A Lesson in History and Gratitude

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather
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We recently enjoyed our yearly visit with Ken and Madeline Snider. They were in this neck of the woods for a family party and so they stopped in for a quick visit. Ken was born in our house about 85 years ago, and Madeline boarded here about 65 years ago when she taught at a one-room schoolhouse several miles from here on the California Road. The coincidence of how we know Ken and Madeline is a pretty amazing story, and is well-described by Michelle in our upcoming book “Little House Off The Grid.”

Ken’s visits are always very enlightening for me, and make me extremely grateful to live with the modern tools I have at my disposal. Farmland in this part of the world was hacked out of the bush starting in the late 1800’s and to the settlers’ disappointment came the realization that the sandy soil left by the retreating glaciers was not good. Hay was one of the few things that would grow well here, which is why the agriculture of the area is primarily livestock-based.

When Ken was 14 his dad got sick. His doctor told him that he was working himself to death, and if he didn’t leave the farm, he wouldn’t last long. So Ken’s dad moved to Kingston to work in construction and Ken became the man of the house and worked the farm. And “worked” is a deceptive word, especially by our modern definition. Every ounce of energy in Ken’s being would have been poured into this farm, and not with the idea of getting ahead but more of just survival. He sold milk to the small cheese factory down the California Road and traded eggs and chickens, but this was basically to just buy other supplies. There was no retirement nest egg being built up here, just the basic goal of surviving. This is the way many people on this planet still live today, but we in the west have lost sight of this. Many people aren’t concerned about personal growth and self-actualization as they are just making enough to put dinner on the table tonight.

So Ken would have worked from dawn ’til dusk every day doing just that. They had 12 to 14 cows to milk, some pigs, lots of chickens, and a huge garden. It took me a couple of years of living here to be logical enough to situate my vegetable garden near the barn foundation. As we stood in the old barn foundation on Saturday Ken showed me where the stalls for the 4 plow horses would have been. Then he pointed out the section for the pigs and explained that the bulk of the space was for the cows. As Ken said, the horse manure went out that window, the pig manure out that window, and cow manure out that door.

His day would have been a blur of getting hay to the animals for feeding, to milking, to moving animals in and out, to growing food to bringing in hay or cutting firewood. We live in a forest which Ken points out used to be cleared and growing hay. When I worry about the planet I often find solace in this fact, how quickly nature will reclaim man’s efforts. He also brought in hay from some of the many marshes in the area. The horses had special “shoes” that were strapped to their feet, basically one-foot square boards to keep their hooves from getting buried in the mud. They would have to learn how to walk with these. Picture a horse walking with small snowshoes. The hay would be cut, and collected and placed by backbreaking work in huge stacks. Then in winter he would take a horse and sleigh in to retrieve a load everyday. It was poor quality feed so the animals would burn through huge quantities of it to get their required protein, which made the scale of his efforts even larger.

The house was heated by a number of fireplaces and stoves. I can never get all their locations correct. But these were not the EPA-certified, airtight, efficient woodstoves of today. Our one woodstove heats the whole house amazingly well. Woodstoves in Ken’s day required way more wood to keep the place even moderately heated. So this meant a grueling amount of firewood cutting once the animals were fed and tended to. Many years ago Ken & Madeline showed me a photo with a huge pile of firewood piled up behind the house. It was roughly as much as I could probably cut in a week with the help of a chainsaw, but it would have been a whole winter’s effort with manual saws and axes.

I remember my absolute glee at moving here. In the six months it took us between when we bought this place to moving here, while I got the phone system working, it was hard to contain my enthusiasm. In Ken’s case it was exactly the opposite. He couldn’t wait to get away. When he was 20, Ken and Madeline got married and moved to Brantford where he worked part of his life at Massey Ferguson building tractors. Funny to think that he spent all that time on this farm with horses, and ended up working for a tractor company. If Ken could have afforded a tractor while he was here it would have made his life infinitely easier.

 When we read the history of this part of the world the mind boggles at how hard people worked to eek out a living from the soil and trees. In this photo Ken and I are standing in front of a “wooden water pump.” Ken’s dad used to cut trees from the property and haul them to “Bellrock” where there was factory on the Napanee River that made these pumps. Bellrock is a 20-minute drive today. Ken said his Dad was gone all day on those trips.

Ken seems to enjoy his visits here. He said he didn’t come back for a long, long time after moving away because the memories weren’t good ones. I guess time takes a bit of the edge off. He seems to enjoy telling the stories today. Seeing how big my gardens are and how well we live, even without power lines coming to our house, probably helps. And I am well aware that I can live here the way I do because of technology. The technology that is in my solar panels and inverters allow me to live like anyone in North America, but without relying on a centralized power plant hundreds of miles away.

I am also aware that oil allows me to live here the way I do. I have access to this amazing manservant that is petroleum, which does so much of the work that human and animal power used to have to undertake. I still work hard, and sweat a lot, and fall into bed exhausted, but I have a feeling that my workload isn’t even close to what Ken Snider’s was when he lived here. My back and muscles often ache. On those days I can spend the day in the office to earn an income. Or I can always borrow my neighbor’s log splitter and use the embedded energy in a bit of gasoline to accomplish the work that an axe and food calories used to have to accomplish.

I am grateful to live in a time where I have access to many amazing tools. I am grateful to live in this fantastic little piece of paradise and not be anxious to ever move away. And I am grateful to Ken for his visits which remind me of how infinitely fortunate I am to have been born when I was and to be able to live the way I do. 

Photos by Michelle Mather. For more information about Cam or his books, please visit www.cammather.com or www.aztext.com