Our Alaska Homestead

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PHOTO: HELEN BLANCHARD
The back yard of the Blanchard's Alaska Homestead is filled with plants during the summer.

Back in 1958, when Alaska was still a territory, my husband
and I carved out our own self-sustaining world–on
Gravina Island–under the Federal Homestead Act.

What did our Alaska Homestead cost? You might be surprised to learn that our
“piece of paradise” only set us back $89–that was $85 for homesteading
fees, and $4.00 for a roll of tar paper to protect the
outer walls (under our hand-split cedar shakes) of our
driftwood log cabin from the constant dampness of
southeastern Alaska’s coastal weather.

Childhood Lessons

Doing without manufactured goods–and most of the
other folderol that many modern folk seem to think is
necessary for happiness–was a way of life in the
Ozark hills where my husband and I grew up. Our parents
took pleasure in hard work, and they taught us to work
too!

In those not-so-long-ago days, chair frames were turned on
a foot-powered lathe and were bottomed with white oak
splints. Oak strips were also used to make baskets. Corn
shucks filled cotton ticking for bed pads, and
deliciously soft, warm, feather-filled mattresses were laid
on top. Our underwear was created from flour sacks, but the
rest of our clothes–made on a treadle
machine–were “store-boughten” cotton.

Even then, we knew we lived “modern” lives compared to
those our grandparents talked about, but–though we
did have “real” cloth–our family understood
that such material was a luxury to be conserved until
the rags of former outfits were used in rugs. Each scrap
that was left over from the sewing became part of a quilt.

The fact is, the true homesteader has little need for
store-bought “newness.” The homestead itself–with
satin-sleek newborn kids, silky soft rabbits, and fluffy
chicks–is always an exciting and ever-changing world
to those who are attuned to its wonders.

Keep It Simple

Party line telephones were frowned on in the Ozarks
of my childhood as gossipy time wasters, and (though
many of our Alaskan neighbors “can’t live without ’em”) I
feel the same way about today’s CB radios. “Visiting” by
means of such contraptions could, for instance, have cost
us the valuable time we used to build the solar greenhouse
that gives us fruit and vegetables right into December.

We don’t have electricity either (after all, both my
husband and I lived the first 25 years of our lives without
utility power, and feel very comfortable with our
wood-burning stove and oil lamps), and–with the
exorbitant cost of electricity in Alaska–our
“sacrifice” amounts to real savings!

Though we don’t keep an itemized list of everything we buy,
we do have a good idea of the cost of living on
our homestead. Our only luxury is a 55-gallon, $30 barrel
of white diesel fuel (enough to light our lamps for a full year). Since we raise forage crops and
utilize all our weeds and garden greens to feed our
animals, $600 buys a year’s supply of grain and
alfalfa for our goats, rabbits, and chickens. In turn, the
critters more than earn the cost of their feed, especially
since I have customers who pay $1.00 for a quart of milk,
$1.25 for yogurt, and $1.25 for a dozen eggs. (And, of
course, our animals also furnish much of our food and
fertilizer.)

Food for Health and Income

Raising our own victuals is really all the health insurance
my husband and I need. With a year-round supply of
naturally grown potatoes and other root crops–plus
dried peas, cabbage, herbs, onions, garlic, and our own
canned garden produce–we don’t have to buy much from
the store. The homestead, as noted, also provides us with
milk, meat, and eggs. From the surrounding
woods and beaches we can obtain venison, mushrooms,
blueberries, red huckleberries, bog cranberries, fish, and
shellfish. However, to supplement this fare, I do
sometimes barter smoked fish for whole grains and honey.

In addition, those few things that must be
bought–such as feed, seeds, and plants–can be
absorbed into the homestead budget by raising one or two
crops that are locally in demand; in my teen years I sold
chickens to earn money, but here in the Land of the Midnight
Sun organic eggs are eagerly sought after. One old-timer
here grew vegetables for years, and used a rowboat to
deliver his produce to the stores. He had no other means of
livelihood, yet the man raised a family and sent
his children to school.

My husband, who’s a journeyman machinist, makes extra cash
by doing seasonal work for a month or so in the
summer at a local salmon cannery. He worries about
having money for hospital care in our old age and is
saving to provide for such an eventuality.

Of course, I’m glad he’s planning for the future, but I
don’t worry about growing old at all … simply because I
figure to keep on homesteadin’ forever!