Homesteading in Maine: Going Back to the Land on a Shoestring Budget

A firsthand report from Gillian McDaniel about leaving city life behind to start clamming, foraging and building her new homestead with her husband.
By Gillian McDaniel
January/February 1977
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 Gillian and Stephen McDaniel packed up their ’59 VW bus and left Boston city life behind for simple living in the small town of Machias, Maine.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA


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It's a warm, cloudy October day in northeastern Maine. I'm trying to make a pie, but I have to stop to eject Morton (one of our two cats) and his friend (a fat field mouse) from the kitchen. The mailman just brought the latest issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, and I've decided to join the ranks of “them that's doin’” by jotting off this missive.

Let me start from the beginning. Last May, Stephen (my husband) and I had just finished our college and teaching experiences in Amherst, Mass., and had moved back home to Boston, where we got jobs, rented a house, and began to lay plans for our long-awaited move to the country. On our days off, we made trips to Maine to look for our "dream farm" ... but after several months, we'd found nothing we could afford.

By the following April, we'd gotten pretty fed up with living on a busy street and working 9 to 5 in a retail camping store ... so we decided to set our sights on really low-cost land and get movin'!

Much to our delight, the next time we went to see our friendly real estate man in Maine, he had just what we wanted: 17 acres of woodland on a hill in the small town of Machias, near the coast. And the price was only $1,700!

Since our property didn't come with a dwelling, we decided — before handing over the money — to look around for a place to live. And — as luck would have it—we located a small house for rent just down the road from our land. To make things even more idyllic, the woman who owned the house, 83-year-old Aunt Minnie Thurlow, agreed to let us live in the place rent-free for seven months in return for fixing it up a bit!

We returned home happy and determined to be living in Maine as soon as possible. Toward this goal, we began to rid ourselves of the excess junk we'd acquired in five years of marriage, buy tools for farm work, and — in general — cut all our ties with city living. (We also made a trip to the Erewhon Trading Company in Boston to stock up on whole grains and natural foods, since we knew these items would — if anything — be more difficult to find in Maine than in Massachusetts.)

Things went amazingly well: We had little trouble selling our late model car for $1,750 (which paid for our land) ... and we made another $250 on a garage sale.

Finally, on August 28 — just five months after finding our land — we loaded up our '59 VW bus, bade farewell to Boston, and (in 95 degree weather) trucked on up to Machias, Maine.

Now — two months later — I'm pleased to report that the four of us (Stephen and I and our cats, Mortie and Reggie) are doing quite well. Stephen's got a good job building log cabins for our real estate man. He gets to work outside all day and is learning a lot of things that'll help us when we build our own house next spring. (At $4.00 an hour, he's making the same as we both made together back in Boston!)

As for me, I've been busy shingling, painting and installing storm windows in our rented house (which, though humble, does feature such luxuries as electricity, a pump for water and an old oil-burning stove, “Admiral Gray,” that we use for heating and cooking). Next, I'll tackle the outhouse, which needs a window, a door and tar paper.

Of course, no matter how "busy" I am I still have lots of time for my artwork, and for clamming. (Our "backyard" is a pretty bay that's loaded with clams.) I also spend a fair amount of time foraging wild foods. Last September I made rose hip soup and it was fantastic (thank you, Euell Gibbons). Wild crab apple jelly and apple butter are next.

Mort and Reg love country life, too, what with the many wild creatures to stalk (and the lack of traffic to dodge).

Not long ago, we acquired a chain saw (and a 4-wheel-drive truck) and began clearing our land, which is on the southern slope of a beautiful little hill. We're planning to build a post-and-beam house — a la Rex Roberts’ YourEngineered House — and expect to be able to do it for $200 or less, using lumber recycled from old barns and such. (We met a couple just up the road in Eastport who built a similar structure three years ago for only $90!)

The people here are, we've found, shy at first ... but we're getting to know them, little by little. We've met quite a few back-to-the-landers in this area (MOTHER readers, too). And the county extension agent — who has his own small farm in nearby Cooper — is extremely friendly and helpful.

Northeastern Maine is a great place to live. Each season (and there are four distinct seasons) has its own special charm and beauty. The seafood along the coast is unbelievably delicious and easy to gather. Also, Machias is the home of one of the best small restaurants in the world, Helen's, where two people can still get a superb home-cooked meal and a huge piece of apple pie for an embarrassingly small amount of money.

We're discovering, too, that there are many seasonal sources of income here (such as blueberry- and potato-picking, clamming, and wreath-making) that lend themselves quite well to our kind of lifestyle.

As this is being written, we're getting ready for winter and looking forward to a three-month vacation for Stephen. (We're also anxiously awaiting the snow for winter camping and cross-country skiing.) It should be a lovely winter.

What can I say? If you set your mind to it, you can get back to the land, in six months to a year, even on a shoestring. I know. Because we've done just that.

Perhaps I'll send another report soon ... but right now, I'm off to clean up the mess Morton made while eating his mouse on the porch rug.

Peace and love from Maine,
Gillian & Stephen McDaniel


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