Deanna! From what I gather, cat-and-clay type chimneys were used a lot here in Indiana. Indiana history is one of my passions. I love learning about our Hoosier state and sharing what I've learned with others. One of my favorite Indiana history books is "Historic Indiana" by Julia Henderson Levering. I highly recommend it. My copy is a second edition, and it was printed in 1910! But I recently found the book available for free download from Google Books. I especially like that it's written in such an easy-to-read conversational style, not jut a list of dry, historical facts.

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  5. Very cool information! I agree with Eliza, crazy that they had to "tip over" the chimney to put the fire out! What a fun post today. :)
    Susan P

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    1. Hi, Susan! Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Like I told Eliza, the tipping over the chimney thing surprised me, too. I never understand people who say they just aren't into history. I'm always uncovering something interesting and surprising in my historical research.

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  6. another interesting post, never heard this about this type of chimney before..I like reading here because I learn from you guys...
    thanks for sharing.
    Paula O(kyflo130@yahoo.com)

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    1. Hi, Paula! That's one of the reasons I love this blog, too. I LOVE history, and there is always something new and interesting to learn here. For me, discovering a new historical tidbit is like finding a piece of buried treasure. :)

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  7. Here in NC, we have a team called the Mudcats but that refers to catfish here. I love the regional differences.

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    1. Hi, Julie. Yes, "mudcat" is an alternative term I found for this kind of chimney. Actually, I like that better than cat-and-clay. :)

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  8. Fascinating stuff. I had no idea.

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    1. Hi, Karla! Thanks! I think so, too. I'd actually seen pictures of cabins with that kind of chimney, but didn't know what they were called. Glad you found it interesting. :)

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  9. Wow, I won't be grumbling any time soon either. Wow, seems like more trouble than they were worth. Very happy that cats were not used to make them. :o)

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    1. LOL, I agree on all counts, Debbie. Life was rough in the early 19th Century. Not surprising that the average life expectancy in 1812 was 32. YIPES!! I'd have been gone a long time ago. LOL

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  10. We have it so easy today! I can't imagine having to knock down my chimney and rebuild it constantly! Our lives are so easy and blessed - I wonder if we appreciate it like we should?

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    1. I agree, Bethany. I know I take all my neat labor-saving devices for granted most of the time. Once in awhile though when I pop something into the microwave, I wonder what my grandmothers would have thought about such a gadget. :)

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  11. We are enjoying a wonderful, sunny day, and I won't complain with the late start spring made this year in MN! It is such a treat to see even a little bit of green on the grassy areas, and the trees are looking different than they were a few weeks ago! Glad I did not have to rebuild a chimney in all that 'wonderful' April weather we had!
    I am rather glad to hear that real cats were NOT used...lol

    bettimace(at)gmail(dot)com

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    1. I'm sure you had to wait even longer for spring up there in Minnesota than we did down here in Indiana, and it was long enough coming down here. LOL I agree, I'd much rather be shopping for bedding plants than rebuilding a chimney. Sheesh! I'm glad no cats were used in making the chimneys, too. Cats were my first pets, so I have a warm place in my heart for the furry little critters. :)

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