Guide to Getting Back to the Land: Homesteading in Canada

Paul Thayne Conroy provides a personal guide on the basic preparation he needed to move back to the land when homesteading in Canada.
By Paul Thayne Conroy
September/October 1970

All over Canada and the United States, people — both old and young — are attempting to get "back to the land".
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/JAKOB RADLGRUBER


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All over Canada and the United States, people — both old and young  — are attempting to get "back to the land". Wonderful! I'm quite in favor of such action, even when taken to the extreme of turning one's back on civilization and striking off into the woods . . . as long as the folks involved are capable and know what they're doing. I strongly feel, however, that a number of would-be pioneers — especially those who are city-born and bred and whose only knowledge of wilderness living comes from the library — should be warned that homesteading in the bush may not be as simple and serene as they've imagined.

Sure. We've all read books that tell how Joe Fedup took his wife and three-year-old daughter into a remote area of British Columbia where they carved a ranch house out of the wilderness and a few old fir trees. There really are such people. But most generally they had some prior experience in bush living, the necessary skills and the proper frame of mind to see them through the difficulty of getting started. They weren't, in other words, rank tenderfeet when they made their big move.

Now I'm not saying that the stereotyped "Perils of the North" — things like an avalanche or attacking wild animals — will immediately do in any neophyte who tries to settle Back of Beyond. As a matter of fact, although I was once forced to kill an angry she-bear to save my own life, such glamourized dangers are extremely few and far between. You stand an infinitely greater chance of being mugged in New York's Central Park.

No, it's the unexpected little things that can relentlessly drip, drip, drip like the Chinese water torture until they drive you from the woods: Opening the door on a winter's morning to find your path blocked by a roof-high snow drift; spitting out mouthfuls of black flies during the first three weeks of summer; having the smoke from a stuffed-tip fireplace force you out into an 18-below night. These can all be both scary and dangerous.

There's even littler things: Finding you're out of sugar with the roads blocked may not seem like much but it can be damned hard on the person with a sweet tooth. Spending day after day after night after night after night with the same face or faces (even if you really love the people behind them) can occasionally hone your nerves to a raw edge.

Of course, such minor irritations are just that — minor and irritations only — to anyone with average common sense. The incidents are dangers solely to the dreamy individuals who waltz off into the woods completely unprepared: Folks who try to use 30-30 cartridges in a 303 rifle; "mighty hunters" that expect to live off the land with a bow and plastic arrows; Flower Children who plan to subsist on fish and herbs . . . but don't know how to clean a fish and wouldn't recognize a herb if one fell on them. I met all of these, by the way, on a recent trip to British Columbia.

Chances are, though — since you read MOTHER EARTH NEWS — you don't fall into that last category. Let's assume you're about as I was a few years back and start there

Homesteading in Canada

I had returned to Canada from a stretch in Korea as a war correspondent. I was tired, I no longer had a marriage, I didn't want to shoot any more TV film, I didn't want to work as a newspaperman and I didn't much want anything to do with people.

There are few jobs that allow a man to opt out of society when he chooses but I was lucky enough to be moderately talented at two of them: Writing and painting. Neither a writer nor an artist need have much direct contact with mankind to earn enough for food, clothes and the odd movie.

But how and where was I going to establish myself and practice my trades the way I wanted to practice them? It may seem strange but, in the middle of my turmoil, the very medium that many of the back-to-the-landers reject started me on the road to peace of mind.

I was watching a TV program on the early settlers of the Canadian west and saw a bit about building a sod house. Through clever editing, the whole erection of a well-built home was shown. From the laying out of a site to the painting of the roof, I was given a capsule lesson in the art of constructing a sod house. It looked easy. I decided then and there that I would homestead in a fairly remote area, build a sod house and settle in for some uninterrupted writing and painting.

So, did I immediately draw my savings from the bank and rush out to stake a claim in the handiest remote area? Indeed, no! The first thing to do is not — repeat NOT — get the land. The land will always be there. You begin by making plans and lists.

In my case, I plotted moves, step by step, the way a general prepares for a battle. I studied lists of tax-forfeited lands, built up a library of favorite books, checked out the construction of simple furniture and made lists of everything I would need . . . from ant paste to a small zerox machine.

I left nothing out because I knew that one small misstep could be a source of irritation or trouble later. By the time I had finished planning, making lists and reading up on wilderness living, I knew what I was about and I was confident that any mistakes made in the future would be relatively minor and the result of only a passing stupidity.

With the basic plan in mind, I rented a garage in which to stockpile the tools, equipment, materials, books, clothes and groceries I would need and then I set out to beg, buy and scrounge those items. I began by ordering a good but cheap Acorn fireplace and an oil burner. I also started sifting through the bargains in second-hand furniture stores.

One of my earliest stops was the Salvation Army (Sally Ann, as we say in Canada) store where I purchased five large trunks and three very outsized suitcases. I took this luggage to my storehouse, repainted each piece and marked its future contents on each case. Then I took my grocery list and started out.

Every major city in the United States and Canada has large food stores that offer substantial discounts on damaged canned goods. These are "crushed can outlets" or what my daughter, when she was five, called a "used food store". Here in Toronto, we have the House of Usher where you can buy tinned English steak and kidney pie (ordinarily more than a dollar) for forty-nine cents. They also sell five to ten pounds of powdered milk at a bargain price, tins of stew for a quarter and large tins of fruit juice for less than half their usual cost.

I next visited a wholesale grocery for some items. By the time I finished I had enough tinned food, staples and breakfast foods to last me all summer and well into the winter . . . all for about sixty-five dollars. In addition, I left a standing order for the wholesale store to send me a fresh supply in late November.

Why did I buy all this tinned stuff and lots of peppermint tea? Because I'm not a mighty hunter nor could the land I was buying grow much and I was moving to the wilds to write and paint . . . not sweat over a hot plow or stove. Besides, only a damned fool does it the hard way. I was going to be building a sod house and that is backbreaking work enough so I made it easy on myself in the meals department.

By nature, I like creature comforts and a well-ordered way of living. Peeling potatoes and such after a hard day's work would only result in a tired man eating a half-cooked meal and that wasn't for me. So I packed three of the trunks with canned goods, flour, salt, etc. and went back to "Sally Ann" for two more.

Now I had seven trunks, three outsized suitcases and a backache . . . and I was only getting started.

I packed all my books into one of the trunks and put writing tools, paper, carbon sheets, four dictionaries, a Writer's Yearbook and spare typewriter ribbons into a suitcase. Another case held artist's materials.

Trunk number five became a tool chest with nails, saws, hammers and all the gear needed for simple — and I do mean simple — carpentry work that I was going to be doing.

Two more trunks and one of the big suitcases remained. One trunk was already earmarked for my good clothes: Five tweed suits, four tweed jackets, a good British military trench coat, a Royal Navy dufflecoat, six heavy wool turtleneck and crew neck sweaters, ten woolen shirts cut along military lines, undershirts, all my battered tweed hats (I have the largest collection of battered tweed hats in the world, including a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker) and my kilt.

I trotted back to the "Sally Ann" and purchased a great number of beautiful tweed ties (more about tie wearing later). I also bought the reddest hunting jacket in the world. To this, I added several Canadian Army berets of various colors and a beautiful tweed suit with a Norfolk-style jacket that had great, bloody, patch pockets and shoulder straps.

Why all the clothes? Just because I'm a part time hermit doesn't mean I should go around looking like something out of Tobacco Road or off Sunset Strip. When I plan a day of writing or painting, I put on a pressed pair of slacks and — depending on the weather — one of my woolen P.O. shirts or a Canadian Army nylon shirt. I choose a tie (tartan for the nylon, tweed for a wool shirt) and my shoes are shined, my beard trimmed and my hair always crew cut. I am not so far from town that I can't get to a cleaners and I always have fresh shirts and pressed clothing.

That may sound like the Englishman who dresses for dinner when he is alone in the jungle but, if a man doesn't have a set of standards by which to live, he is little better than a savage.

As a matter of fact, Saturday in my wilderness home was always special. I planned a good dinner with wine accompanied by one of the more exciting classical records and the Toronto Scottish pipe band on the record player. After the meal — with dishes washed and wolf and falcon fed — I sat in front of the TV set, sipped cold beer (it had been in the river all day) and relaxed . . . in a suit. Just because one lives in the woods is no reason to go completely native.

But back to the garage and the packing. The last suitcase held dishes (a good set of heavy china for two people and a substantial plastic set for everyday use), skillet, pots, spoons and silver . . . all good and all of it new. The final trunk was for odds and ends, small pictures, several years of Saturday Review, first aid kit, shells for my 303 and spare batteries for the radio. The big Acorn fireplace was still packed in its box from the store as were kerosene lamps and sod cutting tools.

I was now packed and ready except for a door, windows and other construction material from the local wreckers. In Toronto, it's Tepperman's and I not only found the door I wanted there (it came from a rather impressive Victorian office) but a large stained glass window which depicted a knight saying farewell — or, maybe, hello — to a beautiful girl, in colors still vivid after 60 years. I also picked up some panelled walls from one of the great houses that the University had so ruthlessly ripped down and replaced with parking lots. The rest of the lumber would come from a town near my site.

The stuff from Tepperman's (I also found a large stone dog for my yard) was packed in the garage and I proceeded to the final step in my preparations: NOW I was ready for the land.

Being rather innocent in those days, I almost got sucked into a deal on a full-sized swamp in Ontario's Muskoka area. Luckily, I talked to a local newspaper editor before I sank my savings into the worthless piece of land. The editor advised me to look into a tax sale listing . . . and that's how I learned about the H.M. Dignam Corp., Ltd.

For 54 years, the H.M. Dignam Corp. has helped people who seek to go back to the land in Canada. Its offices are in Toronto and it deals in tax forfeited land from coast to coast. The firm is reliable and the people in it honest. They have to be because Canadian laws deal harshly with unscrupulous land agents. Through the Dignam Corp. you are often able to purchase as much as 50 acres — some of it on water — for as low as $30 down and $25 to $50 a month. The full cost of the land can be as little as $350. Of course, all you get is the land. But at these prices. . . why not?

There is another Toronto-based company, Reed and Zelsman (Land Corp. Division). Their office is in a suburb of Toronto. This firm also deals in very good land values. For example, around Rainy River, Ontario — near Baudette, Minnesota — they recently had 40 acres with a stream on a road only two miles from town. The full price was only $995 with $45 down and monthly payments of $30.

Given today's land prices and all the cheap and somewhat unethical "Summer Cottage Dream" developers trying turn the north woods into a polluted suburb, buying from one of these two reliable tax sale offices in a good investment. They guarantee to give you the properly executed transfer deed and a certificate of title when your contract is paid out. You'll also be required to pay the present year's taxes, of course, and those in the future.

Yes, there are disadvantages: Poor roads, distant towns and isolation. To take advantage of these bargains you have to be a special person — not necessarily hardy — but self-reliant and blessed with common sense.

To make a long story short, I got hold of ten acres near Sault. Ste. Marie through Dignam. As in most of these tax sales, the land was bought sight unseen from a topographical map and an air photo.

I grabbed a train for the Soo that Friday night and Sunday morning found me bumping along a back road — or, rather, a pair of ruts — on the way to Goulais Bay and the village of Gros Cap. I later learned that the driver, a happy-go-lucky Indian named Tom Running-Two-Shoes, could I have taken Highway 550 but both he and the truck were unlicensed.

The truck had been somebody's pride and joy back in 1933 and its springs were long (very long) gone. Tom bounced and nursed and cursed that great Mack truck property, dumped me and my gear, muttered, "See you Tuesday" and — with a horrible mesh of screeching gears — mashed his way back to his little farm.

Up went my tent, camp bed, card table, chairs and one comfortable Chesterfield that Tom had had in the back of his truck. The truck, which carried his family to town for movie every Saturday night, usually boasted several benches (property of the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests), the Chesterfield for his mother-in-law and a large box-turned-cradle for his youngest.

After I'd seen to fixing up the tent and laying out my supplies, I ran string where I wanted my house to stand. Then I began to cut sod. It was backbreaking work and, a couple of hours later, I fell into the big chair and had second, third and fourth thoughts about the building of a sod house.

Tom must have had Extra Sensory Perception for, about two that afternoon, he came back with his whole family — including mother-in-law — and everyone pitched in on the job.

Some of the sod came from where my house was going to be and the rest from a flat piece of ground out of sight of my clearing. By six o'clock there was more than enough "building blocks" for my new home and we all sat down to a good meal prepared by the women.

After supper Jamie, Tom's eldest son, played a guitar and sang cowboy songs. Now, I've held a grudge against western music since the days I worked at a Nova Scotia radio station. But there, sitting around a fire — with a bright May moon's reflection dancing on Lake Superior — it seemed just right.

On Tuesday I returned to Toronto and my studies. In a week I would be finished and able to make the move to my home in the woods. Since I had spied a Hydro line running along the road by my land, I added a TV set and record player to my load of supplies. I would have some amusement during the coming winter of 1954.

Man cannot live by books and work alone and I dislike the culture snob who "NEVER watches TV". He usually makes such a fetish about it that I rather suspect he hides a TV in the closet and watches old John Wayne movies on the late, late show.

Anyway, there I was packed and ready to go. All I had to do was rent a truck, load the gear and away to the woods . . . all alone and ready for work. Except I wasn't really alone. I had a pet, a young timber wolf, named Belle. She was about eight months old and a gentle, blue-eyed animal who had become a one-man wolf. Belle would allow others to pet her . . . but with the manners of a queen accepting favors from lesser folk. Never off a leash when she was out-of-doors, Belle was the best behaved, least noisy "dog" I've ever owned. She never barked, jumped on people nor chased cats. She did let out a joyous howl one time in a department store elevator . . . but that's another story.

So, ready for the wilderness, getting away from town as fast as possible was the only thought I had in my head. I rented a truck and found a friend with a strong back to help me move and, later, drive the truck back to Toronto. We set the Grand Expedition for the May 24 holiday weekend. That's Queen Victoria's birthday and a sort of unofficial beginning of summer in Canada . . . traditionally, the time when the summer cottage is opened and the highway slaughter begins.

After loading and unloading the truck three times, we were all set Thursday night and — by six o'clock Friday evening — were on our way. When we arrived at the site next day I found that Tom had been to the Soo and had purchased all necessary lumber for the house. After lunch — prepared by Tom's wife, Nina — we set to work.

Tom, his sons and cousins had already put in the stone foundations, laid a floor and set up the framework. After unloading the truck, we put in the panelled walls, fitted the fancy door and started laying down sod. The windows were fitted and, by sundown, we were almost finished.

Heavy velvet, scrounged from a theatre's replaced front curtain, made a divider "wall" for the bedroom. The A–shaped roof was constructed from substantial marine plywood and thatched with sod. By noon Sunday, my home was finished and the house-raising party began in good earnest.

I had the electricity installed the following Tuesday and, from the time Tom started laying foundation on Thursday to clicking on the TV set Tuesday afternoon, the actual building time was only five days. Total cost was $75.89.

Now for the big questions. Was the sod house warm and comfortable during the two years I lived in it. Yes, it was. In fact, since I often overload a fireplace with too much wood, it was sometimes far too hot in the 20 X 25 foot house with both the fireplace and stove going.

There was no chimney, by the way. I used only ordinary stove pipe (one for the stove and a separate one for the fireplace) and I don't recommend it. Stove pipes that glow red — as mine sometimes did — can cause plenty of worry.

Would I live in a sod house again? No. These days I would buy an old bus or camper for very little or shoot up an A–frame Alpine structure. But then, my position has changed. When I built the sod house I had very little money and, if nothing else, it was certainly inexpensive to construct and maintain. For youngsters pioneering on a shoestring, the "dirt cheap" sod house can still be most attractive. Remember though, I had help from the best friends a tyro homesteader ever had. Without Tom Running-Two-Shoes and his family, I'd never had made it.

If you're planning a move Back of Beyond, don't be too proud to seek out the advice of experienced woodsmen. They know the ropes and can give you invaluable tips. Before you ever begin, take a survival course too, if you can. Learn simple carpentry and first aid. Just like a boy scout, you're going to have to "Be Prepared".

If I seem to harp on the problems of wilderness homesteading, it's because I've faced them: There was the time I suffered a mild bout of food poisoning alone on a mountain in B.C. I faced that one by myself because I had forgotten fresh batteries and my two-way radio was dead. And I well remember the three days a heavy snow buried the sod house and trapped me because the windows were stuck and the door only opened outwards: The air got pretty thick in there during those 76 hours and convinced me of the value of an escape hatch through the roof.

But there is also romance and adventure and a feeling of pride waiting for the man or woman who pioneers in the bush and life in the wilderness can definitely be a most rewarding experience. All you have to do is plan a little, listen a little, read a little . . . think a little.


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