Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Another West Virginia Connection

“Coal For Sale” announced the handmade sign along a road, catching this West Virginia native's eyes. What? I knew these young volcanic islands had no coal seams, so I was a bit befuddled. I later learned that it is just a shortened term in these islands for charcoal.

As a West Virginian, I always used Kingsford charcoal because they have a plant in our state. There is a big production facility near Parsons in Tucker County, snuggled next to the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River. It is adjacent to the Allegheny Highlands bicycle trail, which I wrote about in my previous blog a few years ago. Here is a picture of my bike parked next to the sign with a portion of the employee parking lot visible in the background.

In America, we typically buy our charcoal in bags from a store. It comes compressed into handy briquettes, all the same size and with a consistent composition. Regardless of the brand name, it was likely made in a huge industrial complex such as the Kingsford plant, a portion of which is pictured again below (note the logo at the top of the tower and the beautiful mountain ridge beyond).
Some manufactured charcoal is imported in bags to Dominica, but there is another way the locals get charcoal—they make it themselves. About six weeks ago, I noticed a guy in our village digging a big hole in the ground, probably about five feet wide and fifteen feet long. He told me he was going to make some charcoal.
After digging the pit, he laid down a couple of long pieces of wood, which form a base upon which the logs are stacked. The idea is to lift up the stack of logs so that some air can pass underneath and reach the length of the pit. After tightly stacking the wood he intends to convert into charcoal, he surrounds the pit with banana tree trunks (visible in the picture above and below), which are pithy and moist. He then covers the stack with dirt, plus vegetation such as banana leaves, to limit the availability of oxygen, thus preventing the logs from fully burning. Finally, some of the ever-present corrugated galvanized sheet metal is placed on top, to divert some of the inevitable rainwater. Then, a fire is started underneath at the front of the pit.
The idea is to get the wood hot enough with a slow, low temperature burn to dry out any moisture and to emit the impurities, yet without enough oxygen to burn freely and completely at higher temperatures. The result leaves nothing except blackened but unburned carbon, which burns quicker and hotter than regular wood (and makes for some delicious barbecue chicken that I enjoy down here).

It is a similar process to what was used in the coke ovens throughout the West Virginia coalfields, where coal was placed in brick ovens, the door sealed to keep out oxygen, and then heated by burning coal underneath. The result was called coke and when it was burned, this drier, purer coal produced much higher temperatures, perfect for the many steel mills we once had in Wheeling, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, etc. You can still see decaying remnants of these coke ovens in many places around West Virginia's coal regions.

Back in our village, he started the fire underneath this pit back in June, prior to my visit back home to West Virginia. After I returned, I found him checking the burn one night. You can see the smoke in the picture above rising through the dirt that had been placed on top. It takes four to six weeks to burn, depending on the size of the pit.
Recently, he has started to recover his charcoal from the pit. In the picture above, you can see the rake he uses to help separate the charcoal from the dirt that had been layered on top. In the picture below, you can see some of the charcoal he has gathered on some galvanized (the short term used down here for corrugated sheet metal). He was sorting through the pieces by hand to ensure they were cool before bagging—that there was no heat left inside them from the pit burn. If any are still hot, they get buried in dirt.
It takes a lot of time, both in man-hours as well as in the weeks it takes for the slow burn. However, it does become a money maker when it is all done. He bags the charcoal up into large bags (feed bags?), as pictured below. As of the other night when I last spoke with him, he has 18 bags so far, but he is still waiting for the far end of the pit (the fire starts at the front and slowly works its way down the pile to the back) to finally cool down. He says from a pit that size, he usually gets about 20-25 bags at $50 to $60 apiece (about $20 US dollars each). He told me he could transport his bags and sell them in the marketplace in Portsmouth, but he prefers to just keep it at his place and sell it to folks here in the village.
It was fascinating to learn about how charcoal is made down here. While I appreciate the heritage and authenticity of homemade charcoal, I think I will continue my own tradition of supporting my home state and buying Kingsford when I'm back in the USA.

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