The Owner Built Home and Homestead: Epilog

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The factors that hamper and outlaw the owner-builder project in urban areas form only one small part of the argument for "rural living" solutions.

Ken Kern, author of The Owner-Built Home and The Owner-Built Homestead, is an amazing fellow and everyone interested in decentralist, back-to-the-land, rational living should know of his work. Back in 1948 he began collecting information on low-cost, simple and natural construction materials and techniques. He combed the world for ideas, tried them and started writing about his experiments. Eventually, Mildred Loomis started publishing Kern’s articles in The Interpreter, Way Out and Green Revolution. Ken has also issued a three year series of pieces (called Technic) on his own and a greenhouse-sun pit design of his has been featured in Organic Gardening.

This series of Ken Kern’s work is being taken both from The Owner-Built Home (already published) and The Owner-Built Homestead (to be published).


This epilog to The Owner-Built Home series is at the same time a prolog to my forthcoming book, The Owner-Built Homestead, now being written. It is idle to speculate on building one’s own home in the city or suburb. One would be pounced upon by various officials before the first nail could be driven. Despotic union bosses and mercenary contractors’ association scouts would soon squelch any do-it-yourself building activity–assuming the banker and building inspector would go so far as to authorize the work.

The factors that hamper and outlaw the owner-builder project in urban areas form only one small part of the argument for “rural living” solutions. Very soon in the construction process an owner-builder finds that positive resources are required that can come only from a rural environment in a more or less natural and friendly community. The two most important resources are freedom and health . An urban two-day-a-week, two-week-a-year home building program is next to worthless. One needs a block of free time to build a home. One also needs the energy and well-being that can come only with good nutrition, fresh air and clean water.

So a rural setting can verily support an owner-builder in a sort dovetailing set of circumstances. A family buys an acreage of land in hinterland where land is not so expensive. Taxes are therefore not so high. Building regulations are almost non-existent; so only moderate construction funds need be amassed. The land can be made productive and so cash need be earned for foodstuffs, thus allowing more time and money to be spent on building and land development. Nutritious food raised on the land can improve the family health, and thus more energy available for greater homestead development.

In a few years a family should be happily situated on its own debt-free home. How it should go about developing the (garden, orchard, pasture, woodlot), water supply, fencing, barns and buildings will be the subject of The Owner-Built Homestead.

The idea of a family earning its economic necessaries from a homestead (with a part-time money income to supply amenities which cannot be family produced) goes back to depression years when Roosevelt’s Federal Security Administration dabbled in “subsistence farmsteads.” But a much more significant contribution to this back-to-the-land movement was made by pioneers like Ralph Borsodi and Milton Wend.

Ralph Borsodi an d the books he wrote in the 30s (and since) helped shape the homestead trend. Economist Borsodi established his family homestead 25 miles above New York City in 1921, and saw the need for small-scale technology to help revive productive living. In 1929 he wrote his famous critique of modern culture This Ugly Civilization, and suggested that the small homestead was a human and constructive way out of the urban pressures he saw developing. All this was popularized in his Flight from the City , in 1938 (and later printings).

Borsodi, in effect, dropped the idea and reality of the modern homestead into the social pool in the 30s. The ripples of that act have spread far. Some of those affected, who have since spread the idea, included Milton Wend, Ed Robinson, J. I. Rodale, Paul Keene, Agnes Toms, Elizabeth Nutting and Mildred Loomis. Borsodi established the first School of Living near Suffern, N. Y., in 1937, to do research in how to live, to build homesteading communities, and to develop a curriculum for a new education for living.

Milton Wend, now of Edgartown, Mass., was a trustee of the first School of Living. His experiences and ideas were reported in his How to Live in the Country Without Farming. The book has been widely read. Wend is still active in his Human Engineering Institute.

Ed Robinson took over the idea from a School of Living brochure entitled Have More Vegetables, and developed his famous “Have More Plan” and country life bookstore. After a flourishing business, this was discontinued in the 50s.

J. I. Rodale visited the School of Living in 1938, and there saw the composted gardens, the use of whole foods, the grinding of grain into flour and cereal, and the regular baking of whole-meal bread. He went back to Emmaus, Pa., and later changed his publishing emphasis to gardening and homesteading. The magnificent growth and influence of the Rodale publishing enterprises are well-known today.

Mildred Jensen (Loomis) was assistant educational director of the Suffern School of Living (1938-40) and later continued that work avocationally at her home, Lane’s End Homestead, near Brookville, Ohio. Her editing of journals (The Interpreter, Balanced Living, etc.) began in 1944 and continues in 1966 with the monthly Green Revolution and the bi-monthly A Way Out. The numbers of people who have been influenced to the homestead way from these, and her book, Go Ahead and Live!, are uncounted. Some of the successful homesteads which have grown out of this work will be described and detailed in The Owner-Built Homestead.

During the depression of the 30s and 40s, books like Five Acres and Independence carried on Borsodi’s early emphasis. But unfortunately these early writers and promoters of country life did not produce a dominant trend in our country. Why?

The reasons are many. The technological drift of the modern day had attained a momentum that could not be stopped by a trickle of counter-ideas. And the form and content of the discourse about rural living in the 30s and 40s were of a pre-depression vintage. Traditional living-patterns were dressed up in a “country living” format and presented as a bonafide original. Many would-be homesteaders became disillusioned.

There was no qualified, professional or educational assistance in the homestead movement. One exception to this was an architectural competition for a productive homestead, sponsored by the early Free America magazine.

So the first wave of homesteading interest in the late 30s and 40s diminished. Some leaders in the movement seemed to drift into specialized aspects such as organic gardening, nutrition or craft production. This was probably aided by the seemingly narrow and limited nature and understanding of homesteading. People thought that no earth-shaking revolution–or revelation–could ever come out of a potato patch!

Moreover, the high employment and Social Security benefits offered by the Great Society of the USA, with its war-making “power elite,” tend to dissuade people from a life on the land. Government handouts in the city appear to be easier to accept than living by one’s wits in the rural margins and “cracks of an affluent society.”

But the urban culture of the war-making, land-owning, and money-owning “power elite” is now riding to a fall, as anyone who reads the newspapers can see. The overpopulated sinks of the city’s poor naturally spawn riots. There must come a change. The homestead and village-community type of life that was disrupted at the dawn of history by the ravages of hunter-chieftains and warrior-kings from their city strongholds will have to be restored–with the addition, of course, of our present world-wide communication, free peaceful enterprise, scientific vision and ingenious technology.

The Owner-Built Homestead is intended to be a how to think it as well as a how to do it book. In addition, a personalized homestead-layout service is offered, showing long-range site-development plans to fit the homesteader’s property, soil conditions, regional climate conditions, and specific personal requirements. It is hoped that each reader will avail himself of the opportunity to have a fully detailed home and homestead plan, designed exclusively to his own site and needs.