A Homesteader’s Life in Wisconsin

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Clean air, beautiful surroundings, farm animals and friendly people are all a part of life on the homestead.

Don’t let anyone kid you: A homesteader’s life ain’t easy, especially if you’re living in the back country of Wisconsin (as Craig and I, our three-year-old son Aaron, and Duchess — our Norwegian elkhound — are). It may be a lot of things — stimulating, educational, spiritually rewarding — but easy it’s not.

Of course, we expected that homesteading life here in the wilds of west-central Wisconsin would be a bit more challenging than it had been in Waukesha (the city we lived in before the Big Move), but by the end of our first winter here, the “simple life” was kind of getting us down. Craig, for example, would get awfully tired of working 10 hours a day building other people’s houses in 20-below weather only to come home and have to split wood for the night’s warmth. And I got amazingly discouraged with walking 300 feet down to the river, chopping holes in the ice (carefully, so as not to fall in), filling the two buckets, and trudging back up the hill with the sloshing pails, just to have a gallon or two of water to cook or bathe with. (On a really cold day, the water in the buckets — and on my jeans — would freeze before I got back to the house!) And wouldn’t you know that our first winter here would turn out to be the coldest one in more than 30 years (with temperatures as low as minus 52 degrees)?

For all our grumbling about cold days and bad luck, though, the fact remains that you couldn’t drag us back to the city for all the flush toilets in America! As I write this, winter is long gone: It’s midsummer, temperatures are in the 90s, the farm is in high gear, and we love it.

People often ask us how we came to settle In the tiny, west-central Wisconsin town of Holcombe, where originally we didn’t know a soul. The answer is long and involved, but it basically boils down to this: City life doesn’t agree with us, and a homesteader’s life in Holcombe does.

Before Living a Homesteader’s Life

Three years ago, the four of us — Craig, me, Aaron, and Duchess — lived in a cramped apartment in Waukesha, about 15 miles outside of Milwaukee. Like many city dwellers, we were tired of spending what little money we had on sky-high rent, groceries, light bills, and other “necessities.” The neighbors always seemed to be a little crazy, drunk, or crabby, the air was constantly gray and dirty, and we weren’t very happy.

Then a benevolent relative came along and offered us the money we’d need for the down payment on a place of our own. All well and good except that when we finally found a little house we liked, we discovered that it was next to impossible for us to get a loan from a bank without a stack of credit cards in our wallets. (How naive we were to think that our “cash up front” policy of paying bills would make a favorable impression on the bank’s loan officer!)

Without further ado, we sent for a United Farm Agency catalog (available free from 612 W. 47th St., Kansas City, Mo. 64112),and when it arrived, began to look for some reasonably priced, owner-financed land in the greater Milwaukee area. As we flipped through the catalog, though, two things became apparent: [1] The further north the land, the lower the per-acre price, and [2] we’d have to go quite a ways from Milwaukee to find a tract of any size that we could afford. With these factors in mind, we began to spend our weekends on the road, inspecting various pieces of land described in the United Farm Agency catalog (and other brochures we’d received).

We looked at land off and on for about six months, and then, one clear, crisp fall day we found the ideal spot: 57 wooded acres (with a clean river) near the town of Holcombe. The property was on a country lane lined on both sides by tall pines, and at one point, a picturesque one-lane bridge crossed the river. It was love at first sight! (Neither Craig nor I had ever lived this far north — and my Kansas blood shivered at the thought of the winters — but we knew in our hearts that this was the place we wanted.)

After several months of bartering with the land’s owner, Craig and I finally (in February 1976) signed a contract to purchase the 57-acre parcel for $10,000 (which is what we’d have had to pay for one acre around Waukesha). Our monthly payments as set forth in the contract would be very reasonable (less than most people’s car payments), but — best of all — in five years our 57-acre Eden would be all paid for (a far cry from the 30-year obligation most property owners get themselves into).

Since our wooded tract had no dwelling of any kind on it, only the foundation from a torn down schoolhouse, we would have to wait until we could build some form of shelter before we’d be able to move onto the land permanently. Our plan was to live and work in Waukesha until the property was paid off, then move up and build a log cabin.

Come April, we began making long weekend pilgrimages to our future homestead to acquaint ourselves with the North. We slept in a makeshift tent in the back of our pickup … an arrangement that worked well most of the time. (Many a morning that spring, we woke up with rain or snow blowing in on us, and it sure didn’t take us long to discover the wood ticks and mosquitos, or vice versa! None of this scared us off, though.)

I’ll never forget those first trips that we took to our 57-acre paradise. In the daytime, we’d hike across the land just to find out what was there, or to fish in our river (appropriately named the Fisher River). At night, we’d cook out and sit around the campfire marveling at the thousands of twinkling stars in the sky.

But alas, our glorious weekends always came to an end too soon. How we hated the five-and-a-half-hour drive back to the city (and the drudgery that waited for us there)! It didn’t take us very long to realize that we wouldn’t be able to live in Waukesha for another five years. “Somehow,” we told ourselves, ”we’ve got to find a way to move to Holcombe to stay.” Trouble was, we didn’t know how.

We continued to ”commute” to Holcombe on weekends and holidays, and in early summer, we put in a garden on our property (knowing full well that we wouldn’t be able to care for it properly).

As luck would have it, that summer brought the worst drought that Holcombe had seen since the 1930s. Nevertheless, we picked mounds of squash and a few peas and beans, and we considered ourselves lucky for beginners.

We met some of the local folk for the first time at the Holcombe Fourth of July festivities (small towns turn out in force for the Fourth, you know), and they seemed to be as interested in us as we were in them. By the end of the summer, Craig was helping a couple of farmers he’d met put up hay, and I was assisting a farm wife with her canning (for which I was rewarded with half the finished goods)! We left our phone number with some of these new friends so they could call if they heard of a job possibility for either of us.

One day in August, the phone rang. It was one of our favorite “up north” neighbors calling to tell us about a job for Craig, so we loaded up the truck and left the very next day to check it out. Sure enough, the opening was for a carpenter to work in house construction. Since Craig was employed as a cabinetmaker in Waukesha, he felt he had a pretty good chance of being hired. After filing an application for the construction job (and some others), we trucked on back to the city to wait for a “yes” or “no.”

One anxious week later, Craig was hired for the carpentry position, and we were on our way to a homesteader’s life. Craig moved north immediately to start his job (he lived in the back of our truck at our camping spot). Aaron and Duchess and I — meanwhile — stayed in Waukesha to prepare for the coming move.

It didn’t take us long to find a place to live in Holcombe: The same folks who’d tipped us off to Craig’s job soon told us about an old, 2-story farmhouse on 60 acres of land (just 3 miles from our property) adjoining the Chippewa River. A farmhouse that we could rent — if we wanted — for just $35 a month! That’s the good news. The bad news was that the place had an outside toilet (cold in the winter and PU in the summer), and there was no well anywhere which meant that we’d have to get our wash water from the river and haul drinking water in from elsewhere. “But what the heck, ” we said. “At least we can’t complain about the rent being too high!” We took the place.

Living a Homesteader’s Life at Last

Thus, we moved to Holcombe on Sept. 1, 1976. A lot has happened since then, and we’ve learned a great deal. I guess the biggest thing we’ve learned, though, is how much we love a homesteader’s life. The air is clean, the surroundings are beautiful, and the people hereabouts are more friendly and helpful than a city dweller can even imagine people being.

As soon as we moved up, for instance, a farmer and his wife gave us a 10-gallon crock of sauerkraut just for helping them cut the cabbage! Later, the same man gave us two beautiful newborn Jersey heifer calves, and his brother donated the use of a barn to house the animals (whom we named Alfalfa and Buckwheat) until we could build a place for them. (I’ll always have fond memories of those frosty mornings when I walked through the sunlight-dappled woods, past the beaver pond, and down the hill toward home after feeding our baby calves.)

We’ve had our share of setbacks in the short time that we’ve been here, of course, such as when Alfalfa contracted scours (diarrhea) and pneumonia. The veterinarian I was working for at the time kindly gave me about $50 worth of medicines to use on poor Alfalfa, and Craig and I did our best to try to save her … but she just couldn’t make it. The calf was our first animal loss, and (being the softies that we are) it was hard to take. (Buckwheat — I’m happy to say — has since grown into a gorgeous brown cow.)

Still another bit of bad luck came around Christmas, when Craig took sick and had to be hospitalized 22 miles away. (Lack of nearby medical facilities Is one disadvantage to living in the boonies.) Then, on my way to visit him one day, I learned how NOT to drive on snow- and ice-covered country roads … the hard way. (Smashing up our truck was a painful and expensive lesson, but now I know enough to take the main highway or else not go out at all in bad weather.)

Our first winter also taught us to get our do-it-yourself fuel supply in early in the fall. There are more enjoyable ways to spend a Saturday than to cut wood outside in 30-below weather. As I say, we’ve learned a lot.

Bathing posed a bit of a problem in winter, what with our lack of running water.

Aaron (wouldn’t you know) fit fine in our old galvanized washtub, but Craig and I ended up taking sponge baths. (When a visitor asked how we managed to keep clean, my illustrious spouse put it this way: “First you wash up as far as possible, then you wash down as far as possible . . . and then, if no one’s looking, you wash possible!”)

In the summertime, whenever we feel the urge to get really clean, we simply load the canoe with soap, towels, and bodies and float downstream to our own little island (which has a beautiful sandy beach) where we wash, swim, and enjoy the scenery. (Now there’s a great way to spend a Saturday!)

Although we’ve had our share of inconveniences, most of the time we feel pretty fortunate to have found our way up here. As I write this, I’ve already canned a good supply of food from the garden, and more is on the way every day. (This wouldn’t have been possible in Waukesha.) Also, we never worry about rising fuel oil costs or natural gas shortages, since we can keep our little house as toasty as we please for no more than the few cents it costs to run our chain saw.

We certainly feel lucky to have found a place to rent so near to our own land, and to have met our house’s owner, Mason Ecker. Mr. Ecker has taught us a great deal about living a homesteader’s life (he’s helped us grow a lovely garden, and he’s working with us on our cabin, too), and we’ve all grown to love him like a grandfather. Unlike any other landlord we’ve ever had, Mr. Ecker puts no limit on the number of animals we can have which is in part why we now have two goats (Suzy the Goat and Coco the Kid), one duck, three chickens and 35 little peepers, two mama cats and eight kittens, and of course, one cow and one dog.

The goats are a whole ‘nother trip. Suzy (bless her heart) surprised us with triplets a couple of weeks after we bought her. Unfortunately, one of the kids was born crippled and had to be destroyed (one of the bummer jobs that comes with life on a farm). We traded another kid for two ducks and four chickens (half of which have since been lost to the neighbor’s dog). The remaining kid — the only female of the three — is now Aaron’s pet.

Learning how to milk a goat was an adventure in itself (especially since Suzy had been running wild in the woods for a year before we bought her), and as beginners go, we were pretty inept. However, we now have a regular system that seems to work well, and Suzy gives us two quarts of delicious milk a day. (She was giving four quarts until she cut one side of her udder on a barbed wire fence and we had to dry that side up so the gash could heal.)

Believe it or not, our tax refund this year helped us buy a tractor, a 1953 Ford 9n. (We chose this particular model for its all-around versatility: It’s large enough to work in the fields, yet small enough to use in the woods.) We’ve really put the ole Ford to work, too, for everything from stump-pulling to plowing, discing, and log-skidding.

Clearing the land was fun: Craig would hook one end of a chain to the Ford and wrap the other end around a small tree, then I’d start forward with the tractor and jerk the tree out of the ground. Of course, when the chain pulls taut and the tree doesn’t want to budge, good old Chris goes up in the air, but …. (Definitely not a job for the fainthearted!)

After we cleared our fields, we planted 2 acres in field corn and 8 in hay and oats. The farmers around here have gone out of their way to help us with deciding what to grow and how to raise it (we knew absolutely nothing about farming before we began). As this is written, our crops are lagging a little behind the other farmers’ (since we were late in planting), but there’s still plenty of time for the corn and oats to ripen; and we’re proud of our first efforts.

Last March — as soon as the daytime temperatures got up to 20 above — Craig and I felled the logs that are destined to become our log cabin. (We left Aaron with a neighbor and spent our Saturdays just cutting logs and walking through the woods.) It’s amazing how a few hours working together out in a peaceful, snow-blanketed forest can bring a couple closer.

Craig is now working on dragging those logs out of the woods and over to the construction site. It’ll be a race to the finish to get that lodge put up before the cold weather moves in, but even if worse comes to worst, at least we now have a pump and a hose to route water up from the river automatically (just like downtown … almost).

So there in a nutshell (albeit a rather large one) — is how the Kalka family found peace and happiness in a remote section of Wisconsin wilderness. Of course, a homesteader’s life is a neverending story, and it would take me a thousand pages to begin to tell you about all the (mis)adventures we’ve been through in the past two years. But I will say this: We wouldn’t trade places with anyone right now. Even in our worst times, we’ve felt that we were much better off here than in the city.

Well, I really do have to go now. There’s at least a bushel of beans waiting to be canned, there’s jelly that needs to be made, it’s almost time to fix dinner … and it’s just about warm enough outside to forget all those things and go for a swim. Bye!