Steve Dean is a lean man with a mustache, a ready grin, and a polite and comfortably down-home way of speaking. He’s dressed, on a Scott-and-Amundsen kind of day, in a heavy brown jacket and overalls (the sort duck hunters favored in the days before the invention of Day-Glo orange) and a Pioneer Seed Corn hat and gloves (“You buy the corn, they give you the hat”). His face is lined beyond his 41 years, but there’s a boyish spring to his step. His clothes are saturated with stale cigarette smoke from the long drive in his big, lumbering red truck–it holds five full cords of wood, about ten tons–and his tall rubber boots are muddy from the farm. “I walk ’em clean in the city,” he says.
His family has been farming on 1,000 acres of rolling country in Astoria–25 miles from Macomb, and close to the Illinois River–for the last century. They still have the grease buckets from the covered wagons in which Dean’s ancestors made the journey from Virginia. He and his brother, Scott, grow corn, hogs, and soybeans. On a recent frozen morning, Steve Dean drove to Chicago to hawk a load of his latest cash crop: firewood.
Dean knows his way around town better than most farmers in the greater metropolitan Macomb area; he lived and worked in Chicago for five years after he graduated from college. But in 1976, “my grandfather was getting to an age–75–where he had to quit working every day. There was room for me; they needed me. By then I’d experienced other things. It was time to go back.”
He was lucky to have an established farm to go back to. The start-up costs of farming are daunting indeed. “Right now, it’s virtually impossible to start farming without help,” observes Dean. “The cost of equipment is very high, even if you’re just renting the land.” On the way into the city this chilly Saturday, his helper admired a sparkling new John Deere tractor that they passed. “He said, ‘I sure would like one of those,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, well, it’ll cost you about $80,000.’ Everything is terribly, terribly expensive–for instance, I just paid $17,000 for 700 acres of seed–and the profit margins are so thin.” That, he says, is why so many farmers are diversifying, taking factory jobs and other work, putting in a full shift somewhere else and then coming home to their other duties.
It was chance that brought Steve Dean into the firewood business. In 1980 a cousin living in Chicago admired his woodpile, and when Dean found out the prices that a load of lower-quality firewood commanded in the city, he decided to diversify. He asked his cousin to help, and she garnered enough orders to make a first trip to Chicago feasible; now, firewood is an important part of the Dean financial equation.
It was a natural move: the Dean farm is about one-fourth wooded, and they regularly harvest trees for lumber. “Thinning them helps the other trees grow, of course. The ones that are too little or have too many knots get turned into firewood.” The wood is cut in summer–between planting and reaping–when the heat and dry conditions combine to cure it in three or four months.
Dean firewood is hardwood, the best stuff for burning cleanly and throwing off a lot of heat. Dean usually sells oak in all its shades–red, yellow, black, and white. The color doesn’t matter in the burning, all oaks being equal when it comes to density and weight. A ten-horsepower hydraulic log splitter, a chain saw, and his own muscles are Steve Dean’s basic tools in turning wood into well-sized firewood.
He cuts his logs into 16-inch quarters, the standard length around here, and he sells it by the cord–four feet by four feet by eight feet of stacked logs–the face cord (only one row, or 16 inches, deep), and the half face cord.
Dean’s basic price for a face cord is $85, delivered and stacked at ground level (the price is a little higher if he has to lug it all upstairs), and $45 for a half face cord, but he’s always ready to deal–buy a full cord, or talk your neighbors into ordering at the same time, and he’ll save you some money. Those who sell more cheaply, he warns, are usually selling you soft woods like pine, birch, or maple that don’t give you as much burning bang for the buck. He’s encountered other firewood vendors who stack some rows crossways to take up more room, or provide wood that hasn’t been properly cured.
Dean and his helper deliver firewood in early and late fall and through the winter; in October and November, they’re busy with the row crops. They leave the farm around 4 AM on a Saturday, hit their first destination by around 9, and make deliveries–and ring doorbells in neighborhoods where they’re making deliveries–all day. They crash in a motel for the night, keep going on Sunday until the truck is empty, and then go home.
The Deans don’t have an answering machine, but he’s generally at home with his wife and three daughters in the evening or around lunchtime; his wife, Carol, is usually there during the day and will take messages. The telephone number is 309-329-2496.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.