Reflections of a Second-Generation Homesteader

Ever have an itch that just never goes away no matter whether you scratch it or you don’t?  My dad had an itch like that.  Both my parents were from small-town America.  My dad grew up in Vermont and New Hampshire, roaming the woods and skiing all winter.  My mom grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a town my family helped found in the 1840s.  When my dad got out of the Navy in 1954, my folks married.  After a few years of college in Colorado, they moved to Chicago in 1957.  There my dad worked as a boiler man and he and my mom also bought a laundromat.  They were doing well and bought a house in a neighborhood in Rosemont, IL.  Though the city life was easy, my dad missed that connection he’d had with the land.  He often talked about “going back to the land.”  He was always learning and scheming.  I think there’s a breed of people who don’t want the easy way; they want to test themselves against the odds and see how they stack up.  My dad was one of those.  He had an incurable itch.  He passed it on to me, a second-generation homesteader.

In 1966, he sold everything, packed us up, and moved to rural Wisconsin to build a life for us with his bare hands.  I was four years old when the adventure began and we bought the worn out 80-acre farm near Cadot, Wisconsin.  To earn a little money to survive, my dad was a Fuller Brush salesman, going door-to-door selling fine brushes for every purpose imaginable.  On the farm, we grew soybeans, had a few dairy cows, chickens, and meat rabbits.

After months of eating everything possible, my mother could make from soybeans, how I wished they’d grown corn or wheat instead—anything but soybeans!  I remember the soybean “cornbread” my mother was so proud of.  I felt bad, but I just barely swallow it.  Mom was just trying to keep us fed, and we didn’t cooperate very well at times.  During the summer we kids always asked to eat outside.  There was this particular board lying on the ground near the back porch; we stuffed anything we couldn’t stomach under that board.  For me, that was usually the asparagus.  We might have starved except for the eggs we ate at breakfast.  I loved eggs.  An unexpected reprieve came one day when Mom took me to a PTA meeting and I won the door prize.  A brownie mix was never more cherished than the one I received as my prize that night.

The land was too poor and didn’t produce well, so after two years my dad moved us to 40 acres near Bruce, Wisconsin.  The land was mostly wooded, but had maybe ten acres in the front that was hayfield and pasture.  There were three buildings on the property; one was a large building we called the machine shed.  We camped out in it when we first arrived.  My dad put some holes in a large metal can and turned it upside down over a small campfire for a cookstove.  There was also a small cabin we were told used to be the county jail.  I sure got teased at school, “You’re living in a jail; you’re living in a jail, nah-nah, nah, nah, nah-nah…”  You get the idea.  Homesteading produces some pretty tough kids!  The third, and final, building was the outhouse.

That first summer in Bruce was a race with time.  About half an acre of tough sod had to be broken up for a vegetable garden.  The pole barn for hay storage, the barn for animals, and our house had to be built.  The garden had to be grown, hay cut and stacked, vegetables canned, meat processed, and firewood cut and stacked.  We had about three months to do it.  For the foundation of our house we collected rocks from the piles all the farmers had at the edge of their fields.  The lumber and some of the nails came from an ancient farmhouse we got permission to tear down to reclaim the wood.  In that old house, the nails were square and some areas were held together with wooden pegs.  We kids, my brother (9), my sister (7), and I (6), had the job of pulling the nails out of all those old boards so they could be used again.  I enjoyed pounding out and straightening nails.  We wouldn’t have finished the house in time if Dad’s cousin Norris hadn’t shown up riding his motorcycle all the way from Vermont.  He was tall, dark, and my first crush at the ripe old age of 6.  Because of Norris, we had a house to move into before winter.

The house Dad built from the rocks and old boards. Standing in front, from right to left: my brother wearing his straw cowboy hat, my dad, my mom, and me. My sister took the picture.

The job we kids hated the most was getting the sod out of the ornery half-acre that was to be our vegetable garden.  We contrived all sorts of methods to make the work easier.  One of us would sit on the garden rake and someone else would pull.  Being the youngest, I remember sitting on the rake, but I don’t think I had to pull it.  We kids did a lot of leaning on the rake; I remember that, for sure!  Somehow we got it done.

Mom recalls that we lived on berries that first summer.  If there hadn’t been a bumper crop of wild raspberries and strawberries, we’d have starved.  I remember the chokecherry tree.  There was nothing like that pucker to please a kid’s mouth.  When the vegetables grew, we ate some of them right out of the garden.  Ever have corn straight off the stalk or beans right off the bush?  And those sweet sugar peas!  We’d finally gotten to heaven when the garden came in.  Mom canned every vegetable in sight and went to canning mutton and goat meat as well.   We were so thankful to have food; to this day I clean every crumb of food off my plate.

Mom tried her hand at hunting mushrooms.  We kids didn’t like them very well, but they were exciting.  After eating them for dinner we always spent the rest of the evening watching to see if anyone was going to keel over.

We had no electricity or running water, though Dad put a pump in the kitchen, so we didn’t have to carry water in.  Mom had to cook and bake using a woodstove.  We burned a kerosene lamp for light in the evening.  We had a tiny transistor radio my dad figured out how to run off a car battery; we fell asleep to my parents listening to the radio every night.  It was a comfort to hear the quiet droning of the radio preacher.

The outhouse sat on a picturesque hillside in the shade of overhanging trees.  In the winter we developed bladders of steel as no one wanted to venture out and sit our delicate parts on a seat that was -40 degrees.  Perhaps in the outhouse, with the additional heat of the compost below, it was a milder -30, but the effect was the same.  In the summer it was decidedly more comfortable, but then I worried about the spiders below and feared they’d crawl on my behind while I was minding my own business.  I did find the outhouse a convenient place to stash papers from school that hadn’t turned out that well.  My worst subject in first grade was coloring.  I was so embarrassed when I got a “D” on coloring the number four.  Down the outhouse it went!  A good outhouse can solve a lot of rather messy problems.

There’s something very pleasant about sugaring time.  The maple syrup cooking in the pan fills the air with a wonderful fragrance.  These sweet smells were also noticed and enjoyed by neighboring varmints.  We had to keep a close watch so that our pans did not get raided overnight.  I remember more than once the pungent smell of skunk mixing with the sweet syrup smells drifting through the air.  From time to time, I’d wake at night and realize Dad was on the low, barn roof with his rifle, because a bear was coming in too close.

Our recreation consisted of climbing trees; stomping through the woods; going across the field and dipping our straw cowboy hats in the spring, drinking that cold water right out of our hats, and splashing the rest on our hot faces; hunting wildflowers; riding our bikes; swimming in the “crick”; making forts, tree houses and rafts; sewing; and reading.  Mom reading to us in the evening before bed was a highlight.

She only read us biographies, classic stories, Jane Austen, and Zane Grey westerns.  We read of world leaders, explorers, frontiersmen, pioneers, anthropologists, statesmen, scientists, musicians, and cowboys.  She didn’t read us children’s books, so she had to skip a page every so often.  We were always extremely curious about those skipped pages.

On weekends, days off, and bad weather, my sister and I also enjoyed sewing.  We spent hours designing and cutting out clothes to sew for our dolls.  We all enjoyed the solitude of the woods around us and were rarely, if ever, bored.  We almost always had some idea or other we were cooking up in our brains.  Honestly, I don’t remember being bored until we moved to the city some years later.

I didn’t know it at the time, but thousands of others all across the U.S. were moving back to rural areas in what became known as “The Back-to-the-Land Movement of the 1960s and 70s.”  The movement back to rural locations was so large during that period it was noticeable on the census records.  Some estimates say about one million people were involved.  They left the materialism and consumerism of the cities seeking a more self-sufficient lifestyle living on the land.  Numerous rural areas were permanently changed by this influx of people.  Many small organic farms sprang up and remain in production today.  In the late 1970s the back-to-the-land movement merged with the expanding environmental movement which emphasized holistic lifestyles and sustainable living.

Why did all these people head for the hills and valleys?  Some feel the roots of the movement can be traced back to about 1800 and Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian democratic vision for America, and Thoreau’s emphasis on self-reliance were influencing factors in the mid-1800s.  We know many were inspired by books such as The Egg and I, written in 1947, by Betty MacDonald, in which she tells of her time on a small farm in Washington state.  Other popular books were: At Home in the Woods, written in 1951, and We Like it Wild, written in 1963, both by Bradford Angier.  Helen and Scott Nearing made, perhaps, the biggest impression with the publication of their book Living the Good Life, in 1954.  The Nearings told the story of their move to rural Vermont and their simple self-sufficient life.  The book I remember the most was How to Get Out of the Rat Race and Live on $10 a Month, by George Leonard Herter & Berthe E. Herter, published in 1970.  Our parents had $50 coming in each month from land they’d sold and we were extremely poor.  I’m not sure how it was to be done on $10, but Dad enjoyed thinking about the possibilities.

The current movement to return to our agricultural roots has this common thread: take back some control over our food supply and energy sources.  This desire is being expressed in quite diverse ways.  Some are beginning a new life at the end of a country road, with a full-scale homesteading operation, complete with alternative energy they produce for themselves.  On the other end of the spectrum are those with a few containers on the balcony of their urban apartment for growing greens and other vegetables for their own table.  It is, in part, fueled by a desire to be more independent and less vulnerable, in response to polluted food supplies and questionable future stability around us.  For my husband and me, the motivation was to provide clean, healthy food for our children.

I gravitated back to my roots and began homesteading in 2005, with the beginning of our garden.  It was only 7’x7′, with a few tomatoes, zucchini, and strawberries, but it was our homestead in embryonic form.  We increased the size of the garden each year and also added dozens of berry plants and fruit trees.  My goal was to have fruit ripening over as long a season as possible.  We succeeded in finding fruit to ripen from May through November, most of which is beginning to bear at least a light crop.

Our homesteading effort was not planned out like my dad’s; we pretty much fell into it a little at a time.  We were living on a few acres in the country not really thinking about much of anything.  We were just busy with work and raising our small children.  One day, while listening to the radio talk about how bad the commercially-grown meats were for our kids, my husband Tim and I both said, “We can’t keep feeding that to our kids.”

We knew how to raise chickens since we’d done it once a few years back.  The next spring we raised 50 meat chickens and 15 laying hens.  A few months later we added Muscovy ducks and Royal Palm turkeys, also for meat.  The next year we added dairy goats, honey bees, a pony, and a whiz-bang chicken plucker.

By this time we had also earned a reputation for knowing anything and everything about farm life, animals, trees, gardens, and bees.  It was a reputation rather larger than the reality; though I did spend a few hundred hours researching to gain a basic understanding of how to care for the plants, animals, and bees we were raising.  The learning time felt very intense and somewhat out of control.  We did take on a lot in a short time once we started adding farm animals.  Seeing what it took to do this really raised my respect level of what my parents were doing all those years ago.  Living closer to the land is viewed as a simple life, but my experience has been anything but simple.  I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in all my life!  We made the mistake of adding too many things too quickly and not realizing how much work it would all take.  Not only the daily care, but building shelters and putting up fencing.  It all worked out in the end, but to have thought it through a little more ahead of time would have been helpful.

As a second-generation homesteader, I think about the quality of life homesteading is giving our kids.  We spend time in the evenings reading books to the kids and playing games together.  We homeschool and they are reading quality books and having time for solid educational experiences.  We have minimized electronic entertainment, but have allowed it in our home.  I see our kids unplugging themselves from the focus on electronic devices as they’re getting older.  Seeing this helps me not wrestle so much over that issue.

Our children care for their assigned animals each day.  They learn we still have to do chores, even if it’s raining and we don’t feel like going outside.  They see baby goats born each spring and spend time holding them to make sure they grow up trusting people.  They learn to be patient and not get angry when animals don’t cooperate—we have goats, need I say more?  They see hens setting on eggs and raising their chicks.  They see roosters protecting their flocks and calling them to eat, saving the best food for their ladies.

homestead kids goat
My daughter with one of our newest Saanen doelings born a couple of hours earlier.

They experience eating the food they helped grow in the garden.  We like to count how many things we’re eating for dinner that we grew ourselves.  They know where chicken, milk, and eggs come from.  As parents, we learned to temper our practical nature with compassion for our children’s feelings; we learned to let our children keep their favorites and not eat them for dinner!  They learn so much about real life, from birth through old age and, finally, death.  Their hearts are tender and feel compassion when anything is suffering.  They took turns bottle-feeding a goat kid twice a day for three months because its mother didn’t think she could raise triplets and rejected little Cherry.  They feel loss when a baby duck gets stepped on in the barnyard and dies.  They are excited about simple things they see around them.  Our children are easy to please and a joy to be with.  I am thankful for this experience we’re having together on our little homestead.

For us, homesteading is about living closer to reality and to the beauty of how Mother Nature made things to work together.  It’s about being rich in ways money can’t buy.  It’s about strength and insight you can’t get at the gym or sitting in a class.  It’s about solving problems and finding solutions you never saw before.  Ours might be a little more modern than my parents’ homestead, but the underlying experience is the same.  I am blessed to be a second-generation homesteader.  I am thankful to be giving this experience to my children.


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