Four Lessons from Homesteaders of the Past

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Before we moved 1 year ago, it had been some time since either my husband or I lived the homesteading life. I missed it so when I ventured out into the world! My parents still live on the 180 acres where the quaint old farmhouse hugs the side of the mountain, the creek running through the pastures and wooded hills. How I love that place!

It is a fruitful land with timothy grass to feed the animals, fruit trees and berry bushes to supply summer sweets, massive Douglas Fir for winter firewood, deer and elk to harvest for winter eating.

I learned to homestead from my parents. My grandma grew up during the Depression and passed her skills on to my own mother. In our home, everything was made from scratch. In the harvest season my many sibling and I helped do the canning, butchering, freezing and harvesting. We also had to put up firewood and hay for winter. I thrived on it!

As I moved into adulthood I left it all behind. If ever I married and decided to raise a family, I’d surely wish to return. And away I went to see what the world held!

Yet it was so strange! In spite of my conscious decision to move on, I’d suddenly find myself riding a horse, canning with a friend, butchering a moose or cleaning a chicken.

“I thought I left the homesteading lifestyle behind only to discover it was running through every vein in my body; sure as my blood flowed, I needed dirt between my toes, animals to raise, gardens to harvest.”

I did marry. We returned to the homesteading lifestyle and are currently saving to buy land. As we move toward natural living, we have choices to make. How grateful I am for the wholesome upbringing we both had! Not only has it equipped us to deal with the challenge of returning to the land, but also has kept us grounded on what is most important.

When I look on the web there is a myriad if DIY ideas regarding homesteading. In fact, the two are almost synonymous! It’s amazing, really! As I dive in, excited to learn and develop a more self-sufficient, healthy lifestyle, a red light suddenly flashes in my mind as if to say “proceed with caution.”

So I take time to reflect: how much of homesteading was about do-it-myself-activities? I ponder my past and what I know of the true homesteaders. As always, history always has a story to tell.

Truth About True Homesteading

Story #1: Homesteaders Raised Basic Food Staples

In my excitement over natural living, the ambitious side of me rises. I want a finger in every pie! In the spring we butchered (and pressure canned) 50 hens, planted two gardens, raised 30 heritage poults and foraged for wild edibles. As I’m concerned about nutrition, I (throughout the year) water-bath and pressure can approx 350-400 jars of food, ferment gallons worth of vegetables, freeze fruit and berries, overwinter raw produce in cold storage. We hunt deer in the fall and butcher another 40+ chickens at that time, not to mention all the heritage turkeys we raised!

We don’t own land yet. Sometimes I feel exhausted at the thought and all the extra work it would bring. In spite of this, I am truly excited for the day when we can dig our toes into the soil of the land and say “it’s ours!” But when that day comes, I must remember my own upbringing, limitations and the real-deal homesteaders my Grandpa talks of.

I remember life on the farm. We couldn’t raise everything ourselves, not even with a hardworking family of 12 children. Often we’d leave the mountains for the warmer dyke-lands of the Columbia River where corn, tomatoes and particular fruits were plentiful. We did raise some of our own meat on the farm, but the majority of it came from the wild creatures who roamed the wooded hills, creeks and rivers.

What do I know of the true homesteaders? They raised the basics on their land: grain, legumes, squashes, tomatoes and root vegetables. If relatively well off they also had eggs, a meat and milk source, perhaps an orchard. Bees were a real bonus! Food was hearty and simple, often without much variation. The basics.

Today we have such variety available even simple tasks (such as choosing garden seed) can be overwhelming! We’ve become so accustomed to the food selection in our grocery stores that matching it on a homestead is indeed impossible. I’ve been recognizing the need for simplicity and focusing on the basics, particularly when I experience more limitations than the average person.

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Lesson #2: Homesteaders Prioritized for a Successful Harvest

It’s easy to take on too much (as outlined above) when homesteading, particularly when it comes to raising produce. We want a good harvest, with plenty of food for the year! It’s good to aim high but…I’ll be the first to confess that I aim high and land mid-way. Too often I don’t realistically consider the amount of time and commitment required to walk the harvest to the end. Do I recognize the effort each project will take? Do my priorities (and in my case, health limitations) allow for the output required? How many of us have thrown out produce simply because we couldn’t find the time to put it up?

When raising animals, its especially easy to “accumulate” too many. It’s even easier to overrun the pasture and raise the feed bill. In today’s world, most of us can cope with extra costs. We’ll do better next time!

“Just a few more cows would help build our herd faster, provide more meat, allow us some extra income…”

I experienced this firsthand in my childhood! Over-run pastures increase the likelihood of sickness among a flock or herd, increases the costs of the final product due to the purchase of extra food and leads to escape as creatures pursue the green grass outside the pen!

I am humbled by the homesteader’s life. They knew whatever course of action they took to provide for themselves, it must be walked to the finish line. They couldn’t afford to mess up! And they took their provisions seriously!

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Lesson #3: Homesteaders Practiced Borrowing Instead of Buying

Its easy to want everything, particularly in our materialistic culture! And actually? I’m re-discovering the homesteading lifestyle can be costly! Yes, the quality of life (usually) improves but at what cost?

I remember. Hay wagons borrowed for the hot summer season. An apple-cider press for the fall season. A tractor to speed the harvest. A bull to breed our Holstein milk cows, a cool place to hang the butchered animal.

My man and I felt the pull last fall. He bagged two deer and we wanted to buy a meat grinder! It would have been put to good use…a few times per year. But it was easy to justify! It would have been a good investment for our future! Did we have any other option? Well … yes! Not one but two offers for the use of good neighbor’s meat grinders and band saws. In the end, we chose to forfeit the opportunity to purchase a tool that “would” be used but wasn’t necessary.

Why?

If trying to live frugally, save for a homestead, pay off the mortgage, or work toward anything in life, an individual can’t buy whatever they could use, regardless of how much money it would save over the years’ time. There’s simply too much (particularly on homesteads) that we could use, that would improve the quality of life, would make us feel more self-sufficient! True Homesteading: Practice Borrowing Instead of Buying

Living realistically causes us to rely on those around in the best way possible, like the true homesteaders of long ago. They couldn’t rush out and buy whatever they wanted. Nope. Borrowing was the name-of-the-game, mostly because there was no way they could afford everything that would have been put to good use!

Lesson #4: Homesteaders Relied on One Another for Labor & Variety

Take a peek into any homesteader’s history: there wasn’t a family who did everything themselves. Large-scale farmers may have with hired help, but not the common folks like you and I! Instead of having projects go sour, homesteaders kept it basic (lesson #1), prioritized (lesson #2), borrowed when the need arose (lesson #3) and they relied on one another for labor and variety!

Trading or “swapping” was a common practice. Men would exchange labor in return for a portion of the final harvest. A boar would be “borrowed” to breed the homesteader’s sow and in return, the boar’s owner had first pick of the piglets. A woman lacking apple trees would offer laying hens to a neighbor in exchange for a barrel of apple cider vinegar. Or rounds of cheese for golden honey. They sought help for homestead’s labor: one would help with soap-making in return for aid with candle-dipping.

There was a network of supplies and help within each community.

Gulp. Sometimes this goes against my natural way of thinking. There’s a part of me that likes to be independent, that enjoys bragging rights. I like to say “I did it myself, by myself.” I enjoy giving Miss Myself a pat on the back! True to the homesteading life? Perhaps not. While I’m certain women kept some details to themselves, they had to rely on their neighbors!

It can be heard in the Laura Ingalls Wilder book “Little House in the Big Woods.” Making maple syrup was a big event and entire families would gather together in one effort. Everyone gathered to help and celebrate the harvest. Together. They did it...together.

My Grandpa tells stories from the Great Depression which clearly illustrates this fact. Growing up in Iowa when food was scarce, his town-the entire town-would gather together in one effort because they knew the necessary activities couldn’t be accomplished without the help of each person.

Here it is as Grandpa described it (and as my kid memory recalls it!)

“There wasn’t much for food at the time, but jackrabbits were plentiful on the land. They were fast and almost impossible to catch. So instead of trying to snare them, we (the town), would gather together in attempt to capture ’em. We’d walk down the road as a group until we were 1/2 mile out. Spreading ourselves among the scrub, we formed a semi-circle with 6-10 feet between each person. We then collectively moved toward a particular location where a “corral” had been constructed with logs, lumber and anything we could find. Our presence would cause the rabbits to move forward and slowly, we’d herd ’em toward the holding pen. As we got closer and animal’s tension heightened, our circle of bodies also tightened. Due to the density of our human wall, the rabbits kept moving away from us until they were secured in the corral. A gate would be put in place and then…”

From there, Grandpa said they went in swinging with whatever was to be had. While I don’t doubt it was hard on the rabbit population, it illustrates the dependence homesteaders had upon one another, particularly in tough times.

Together. It’s strange to hear. In our modern day we claim to live the “homesteading lifestyle” but instead of relying on one another, we live out the famous acronym of our day, pursuing the DIY movement. Makes me stop and evaluate the life I’m pursuing…

Keep Focus on the Homesteading Journey!

Cause really, these four points cause me to ponder: perhaps there is a better way to live this homesteading life? Could it be that we are missing something due to our consumerism mindset?

In a culture that is relationally deprived (I firmly believe it is!), perhaps old-fashioned homesteading has something special to offer? Could it be that DIY’ing to the extreme deprives us in other ways?

I think of the community farm we are part of. There is absolutely no possible way that my man and I, by ourselves could have grown everything we now have access to! This spring our group collectively planted and cared for 2 potato patches, a corn and strawberry patch plus three wide, long beds of garlic. We also had access to fresh raspberries every other week and collected 40 lbs of plums in the fall. Doing it together not only connects people but makes it all possible!

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Here’s a challenge for you!

Homesteaders who have land: would you consider opening up possibilities for those who don’t have the ability to pursue the things they desire, those who wish to raise meat birds or a hog, own a milk goat, raise chickens for eggs? For a small fee, would it be worthwhile? Those of you no longer have children at home, what could be better than inviting someone to share in the goodness of your land?

Wanna-be Homesteader: don’t be afraid to ask! Would you consider approaching a neighbor with empty land or an empty setup, offering them a part of the harvest in return for the use of their property? Or chat with someone who has a functioning homestead, if you could join their efforts for a price?

Do you have a harvest coming in? Offer to throw a party for those who will come help put up the goods! Share the homesteading things of this life with others. You’ll soon find those events hold a special richness for your soul!

Living life like the original homesteaders was about DIY activities, but it was also about living and sharing life with those around!

Share the Homesteading Life

So what are you waiting for? What holds you back?

I love this aspect of life! The things that take place when life is shared amaze me. Most often, its beautiful.

If you have stories of times you’ve shared homesteading life with others (or vice versa), I’d love to hear from you! Cause this kind of living just fills something inside of me, until I feel I’d burst with its fullness!

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Blog post submitted to Blog hop 75 at oursimplehomestead.com

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0 Comment

  1. This is a great post! I love the idea of being able to share the land. I have considered it because I do have a couple of people I think would let me do that, but I’m not quite ready to do that yet. I love the idea of losing the consumerism mindset when it comes to homesteading. It’s something I think most people don’t consider, but it would make things so much easier! So many thoughts to ponder. Thanks for sharing your insights. I can’t wait to come back for more!

    1. So good to hear! That’s exactly what I was going for!

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