Shown is a photo of Jim Hilberer and Terry Atwater working on Hilberer's log cabin.
PHOTO: JIM HILBERER
MOTHER July/August 1973 featured, among other things, an
article by Lee Winchester titled, "Homesteading Capital is
Where You Find It". Jan and Jim Hilberer, however — with
practically no money at all — had already successfully left
the Big City behind them long before they read Lee's
thoughts! Here's a report Jim sent us in March of
I would like to point out that homesteading can be done
with little money, lots of hard work, and much pleasure. My
wife, Jan, and I left Rochester, New York in the spring of
1972 with $250 and our VW. Less than a year later, we were
settling into a cabin of our own on 5 1/2 acres of Virginia
We left the city with the idea of locating inexpensive land
in West Virginia. After looking that state over and
shelling out a sizable portion of our small bankroll on VW
repairs, though, we gravitated to the northern border of
Virginia where jobs were more plentiful. Our plans at that
time were to camp out for the summer, work, and save every
penny we could toward our homestead. We weren't exactly
sure right then that we'd be able to make the idea work the
way we wanted because, although I've camped since I was a
child, Jan had never — until then — camped out in
We pulled into an attractive little campground with a
brand-new 9-by-9 tent, a Coleman stove, some lanterns, and
$70.00 left in our pockets. We liked what we saw. The
grounds had a 15-acre lake, showers, toilets, washer, and
dryer — not a bad home for the summer. So we chatted
with the owners and they agreed to let us stay for the
whole season for the lump sum of $100 — half down and
the other half due the following month.
That left us with only $20.00 to live on, so we immediately
set up camp and went looking for work. I took a job that
paid $100 a week — not much, but a good
start — that same day and Jan, a teacher, found
employment as an art instructor shortly afterwards.
I chopped all our firewood that summer with an axe and Jan
and I kept our campsite clean and neat. This industry and
our ambition soon impressed other campers who used our
grounds every weekend and we became friends with some of
these "regulars". Before long some of them were even
offering me good jobs back in the towns they'd come from but I turned them down because of the distance I would
have had to travel each day.
By the end of the summer we had come to know the owners of
the little park in which we'd spent the season so well that
we ended up buying our homestead from them. It's five and a
half acres overlooking the Shenandoah River in the Blue
Ridge Mountains. We paid $350 down and the owners financed
the balance at $65.00 a month.
The deal on our land was closed in October — too late
for us to put up a house for the winter. So Jan and I found
a 110-acre farm we could rent for $60.00 a month. Heat
wasn't included at that price, but the old farmhouse
kitchen that we'd be using was equipped with a beautiful
wood-burning stove. We bought an additional wood-burning
heater of our own, moved in, and stayed snug and warm all
Our comfort, however, only whetted our appetite even more
for a home of our own. But how would we get it? We had
nowhere near enough money to buy a house.
"Maybe we could build a home," we thought. "Maybe we could
build a log cabin." So, even though we'd had no previous
building experience, we read two books on log cabin
construction and went to work.
As soon as the building site was marked off, we paid a
'dozer operator $20.00 to push off the few trees that stood
where we wanted our new house to be. As we watched those
trees fall, one of our new neighbors came over to get
"Whatcha gonna build?" he asked during the course of our
"Log cabin," we answered.
"Well, I declare," he said. "I just cleared two acres of
straight pines and put me in a pasture. Now I sure got no
use for those trees. Mebbe you have."
We were happy to accept that offer and, the next day, our
new friend started dragging logs to our homestead with his
tractor. The generous gift inspired us to go right out and
buy a chain saw so we could begin cutting the rough timber
into the lengths we needed for the walls of our house. We
also picked up three drawknives for 50 cents apiece at an
auction — and, for the next three months, Jan and I
spent every weekend cutting off branches and peeling logs
out on our property.
About the first of March Terry Atwater, a friend from New
York, came down to visit and was so impressed at our
progress that he decided to stay and help us erect our
cabin. One month later — on April 1 — we moved into
the 14-by-24 dwelling. And by May 21, our garden was in the
ground, which resulted in plenty of fresh vegetables
for the summer and a surplus that we canned for winter use.
Although we still have no electricity (we heat with wood
and light our home with kerosene), we have had running
water piped in to the cabin. Our monthly bills, then, are
$65.00 for a land payment and $4.00 for water.
The total cost of that first cabin — including chain
saw was $700. We built the structure in just seven months'
time and paid cash for everything we bought as we went
along. And now, with the money we've saved during the past
year, we're starting on our new 24-by-32 log cabin!