You Betcha. Notes from the Midwest: Are You Still Hip, Part II
One of the nicest things about the upper Midwest is its rolling farmland. Here in southwest Wisconsin, we not only have rolling hills, but also one of the oldest mountain ranges in America. The topography is suitable for small family farms, and there are plenty of these remnants left as a reminder of how people lived years ago. Some are still owned by the families who built them, but many have been abandoned.
In the 1970’s, an acre of farmland in this region could be bought for about $200-300. The hippies who embraced the environmental movement back in 1969, had gone searching for rural land to realize their dream of an alternative lifestyle that included living close to the land, sharing communally and farming organically. They found what they needed right out here, and brought new life to all those abandoned farms, eventually becoming part of the greatest organic movement in history.
All this was happening while I was still married and living in Milwaukee. One day I found a book that echoed the words of my tribe and made me remember. It was Carla Emery’s Old Fashioned Recipe Book – An Encyclopedia of Country Living (1978). This book contained all you needed to know about living on a farm. How to milk cows, make cheese, butcher a chicken, make soap and candles, canning and preserving, making your own bread. It also had important insights on buying land, managing livestock, growing vegetables, using a wood cook stove, building a root cellar, and many other incredibly important things you needed to know to survive in a rural area. I read the book from cover to cover several times until it became dog-eared from use, and dreamed of the little farm I would one day own.
When I got divorced, one of the first things I did was format all those ideas I had of my future farm. I didn’t want too much acreage, as this would be my homestead, with enough land for raising chickens and a large vegetable garden; maybe some fruit trees, and not too many outbuildings. I also knew what I could realistically afford. I put all these ideas down on paper, and sent letters to about 20 realtors in five counties in the southwestern part of the state. I got replies from two.
Realtors have a few pet names for properties that appear to be seriously neglected. “Fixer-upper” is one, which actually means “Tear-er-downer”; “cozy cabin” actually means one room with a pot-bellied stove; “handy-man-special” actually means “20 acres and a lot of used lumber”. I saw it all while riding with my realtor, who kept looking at me with apologetic concern. What on earth was I doing? Evidently, what I could afford was what I was looking at. After viewing another pathetically neglected farmhouse with a dead skunk in the basement, I looked at my realter and said, “don’t you know of any property in my price range that is actually occupied by people?” He paused for a moment, and then a lightbulb went on in his head. He remembered one that was listed by another realtor, and we pulled off onto the road to go find it.
All the rural roads out here wind this way and that, so you never know which direction you are actually going in. I had no idea where we were, except that we were on ridge land (on top of the hill). As we drove around yet another bend in the road I spotted a little farmhouse and something came alive in my psyche. My heart started pounding, I straightened up and held my breath as we approached. There were people living here, and this was the place. We pulled in. A charming young woman with a clinging toddler greeted us at the door. The house was pleasant with a large country kitchen, living room and a small bedroom on the first floor. It also had a nice back entryway with a large bathroom right there (very well planned if you are going to get dirty). The upstairs had two rooms and a very low ceiling. The basement was surprisingly new – a poured concrete foundation – very clean. It was exactly what I envisioned in my dreams. The outbuildings consisted of a small garage and small barn. It nestled on seven acres, most of which were crop land, with a small woods and ravine. I made an offer which they rejected; counter offered, they accepted; and I purchased it on a land contract, putting down enough money to keep my monthly payments low and having enough left for home improvements.
I moved in September 1980, and brought along a friend who was a carpenter – good idea! We got busy building counters and cabinets in the kitchen, making the upstairs into a studio space, and doing some painting before the first blast of winter hit us. I had never before experienced winter that was this intense. The township I lived in was in line with the arctic winds coming straight out of Minnesota and we were on top of a hill. The worst part of this was that there were no storm windows to buffer the wind. We had two LP space heaters, one in the kitchen and one in the living room, that struggled to keep some warmth in the house. I got used to wearing thermal underwear all the time, did a lot of cooking and baking to keep my energy up; and spent the winter reading Carla Emery’s book, while the wind howled outside and the snow piled up to the window sills.
In Emery’s book, their farmhouse stayed nice and warm because they heated with wood. I liked that idea, but my house didn’t have a chimney suitable for that purpose. So, the next spring my carpenter friend got a few local people together and they built an outside chimney against my house. Then I purchased a wood burning stove and had it set up in the basement to connect with that chimney. One of the things to remember about burning wood is to keep the pipe that connects the stove to the chimney cleaned out or it can get blocked. One day, as I was baking in my kitchen, I noticed the house was getting hazy and I could smell wood burning. I went downstairs and found the whole basement full of smoke which quickly moved upstairs to all parts of the house. I opened up all the windows and doors and then went back downstairs with oven mitts and a poker, opened the stove, and picked up one of the smoldering chunks of wood and took it outside. Then I went back downstairs got out another log, took it outside. This went on until I got all the smoldering wood out of the stove and could shut the doors in the house!
But, spring was upon us, my seeds had arrived, and it was time to plant the vegetable garden. There was a perfect spot around the south side of the house and all I needed was a rototiller to get the soil ready. So, I went down to the local small engine repair establishment in town and found a really old Ahrens tiller for very little cash. After a bit of instruction from the repairman, I was ready to get to work. This tiller was noisy, smoky, and shook so bad my teeth rattled, but it got the job done nicely and I planted my garden – my first real vegetable garden!
As the sun slowly disappeared over the horizon, I strolled around my little farm and felt happy and content for the first time in many years. Little did I know what lay ahead.
But, that’s another story.