The Good Life Get-Together: Homesteading Workshops

A few country fields on the back roads of upstate New York, a selection of skilled homesteading instructors and hundreds of eager participants.

| May/June 1984

  • Homesteading Pruning
    John Rexelman gives fruit tree students some pruning tips.
  • Homesteading Pole
    As these students at the Good Life Get-Together found out by experience, if you want a pole barn, first you've got to put up some poles!
  • Homesteading Wind Power
    Wind power expert Carl Tourtellotte demonstrates that assembling your own powerplant is an elevating undertaking. 
  • Homesteading Workshops
    One of the nice features of the festival is that participants—such as this chain saw instructor—give mini-workshops of their own!

  • Homesteading Pruning
  • Homesteading Pole
  • Homesteading Wind Power
  • Homesteading Workshops

"Two-thirds of the people who attempted homesteading back in the 60's and 70's failed, for lack of skills and lack of community support." Norm Lee spoke those words, and he should know . . . because he came very close to being one of those failed back-to-the-landers. He and his wife Sherrie moved onto a few undeveloped acres in upstate New York in November of 1976. Soon after their arrival, that area was hit with its worst winter in decades, Sherrie lost her job (the couple's sole steady source of income), and Norm nearly died of the flu.

Both Lees now admit that their plunge into homesteading was a bit rough ("We don't recommend that anyone go through what we did," Norm says), but in spite of their misfortunes, they were able to stick it out. After the pair pulled through that first winter, they decided they should help combat the isolation that had increased their own troubles by organizing an annual festival for homesteaders. As a by-product of that project, they also created a small networking periodical, the Homesteaders News. And through Norm's and Sherrie's zealous efforts, both the magazine (a home-typed and hand-lettered 64-page journal) and the yearly Good Life Get-Together have evolved.

Norm and Sherrie preach and practice a simple homesteading lifestyle. They reside in a one-room geodesic cabin they built with 2 X 6's and five-pointed ("Starplate" brand) connectors . . . grow most of the food for their vegetarian diet in a raised-bed, backhoe-dug garden . . . and enjoy the secret of "not wanting more than earning will buy" (i.e., they live on little cash). Their real work, though, is to build a network of homesteaders—as their magazine puts it, to help others learn "how to live simply and sanely in a troubled world"—and the annual climax of those labors occurs every July at the Good Life Get-Together. (The event's title reflects the couple's deep admiration for Helen and the late Scott Nearing, the famed twentieth-century homesteaders who wrote a series of books about the "Good Life".)

One MOTHER EARTH NEWS staffer, Pat Stone, took his family to last summer's festival (the sixth) in Naples, New York and found it to be an enjoyable, worthwhile, and stimulating event. The setting was plain (almost Spartan): The primitive camping consisted of privies, one double sink, and a chilly shower. But that rarely dimmed the enthusiasm of the well-qualified instructors, whose ranks included Plowboy interviewees John Holt and Andrew Saul. Likewise, the dedication of the more than 200 participants was just as clearly felt as the friendly atmosphere of the opening night's country dance.

In between that Wednesday shindig and the closing circle on the following Saturday were three activity-filled days of workshops. The material covered in these sessions included beginning welding . . . beekeeping ... hydroelectricity ... calligraphy ... working a horse . . . pole barn construction . . . cooking natural foods . . . home schooling . . . winemaking . . . dry stone wall construction . . . home health care . . . cheese making . . . mail-order home business . . . wind power . . . organic-food gardening . . . and more. Each day offered three two-hour workshop sessions, and that schedule was repeated throughout the week, so by the end of Saturday everyone attending had had six hours of concentrated instruction in each of the three main subject areas.

And while there's nothing like delving into a topic for three sessions to make you realize you can't learn everything about anything in six hours—particularly when so many of the workshops tried to combine "book learning" with a bit of hands-on experience—most of the sessions seemed to do a good job of imparting knowledge. The MOTHER EARTH NEWS staffer certainly enjoyed the three workshops he attended: Dennis Lamoureux's Passive Solar Design ("It takes an open design and a lot of thermal mass to make a good solar house. After all, you have to absorb three times the heat you need during the day, since you get sunshine for only eight hours but need to heat the house for 24.") ... John Rezelman's Fruit Trees ("You want to prune branches to thin the tree and to let light in . . . enough, say, so a robin could fly all through the tree and not touch it with his wings."), and Andrew Saul's Practical Nutrition ("People need vitamins today more than they did in biblical times, because their lives and environments are more stressful. In a way, you feel New York City even up here in Naples.").

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