Burning Love: Richard Richardson's Passion for Potbellies and Parlor Stoves
Above, Richard Richardson, center, and two of his children, Sara Labonte and Jaime Labonte, stand beside a cylinder stove in the showroom of the Good Time Stove Co. in Goshen, where they sell antique stoves. At the left, onthe floor, is a line of parlor stoves and behind them are the smaller four o'clock stoves.
On Left is a Scorcher potbelly stove, circa 1880-1910.
Richardson has made the outside of his Good Time Stove Co. building on Route 112 in Goshen a work of art. In the back yard is a sculpture garden.
There are two ways to find the Goshen headquarters of the Good Time Stove Co. First - and perhaps most obviously - you can be in the market for a painstakingly refurbished antique heating stove or kitchen range.
It's a niche market, but after more than 30 years in the business, the Richardson family enjoys a global reputation. For stove connoisseurs and newcomers alike, their business tends to be both your first and only stop.
The other way to discover the Good Time Stove Co. is simply to drive by the Route 112 museum and showroom and say, "Whoa! What the heck is that?"
At first glance, the building - adjacent to the Richardson family home - is an explosion of color, quirky sculpture and rehabilitated refuse. It looks like an antique shop run by Willy Wonka, with all the curios tacked to the exterior walls.
"I collect sizes and shapes," says Richard "Stove Black" Richardson, while showing a visitor around recently. He wears a cowboy hat over thick silver hair. His sneakers are handpainted bright red, yellow and blue, and the back of his jacket proclaims that "Happiness is a warm stove and a cold beer."
"People really seem to like the buildings. I didn't know they were going to be such a draw," he says.
Richardson loves offering outside tours, boasting that you can spend hours studying a few square feet of wall, always turning up some new piece - a bead, a knotted rope, a square of burnished metal. Last summer, a woman pulled in around lunchtime and was still shooting photographs at dusk.
There are hand-painted saw blades, antique bed frames with plastic toys dangling from them, kaleidoscopic maple syrup buckets, masks that run the gamut from comic to frightening.
The front door of this Glenwood parlor stove in Ricahrdson's showroom is decorated with cherubs
Crisscrossed machetes reflect the bright winter sun. Mailboxes recline beside birdhouses which are propped against oven racks adjacent to discarded road signs.
And if all that doesn't get your attention, there's always the 20-foot-tall tin man with the gleaming red heart who stands front and center waving to passersby. A local farmer, using the tin man as a gargantuan scarecrow, offered to trade it to Richardson for stove parts.
Richardson, who has since acquired a costume that allows him to resemble the two-story statue: couldn't say no.
Today, tin man costume in the closet, Richardson takes a step back and considers the building that has been home to his stove business since the early '70s.
"I like to see old things - stuff that's been discarded and given up on - come back to life," he says. Then he smiles and offers what might be the Good Time Stove Co.'s corporate motto - "plus, we're just having way too much fun with it."
When Richardson takes the tour inside the museum and showroom, the effect is like the difference between night and day. If the outside is flair and flash, 'then the interior, where the stoves are, is quiet, darker, anchored by iron.
The stoves - most over a century old - have been Meticulously restored. There are squat potbelly stoves, sprawling kitchen ranges the size of small cottages, and ornate stoves with nickel trim and gleaming windows.
Richardson stokes a stove that heats his showwom. "I like to see old things - stuff that's been discarded and given up on - some back to life," he says.
"The stoves ground me," says Richardson, explaining the difference between what's outside and what's inside. He heads to the comer where a Vale Oak stove fills the room with warmth and the pleasant smell of a small cozy fire. The art, he says, feeds his spirit. The stoves, on the other hand, "keep food in the fridge."
Old photographs decorate the walls. There's the first time Richardson was photographed for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. There are framed advertisements from stove manufacturers dating back more than century. There are pictures of family and friends.
Richardson stands with his back to the stove while he talks. His daughter Sara LaBonte, otherwise known as the "Stove Princess," enters the room.
LaBonte, 31, was born at home -literally in the office where she now works each day fielding customer queries, coordinating the shipment of stoves back and forth to clients.
If you want to understand the nuts and bolts of the operation, LaBonte's the one to talk to. Like her father, she is devoted to stoves, and their compatibility is palpable.
When Richardson is trying to find just the right word to end a sentence, she'll supply it. Richardson introduces a subject - the challenge of restoring glass to antique stoves, say - and LaBonte launches a mini seminar.
Indeed, watching them work together and playoff one another lends credence to Richardson's notion that they were business partners in a past life. In this one, apparently, they've perfected the art of having fun while running a successful company.
Richardson, who is divorced, has another daughter Megan LaBonte, known as Stove Parts Girl, who also works for the company, and a son, Jaime LaBonte, no nickname, who does finishing work on the stoves and also handles a 10l of the photography for the company. Another daughter, TinaMarie, died in 2004.
Stoves have always been central to the family. When Sara was born. Richardson refinished an 1894 Highland Grand Cook and gave it to her as a gift. There's a photo in the showroom of that stove. Sara, in booties and kiddie sweater is perched atop it while her father - the beard and long black hair h as the stoves around him then - beams at her.
Those were in the early days of the business - back when Richardson had just become "Stove Black," purveyor of refurbished stoves, self-proclaimed custodian of the lost art of stove. Though he has since farmed out the bulk of the restoration work, in those days he was doing it all by hand himself, going so far as to apprentice himself to a local blacksmith learning to forge, shape and weld on his own.
Asked to share the story of how the Good Time Stove Co. came to be, he and Sara chuckle. It can be summed up in one word says Richardson: destiny.
"I was meant to live right here in Goshen and do this," he says. "This is what the Gods wanted."
Richardson, 59, grew up in New Jersey. In 1971, he was selling women's shoes and his boss offered him a promotion. Richardson had no clue what was on the horizon, but he was reasonably sure it wasn't a corporate career in the footwear industry.
So he passed on the promotion and quit the job. A few days later, a friend announced he was heading to a craft fair in Haydenville and suggested that Richardson, who had never been to Massachusetts, come along for the ride.
"I didn't have anything else to do so I said sure, I'll go to Massachusetts. Within 24 hours, I drove through Goshen for the first time and I said, 'If I could live anywhere in the world this would be it,' " says Richardson.
Within a year, he had moved to town. And soon thereafter, he bought a pair of stoves from a hotel in the Berkshires that was happy to have them off the premises.
"Basically, I'm a collector," he says of the decision. "I had a chance to buy some cool-looking stoves and I did. I liked them and I bought a few more. Suddenly I've got eight stoves and I'm broke so I had to sell a couple to pay the bills."
After a bit of restoring and repairing, selling the stoves was easier than he'd expected. He sought out the fine points of stove history - where they were made, the detail in the cast iron, the challenges in restoration.
He learned the art of iron work. He would break the stoves apart and refinish each piece - sometimes welding
Richardson, whose nicekname is "Stove Black," says his daughter and business partner, Sara "Stove Princess" Labonte, was born in the stove company office. Left, they pose with the "Tin Man of Goshen," which Ricahrdson says he acquired from a farmer by trading stove parts.
To listen to Stove Black and the Stove Princess tell it is to understand that the history of stoves is a uniquely American story. You can't tell it without touching the country's political, social and cultural history. And you can't understand it without an appreciation for the way the country transitioned from a rural backwater to a thriving global super giant.
It is also, as they are both fond of pointing out, the story of how some of what makes the American character both idealistic and indefatigable has been lost by the wayside in pursuit of money and convenience.
"Every stove that we restore and every piece of stove literature that we archive is a piece of America's history that would literally be lost otherwise," says LaBonte. "I feel a great desire to be active in the preservation of all of that."
The predecessor to stoves was the open fire - notoriously dangerous and inefficient. Fires consumed fuel at a rapid pace in exchange for relatively low levels of heat that were all but impossible to contain.
In 1742, Benjamin Franklin is believed to have invented what is called the Franklin Stove. It utilized metal to contain the fire and thus control the flow of heat. Rather than losing warmth up the chimney, the stove redirected the heat into the room where it stood.
Still, it wasn't until the middle of the 19th century that stoves became relatively commonplace for both heating and cooking. Most of the stoves and ranges that the Good Time Stove Company sells date to the period between 1840 and 1930.
In those days, stoves were the center of domestic life says Richardson. Every home had at least one. They were used to heat water for bathing, keep the outside cold at bay and cook meals.
There were stoves at local stores, at restaurants, in hotel rooms. There were stoves on trains. They were starting points for social gatherings and became stock images of the American past, idealized by artists like Norman Rockwell: two old men playing checkers and smoking in front of a hard-working potbelly stove.
At the turn of the 19th century, there were over 2,000 stove manufacturers working 24/7 to satisfy the American need for stoves. Salesmen for The Wrought Iron Range Co. of St. Louis, Mo., used to go door to door, hawking Home Comfort stoves off the back of a horse-drawn wagon.
And the stoves they produced weren't bland or uniform. There were, literally, hundreds of variations out there. Some were small while others took up half a room. Some were ornate to the point of fine art, while others were designed to be workhorses.
There was the Modern Glenwood Parlor Stove, the Ivy Franklin, the Atlantic Silver Moon, the New Era Caboose.
But when interest in alternatives to fossil-based heating fuels spiked in the early 1970s, many people in this country looked to Scandinavia for their model wood-burning stoves. They'd been in use there for decades and the presumption – somewhat inaccurate in Richardson's view – was that Scandinavian stove technology was superior to anything closer to home.
"Nobody chose to look back at an industry that was as huge as our appliance industry is today," he says. "They didn't want to hear about it. They just wanted to move forward."
A lot of those odl American stoves - maybe most of them - were destroyed in World War II, when the war effort's need for iron outweighed the need for stoves that had become, in light of technological developments, essentially antiques.
The Good Time Stove Co. deals in almost all of what remains. Some sellers approach the Richardsons, and they find others· by prowling the Internet, keeping an eye on auctions throughout the Northeast. They are, says LaBonte, experts in finding lost stoves.
Richardson's latest acquisition is an Othello stove that dates back to the 1880. Some seams need to be welded, the doors need to be reset to ensure a tight fit and a new ash pan and lid lifter will be needed.
Walking through the showroom, he gives a loving pat to a Red Cloud potbelly stove - "This was the workhorse," says Richardson. The stove threw out great clouds of heat churning steadily through fuel. Inelegant, perhaps - hence the potbelly - but a steady, reliable performer. These were the stoves that were used in public areas - country stores, hotel lobbies, restaurants.
There's also a sky-blue Harold enamel range there that has already been sold to a California investor.
Richardson's stoves are not merely decorative antiques. All of the stoves are functional and can be used for their original purpose. Their aesthetic beauty, he says, is essentially icing on the cake.
Good Time Stove Co. has sold stoves to movie sets looking to up their historical authenticity quotient. There's pair of potbelly stoves in the upcoming "Hell Boy II" and one in "Amistad" that once stood on the showroom floor.
The company gets calls and internet requests from all across the country and other parts of the world. Richardson's stoves have been shipped as far away as the United Kingdom and France.
These days, much of the restoration is done off site in Nashua, NH. Stove Black and the Stove Princess do the buying and selling – a full-time occupation for her, and close to the same for him.
It takes approximately 30 days to restore a beat up stove to a museum quality that functions safely. The company currently has a 6-month back up so great is the demand.
Asked if he has a favorite stove – to look at, to work on, to talk about – Richardson scoffs. It's literally the only time his brow can be said to furrow. How, he asks, could you possibly have a favorite one?
"I deal in some of the most beautiful stoves imaginable," says Richardson. "I look at all of them as art."
Left, two-level, dual-fuel (wood and gas) stoves at the Good Time Stove Co. Colored enamel, like taht on the light-blue Barstow, second from left, from the 1920s or 1930s, wsa one of the last visual changes before stoves went all to gas.
Over lunch in his kitchen, Richardson points out the yard – several acres of open field on the Goshen/Ashfield town line that lie behind the Richardson home and the Good Time Stove museum and showroom.
In recent years, Richardson has begun pulling back from the stove business – handing the reigns to Sara – and devoting himself to what he describes as "landscape art."
"I was really taken by all the different media you could play with outside," he says. He ticks them off – stone, vegetables, flowers, buildings.
He created small walks, sculpted bushes, piles of stones ill direct walkers here and there. The project fed his artistic side - he felt called to it the same way he felt called to stoves - but it lacked a coherent theme. While he worked, he wondered: Was this a hobby or something bigger?
When Tina Marie died, Richardson realized that what he was creating was a space that could be devoted to healing. "It really became a place where I could release my grief," he says. "That was a real turning point in the garden."
These days, even covered in snow, the garden is a captivating space. There's a small stone amphitheater in the works. There's an enormous ceramic dragon atop a long wall that doubles as - you guessed it - a stove. When the stove is lit, smoke comes out of the dragon's mouth. The garden has a name, Three Sisters Garden, for Richardson's daughters, and a Web site, www.threesistersgarden.com.
Ultimately, says Richardson, he hopes that it can be a place for anyone to visit. "When you walk through the gates, it's like walking into another world," he says. "I want it to be there for anyone who needs it."
The garden hardly supplants his stoves - nor would Richardson want it to. Yet gazing at it helps solidify one's sense that what makes the Good Time Stove Co. successful is not so much that Richardson and his family have cornered a niche market or are exceptional salespeople. It has to do with being aware of how you live and what you leave behind.
So they sell beautiful stoves, preserving a critical piece of America's past. They decorate the outside of the showroom in such a way that people can spend hours delighting in it. They turn a yard into a garden of healing and peace and open it up to the world.
And you always keep your eyes open for what might come next. "I'm 59," says Richardson. "And I'm far from done."