MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
If you travel south along Route 27, just outside Tekonsha, Michigan, you'll come across a carefully painted sign that says Antique Stoves. And if you follow the arrow down the dead end lane, you'll find a little white farmhouse surrounded by a collection of gutted stoves and rusted parts, a graveyard filled with the ghosts of kitchens past. It, quite frankly, looks like a junkyard, but to Ed Semmelroth, this field is full of treasure. Every knob, every valve, every hulking piece of metal has a unique history, and in his hands, a future.
Mr. ED SEMMELROTH (Antique Stove Collector): Oh, I got some beauties to show you. I got one I just got in the other day and it's in the garage right now.
NORRIS: Semmelroth is the founder and owner of AntiqueStoves.com. He's part of a growing cadre of Americans who collect, cook, restore and generally worship old stoves for their design, craftsmanship and superior performance. And among this group of devotees, Ed Semmelroth is the man, actually the stove man. He's legendary for his passions and his skill in restoring old stoves to nearly perfect condition.
Mr. SEMMELROTH: This one is actually a Chambers, it's sort of a yellow stove, Chambers.
NORRIS: That's a six burner or four burner?
Mr. SEMMELROTH: That's a three burner with a deep well and a griddle and broiler; single oven but best oven you probably will ever get your hands on.
NORRIS: That looks like it's in pretty good shape.
Mr. SEMMELROTH: Sort of, but you're looking at the porcelain, and from a functioning point of view, there's a lot of work that needs to be done to that. They're built like Sherman tanks so the porcelain can look really good, but it still needs to have the insides worked on quite extensively.
NORRIS: And Semmelroth does that work in a converted barn that looks like a cross between an automotive shop and iron foundry and an appliance showroom where time stopped long ago.
Mr. SEMMELROTH: Storage is an issue, as you can probably gather, in the amount of time it takes to break everything apart and store it.
NORRIS: How many stoves and ranges do you think you have here in this room?
Mr. SEMMELROTH: In here? Well, there's complete and then there's in pieces. The ones in pieces probably represent 400 or 500 stoves that I've taken apart on this wall.
NORRIS: Despite the number of items stockpiled in the barn, Semmelroth insists that he's very selective when he buys.
Mr. SEMMELROTH: I buy things that evoke emotions, some design that created a feeling. Not all things create feelings. I either buy what I love or what I hate, and I figure that if I love it, somebody else will love it. And if I hate it, somebody else will love it. But as long as it evokes an emotion, it'll stir something in them and that's what they're looking for in their houses.
NORRIS: Now it's hard to imagine experiencing that rush of lusty emotions when you look at some of the rusted hulks in his workshop. But in his eyes, they're simply gems in the rough. Take, for instance. a high-back Chambers model with a green porcelain finish.
Mr. SEMMELROTH: It's very dirty at this point. See how the color sort of fades in and out on it?
NORRIS: It's sort of a pistachio green.
(Soundbite of a rusty hinged door closing)
NORRIS: It's a stove but it almost looks like a hutch.
Mr. SEMMELROTH: Rolltop bread warmer, first oven, below that a very large broiler...
(Soundbite of oven door)
Mr. SEMMELROTH: ...and a second oven down there.
NORRIS: Is that eight burners?
Mr. SEMMELROTH: Six burners and two coffee warmers.
NORRIS: Oh, OK.
Mr. SEMMELROTH: They're very small burners.
NORRIS: So coffee warmers meaning just smaller burners and very low flame.
Mr. SEMMELROTH: Just small ones--yes, very li--about an inch across.
NORRIS: What's this lever right here?
Mr. SEMMELROTH: That would be a early carbon rod thermostat. Actually, they work really well. It's before the age of planned obsolescence.
NORRIS: Spend a short time with Ed Semmelroth and he'll tell you that stoves used to be manufactured in regional foundries where a premium was placed on durability and craftsmanship. He'll note probably several times that stoves changed in both design and function when America began embracing conveniences like frozen dinners and microwaves. And while he's careful not to disdain the sleek chrome high performance stoves of today, he'll also tell you that they can't hold a candle to the stoves that he restores. And he should know because to do his restoration work, he operates on the guts of these stoves, on parts made of cast iron instead of resin, molded steel instead of alloy. Semmelroth has always been handy with mechanics. He inherited those skills from his father, who ran a machine shop. His mother still lives in the house next door to the workshop. And though Semmelroth lives where he was born, his search for old stoves takes him across the country.
Mr. SEMMELROTH: We got a yellow eight-burner Imperial out of a church in Shelbyville, Indiana. It had been used quite extensively over the years, you now, 70, 80 years of use on something like that, it's served a lot of people. We brought it back, put an awful lot of work into it and I had a gentleman call who was a professional chef in San Francisco. And he wanted something for his house. I told him I had that, and it's, like, it's saved and it's now in a guy's home that's going to appreciate it as long as he lives. His friends will appreciate it. His family will appreciate it. That was a very satisfying maneuver.
NORRIS: Semmelroth sells most of his finished stoves on the Internet, but he does keep a storefront showroom on Main Street in Tekonsha.
(Soundbite of a door)
Mr. SEMMELROTH: These came out of very upper end houses.
NORRIS: The collection there ranges from squat wood burning models to gleaming high backs, some in candy color hues.
Mr. SEMMELROTH: The 6300 series, the white and chrome ones came out of the really upper end houses.
NORRIS: These old models are said to be so well insulated that you could store a frozen dessert in one oven while roasting a chicken in the other.
Mr. SEMMELROTH: This one looks more done than that one because it is. Both of these are Magic Chef thousand series. This is a chamber we've taken right down to the bare bones.
NORRIS: Ed Semmelroth says he's not just saving old stoves, he's also trying to maintain a link to a fading way of life, to that time when the stove, not the television, was the center of home life, that era when bread was home baked, canning was a necessity and hearty soups and stews were kept simmering on a low flame while the family spent the day tending to crops and livestock.
Mr. SEMMELROTH: Being able to sell something to somebody that was just like their grandmother's and they grew up around it, that's pretty gratifying.
NORRIS: What happens in those cases? People come in looking for what?
Mr. SEMMELROTH: Exactly what grandma had. Because the best memories of their childhood were when they were being completely spoiled by their grandparents and grandmas are fabulous cooks, fabulous cooks. I don't know what it is when a lady reaches the grandma stage, they usually can cook fabulously well. At least when you're five years old, you think so. And so they're coming in, looking for that for their grandkids. They want to carry that on. It really makes you smile when you can help those people out along those lines, just makes you smile.
NORRIS: Semmelroth will not sell his stoves to just anybody. He makes sure they find a good home. Some wind up in museums or historical centers, but he prefers to see them in a working kitchen.
Mr. SEMMELROTH: This will go into a house where somebody has put a lot of effort into their house and have a color scheme that will match. There's a lot of people that like very subtle tones like this, someone that likes to cook and is serious about cooking and wants a very cozy feel.
NORRIS: His buyers pay between $1,000 and $20,000 for a refinished stove. And the irony, he notes, is that most people wealthy enough to make such a purchase probably don't have a lot of time to spend in the kitchen. But even so, he saved another stove, another piece of American history from the scrap heap. And Ed Semmelroth takes quite a bit of satisfaction in that.
You can see photos of Ed Semmelroth and some of his stoves at our Web site, npr.org. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.