The Homestead Pioneers: Back to the Land

article image
People are turning to the pioneer life for a variety of reasons. Many are inspired by the philosophy of the Nearings who lived 20 years in Vermont before they found ski resorts, and other signs of modern civilization crowding in on them.

When Sue and Eliot Coleman sit down to eat in their tiny one-room house in Bucksport, Maine, they use tree stumps instead of chairs. When they need drinking water, Sue walks a quarter of a mile through the woods to a freshwater brook and hauls back two big containers hanging from a yoke over her shoulders. And when the Colemans want to read at night, they light kerosene lanterns.

The young couple–Sue is 26, Eliot 31–aren’t the forgotten victims of rural poverty or some natural disaster. They live as they do out of choice living a homesteading lifestyle. They have deliberately given up such luxuries as indoor plumbing, store-bought furniture and everything that electricity makes possible. They have no telephone, no automatic mixer, no TV set.

With their two-year-old daughter, Melissa, Sue and Eliot are trying to escape America’s consumer economy and live in the wilderness much as the country’s pioneers did. They grow about 80% of their own food and spend only about $2,000 a year on things they can’t make themselves.

The Colemans have been living this way two and a half years and they’re proud of their accomplishment. “If you listen to Madison Avenue, we don’t exist,” says Eliot. “They say it’s impossible to live on $2,000.

The Colemans are among a tiny but apparently growing number of young couples, often from middle-class families, who are taking up the pioneering life, or “homesteading” as it’s often called–though today’s pioneers usually can’t get free land from the government as early homesteaders did. Favorite homesteading areas are New England, the Pacific Northwest, the Ozarks and Canada. Sue and Eliot have 40 acres of thick forest 30 miles south of this small town near the central Maine coast.

No one knows just how many people are taking up homesteading. The Colemans say they personally know about a dozen couples. A neighbor of the Colemans, Helen Nearing, 67, who with her husband, Scott, now 87, retreated to a homestead in Vermont in the early 1930s and later moved to Maine, says “a lot of people, more than 100, are getting land and living off of it.”

There’s no doubt that interest is growing. In 1954 the Nearings wrote a book on the subject called Living the Good Life. Only 10,000 copies were sold in the 16 years up to last September. But nearly 50,000 have been sold since then in a new edition.

People are turning to the pioneer life for a variety of reasons. Many are inspired by the philosophy of the Nearings who lived 20 years in Vermont before they found ski resorts, and other signs of modern civilization crowding in on them. In their book, the Nearings said they originally retreated to the land to find “simplicity, freedom from anxiety or tension, an opportunity to be useful and to live harmoniously.” They arranged their lives so that, after working to produce what they needed to live, they had ample time for “avocational pursuits” like reading, writing, hiking and simply talking.

Some modern-day homesteaders have political motivations. “I don’t want to earn a lot of money because I don’t want to pay taxes to a government that’s been lying about Vietnam and its intentions of solving social problems,” asserts David Wilson, 27, an architect who is homesteading with his wife and two children in Maine. His wife Debbie, 28, agrees. “We’re just totally exasperated politically,” she says.

Others homestead because of interest in ecology and organic farming. “They’re interested in life styles that will let them live well while doing good things for the earth,” says John Shuttleworth, editor of Mother Earth News. The magazine, a year and a half old, has already built a circulation of 60,000 with advice on buying land, building pioneer-type homes and organic farming.

A chance to be alone with one’s family also attracts some. “We’ve been invited into communes, but we aren’t interested at all,” says Mr. Wilson. “We have a tremendous need for solitude and privacy.”

Communes are shunned by many homesteaders, in fact, on the ground that they tend to attract hangers-on, drug users and other undesirable who aren’t really prepared to cope with the rigors of homesteading.

For Sue and Eliot Coleman, a desire to escape the consumer economy, a chance for real independence and a deep interest in organic farming all played roles in the decision to homestead. But their backgrounds would hardly indicate that they would someday try to live like pioneers.

Eliot, a short, solidly built man with blue eyes and a full head of unkempt, prematurely graying hair, is the son of a Manhattan stockbroker. He graduated from Williams College and worked on Wall Street as a broker trainee himself for a short stint. He soon gave this up to go to Middlebury College in Vermont, where he won a Master’s Degree, then wound up teaching Spanish at Ranconia College in New Hampshire. There he met Sue, who was a student. A pretty young woman with soft features and shoulder-length brown hair. Sue is the daughter of a vice president of a suburban Boston bank.

After marrying, the two came to their decision to homestead largely because of the inspiration of the Nearings’ book, Living the Good Life.

“We stumbled across the book while looking for yogurt in an old general store in New Hampshire,” Eliot says.

Sue and Eliot became vegetarians, as the book advocated, and spent $2,000 of their $5,000 in savings to buy their land in Maine. During their first two months in Maine in the fall of 1968, the couple virtually lived outdoors, their only shelter being a cramped three-foot-high and four-foot-wide homemade camper body in which they slept. By day Eliot chopped down trees and removed the stumps until he had a clearing large enough to build a house on.

Using books and manuals as guides, the Colemans constructed an 18-by-22-foot cabin, using cedar posts for a foundation and planks of rough-cut wood he bought from a lumberyard for the floor and walls. Eliot’s tools: a hammer, saw, level and carpenter’s square. Total cost: about $700 for materials.

“We would have built it out of logs, but it was October and we thought it would be good to get out of the camper with winter approaching,” says Eliot, almost apologetically. Logs would have had to be cut and would have taken longer.

The next spring was marked by the birth of Melissa, by natural childbirth and in the home–but with a doctor in attendance. It went without a hitch.

Growing 35 Varieties of Vegetables

Since building the house, Eliot has concentrated on clearing more land of trees, using axes and other hand tools, and has so far cleared four acres. A half-acre has been planted with vegetables and fruit trees.

Today it’s hard for a visitor from the city to imagine that the Colemans’ house and garden and orchard were once part of the thick forest of fir and spruce that surrounds them. The homestead, named “The Greenwood Farm” and set about a quarter of a mile off a dirt road, is striking with its carefully arranged rows of vegetable plants and small apple and pear trees that make up the half-acre front yard.

The Colemans grow 35 varieties of vegetables, including parsnips, asparagus, spinach, kale and lettuce, as well as strawberries and cantaloupe. A few rows of plants are covered with sheets of thin glass held together by wires and known as “cloches.” They are, in effect, portable greenhouses. The Colemans also have a small greenhouse built into the front of their house. All this allows them to get a jump on the short Maine growing season, about 140 days, by planting vegetables while snow is still on the ground.

“By the beginning of March, we were eating radishes and lettuce,” says Eliot proudly.

Starting the Work Day: Up at 5:45 A.M.

Watching the Colemans at work on a typical day provides some insight into just how they have accomplished as much as they have. Eliot and Sue arise at 5:45 a.m. After dressing in his customary brown corduroy pants, green short-sleeved work shirt; red pullover sweater and brown rubber boots (because of the moist Maine weather that keeps the ground damp and muddy), Eliot heads out to a one-acre field behind the house to remove tree stumps.

Eliot chopped the trees down a year ago, but the 150 or so stumps must still be cleared before the field can be plowed for planting. With a full overhead swing he chops at the largest roots of a stump’s base with an axe and then switches to a pick and hoe to further loosen the stump. Finally, wearing gray work gloves, he wraps his hands around the foot-thick stump and pulls it out with a heave.

As the sun breaks through the early morning fog that hangs over the trees and raises the temperature about 10 degrees to nearly 70, Eliot soon finds himself soaked in sweat and removes his sweater. By the time he’s ready to come in for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. he has already removed four stumps. He hopes to be able to plant a quarter of an acre of the field in corn this summer.

Inside the house, Sue, dressed in baggy brown work pants and a red and white striped pullover blouse, is also busy. She has already started the wood-burning stove, using paper and some small twigs to get it going, and now she’s grinding wheat into flour using a cast-iron hand grinder. Later she will use the flour to make chapatis, an unleavened bread that resembles the Mexican tortilla in appearance.

Books and a Sewing Machine

Does she miss any of the modern kitchen conveniences most women her age long for? Not at all, she says. “I just thoroughly enjoy doing things by hand,” she says. “Like grinding wheat. I’d much rather grind it by hand than use an electric grinder or blender.”

Besides, Sue contends, her kitchen has its own versions of many modern conveniences. For instance, she can regulate the heat on her stove and oven according to the type of wood she uses. For moderate temperatures she uses softer wood like spruce or birch and for high temperatures she uses apple or cherry wood.

The house, although it consists of only one room, is divided into four areas– the kitchen with the wood-burning stove and two counters with storage shelves above and below; a dining area with a picnic-style table and the wood stumps for chairs around it; a living room area with two benches, built into the wall and covered with thin red mats, that serve as couches and as the lids of storage areas; and a sleeping area consisting of a large double bed built into the wall about five feet off the floor to take advantage of the rising heat in winter. Two-year-old Melissa sleeps in a corner of the bed. The only obvious signs of contemporary life are the books, many of them on organic farming, that fill the bookshelves built into one wall. There is also an old pedal-operated sewing machine. The toilet is an outhouse about 50 feet from the house.

After starting the stove and grinding the wheat, Sue heads out back to a small fenced corral to milk one of the Colemans’ three goats (the other two, daughters of the oldest goat, are too young to give milk as yet). The first month or so after Sue started milking the goat, which must be milked twice a day her arms and hands were sore, she says. “But they say you develop milker’s hands after a while,” she observes.

Apples for Breakfast

The milk is mostly for Melissa and is stored under the house in a narrow cellar that serves as a refrigerator with a temperature between 37 and 47 degrees. The cellar also is used to store root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, beets and turnips, which are kept in shallow boxes of sand to retain freshness and which are eaten throughout the winter.

Breakfast is extremely simple–apples dipped in ground sesame seeds, which look like a gray paste but have a sweet, candy-like taste, and ground oats with raisins and goat’s milk. Until a year ago, the Colemans had about a dozen chickens, which they used for eggs, but they gave the chickens away when they decided they didn’t care all that much for eggs.

After eating, Eliot pulls out a black three-ring notebook in which he records such things as the daily weather, the date certain crops start growing and how well they grow. He also charts the chores that remain to be done.

“I think we ought to start the parsnips now,” he tells Sue. “Last year I think we started a little late. This way they should have better roots,” he says. Sue agrees, and he makes a notation in the notebook.

The rest of the morning Eliot spends pulling stumps out of the ground and Sue divides her time between making chapatis and pulling weeds in the garden. Melissa occupies herself playing with pots and pans or wood sticks or simply wandering around the garden, chattering contentedly.

Lunch, served at about noon, consists of potato and onion soup and fresh chapatis. Dessert is chapatis spread with peanut butter and honey, both store-bought.

Avoiding a Cost-Price Squeeze

After lunch Sue walks through the woods, with Melissa following, to their three-foot-wide brook. There she fills two containers with three gallons of water each, enough to last for two days, and carries them on her shoulder-yoke back to the house.

For washing and bathing water, they use a well near the garden (it hasn’t been tested for pollution as the spring water has, so they don’t use it for drinking). They heat the water on the stove. An oval three-foot-long metal tub serves for both bathing and clothes-washing. For soap, the Colemans use store-bought Ivory bars and flakes.

The afternoon finds Eliot turning over a patch of the garden to prepare it for the planting of parsnips and carrots. An important part of the preparation involves mixing compost, or fertilizer, into the soil. The compost is a mixture of seaweed the Colemans get at the nearby seashore and horse manure and leftover hay from a local horse farm as well as remnants from their meals, all of which has decomposed for months. “If I had to buy all sorts of chemicals and fertilizer as most farmers think they have to do, I really would be in a cost-price squeeze,” says Eliot.

The Colemans have made some concessions to 20th Century technology, however. They have kept a small Jeep, a Volkswagen truck and a portable Zenith AM-FM shortwave radio: all of which they owned prior to moving to Maine. Eliot liken to listen to the news and weather reports once or twice a day, and on Sundays he tunes in classical music.

The Jeep and truck trouble the Colemans, however, as symbols of modern technology and sources of pollution. Eliot says they’re considering selling the truck and hitching a trailer to the Jeep whenever they need to haul things. “At the rate we’re going, we’ll have an ox and mules in a few years,” says. “Who knows, then if I want to go to town, we’ll hitch up an oxcart and make a day trip out of it.

Organic Food is Health Insurance

Otherwise, the Colemans have been able to divest themselves of nearly every sign of middle-class life. They gave two electric blenders and other appliances they had received as wed ding gifts to friends before leaving Franconia College. Eliot discontinued his Blue Cross and Blue Shield coverage as well. “Health insurance is served on the table every meal,” he says, expressing the belief of many organic food devotees that food grown without artificial fertilizers and made without chemical additives improves health.

Eliot admits to some misgivings about forsaking insurance. “I had that fear every suburbanite has, but living like this, you get over it,” he says. “I figure if anything happens, I’ll find a way to cope with it.” If he should face a sudden big doctor or hospital bill, he figures, he will pay it off over a period of years.

Eliot and Sue still retain some ties to the money economy. During the spring and summer Eliot does gardening and other odd jobs for local residents three or four mornings a week, for which he is paid $2 to $2.50 an hour. Sue also has done some part-time secretarial work. Together, they were able to earn about $1,400 last year. They earned another $350 from the sale of surplus vegetables from their garden–mostly peas and lettuce–to neighbors and tourists, for a total income of $1,750. The remaining $250 they spent came from the last of the savings they had when they moved to Maine.

Of their $2,000 in expenses, the largest single item–about $750–went for gas, repairs and registration of the truck and Jeep, which is another reason Eliot wants to get rid of one or both vehicles. Another $500 went for food they couldn’t produce themselves, such as raisins, vegetable oil, nuts and 100–pound bags of wheat, oats and rice, which together last about a year.

The Goat Gets Loose

About $200 went for new gardening and construction tools, and another $200 went for household items like kerosene for lamps ($14 for a year’s supply), windowpanes and soap. Other purchases included books, seeds, food for their three goats and dental bills. Clothing expenses are minimal; they are still wearing clothes from their pre-homesteading days, and Sue sews what else is needed.

This year Eliot hopes to take another step toward self-sufficiency by selling $800 worth of vegetables and fruit. That will mean he and Sue will still have to earn about $1,200 to meet their $2,000 budget. Eliot regrets having to take on odd jobs, however, because “the time I put in doing that I lose here (working on the farm),” he says.

He is especially wary of both himself and Sue being gone at the same time. One day last year when both of them were away, one of the goats got out of the small corral behind the house and ate a whole patch of lettuce. “That set us back a month and a half,” says Eliot. “It was a real disaster.”

After Sue has washed the lunch dishes, swept out the house and taken a short nap with Melissa, she joins Eliot in the garden and helps plant the seeds. To Eliot, the time he spends in the garden is probably the most fulfilling part of any day. “It’s a beautiful feeling when I’m out here with a hoe and I think that this is something man has been doing for 4,000 years,” he says as he turns up clumps of earth. “We could have the TV and refrigerator if we busted our tails and planted every square inch of our 40 acres, but that wouldn’t be any fun.”

That’s not to say, however, that the Colemans don’t have some expansionary plans. Besides clearing more ground for farming, they want eventually to build a larger house and turn the small one into a workshop. Sue is a potter and Eliot a skilled woodworker. They haven’t had the time or the facilities to practice their crafts since moving here. But they believe that once the farm is in the shape they want it, they–like the Nearings–will have ample time for “avocational pursuits.”

Happiness is Homesteading

At about 5 p.m. Sue goes in to begin preparing dinner, and by 6 p.m. Eliot’s 12-hour day has ended and he comes in to wash from a large bowl of hot water. Then he flicks on the radio to catch the weather forecast for the next day and sits down to a bowl of rosehip soup (the family’s main source of vitamin C), which is made from the fruit of the rose plant. Next comes a tossed salad of lettuce, kale, grated beets, carrots and chopped onions, all grown in their garden. The main course is oatmeal topped with natural sesame oil and steamed kale. Dessert is apples.

Following dinner, Sue and Eliot relax by reading and playing with Melissa. The kerosene lamps add to the relaxed mood by giving a soft glow that just allows for reading.

Perhaps every month or so Sue and Eliot get together socially with a young engineer and his wife who live nearby and have a child Melissa’s age. Occasionally they visit friends in Bangor or see the Nearings. That’s about the extent of their social life, however. They haven’t been to a movie in about three years, and they say they don’t ever feel the need to go to a restaurant to eat, preferring their own organically grown food.

Hard as their day-to-day work may seem, the Colemans appear to find it a small enough price for the satisfactions of their life. “I’m working 16 hours a day for survival,” Eliot says. “This isn’t any game I’m playing. If I don’t grow enough, it’s that much less to eat this winter.” But at the same time, he says, “we find, every passing day, we’re just so happy here.”

During the winter, things slow down a lot, says Sue. She spends her time mostly knitting, sewing, cross-country skiing and reading. Eliot chops trees when the snow isn’t too high and joins her in reading and skiing. “In the summer, you’re rushing around trying to grow your food,” says Sue. “Winters are rest times around here.”

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368