THORNDIKE – Trimmed in shiny nickel for looks, faced with clear mica windows for viewing the fire, the Riverside coal stove is a beauty. It’s relatively efficient, too, with a “base burner” design featuring a hopper that can gravity-feed 100 pounds of fuel into the firebox.

This was cutting-edge technology when the stove was built — in the mid-1800s.

“I sold one to a guy who says he gets three days of burn time out of it,” said Basil Littlefield, who was restoring the stove here at Bryant’s Stove & Music Inc.

A period of high oil prices has Mainers moving to alternative heaters, including wood, pellet and coal stoves. Buyers navigate a marketplace of catalytic converters, stainless steel air tubes and computer controls designed to boost efficiency and — per government regulation — reduce air pollution.

But a century ago, the letters “EPA” were just part of the alphabet. Yet then, as now, efficiency was on the minds of Mainers weary of feeding log-hungry fireplaces to stay warm. Many of the innovative heaters they used are still in service.

The largest collection in America, according to The Antique Stove Association, is here at Bryant’s Stove, jammed into five buildings on an old farm in Waldo County.

A visit to Bryant’s Stove is a reminder that some of today’s hot trends in alternative heat actually date back to when Maine became a state.

More than 140 stoves are for sale, just a sampling of the 1,000 or so old parlor stoves, kitchen stoves and log burners in various stages of repair. The cast-iron gem that Littlefield was reassembling last week is being bought by a man from Belfast, for $3,800.

“It’s almost like a pellet stove today,” Littlefield said. “It’s self-feeding, but it doesn’t need any electricity.”

The Riverside was made by the Rock Island Stove Co. in Illinois. But Bryant’s Stove also is a repository for many now-defunct Maine-made heaters — Atlantic, from the Portland Stove Foundry; Clarion, from Wood & Bishop, and Kineo, from Noyes & Nutter, both in Bangor.

The question now is whether this old-stove mecca can survive beyond its aging owners.

Joe and Bea Bryant have been buying and restoring antique stoves for more than 40 years. They have a deep understanding of these heaters and the ingenuity with which they were created.

The Bryants collect stoves, too, and display them — along with antique cars, player pianos and other mechanical wonders — in a museum. Among their favorite antique heaters are column stoves, which feature vertical flue chambers cast with an ornamental filigree.

One stove stands nearly 6 feet tall, with a big center column surrounded by four smaller ones. It was built in 1844, by the J. Morrison Green Island Stove Works in Troy, N.Y.

“It captured much of the heat before it went up the chimney,” Joe Bryant said. “It was so much more efficient than a fireplace.”

Today’s stoves are advertised as “airtight.” The term was actually coined in the 1800s, Bryant said, to describe heaters with precision castings and draft controls. Modern stoves have gaskets to make the doors airtight, he noted, a solution that requires maintenance.

“In my opinion, they knew more about how to build a stove in 1900 than they do today,” he said. “It’s a lost art.”

Form and function live on in the old stoves here.

In the showroom stands a Home Atlantic No. 122. It was built in what’s now Portland’s Bayside neighborhood. An ornate, nickel-plated urn graces the cast-iron dome, which slides aside to reveal a cook top. A nickel foot rail is an adornment, and a perch to warm toes. The restored parlor heater is selling for $950.

Kitchen cook stoves were designed with the detail of fine furniture. Many could be fueled by either coal or wood, and later, gas.

Among the most expensive here is a Clarion cook stove, built in the late 1800s and selling for $4,800. Baffles under the cook top spread controlled heat to six burners. Decorative drawers open for access to the firebox and ash pan. What looks like a cast-iron cabinet above the stove is a “hot closet” to keep food warm with heat from the flue.

The best antique stoves can hit an overall efficiency of 40 percent to 50 percent, according to Dennis Gunsolus of Duluth, Minn., a past president of The Antique Stove Association. By comparison, a fireplace is less than 10 percent efficient.

“Forty percent was a quantum leap,” he said.

Modern stoves can achieve an efficiency rating in the 70 percent range.

Demand for the old heaters remains stable nationally, Gunsolus said. New England is a hotbed of activity, due in part to its reliance on oil heat.

One obstacle to growth, Gunsolus said, is that some insurance companies won’t extend coverage for heaters that aren’t certified by Underwriters Laboratories. Some insurers and state agencies also balk at unvented, gas-fired stoves.

These factors present daily challenges for Bryant Stove, but a longer-term concern is the future of the company itself.

Joe Bryant is 80 years old; Bea is 81. None of their six living children appears interested in taking over the operation. A son-in-law works restoring stoves with Littlefield, who has been with the Bryants since 1982. Recently, the Bryants met with a lawyer to explore ways the business can survive after they pass on.

Closure would be a blow for smaller antique stove dealers in the Northeast, who come here for hard-to-find parts. It also would eliminate a resource for residents who own antique stoves and want to restore them.

Tom and Sue Berry brought their New Clarion No. 3 parlor stove here last summer for a tune-up. The 1883 stove is the primary heat source for their Freedom farmhouse, but it was consuming more than five cords of wood a year.

The stove was taken apart and all seams were sealed. The back was surfaced with refractory cement. New mica windows were installed. Now the draft is working right, Tom Berry said. The stove has burned less than a half-cord so far this fall.

“The work made a world of difference,” he said. “They said our stove is in good condition, and I’m hoping it will last another 50 to 70 years, maybe longer.”

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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