The Oke family (from left, Jane, Andrew, Karen and Les) show off the chain saw attachment they used to build this inexpensive home. Andre, the youngest child, waves from the roof.
photos by Les Oke
We cut our own lumber and built our off-the-grid home for
Story and photos by Les Oke
During the days of skyrocketing interest rates in the late
1980s, my wife, Jane, and I realized that our dream of
owning a home was slipping away. For the first eight years
of our marriage, we lived in a rented house in Norwich,
Ontario, and we just couldn't save fast enough to buy our
Then, a friend gave us a box of 80 back issues of MOTHER
EARTH NEWS. That box opened up a whole new world for us.
Reading those magazines, we realized other people looked at
the world the same way we did.
In 1992, we purchased 20 acres of bush in Northbrook, a
hamlet in eastern Ontario about 150 miles from Norwich. The
property had a plowed back road with school bus service,
but it didn't have electric power. We were determined to
live without the "monthly mortgage," as my wife calls it,
to the electric company.
The same friend introduced me to Living the Good
Life, the classic homesteading book by Helen and Scott
Nearing, and I discovered self-sufficiency. I began
corresponding with Helen (Scott had died five years
earlier) about our move and our worries. In her motherly
way, she patiently guided us through our fears. I still
have those letters.
On May 5, 1994, we moved to our property, determined to
build our house before the first snow. We had saved $5,000
for this purpose.
We lived in a tent trailer that I had bartered for when
working with a local carpenter. By June, we had the land
cleared and the concrete footings and block walls done. A
local contractor put in the septic system and well, and
cleared the land for $700.
Early June saw us agonizing over the high price of lumber.
The next week I was at our chain saw dealer to pick up oil
and a new chain when I casually mentioned the price of
lumber. He asked, "Have you seen these mill attachments
that fit on your chain saw? You make your own lumber if
you've got trees." Excited, I told him, "I've got 20 acres
of trees. Keep talking!"
He explained how it worked and I ordered one (see photo
above). When it arrived the next week, I set it up and went
to work. The mill attachment cost C$250, but it literally
paid for itself the first day.
Throughout June and July I cut lumber. I'm proud to say
that not one piece of store-bought lumber makes up our
house frame. We cut studs, 6-by-6-foot floor joists,
10-by-10-foot beams, 19-foot-long roof trusses and
12-inch-wide roof boards, all with the chain saw mill.
Granted it was smelly, hot and dirty work. But the chain
saw mill proved indispensable to this "cheap Scotsman," as
my wife calls me.
We only cut mature trees, and we used dead and damaged
trees whenever possible. Because we cut the lumber right
where the trees fell, all the waste was left to break down
and fertilize the forest. In a healthy forest, there is no
need to replant; simply let natural regeneration take
Building the house turned out to be a slow process. Soon
October was closing in on us and we only had the second
floor done. A roof was two months' work away. What should
August 18, 1993
You write and ask how one finds people of similar aims
and congeniality. Sometimes one never does. After decades
of expressing our opinions on our likes and dislikes there
are very few people who agree with us entirely.
With the vegetarians, and hygienists and theosophists
we are too radical politically. With our political friends
we are too queer with our vegetarian and" "spiritual"
ideas. With conservative people we meet socially we're too
far to the left in everything. So we go our way alone and
maintain our own standards, let the clips fall where they
may. You may have to learn to stand alone.
Very best wishes,
Words of encouragement from the late legendary homesteader
After working for nearly five months without a day off, we
took a trip to my parents' home in southern Ontario. While
we were there, my dad mentioned a large greenhouse grower
who suffered hail damage to half his plastic greenhouses.
His insurance was replacing all his greenhouses and he had
lots of 200-by-400-foot rolls of used plastic to give away.
I loaded two rather unwieldy rolls of plastic into our
full-sized van. The children sat on the plastic for the
five-hour trip home. The next day we installed two layers
of plastic over the second floor to make a makeshift roof,
crossed our fingers and moved in. It was Sept 25, 1994.
Finally, we were warm and happy and we lived in the house
like that for three years. During those years we started a
market garden business and began selling organic produce
just like we had before we moved. That provided most of our
income, along with part-time jobs. We built a 60-foot
greenhouse with cedar (cut with the chain saw mill) and the
We spent the off-season cutting roof trusses and boards.
March 1997 was unseasonably warm and sunny, so we decided
to put the roof on. We worked 22 days straight, and at
10:30 Sunday morning of the next day we pounded down the
last shingle nail. Then it started to rain.
Jane and I stood on the hill overlooking the house, holding
hands and rejoicing as water dripped off the eaves. We were
done. Our completed house is 1,400 square feet with eight
rooms. It cost only $5,000 but took four years to build.
The children sometimes complain about the kerosene lamps,
or no electricity and video games like their friends, but
we know they're happy. We recently hooked up solar panels
to run a computer and lights. Nearly nine years without a
utility bill. Hallelujah!
During slow times, we work on other projects. In 1998, we
built a root cellar from field stone, a wonderful building
material. It's free for the taking and looks tremendous
when the project is done. It's also a great challenge to
master a new art. Believe me, it is an art putting
irregular stones together and imagining what they will look
like when you're finished. After the root cellar, we
tackled our fireplace. It looks beautiful and is the focal
point of our first floor. Everyone remarks on how well the
fireplace fits in with our timber design.
When we're asked why we live the way we do, one event
always springs to mind: the ice storm of 1998. Two full
days of freezing rain put most of eastern Ontario, southern
Quebec and the northeast United States in the dark from
downed power lines. It virtually paralyzed the area for
weeks. In contrast, our children were ready at the school
bus stop the day after the storm ended, but the school was
closed for two weeks. We were relatively unaffected.
The hubbub that followed the storm included a gigantic
cleanup effort in the affected areas. Our 90-year-old
neighbor flatly refused to be removed from her home and
placed in an emergency shelter, unequivocally telling her
would-be rescuers, "I've lived more years than I care to
remember with just my woodstove, my hand pump and a bucket.
it's you people who have the problem." She promptly went
back into her house, closed the door and proceeded to fire
the woodstove to make her supper.
Our neighbor really makes us laugh - our lifestyle is
similar to how she grew up more than 80 years ago. She
smiles when she talks to us because we can relate to each
other. Most people today just don't get it.
I know that anyone with a modest amount of energy and
perseverance could do what we've done. I owe a great deal
to the people who have gone before me and shed light on our
own journey to self-sufficiency. Special thanks go to Helen
and Scott Nearing. I hope they're smiling at our
accomplishments, wherever they may be. And thanks to MOTHER
EARTH NEWS most of all. There was a time when I read
readers' reports to learn. Now I hope that I can help
someone else in return.
Mother Earth News