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Homesteaders

Country at HeartI always wondered about homesteaders — not just the houses but the people who originally built them. Why did they settle in that particular place? Why was the house built where it was? Who lived there? Did they live alone or with family? How many kids? Any animals? Did they inherit the land, buy it, or did they "squat" on someone else's land?

Houses were usually built near a road and not too far away from the rest of civilization, unless someone had no choice but to build on land where their ancestors lived. Many poor families, like mine, didn't have a homestead. They rented their houses, and I do not consider renters to be homesteaders, because they do not own the land nor the house.

I think of homesteaders as people who originally settled on a parcel, built their house from the ground up, settled in and stayed there forever. That was the case with one of the property owners that I consider a homesteader, and the one whose house I think may have been built by her husband or is one that she inherited from her parents or some other relative.

To me, homesteaders are real "country": backward but rugged, hard-working, overall-wearing men and little, old, bonnet-wearing ladies with snow white hair tromping around in ground-length, calico dresses. But, of course, that description more properly fits those homesteaders from bygone centuries — with one exception. Our neighbor, Miss Munn, as we called her.

That dear soul was an older lady who lived down in the lane about three-fourths of a mile behind our house. Now to me, she was a real homesteader. She had a house that I had never seen before or since. She was somewhat eccentric, and at that time kids didn't talk to (or with) older people as they do today, but I had a million questions floating around in my mind for her. For one thing, I was curious to know who built her house and why her house was made unlike everybody else's. It had a wide, open-ended hall running the length of the center of the house. I even imagined a dog trotting right down the center of that dwelling ... and that's why it's called a "dog-trot" house.

Sadly, she lived alone in that big old house on a large parcel of land. She, like many country folks, didn't have running water, electricity, a telephone, nor indoor plumbing. She had an old fashioned, stinky outhouse just like everybody else; however, I do not believe she lacked modern conveniences due to poverty but due to her choice to live on the land like a real homesteader. Her house was well-built and well maintained. I loved walking through that wide, open hall and peering into the side rooms. I still recall an antique picture that hung on one of the bedroom walls — one that I longed to own someday.

To her credit, she had all these little kitty cats for company and entertainment ... but I don't remember any dogs. She had cows for milk and butter, a horse for plowing, chickens for eggs and for eating, and she probably had a few stray rats running throughout the house, too. At any rate, her place was self-contained. She had just about everything that she needed right on her own farm, except fabric for clothing and perhaps flour, sugar, and corn meal.

But, then again, as self-sufficient as she was, she probably ground her own meal, made her sugar from sugar cane, and grew her own wheat and pounded it into flour. Perhaps I'm stretching it a bit, but being the industrious person that she was, I wouldn't put anything past her capabilities.

Our dear, old, homesteading neighbor must have really loved her place. She never left home. She never went to town. The farthest she ventured from her homestead was our backyard to ask my dad to go up the road and "fetch" Mr. Hollis, the man who took care of her business. Other than that, she stayed put.

It was a special treat when my grandmother asked us girls to accompany her to Miss Munn's house. I was always ready to go before she got the words out of her mouth. Her place was so placid and surreal — like a dwelling from another planet. When I was there, it was like being on a voyage to a world where paranormal people live.

No doubt about it, she was a good cook and must have baked something sweet every day in her big, old-fashioned, wood-burning stove, because whenever we went there, she always gave us sweet breads made with real cow milk, and butter, and with those rich, brown, country hen eggs.

Old homesteaders are so neat. Their places are usually much larger than most houses in the community, and the lay of the land appears more prosperous than that of the average home dweller. The land is so rich, and things seem to grow on their land that don't grow on anybody else's. I do believe that those particular homesteaders are a notch above their neighbors. At least, that's the impression that I got from the two homesteads that I remember so fondly. They loved the land and their place in particular. And until they died, they stayed right in that same spot and lived just like my idea of real, bona fide homesteader.

Country road
Photo by Fotolia/Buffy 1982