Planning and Building a Home in California

The Comstocks share their experiences with preparing a building site and tending a food garden as they plan and begin construction on their own home.

| March/April 1974

  • Dried Soybeans
    Ardis and Dave Comstock harvested and dried three 50-foot rows of soybeans from their homestead food garden.

  • Dried Soybeans

On August 31, 1971, I resigned my job as production assistant and book designer at the University of California Press in Berkeley. We rented our house in Walnut Creek (a suburb of Oakland) to a fellow employee and moved to the old homestead where my wife, Ardis, grew up and spent about half her life. We're currently putting the finishing touches on planning a home and preparing a building site, since it's too late in the year to begin building a home in our area. 

Our place is located approximately five miles from the towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City, two of the earliest and most important gold mining centers in California. We're about two and a half hours' driving time from Oakland and Berkeley and another 20 minutes from San Francisco. At our elevation of about 3,000 feet, we have a foot or two of snow in the winter (up to five feet in unusual years) and summer temperatures in the 90s.

The area - especially the towns - looks a lot like New England and is the scene of most of my watercolors. Although we had a large vegetable garden - about half an acre - last year and will continue to grow a good deal of our food, we don't intend to farm for a livelihood. Most of our income is from my free-lance work as a book designer and artist, done by mail for clients in California, Colorado and Hawaii. I'd expected to have only a modest amount of such employment when we moved to the country but the fact is that I've had to refuse assignments to leave myself time for other activities. Ardis (a newcomer to the graphic arts) has helped me on some of my jobs and says she enjoys even the tedious chores.

Several years ago we bought 9 1/2 acres bordering Tahoe National Forest, and in the spring of 1970 acquired a tract of the same size that adjoined our land on the south. That same year we had a well drilled on the first parcel (located water at 85 feet and carried on until we hit bedrock 110 feet down). In 1971, just before we moved up here, Ardis and I built a pump house over the shaft and installed the pump, storage tank and electrical generator. The flow from this system is hardly impressive (about 1 1/3 gallons a minute or 80 an hour) but it never falters . . . even after nine hours of steady pumping. We've had water here when other wells went dry. (Of course, we spent some time with pump experts beforehand to design a setup that wouldn't drain the well faster than it can fill. Happily, the right equipment - the smallest unit made - was also the least expensive.) Our 5 kw generator, which is mounted on a trailer, was purchased secondhand from a newspaper classified ad for $500 . . . and will not only power the water pump but provide enough electricity for our house both during and after construction.

In the summer of 1972, George, Ardis' next-to-oldest son, converted the machine from gasoline to propane. The conversion kit ($50.00 from the generator's manufacturer) took about two hours to install and worked perfectly on the first try. The propane is delivered by truck and is the only utility for which we pay . . . all others are derived from that source. The fuel is contained in two tanks - one 300-gallon and one 150 gallon - also purchased through classified ads for less than half their usual cost. Our heat will come from wood, of which we have ample supplies.

The articles in the November/December 1971 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS helped us buy a used pickup truck at auction: Not what we want for the long run, but the price was right and it'll hold us until we come across the "perfect" vehicle. At another sale we found a Jeep with a dozer blade on the front and a trench digger on the back. (That's a great machine, by the way: In one pass it can carve out a ditch a foot wide and up to five feet deep.) George and his younger brother Mark kept the Jeep busy a good part of the summer digging foundations, leach lines and utility and road ditches . . . even the hole for the septic tank. One of those trenches is 300 feet long and will carry a plastic waterline from an underground water reservoir (a $40.00 plastic swimming pool with a 12-foot diameter and a capacity of 2,500 gallons) to a tent-cabin we built in a couple of weekends. That shelter will be part of a permanent campground for friends who want to visit during the summer months. We also put up another pool of the same kind to cool off in, and to serve as an emergency water supply in case of fire. It takes our well about 36 hours to fill each of the reservoirs.

Dave Comstock
7/16/2008 5:14:09 PM

I'm amazed by the fact that you still are posting the 1974 article about Comstock Bonanza. Five years later we began publishing books about California History, and we're still at it (our website is at We still live at our self-built home in the woods. We're off the grid but online as of June 12, 2008. My wife and I are in our 80s now, but still plugging along. Thanks for remembering us!


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