In 1989, I was an agency representative for seven electrical manufacturers. My wife, Laura, our five children and I lived in Knoxville, Tenn., in a five-bedroom home, with two Volvos and a new van in the driveway. In our spare time, we rode horses for pleasure and frequented the nearby Smoky Mountains. I also coached my children’s soccer teams and played competitive soccer. One day I was going in for a goal and managed to crush my ankle, which meant that I couldn’t walk or work for four months.
During that time, I began to daydream about what I really wanted to do with my life. I was bed-bound, with nothing else to think about, and after wrestling with my thoughts for weeks, I decided it was time to discuss these ideas with my wife. “Honey,” I said, “Let’s rent a barn for the rest of the year. We’ll put our belongings in the barn, and we’ll all move into our pop-up camper. We will save as much money as we can, and then, in December, I am going to quit my job. We will buy some land, sell our cars, live without electricity and farm with our riding horses, so that I can stay home with you and the children!”
What I really wanted was to find a way to live on a small income so that I could quit my job and spend more time with my family, but Laura was less than enthusiastic about my idea. She threatened to get a divorce if I followed through with this crazy plan, and even my sister and mother came to her support. I knew I was in trouble; I couldn’t just disregard our 17 happy years of marriage and five wonderful children, but at the same time, I wanted to find a way to make this new life happen.
Starting from Scratch
I was still hoping Laura would come around to my way of thinking, so I went ahead and put an ad in the paper: “Looking for barn to rent.” I received one response to my ad — someone was offering a pig barn with water and electricity. The only problem was that it was filled with about 3 feet of pig manure! Well … I was committed, but not that committed, so I decided to keep looking.
Instead, I found a farm with a nice barn that I was able to rent in exchange for doing some work on the property. I moved our pop-up camper there in March, and asked Laura if she would consider moving. I was hopeful that she would, because the children were so excited about the idea. Laura was reluctant, but she finally agreed to come along if we would still have a washing machine, indoor toilet, bathtub, refrigerator and microwave. I realized that with a little compromise, we could make this work by taking it one step at a time. After all, what good would it do quitting work to be home with my family, if I didn’t have a family to be home with?
Fortunately, the property we were renting still had power poles and water pipes where the farmhouse had once stood, so I knew I would be able to put in water and electricity. Then I tackled the first building project of my life. It was a simple 16-by-20-foot building, with a wafer board exterior, a completely flat roof, exposed 2-by-4s inside and a plywood floor. My boss came to visit and he dubbed it the “mini-shanty.” He also warned me not to let anyone else at work find out where I was living. It was a very humble dwelling, but it did technically meet all my wife’s requirements, so we moved in.
During this time we started to learn how to be self-sufficient, and realized we still had a long way to go. We planted a large garden, which would have been easier to manage if I wasn’t still on crutches, or if we’d been able to keep out the property owner’s cows, which ate most of our produce. In the end, we salvaged only our crop of organic green beans, after Laura relentlessly drove off the cows. She proudly canned her hard-fought-for treasure.
Things were going well until the weather got colder, and at that point we decided to move from the camper into the small shelter I had built. We installed an old wood cookstove, but because none of our wood was cured, it produced very little heat and lots of smoke. The children smelled like hickory-smoked bacon when they got on the school bus, but they loved our nine-month camping adventure. At the same time, I knew that Laura still was not convinced that we should make this a permanent change.
Living with Mennonites
That winter, I quit my job to start looking full time for land, and during my search, I came across an Old Order Mennonite community in Kentucky that lived without cars, electricity or tractors. They had exactly the kind of knowledge we needed, so I asked if they would teach us how to farm with horses and other homesteading skills. The Mennonite bishop agreed, and I decided to rent a house with no electricity or running water close to the community. Though this house was larger than the “mini- shanty,” it had none of the amenities Laura had required for our previous move. I didn’t see much hope that she would agree to take this next step, and I was unsure about how to approach the subject with her.
Then, nature came to my rescue! It was an unusually cold winter, and as the temperature dropped, the rented house in Kentucky became much more appealing. “It doesn’t have electricity,” I told Laura, “but it’s a log cabin with thick walls, which will be toasty warm once we get the woodstove going.” Finally, she agreed to come along to try it out.
Fortunately, only the older children and myself took the first load of our belongings to Kentucky. That night, the temperature dropped to 15 below zero (a record low). There had been no heat in the old house for six months, and it was cold to the core. The children and I all slept wearing hats, coats, gloves and shoes. The next day, I installed the wood cookstove and found a neighbor willing to keep it piping hot until I returned with Laura and the smaller children. “You might not understand,” I told my neighbor, “but it is very important that my wife finds a very warm house when we return.” So we moved into the house with no electricity. It was one more step.
That’s how our life without electricity began. We started learning to farm, cooking and heating with wood — cutting it all with hand saws — and washing our clothes by hand. It was hard work for all of us. We worked from daylight to dark and slept from dark to daylight.
As it turned out, our first few weeks were a little harder than they should have been. Laura was quite discouraged about the difficulty of obtaining water. Our rented house had a cistern with a hand pump that was very hard to use: To get a bucket of water, it was necessary to pump hundreds of times. Then one day our Mennonite neighbor happened to use the pump, and he told us it was broken. We were very relieved! I got the parts I needed at the general store and fixed the pump immediately. Obtaining a bucket of water now seemed effortless. The situation with the pump was a good lesson for us at the time. Whenever Laura and I found ourselves seemingly outmatched, we would think, well, this might be like the pump; let’s stick it out awhile.
After a few months, the Mennonites invited us to live on one of their farms. We paid for rent and education with labor, and our younger children began attending their school.
Just after moving into the tenant house, my Mennonite tutor took me to a 13-acre field he had never before plowed. It was rocky, hard-packed Kentucky ground. After showing me how to get started, he turned his walking plow and three good horses over to me, and headed off toward his house. He said, “When you finish plowing this field, you will be able to plow with horses as good as any man.” It took weeks of hard work, but I did learn to plow with a team, and I truly enjoy farming this way.
Meanwhile, Laura was learning about making clothes, canning and gardening. By this time, she was finally beginning to appreciate our new way of life because we both saw how happy our children were living on the farm, working with animals and in the garden rather than being constantly entertained. We agreed, without a doubt in our minds, that the benefits of our lifestyle changes far outweighed any inconveniences.
We were on the tenant farm about a year and worked as a functioning part of the Mennonite community for the next several years, although we never officially joined them. They were wonderful neighbors in every way, and we learned a lot from them about farming skills and how to work together as a family.
Our Kentucky Farm
One day a neighbor stopped by to mention that a nearby farm was for sale. It was a perfect mix of tillable land, pasture and woodlot with a year-round spring and creek. So we purchased 100 acres in south-central Kentucky, and with the help of several neighbors, we tore down five old buildings. We drove a team and wagon eight miles one way to haul back the materials. Using the salvaged materials and hand tools, we built our barn and the house for about $3,000, not counting anything for our labor, of course. We built our house with a southern exposure to make it as warm as possible in the winter.
We hauled our water in buckets for two years, and then, to make our lives a little easier, I installed a ram pump — a device that is powered by water pressure instead of electricity. We continue to farm organically with horses. That’s how we earned our income for several years, mostly from selling sorghum cane and peppers, but now we grow only enough food for ourselves and our livestock. Our predominant source of income, until recently, was breeding and training border collies. I started training border collies in 1990 because I needed a dog to help with farm work and discovered I had a knack for it. Several of our collies have competed in national finals for both sheep and cattle competitions.
Over the years our lives have changed in many ways. Laura and I now have nine children. The last four were born at home, and I cherish the memory of helping the midwife with each delivery. We’ve also discovered that our family enjoys playing music together. The Old Order group we worked with considered all musical instruments taboo, which meant that our four youngest children never knew I used to play the guitar, and they had never listened to an album or even a radio. But after becoming independent of the Mennonite community, I started playing the guitar again, and several of the children have learned to play multiple musical instruments.
I have written a number of songs, many of them inspired by our change in lifestyle, and by chance, a man overheard our family playing them together while camping out at a border collie event in Georgia. He arranged to record us, and we decided to produce an album. For the past couple of years, we have spent several weeks out of each year traveling and playing nationally at performing arts centers and other family-friendly venues. Our songs have been played on both country and rock stations, and topped at number 44 on the Americana airplay charts. We also have been featured on both The Today Show and CNN.
To make traveling more convenient, we bought an old school bus and converted it for touring. It only goes 55 mph, but it feels like we’re flying after so many years running the roads in a horse and buggy. We also have a music office away from our home, which has electricity and a computer. I am often asked, “Isn’t there a contradiction between what you are doing and what you have done?’ I can easily respond “absolutely not!” I wanted to make these changes in my life so that I could spend more time with my family, and that’s the same thing we’re doing when we perform music together.
We enjoy traveling and performing music, yet we remain committed to the life we have built on our farm. Laura and I are firmly convinced that these activities are helping us to raise healthy, happy children. We may not always have as much money as we did when I had an 8-to-5 job, but we love our life, and we are thankful for all the wonderful memories we can take with us to our rocking chairs.
John Christopher Knight and his family have a Web site with tour dates.