DULUTH – These stoves tell stories. Dennis Gunsolus knows them all.
His basement is a showroom of more than 200 ornate and meticulously restored home heating devices that date back more than a century — the product of a lifetime of work, a hobby taken to its logical extreme.
In one corner, surrounded by the craftsmanship of eras long gone, sits a four-column Johnson, Geer and Cox stove from 1843, looking like it never saw a single flame flicker in its iron insides. Nearby is the Green Island stove, another four-column model with nearly every surface cast with intricate designs.
Upstairs in his hand-built home beneath an enormous stained-glass window — more on that later — sit some of Gunsolus’ prized stoves. There’s a Splendid by Fuller Warren & Co. with nickel plating — don’t call it chrome — next to an all-black coal-burning Halstead from 1838.
Gunsolus has built his collection over decades, refining his refurbishing skills along the way. A product of the University of Minnesota Medical School, he opted to spend his career as a builder and a contractor, and the work shows in his large, rough hands.
The world of antique stoves has had its high-stakes moments and cross-country races for rare finds, but after a half-century of building and polishing his collection, Gunsolus says it is all but complete.
“There are maybe three I’d like to have in my collection, but that’s pretty much impossible unless someone hands me a fortune,” he said. “It’s a good feeling. So many years of always having some project to catch up with on the stoves, but not now.”
Now, at 71, his attention has turned to the future of his functional iron artworks.
He has no children. He would give the collection for free to a museum, as long as they promised to preserve it in perpetuity. But so far, there have been no takers.
“That’s a problem I’m working on,” he said, his head hanging heavy as he paused. “Where are they gonna go?”
Before trading over the internet, before networking at conventions, before joining and eventually leading the Antique Stove Association, Gunsolus took out an ad in the Duluth Budgeteer.
“Wanted: Nice old stoves. Will pay your price.”
A young Gunsolus first picked up an appreciation for the decorative and once-ubiquitous relics in Oregon, where he worked for an antique shop that specialized in parlor stoves, as they’re sometimes called.
Rarely did he find a stove in good condition and buy it outright, however. Most often, he would find worn-out heaps of metal for $5 or $15 and painstakingly restore them to their former glory, sometimes fitting new glass panes or fixing tile work that adorns some of the models.
“Most are big-time restorations,” he said. “I never spent that much money over those 48 years.”
Instead, he would restore a few stoves and trade up for the ones he really wanted.
The bartering and self-taught handiwork he employed — following a stint in the military, a mathematics degree and medical education — reflects the fierce independence he was raised with in Duluth’s West End, aka Lincoln Park.
Take his house, which he designed and built to showcase a stained-glass rose window saved from St. Clement’s church, torn down years ago.
When Gunsolus sets his mind to something, he makes the impossible look easy.
“Patience is everything when you can’t overpower things with money,” he said. “And never quitting.”
Art stoves came in vogue more than 150 years ago as a way to put a little (or, in some cases, a great deal of) flair into the household appliances that were replacing wood-burning fireplaces as a source of heat.
The well-to-do of the Victorian era often would feature their stoves in the best room, as they would with any artwork. As technology advanced, it unlocked the craftsmanship and artistry that went into the cast iron statues, many of them topped with gaudy finials.
Most of these stoves were not meant for cooking — though Gunsolus owns a few rare examples of stoves that heat and cook, and he has a few antique cast-iron kitchen ranges, as well.
Eventually central heating became more common and affordable in the early 20th century. The stove business went back to its strictly utilitarian roots and largely stopped producing the artful statement pieces that line Gunsolus’ basement.
If they were still being made, after all, who would go to such great lengths to find, restore and preserve them?
In 2007, a friend sent Gunsolus a notice that the “holy grail” stove was for sale, and he just shook his head.
“I know who has the only one of these, this can’t be real, they’re joking around,” he recalled, but after a few calls he tracked down the people who had it in Park City, Utah.
They wanted $2,100. He offered them a little more and asked them to wait — he had to attend the Antique Stove Association convention in Michigan first because he was, after all, president of the association at the time.
When he got to Utah, he still couldn’t believe it.
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“There it was, sitting in their living room,” he said with a smile. “That was unbelievably exciting and high anxiety for that week and a half — they had just put it on Craigslist in Salt Lake City.”
And now it sits in his living room, among the finest stoves in the collection.
After all that exciting assembly and a few years of basking in the completion of the collection, Gunsolus now has to think about where it all goes when he goes.
Several years ago he reached out to several museums, and though they were interested in displaying his collection, none promised to hold on to them. He’s considering other collectors or other homes who might honor his wish to keep the stoves together.
“I’m still exploring that as I get time,” he said. “I’m wrapping up all the details of what to do with my property.”
His dream for retirement is to settle in a little Wyoming town called Shell.
If he makes it west, he said, he may end up bringing the collection with him. A visitor told him that sounded difficult.
“It’s not impossible,” he replied.