Posted by: Debra Kolkka | April 13, 2015

Charcoal burning at Casa Debbio

After WWII there was very little money to be had by Italians living in the mountains of the Garfagnana. Woodcutters had no customers so some of them turned to charcoal making.

One of my neighbours in Vergemoli showed me a small patch of land at the end of our drive with a dry stone wall edge where charcoal was made.

It is overgrown and the wall is falling down, but I was delighted to find a little piece of history so close to our house.

charcoal burning platform at Casa Debbio

The charcoal makers work was very difficult. It would take many months to cut the wood and then weeks to make the charcoal.

Logs were piled on their ends to form a conical pile, with an opening left at the bottom to admit air. There was a central shaft to serve as a flue.

Charcoal burners


The whole pile was covered with turf or moistened clay. The firing began at the bottom of the flue and gradually spread upwards.

Charcoal burners

Once the charcoal was made and cooled it was raked into jute bags. Each bag weighed between 80 and 90 kilos. They were loaded onto donkeys or wagons drawn by oxen.

charcoal burners

Life must have been hard for these men. At least they had a good house nearby. Many charcoal burners lived in remote areas with little contact with other people.

I think we will clear the area to make it a pleasant place to sit and think about how lucky we are.



  1. It was a really difficult life. These conditions forced many people to migrate to other countries.
    In any case, you found a piece of history. But it is a reminder of those hard times. As you said, we are really lucky!

    • We are currently building a garden around Casa Debbio. Every time we dig a hole we find rocks. Clearing these terraces to plant crops must have been back breaking work. At least they had their own spring for water and a great aspect with sun all day. I hope their lives weren’t too hard.

  2. That was interesting. Thanks for digging up that information. Yes life was tough for a lot of people back then. We are the lucky one . Glad you are enjoying the early spring.

    • It makes our efforts to build a garden seem like fun…which it is.

  3. Interesting Deb….have you been able to find a little piece of the charcoal….wouldn’t it be lovely if you did….I’ve got a number of pieces that a friend gave me which she found in the bush. Have done some little ‘pitchas’ with them…..the raw charcoal makes lovely textural marks. In fact I think that charcoal is one of the best things to draw with.

    Anyway love the idea of you just clearing the area….a wonderful spot for reflection…..and praps a little drawing!



    • I will have a scratch around for some charcoal. There may be some left after all this time.

  4. What a treasure you have in Vergemoli !

    • I know! When you come back you will see a big change in the garden.

  5. Great story Debra!

  6. Not sure why I suddenly became anonymous when I made comment above Debra! Continuing to enjoy your blog and the many memories it evokes of beautiful Italy and your special part of it!

    • We are constantly discovering new things (for us) here. It is fun to share them.

  7. How interesting – I hope you do find some charcoal, there is quite a craft to making it and it would be nice to have a special spot to remember those men – and women I think.

    • I will have a good scratch around and with a bit of luck I will find something

  8. Remember a fascinating recent documentary from the UK re people actually making their livelihood in same thus manner even now!! Incredibly hard and dangerous . . . . remember being a tadpole in Europe and using such charcoal for heating in our tiled corner stoves in winter . . . .

    • It is dangerous and dirty work. It is hard to believe people still do it.

  9. What a gem of a story. It is a special place up there. Loved the photos.

    • I’m glad Batista told us the story of the Carbonari.

  10. Hearing stories like this is interesting and also serves as a reminder of how often life was a struggle, especially in times of war. I too will reflect on how lucky I am. Good luck with creating your garden around the house.

    • Our area was quite heavily involved in the war and life was very tough for many people.

  11. I saw charcoal makers at work in Romania nearly a decade ago…most interesting the way they piled up the logs. They had a number of structures on the go, at different stages in the process so you could see it from start to finish.

    • It seems like a very difficult way to make a living.

  12. I feel lucky to be able to learn about things like this. And to not have had to make charcoal. That’s a lot of work!

    • The story in Chris’s book was about a 14 year old boy who was sent off the learn to make charcoal. I can’t imagine sending my son off for that.

  13. Interesting tie between history and your lane!

    • We have lots of dry stone walls around our property. We also have lots of rocks that we are using to make edges for our garden. It is hard work carting rocks.

      • There are many rocks in on the hillsides in your region!

      • Yes, there are and I think they are multiplying at Casa Debbio.

  14. I would love it for some people to tell their family stories. Maybe some families that moved overseas and read your blog can tell us what their grandparents told them? It is so hard to find books or articles or anything written to tell what life was for ordinary people pre- WWII. Or even from the sixties and earlier.
    I hope to find more records before the old people that still know the stories are not here anymore….
    Lovely blog Debra, thanks.

    • I have had a few people write to me and leave comments on the blog, especially on the post about the figurine makers. It seems many people left Bagni di Lucca and made their way in the world.

      • I hope they keep on doing that. The history of ordinary lives is so easily forgotten.

  15. I realize I don’t know what ‘difficult times’ were like to live through. Making charcoal every day to survive makes my commute through rush hour traffic a picnic. That’s the hardest part of my life. Thanks for sharing a very interesting historical aspect of your area.

    • One of my neighbours has photos of Vergemoli being bombed during WWII. The area was heavily involved during the war. It must have been terrifying.

      • No doubt…a world I can only imagine. But who knows what the future holds….its a crazy world situation.

  16. Wonderful story! that gives credit to Italian resourcefulness. I like to think that although not supported by any official records these foresters “Carbonari” invented the true version of one of my favorite pasta dishes- spaghetti carbonara.

    • I have heard that too. There is another reference to Carbonari. It was the name of secret revolutionary societies founded in the early 19th century.

      • Yes I saw that reference too but I suppose that could be another interesting story!

  17. Life was certainly tough back then! I think really most other eras were really tough 🙂

    • I feel very lucky to have been born when and where I was.

  18. It’s interesting that you say this was a man’s job…

    I have asked my Nonna about her mother and she told me that she was a coal burner, but she was a single woman at that time who would work all day.

    Was there typically a gender-bias for this kind of work?

    • I don’t really know. I would imagine that it was mostly men, but times were very tough and I imagine women worked alongside men in many cases.

Leave a Reply


%d bloggers like this: