This story is from Gene GeRue, submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear.
Gene GeRue is also the author of How To Find Your Ideal Country Home and the inventor of the chicken moat.
Growing up poor can be very healthy. My parents married in 1934. Living conditions during the Great Depression had hurt their families and shaped their late childhood. Dad was raised in northern Michigan on a small farm. He was fourteen when his father died. He had to quit school and help support the family. He was sent to a northern Michigan logging camp to work for room and board and a few dollars to send to Grandma. Mom's father had lost the house that he had built for the family. Family stories include Grandpa pulling a child's wagon downtown and collecting produce trimmings from behind stores. All of which is to say that our family was of limited financial means. But though Dad made modest money, Mom knew how to stretch it, and when I was 5 years old the folks bought a tiny house on a one acre farm at the edge of town in Beloit, Wis.
On that acre we had a huge garden, raspberry patch, strawberry bed, fruit trees — I remember the rhubarb growing under them — grapevines on the perimeter fence, a flock of chickens, hutches of rabbits and a hog yard at the far end of the acre that sometimes also contained a steer. There was no wasted space on that productive acre. Dad's brothers would come over and help with hog butchering. Everything edible got eaten, but I confess that I never did become fond of head cheese, blood sausage or pickled pig's feet.
Mom preserved all the veggies. Basement shelves were full of canning jars by the time winter arrived. Potatoes, carrots, various kinds of squashes, and apples were kept on the dirt floor and other places in the root cellar. That bountiful acre almost completely fed our family of five. Salt, spices, flour, milk and cheeses were about the extent of store-bought food. Later we got Grandma, a Jersey cow, and that took care of the milk and cheese. Mom was a great cook and her German mother had taught her some uncommon dishes, like potato pancakes. I was put to work in the garden as soon as I could be trusted to pull the weeds but not the carrots. Now at age 75, I am still gardening, using newer techniques than my folks did, like raised beds, but still using chicken manure and compost to feed the soil community that feeds the veggies that feed me and keep me vibrantly healthy. I think growing up money poor was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Photo Credit: Fotolia/ Elena Ray
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