There’s an orange steel cash box bolted to a homemade counter in Mike Garrett’s front yard.
At the moment, it is surrounded by bales of straw, but as the season warms those will be replaced with melons, vegetables and other produce.
Handmade signs tacked to worn wooden posts advertise straw for $5 a bale. Then there’s one sign with a pair of big, googly eyes drawn on it and the message, “Beware, he is watching.”
That appears to be the security system for this self-serve, on-your-honor roadside produce and farm stand north of North Lawrence.
Yeah, that is pretty unique, but it may not even be the most interesting part of Garrett’s yard. Don’t bother looking for it.
The most intriguing part of this yard is what you won’t find — a propane tank.
“I took that out in 1973,” Garrett says as he stacks hickory logs into a pile.
Then, of course, he grabs one and shoves it into a wood furnace.
“I’m no Boy Scout, but I know how to start a fire,” he says. “Lots of newspaper, kindling and common sense. Not necessarily in that order.”
From November to May, there’s always a fire to tend at the Garrett farmstead. At least there is if Garrett intends to stay warm. Garrett heats his 1927, two-story farmhouse entirely with wood.
“Most people have some sort of backup system,” Garrett said.
No backup here. Just a wood pile.
• • •
Garrett doesn’t skimp on the heat. He said the coldest he keeps his less-than-airtight house is 70 degrees. Occasionally, he lets it approach 100.
“I like to run around in my shorts and look out the windows sometimes,” he says with a laugh.
But as a wood burner, controlling his home’s temperature is not as easy as pushing a button on a thermostat. Oftentimes, it means a trip outside. For insurance purposes, that’s where his wood-burning furnace is located. It holds logs up to 18 inches wide and 3 feet long.
“But it is funny, it seems the older I get the smaller the logs get,” Garrett says as he lugs another log from the pile.
A well-lit fire will last for eight hours, or sometimes up to 12, if the north wind isn’t blowing. Most winters, he’ll burn through about five cords (a pile 4 feet high, 4 feet wide and 8 feet long) per year. But it could be as much as 10 cords if he burns “poof wood,” his phrase for elm and other softer woods that produce a nice quick heat but don’t burn as long. He tries to stick with the woodcutters’ triumvirate of hickory, hedge and oak.
Like a vintner, Garrett believes in aging, or “seasoning” as it is called in the woodcutting business. Most of the wood Garrett cuts this year will sit for two years before he burns it. That allows it to burn longer and with less creosote, the dangerous material that can build up in chimneys and start a fire.
Weather permitting, Garrett grabs his $650 turbo-charged chain saw — it will burn jet fuel, if you can afford it — most every day between November and May. He finds some of his trees in the timber that lines his produce fields, but most come from friends who have some trees they want cleared.
“As long as I have friends, I never have to worry about running out of trees,” he says.
He also doesn’t plan to run out of time. He’s 55, and believes he has another 25 years of woodcutting left in him— not to say that there are some days he would rather not.
“The wind can be blowing 20 mph and the temperature might be zero, but if you need wood, it is like going to the store to get milk,” Garrett says. “It is something you’ve got to do.”
• • •
Garrett isn’t quite alone when it comes to area residents who heat entirely with wood, but those who do could hold monthly meetings in a broom closet. Garrett said he may know of two others who do it this way.
But the number of people who cut and burn a lot of wood is fairly large, said Joel Bishop, an owner of Bishop’s, a Perry business that sells and repairs chain saws.
“In the early ’80s it was way more popular, but with the economy the way it is, it has picked back up,” said Bishop, who said many laid-off workers have started selling wood to supplement their incomes.
This winter season has been rough on everybody. The combination of constant cold and wet ground has made it tough for woodcutters to make their way into the timber. Bishop predicts the woods soon will be swarming with cutters.
“I think we’re going to be swamped for the next couple of months as everybody tries to make up for all the wood they’ve burned,” Bishop said.
For those newcomers who think they may like to try, Garrett has some advice.
“Go work out at the gym, and then go cut with somebody who does it,” Garrett said. “See if you really want to do this. The average Joe probably won’t like it.”
• • •
Mike Garrett’s grandpa owned a sawmill in Tonganoxie. Forty-some years ago, he died cutting wood when a tree fell on him.
Long before that, though, Garrett’s family was in the produce business. There’s been a produce stand on this site — which is along U.S. Highway 24-40 just south of the Lawrence Municipal Airport — since 1867. Garrett says it is the oldest produce stand in the state.
“I guess we figured firewood and produce kind of go together,” Garrett says. “It keeps you from having to get a real job.”
But these days, he admits, all this is as much about a lifestyle as anything. When asked, he’s not even sure how much his woodcutting saves him on utility bills.
“You know, I’ve never had to put a pencil to it,” he says.
He guesses maybe about $500 per year, although that doesn’t include the money he makes from selling about 20 cords a year to other folks.
But clearly, there are other benefits.
He likes the aloneness in nature. He likes seeing the wildlife scurry from the whine of his saw. He likes the discoveries, like finding a tree that has grown up around a century-old piece of barb wire.
“It is kind of cool to feel the ground shake when you bring a big oak tree down,” he says.
But alas, even the life of a woodcutter is not without worry.
“I worry about not having my wood cut by the time I start farming,” he says.
Garrett has about four weeks and several more cords to go to ease his mind.