Four Life Lessons from Homesteaders of the Past

Before we moved to the valley we call now call home, 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!

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!

While I made my way in the world, I left parts of this life behind me. Since marrying, my man and I decided to returned to the cottage lifestyle. 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. The DIY movement is huge. It has benefited many people. But I wonder? When taken to the extreme, does it also damage us?

History always has a story to tell. So I slowed down from my DIYing and looked back on history and my own childhood.

 

 

Lesson #1: Homesteaders Raised the Basic Food Staples

In my excitement over natural living, the ambitious side of me rises. I want a finger in every pie! Living in town, we’ve managed to lead a full-fledged homesteading life! When winter comes, I’m ready for the slow pace, to sit, play a game, to relax and enjoy the fruits of my labor.

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, my limitations and need for others.

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 raised animals, lots of animals but couldn’t do it all. Instead we hit the basics.

What do I know of the true homesteaders? They raised staple crops 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, of evaluating what really matters most and focusing my energies there.

 

4 Lessons from Homesteaders of the Past 

Lesson #2: Homesteaders Prioritized for a Successful Harvest

It’s easy to take on too much 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 often land mid-way. Too often I don’t take the time to calculate what it requires to care for and walk the harvest to the end. 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. I experienced this firsthand in my childhood! Over-run pastures increase the likelihood of sickness among animals and often leads to escape. It’s easy to overgraze pasture in hopes of multiplying herds or flocks faster, but in the end, we often have a high feed bill that renders our attempts void. In today’s world, most of us can cope with extra costs though we end up losing in the end.

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!

 

 4 Lessons from Homesteaders of the Past

 
Lesson #3: Homesteaders Practiced Borrowing Instead of Buying

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

Homesteading is a costly lifestyle, particularly for those who carry a consumerism mindset.

My man and I felt not so long ago. He had just bagged two deer and we wanted to buy a meat grinder! It would have been put to good use a few times per year. It was easy to justify because 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!

 

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!

4 Lessons from Homesteaders of the Past

 

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!

Folks of longer ago swapped food, labor and even animals! A deal could always be worked out. In fact, in some communities, there was an entire network of suppliers: those with orchards but no milk cow would exchange apples and vinegar with those who had milk, butter and cheese. Men would use the neighbor’s boar to breed their sow and in return, the boar’s owner got first pick of piglets. Labor would be exchanged for part of the harvest. It was a web of dependency and resources.

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.

My Grandpa tells stories from the Great Depression which clearly illustrates this fact. Growing up in Kansas 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. Jack rabbits were an issue, destroying the crops and finally when the long-eared critters came down with a disease, the local folks had had enough. 

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

The jackrabbits had become such a pest, that we decided to do something about it. The entire town gathered, then headed down road until we were 6 miles out. Spreading ourselves among the scrub, we formed a semi-circle with 10-15 feet between each person. We then collectively moved toward a particular location where a “corral” had been constructed with a snow fence we pulled from the highway. Our presence would cause the rabbits to move forward and slowly, we’d herd them 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!

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, perhaps old-fashioned homesteading has something special to offer?

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!

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

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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