Around the turn of the century my grandfather, Roy Wheeler, left the Chicago area with his family to homestead in Canada. The following letter, written to his Aunt Florence in Illinois, was just recently uncovered . . . and I think it expresses the same ideals of love of the land, backcountry people, and neighbors helping neighbors that we and other readers of MOTHER EARTH NEWS are striving for.
19 August 1918
Bert wrote you about the Freeze family, who were burned out lock, stock and barrel. This happening, together with its results, so perfectly exemplifies the spirit of these homestead folk, a sketchy report may be of interest. That you may get any idea of the picture, I must paint in some sort of a background.
On a small, barren, Ontario farm, Dad Freeze put in a lifetime of hard work, 63 years. He scrimped along without the slightest chance of improving his condition. Forced to admit this fact, at his age, was a bitter dose. He set out at once to do something about it. With the guts and determination of a twenty-year-old, he picked up his family (wife, two sons, and a daughter) and found his way to this community. The urge prompting this momentous act was to give his children a break. Frustrated ambition, in a parent, often breaks out this way—"I want my children to have it easier than I did." An unsound doctrine, defeating its own purpose by dulling the youngster's desire to accomplish something on his own hook.
Mrs. Freeze, a tired little woman afflicted by a slight stroke, has a hitch in her walk as well as a hitch in her brain, although she well attends to her many tasks. Dad Freeze worked regularly with us in the woods, about two miles from his home. One morning, we glanced up the trail and beheld Mrs. Freeze stumbling toward us, waving her arms frantically. We rushed to her; she was badly bruised, her clothes torn, but in a hysterical collapse she gasped, "Fire!". She had fallen many times and had all but passed out during her two-mile race.
With all the old-time furor of a fire department, we hitched up a team and made a stump-hurdling, record run. A wash day's overheated stove had done the trick. Smouldering ashes marked the recent location of the Freeze house and barn. The entire family has lived with us since then, two months. It has been a tight squeeze as to accommodations. You seldom hear of so complete a loss. Buildings, furniture, clothes, even currency to the tune of $250.00. Thrifty Dad had just laid in an especially large stock of supplies: flour and sugar by the bag, cured meats, canned goods, clothes, and goodness knows what else. Even the old lady's spectacles and false teeth were missing. Destitution . . . why, a collar button would have seemed something big to salvage.
By "grapevine telegraph," the entire valley learned of the Freezes' predicament. This communication system works with uncanny accuracy; never are there wrong phone numbers, interruptions, delayed or distorted telegrams. News just spreads itself with the rapidity of light waves, to distances far and remote.
Back to the Freezes: This is a glorious epic, a tribute to the "human-ness" of humans. I wish someone would tell it as it should be told. Following the fire, early next morning, neighbors from far and near appeared at the Freeze homestead. There was no spoken condolence, no idle curiosity, no questions as to what to do.
With army precision, this crew set about the business for which it had gathered. The small amount of debris was cleared and the sound of keen axes and falling trees already heard in the nearby woods. No shouted instructions, no protracted debates over blueprint plans. Very soon, in came the skidding teams with the building logs. Up popped men with axes and crosscut saws. Logs expertly notched, foundation logs of another Freeze home, rolled into place. This monument swiftly arose, so very beautiful in its conception that it far surpasses your grand monuments in your fine cities. There was no special dedication, a service of this kind would be entirely superfluous. We did not miss the plug-hatted politician who usually does the dedicating.
Each day brought a new crew to carry on. From the railroad station came the mill work, doors, and windows. Few will ever know by whom this material was furnished. The lumber dealer was suspected. Soon the roofs were completed, then came the deluge; there appeared as from nowhere groceries, wearing apparel, clock, stove, harness, bedding, dishes even tobacco to ease tense nerves. Pictures, mirrors, doilies, towels and even a package of toothpicks. I saw these neighborly workmen, when leaving for the last time, lovingly gaze at their favorite tools and leave them behind, these tools to be ready-to-hand for later use by Dad Freeze. All this that transpired dazed me. Downright witchery! Some master genius had merely waved his wand, and quickly; thus had all wonders come to pass.
Again, from nowhere came the word that some cash was needed. An old shoebox was fixed on the general store counter, people passed it and into it dropped their mite. No subscription lists, no knowing of individual contributions. No Jones vying with a Smith, never a whisper of charity or philanthropy. Cash was plenty scarce and the first check of shoebox showed an inadequate amount of funds. Again, the box went on the counter, a second time people passed it and when the cover was lifted, Lo! an ample sum had been provided.
Now all that was needed was to persuade the Freezes to board the train for Edmonton, 200 miles away. At the last minute, tickets and bills were thrust into hesitant hands the conductor bellowed, "Allaboard." The little old lady was on her way to secure specs and teeth and other necessities that could not be acquired nearer home. In tearful gratitude with an unfailing will, Old Dad Freeze makes another start.
The successful, efficient solution of this problem would put to shame any public welfare or benefit organization of which I've ever heard. It is difficult to think of paid caseworkers and "relief" listed as a commercial commodity with effort and money wasted, cruel and criminal political administration, and the expense almost exceeding the actual amount of relief.
I presume you think of this country as of wide and open spaces and made up mostly of lonesomeness. Don't so think of it. Even our free, wild animals are more friendly than those of your famous ZOO. May I mention the most lonely spot for me? How about State and Madison Corner? There, millions tread on your toes and elbow you out of their way in a mad, rushing stampede. (Should you accost anyone with a neighborly salutation, without doubt, you would be thrown in the hoosegow, as a kidnap suspect.) Where could you find a more crushingly lonesome condition? This also brings to mind apartments with their clotheslines and fire escapes. Did you ever watch the never-ending struggling mass furtively scurry for cover into their darkened burrows during the five to six o'clock rush hour? Can there be such a thing as an apartment dweller by choice?
By the way, our cabin is astraddle the old Klondike Trail of 1898. It is quite isolated, yet there is no lock on the door. Should a wayfarer arrive during our absence, he walks in, cooks himself a meal, and resumes his journey. However, our code insists that he wash the dishes and leave plenty of dry kindling. Not to observe these items of etiquette would likely prove fatal. A like breach of etiquette could not be cited, even by Emily Post.
A rambling piece of writing is this, you may read only the news and skip my uncalled-for comments. I apologize for and retract everything that might incite debate.
Karyn and myself are at this time completing payments on our 80 acres of aesthetic Ozark Mountain land in Arkansas. We, like my grandfather, are looking forward to homesteading on our own.
We have dismantled and hauled a beautiful 1880 hand-hewn oak log cabin 100 miles (with definite plans to restore it to its original state), planted 500 Shortleaf Pine seedlings, cut a half-mile road, cleared land for our cabin, and built an Adirondack shelter.
We realize that this is only a small beginning, but that it is a beginning for sure. We plan on keeping the "eccentric, impractical dream" of Grandpa Wheeler alive and well and living in Arkansas. For now:Colie & Karyn Wheeler