A New England Homestead

Reader Contribution by The Mother Earth News Editors
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This story is from Ellen Allwood, submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear.

Mom was always waiting for the next Great Depression. She was born in 1930; the start of the Great Depression, and it left a lasting impression on her. Mom was born in Maine and raised by frugal Scandinavian parents.

She raised six children in a city outside of Boston, Mass. The way we lived it felt more like the backwoods of a New England homestead. We lived on a quarter of an acre on a dead-end dirt road. It did not have a lot of space for a big garden. Mom kept chickens, pigs and, one time, a beef critter.

Mom picked and cooked with wild mushrooms she found in the woods around our house. An elderly Italian neighbor taught her which mushrooms were edible and which ones were poisonous. Mom would fry up a batch and, boy, were they tasty. As a refreshing late summer drink she made Indian lemonade from sumac berries. In summer she put us to work foraging wild blueberries, blackberries, grapes and choke cherries. She froze the berries for cakes and muffins; and made jellies and wine from the grapes and choke cherries. She saved watermelon rind to make sweet pickles.

We had one ancient Baldwin apple tree in our yard. It was rumored to be the last tree from an orchard once owned by Col. Loammi Baldwin, whom the apple was named after. Mom said they were good winter apples, which meant they kept over the winter without going bad. She cut around the wormholes to make pies and applesauce.

Saturday mornings Mom would do all her baking for the week: bread, pies, cookies and sometimes cake. The surplus went into the deep freeze to be enjoyed later in the week. Breakfast in the summer was puffed rice or puffed wheat. In the winter it was poached eggs on toast or hot cereal. Lunch we were on our own. Supper was simple fare; no steak or roasts unless it was a holiday. All leftovers were eaten sooner or later. For snacks we had rye cracker or Swedish coffee bread and a pot of coffee was always available as long as you were over 12 years old. The best meals were made for the holidays. The Fourth of July meal was baked salmon, new potatoes and fresh peas. On Thanksgiving we had roast turkey with all the trimmings and jars of mom’s pickles and blueberry pie from the berries we picked that summer. Christmas was a roast beef and a smorgasbord of Swedish foods.

We did not have a lot of modern conveniences. The house was a large, old, drafty Victorian that was only warm in winter because of an antique potbelly stove my mother kept going day and night. It would become so hot sometimes that it glowed red in spots. Our friends were allowed to enter the house after carrying in one piece of wood from the woodpile.

We didn’t have a dryer. Mom hung all the clothes on the line in the summer and winter. In the winter the clothes froze stiff and were thawed out near the woodstove. One day, on his way to school, my older brother Russell noticed smoke coming from in back of the neighbor’s house. He ran to Mrs. Duncan’s house and knocked on the door to tell her the house was on fire. Mrs. Duncan started to laugh. It was their clothes dryer vent.

We were not always happy with mom’s frugal ways. She saved all the household fat for soap-making. It was a strong lye soap that left you feeling as if you had lost a layer of skin. She went through our Halloween bags to take candy to freeze for her Christmas snappers. My dad and his beagle Jenny went rabbit hunting and came home with many rabbits. Mom told us it was chicken so we would eat it. We wore mostly hand-me-downs or homemade clothes.

Mom started Christmas shopping on Dec. 26 and had it all done and wrapped by July. In the fall we started collecting milkweed, pine cones and other natural weeds for Christmas decorations. We made ornaments with scraps of material, old wooden spools, ribbons and clothespins. The neighbor children were invited to join us. Every year she said, “We don’t have a lot of money this year for presents.” But it always was a happy time and we were thrilled with our gifts.

The city dump was a half-mile behind our house. We liked to go dump-picking and found many antiques that we eventually refinished. We also went bottle-digging and dug up old bottles, crocks, toys and even a sterling fork I still have.

Homesteading is a skill that can be practiced even in a city. My brother use to say our house was the “Little House in the Industrial Park.” I have since moved to the country and raise Romney sheep. I sell the lambs and send the fleece to a mill in Maine to be made into worsted knitting yarn. We have heritage chickens and turkeys for eggs and meat. The large garden supplies our vegetables to put aside for winter. My mom left me with a love of making do and being prepared; as you never know when the next Great Depression will come.

Photo Credit: Fotolia/Michael Wolf

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