Fort Knox oven fired up after century-long hiatus

Posted July 04, 2010, at 10:37 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:08 p.m.

PROSPECT, Maine — Living history interpreters and visitors had a hot time and some home cooking at the old fort this weekend.

For the first time in more than a century, a large oven built into the wall of Fort Knox has been fired up and used to prepare meals.

This Independence Day weekend, the wood-fired oven was heated up as living history interpreters prepared dishes such as beans, bread and cake. Fort visitors sampled the dishes and talked to the interpreters about the history of the state-owned fort and how food was prepared in the mid-1800s.

“We’ve had a very positive response from the public,” interpreter “Miss Rose” said about bringing the oven back to life. “It’s a big draw to get people here.”

On Sunday, the history interpreter set out food for visitors, telling children that in the 1800s everyone in a household would have to help make sure dinner was prepared. With her encouragement, several children eagerly brought in wood from the courtyard to keep the oven going.

Miss Rose — who declined to give the name she uses when not at the fort — said the ovens have not been used since at least 1898, when troops were garrisoned outside the fort during the Spanish-American War. Because the troops were outside, it’s possible the oven was not used even then and has not been fired since the fort was built. The fort was constructed between 1844 and 1869 but was never completed, she said.

Miss Rose said that in May, when she put wood in the oven and lit it for the first time in over a century, it took awhile before it was ready to cook food.

“After four hours of smoke, it took me from a Thursday to a Sunday to bake all the moisture out,” Rose said. “It’s a massive, massive oven in there.”

The main part of the oven extends about 20 feet back into the subterranean wall and is about 15 feet wide and a couple of feet high. Near the floor is a door behind which wood is placed and coals are stoked to produce heat. The heat rises through a recently fabricated grate into a side chamber that helps circulate air through the oven. The main part of the oven, accessed by a large cast-iron door, is to the left of the side chamber.

But despite the heat produced by the oven, the room where it is located on Sunday was relatively cool compared to the fort’s sunny courtyard. The thick brick and granite walls and roof help to insulate the fort’s interior from the temperatures outside, even with the oven’s heat.

“We’re being very careful,” Rose said. “I maintain it at 300 degrees.”

Rose uses a hoe to stoke the coals and push dishes back or pull them forward in the main chamber. On Sunday, she had several pies baking inside. She said the grate immediately above the coals could be used to boil pots of water for meat or pasta. All the recipes used, including a sweetbread recipe she got from her grandmother, date from the mid-19th century, she said.

Rose said the program, which is being promoted by Maine Department of Conservation rather than Friends of Fort Knox, doesn’t have the funding to run on a regular schedule. She said she next plans to fire up the oven July 23-25, when the Battle of Fort Knox annual living history re-enactment will be held. She said she plans to cook a pasta dinner and bread for the battle re-enactors, and possibly a beef and beans dinner as well.

“Right now, that’s what we have the funds for,” she said.

Rose said some home-school groups and Cub Scout troops have expressed interest in coming to the fort to learn more about the ovens and the fort history.

“The ideal scenario would be to have this on a regular basis,” Rose said of the living history exhibit. “We want to get the kids involved and pass it down to them.”

Deb Flint, a Bangor resident who was visiting the fort Sunday with relatives, said she visited the fort often as a child and frequently wondered what it would have been like to see the unused oven in operation. She moved out of state but recently moved back to Maine after living in California for 10 years, she said.

During her visit Sunday, she was pleasantly surprised to see that the oven had been brought back to life.

“I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,” Flint said. “That’s a piece of history I am glad I could be a part of.”