Looking Back

Reader Contribution by Steven Gregersen
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I was recently asked to provide some photos for a blog post I wrote awhile back. That led to searching through some photo files I haven’t looked at in years, which led me to relive some fond (and not so fond!) memories. I thought I’d share a few of them with you.

It’s important to note that when we began this adventure I was 48 (almost 49!) years old. My wife and I had been married only about a year, and we still had five children living at home. One opted to stay in town with friends while the rest of us made the move.

We had originally looked at the property across the road but saw that this one was vacant and tracked down the owner. We sent a letter asking if he’d be interested in selling it. He replied to make an offer. We sent him our first offer. We under bid the land a bit expecting a counter offer from him. We asked for owner financing, no down payment, no interest, and three years to pay it off with a balloon payment at the end. To our surprise he accepted it. We were shocked, yet ecstatic!

We put our mobile home on one acre up for sale and began work immediately on the new place.

It wasn’t much to look at. The cabin was in shambles with most of the roofing blown off and chinking missing between the logs. Our first challenge was to evict the current residents … pack rats! We then began the work in earnest. After talking to the neighbors (1/2 mile down the road), we were advised to have the wood cut and all outside work completed and the cabin ready to inhabit by the end of October when the big snows began. It was July 25 when we took possession. Initially most of the work was done weekends when I was off work. Fortunately I was working only three and four days (10- and 12-hour shifts) a week at the time so I had long weekends. After our property in town sold we moved to our new location.

The cabin was a mess! I wanted to burn it down and start over but my wife assured me that she could get it clean and the pack rat smell out. Somehow she managed to make the place clean enough to eat off the floor with no nasty smells from the previous residents. Then and ever since then she has proven to be a miracle worker in our home and life.

Once it was clean we moved inside. The kids slept in backpack tents, and my wife and I slept in the bed with the mosquito netting made out of some wedding veil material she’d scrounged up somewhere. We had very little money and her abilities to scrounge needed materials became legendary. It became so ridiculous that we’d often make a list of needed items and send her to the green box site to get them. We salvaged double-paned windows, doors, furniture, a Coleman canoe, a nearly new wood-burning stove that we’d just priced at the hardware store for $249.99, a lawn mower, and dozens of other items that we’d need later on. It was uncanny! Even our grown children began making requests (and getting them filled!) But I digress!

The two boys slept in the left tent and the two girls in the right one. Our bed was near the front wall. We had virtually no chinking in the cabin walls and the mosquitoes were abundant and vicious. All day long we fought them and it was with pleasure I would (while sheltered inside the protective canopy!) flick the voracious insects off the mosquito netting at night.

We had one pack rat that had eluded us for days. It kept attempting to re-establish residency but would never stay long enough for me to shoot it with the .22 rifle kept nearby. Around midnight one night we heard it inside the cabin. I quietly got out of bed, grabbed the flashlight and rifle and went hunting inside the cabin. It was spotted on an old bed frame at the far end of the cabin. I took careful aim with the illumination provided by the flashlight and squeezed the trigger. Inside the cabin the report of the .22 rimfire was thunderous. But not a sound was heard from the tents. I collected the warm carcass and unceremoniously tossed it outside. That ended the pack rat problems … at least for awhile!

My wife is priceless. Not many women would accept joyfully (like she did), the working conditions she faced. Our cook stove was an open fire in the front yard. All meals were prepared there until we got the cabin cleaned and then she cooked on a propane, single burner camp stove. Our dish washing area was an old wire spool in the back yard.

We began to notice that things were disappearing at an alarming rate after we’d been there a week or so. My poor dog got blamed for most of the transgressions. We’d considered the possibility of a pack rat being the thief but we had plates and saucepans vanish in addition to wrist watches and dozens of spoons, forks, knives, spatulas and other kitchen utensils.

The dog took her chastisements in stride and was vindicated around January when we found the guilty party’s stash in the wood pile. It was indeed a very industrious pack rat. The goods were all recovered intact including the saucepan and wrist watches. The pack rat was never found. Perhaps the dog ate it.

We had a pressing need to have the cabin liveable, the firewood cut (10 cords), the outhouse pit dug and the root cellar built by October 31. Our 90-day window of opportunity was fading fast. All digging was done by hand with each of us taking turns on the shovel. We hit a rock while digging the outhouse hole. Actually we hit rocks any time we try to dig a hole on our property. It’s mostly rocks but this one was a doozy. We considered abandoning that hole and digging another but decided to try removing the rock first.

I hooked the four-wheel-drive truck to it first. When the truck hit the end of the chain it raised the rock about a foot then dug four holes with its spinning tires. I made a tripod with a rope and pulley and the rope broke. I finally tried a tripod and long lever (pole). The rock broke the first rope so I tried a heavier one. I had such a long pole that I had to tie a rope to the end so I could reach it and pull it down. It took me and all four kids pulling on the pole to lever the rock up high enough to clear the hole. Then it hung there!

I finally had to get down in the hole while the kids held the pole down. I pushed the rock to the side while they released the pole. The job was finally over. I still have Photo 10 hanging over my desk with the caption “victory” written under it.

The root cellar was the final digging project and it was a project! Not only did we have to fight the endless rocks but there were old tree roots to fight as well. The job was tedious. The boys would work on it while I was at work and I’d bust through the hard stuff on weekends.

One of my fondest memories was one Saturday morning when everyone except our youngest daughter and I went to town. She (at the ripe old age of 9) stayed to help me dig around some particularly large tree roots. She never stopped talking all the time the rest of the family was gone. But she never stopped digging either! Her “shovel” was a garden trowel that she used to laboriously dig around some particularly nasty roots so that I could cut through them with a mattock. I was digging with a shovel or garden trowel on some other roots in the same hole. By the time the family returned we’d made some progress to where the boys could do more digging during my work week.

We made our goal! By the end of October we had the outhouse finished, the root cellar completed and filled with food, and the cabin sealed up for winter with a whole slug of new windows and doors. Our family of six spent our first winter in a 16-by-32-foot log cabin in one of the coldest winters in years. We had weeks of low temperatures in the minus 25 F range and highs in the single digits. Through it all we stayed toasty warm and united in a way that only a family that has worked hard together for a common goal can understand.

Looking back I’m struck with an even deeper appreciation of my wife and those kids. She, as a single mother, did a fine job raising them. They worked hard with very little complaining and lived together in harmony in our cramped winter quarters.

I’ll continue our story in future posts.

If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far you might want to check into my book, Creating the Low Budget Homestead (available in the GRIT bookstore). It’s filled with homesteading advice you won’t find anywhere else. Most homesteading books tell you how to raise livestock, grow a garden and preserve your harvest. My book focuses on how to pursue your homesteading dream on a budget that would make Ebeneezer Scrooge envious.

You may also view my other blog.

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