Two years ago I won $50,000 in one of those through-the-mail promotional contests. (Yes, it does really happen to plain folks!) And—as you can probably imagine—my husband Jerry and I were delighted beyond belief. We immediately thought of hundreds of different ways to spend our bonanza. In fact, in the first rush of excitement, it seemed as if we could buy the world!
My husband and I had been married only a few years at that time and had just bought our first home: a small cottage in a suburban neighborhood in western New York. We'd purchased it because the price was right and because the owner had agreed to hold the mortgage. However, there was really nothing about the house (or the area) that we cared for.
Perhaps as a result of that dissatisfaction, we managed to remain calm and levelheaded about the sweepstakes winnings ...and to be careful to choose what was best for us rather than take the well-meant advice of friends and relatives who urged us to invest, travel, or remodel our present house. Our decision was to leave suburbia, move back to the land, and tackle our goal of achieving a modest level of self-sufficiency.
We found our dream homestead—our personal Eden—near the small town of Eden, New York, a community nestled among some of the most lush farmland in the state. It was a ramshackle 125-year-old plank house situated on ten acres of land with a breathtaking view. Half the acreage was wooded, the rest was fertile farming soil. The original barn had long since burned down, but there was a big two-story garage and an old chicken coop.
With little more than a few armfuls of MOTHER EARTH NEWS and various how-to books, Jerry and I moved into our new home in the spring of 1979. Our first year proved to be a real adventure, since neither one of us had any homesteading experience. We did, however, have a great deal of determination.
As a result of ten years of neglect, the house was sorely in need of repair. With some help from new-found friends and neighbors we repaired the roof, mended the wood siding, painted, updated and converted the oil furnace to propane, installed wood stoves as our main sources of heat, and cleaned up piles of junk left scattered over the land by previous owners, all in the first six months. We were so proud!
But not all our projects went smoothly. We suffered a near tragedy, for instance, soon after installing our first airtight stove. The living room had an existing chimney—situated between the walls in the house—that we'd utilized. We'd had it thoroughly checked and cleaned before putting in our woodburner, and we'd bricked the wall and floor to meet fire safety codes.
Everything appeared to be fine, but one night less than a month later—as we were preparing for bed—we heard a noise that sounded like a freight train racing through our living room. We ran outside and saw flames leaping out of the chimney. Jerry immediately closed the vents on the stove to smother the fire, but we smelled smoke and discovered—to our horror—that the bedroom wall was on fire. With the help of an old rug and a fire extinguisher, we were able to put out the blaze. Then we tore out the wall so there'd be no further chance of its igniting.
Needless to say, neither one of us slept that night. It was frightening to realize that if we had gone to bed just 30 minutes earlier, both of us might well have been killed. Our bed, you see, is located only two feet from the wall.
The fire inspector came to our home the next day and—after a thorough examination—informed us that the fire had started because of the large buildup of creosote in the chimney, caused by our burning green wood. Furthermore, there had been an opening in our bedroom that had once held the flue for a potbellied stove. The previous owners had wallpapered over the gap several times, making it impossible to detect. When the fire began in the chimney, the flames ignited the exposed wallpaper. From there the blaze spread to the lath boards. Amazingly enough, the inspector located two similar openings in other rooms in the house ...yet only the wall in the bedroom had caught fire.
Since our near catastrophe we've resolved to research every task before we attempt it. Ironically, MOTHER EARTH NEWS arrived in the mail just two days after the fire with a superb article entitled "Wood Stove Safety" that contained answers to all our questions. Soon our two wood stoves were properly installed, with triple-wall chimneys (they were expensive, but our peace of mind was worth the cost). We now also have smoke alarms and fire extinguishers placed around the house, as well as some flare-type chimney fire extinguishers to be used in the event of another flue blaze.
Happily, most of our settling-in experiences have been good. Jerry purchased an 8N Ford tractor with a scraper, bush hog, and disk for quite a reasonable price, and it's turned out to be a very valuable implement. We use it to work the garden in the spring and fall, plow our driveway in the winter, haul our wood ...and even bring in a little extra money by doing chores for other people.
Also—with guidance from MOTHER EARTH NEWS—we've begun to practice organic gardening. Last summer's vegetable plot (our first! ) was quite successful. The produce that we didn't use or sell was exchanged with neighbors for different homegrown edibles: things like asparagus, grapes, and strawberries.
Jerry and I have many more projects in mind for our "Garden of Eden." For instance, we want to raise bees and sell the honey, and are also planning to plant three acres of black walnut trees as an investment crop.
A new barn is in the planning stages a well, but that project is on hold until we find out whether the people who own the land adjacent to ours will accept out bid for five of their acres. If the purchase works out, we plan to start raising our own livestock as soon as the building is completed.
Finally, Jerry and a friend of his (who is an electronics engineer) are constructing a windplant that we hope will meets a family's electrical needs. The first one will be installed on our associate's property, and—if it proves successful—a second unit will be placed on ours. The project could even lead to a new business venture!
Looking back over our first two years in Eden, we can honestly state that they've included the happiest moments of our lives. Winning the contest offered us a chance for a new start, and we'll always be thankful for that. Of course, it's true that few folks will ever experience the good fortune that greatly speeded up our back-to-the-land plans ...but I hope my story will at least inspire some of you to search for ways to realize your own self-sufficiency goals.
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