The Maxwells take a short break after finishing "The Shed," a 200-square-foot one room cabin they lived in while building their current home.
Photo by Steve Maxwell
In 1985, my wife, Mary, and I purchased 91 1/2 acres on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, and a year later, we built a 200-square-foot one-room cabin. We were homesteading beginners, and the job took us four 60-hour workweeks and $550 to build what we now affectionately call “The Shed.” Neither Mary nor I had ever built a structure before The Shed, so it’s smaller and not as stout as the structure described in Build This Cozy Cabin.
For the floor frame and roof rafters, I hewed logs from our forest; for most of the rest of the project, I bought the least expensive locally sawed lumber I could find. I built The Shed with just a few tools: a broad axe, chain saw, claw hammer and a carpenter’s handsaw, square and level.
For four years, every spring through fall, we lived in The Shed as we built our 2,500-square-foot, three-story Victorian-style stone home. By living in that little cabin, we saved thousands of dollars and boosted our productivity by eliminating daily travel to the work site. We shared that space with mice, newborn livestock, our golden retriever, King, and even a sick calf that had been abandoned by its mother.
Each winter until our hand-built home was ready, Mary and I grudgingly left The Shed and traveled back to the city to overwinter and earn money. But doing so enabled us to live in that tiny rustic cabin for the rest of the year, which was a crucial steppingstone to the rural life we now enjoy.
“Starting out simply and debt-free in The Shed was very important for us,” Mary recalls, “but let’s just say that Steve liked it more than I did.”
Whenever I tell people our story, they usually shake their heads and wonder how we succeeded. But the truth is the cabin life was the lap of luxury for me at the time, because deep down inside, I’ve always been a country person who had the misfortune of growing up in a big city.
The biggest blessing of cabin life is its simplicity. But you don’t get that benefit just because you’re living in a tiny space. In fact, a cabin this size will drive you crazy if you’re not ultraorganized. We installed hooks, nails, pegs and shelves, and slept on folding cots — all of which allowed us to live in the space comfortably. What’s more, these space-saving devices doubled during the workday as room for tools and hardware, and space for workshop tasks.
If you stay organized, the cabin lifestyle is wonderful for personal productivity. With no distractions from entertainment, we happily worked 12 hours a day, six days a week on our home, quarrying stone by hand and using it to build the 350 ton basement. In one season of cabin living, we built the three-story frame of our home almost entirely by ourselves.
Our kitchen appliances in The Shed consisted of a two-burner hot plate and a deep crockpot. We made toast in an old-fashioned flip-down toaster and kept perishables in a 1951 Frigidaire that we acquired after hooking up to the electricity grid. For access to water, we drilled a well and pumped water into a pressurized tank in a corner of The Shed. We took baths every Saturday night in a steel-panned wheelbarrow, filled with water that we heated a gallon at a time in the crockpot. We washed our work clothes with a scrub board in the same wheelbarrow, and then dried the laundry on ropes tied across the inside of The Shed.
Life was simple and good, but also strenuous and Spartan — especially for Mary, who grew up in South America in an area where camping and outdoor living were not a part of common culture. But to us, the benefits of cabin life were, and still are, obvious. The cabin made it possible to cut costs, live efficiently and work nonstop. More than ever, I now see that the ability to focus exclusively on your dream home for three seasons a year while not leaving the property to earn money is a tremendous luxury indeed.
I look back on my days in The Shed with fondness, but I admit I couldn’t live there now. Mary and I have four children, and raising them with any degree of sanity requires more than 200 square feet of space. If I were 20 years younger and starting an adventure in the country again, I’d still begin by building a cabin. The Shed served me just fine, but I would design it a little differently, starting with the size.
I’d make the cabin bigger, easier to heat and slightly more comfortable. I randomly chose The Shed’s 10-by-20-foot dimensions based on no building experience whatsoever. Now I know that making the cabin just 5 feet wider would have greatly improved the amount of useful space. Also, I would spend more money to add insulation, running hot water and a small sink with a drain. By doing so, I could have extended my home-building season longer into the spring and fall. Furthermore, I would build the base on a deep foundation.
These days, The Shed is looking old and sits a little wonky as its base moves a little more with each year’s frost. But I don’t suppose our children would ever let us tear it down. For them, The Shed is a place of legend and a tangible connection to the stories we tell them about how their family came to set down roots on the land they’ll inherit.
You Can Build One, Too!
If you feel drawn to the simple cabin lifestyle, I say go for it. Someday, I look forward to experiencing the cabin lifestyle again, even just as an occasional retreat. Something about the tiny size of a cabin puts me at ease. Some of my best cabin memories go back to cool fall evenings — tucked into my sleeping bag, I’m dog-tired as the warmth of our antique woodstove wafts across my face. This lifestyle gives me the kind of deep-down satisfaction and enjoyment that is only attainable when you mix hard work with a compelling dream and your own piece of land.