MOTHER’s Love Match Leads to a Homesteading Adventure

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Kip and Leni Moving the Daisy pig (behind Kip) in South Dakota, circa 1975.
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Leni and Kip in front of their work-in-progress in Crozet, Virginia.
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Kip and Leni, circa 2003.

The story of a love match made through MOTHER’s “Positions and Situations” column and homesteading adventure.

The following letter appeared in MOTHER’S “Positions and
Situations” section, March 1974:

I’m a Cancer Lady with two boys, recently immigrated to
Canada and working on a farm near Toronto as housekeeper
and barn help. I enjoy the work and am learning a lot but
am getting lonely . . . . I’m 31, black, tall (5’9″) and sorta
freaky for around here. Especially lacking is any male
companionship. I’m partial to tall men after a lifetime
spent looking down at the tops of folks’ heads. I’m a hell
of a good cook and am skilled at gardening, canning,
raising rabbits, sewing and minor carpentry (have also
begun to handspin wool) so favor a man with a country
lifestyle over a city-minded dude.

— Leni Ashmore
Orangeville, Ontario.

Well, well, well. I certainly asked for it! I received 68
letters in reply, quite a few from Canadians, one from
Alaska and the rest from all over the United States. The
most important letter that started my homesteading adventure, though, was from the man who would,
before the year was over, become my husband, father to my
two boys, and eventually the father of our own two

Through the spring and summer of 1974, Kip Sorensen and I
wrote back and forth and talked on the phone; me from my
farm job in Ontario and him from his job on a wheat farm in
the northeastern hills of South Dakota. Early in August my
13-year-old son and I took the Canadian National Railway
west from Ontario. We stopped in Winnipeg, crossed the
border into South Dakota and met Kip. To make a long story
short, we met, sparks flew, and on September 24 my boys and I
arrived back in South Dakota to stay. I’ve always been one
to make my mind up fast.

When we began our life together we lived on a rented farm.
The rent was cheap in exchange for overseeing cattle on
several hundred acres of rolling pasture. In exchange for
repairs on a sagging front porch, a neighbor gave us a
flock of laying hens. For a sack of onions, another farmer
gave us two bottle lambs. Sioux Bee Honey gave us 150
pounds of honey for letting them place a flatbed trailer
full of hives in the pasture.

During our second summer together we moved onto the
Sorensen’s farm in Flandreau, South Dakota. Kip’s
grandfather, a Danish immigrant, homesteaded the farm in
1881. Kip converted the farm’s granary building into a
great house: one big room with three sleeping lofts and a
greenhouse. Our old Home Comfort cookstove kept us warm and
well fed.

Just after the birth of our daughter, Winter, we began to
farm more. Kip grew edible beans (pintos and Great
Northerns) while I milked cows and kept chickens, ducks,
pigs, turkeys and sheep. The soil on our farm was
wonderful, and with the aid of the greenhouse we grew
almost three acres of veggies — enough to share with
elderly in-laws, family and friends, and enough left to
sell some at the Sioux Falls farmer’s market. We sold all
kinds of things from the farm: weaner pigs, lambs for
slaughter, sheared wool for handspinners, chicken fryers
and eggs, as well as yogurt and fresh cheese from our
jersey cows.

Two years after the birth of Bjorn, our youngest son, a
blow fell on what was an increasingly productive and
exciting farm life. The federal government’s Farm Home
Administration unilaterally called in all the small farm
loans in eastern South Dakota. It was the worst of the 1982
farm crisis and we got caught up and spit out along with
many others that year. In addition to farming, Kip worked
full time remodeling and building houses. So we knew we
could survive, but not on the farm. The downturn in the
economy meant that Kip’s carpentry work also was hard hit.
We made the painful decision to leave South Dakota.

Our decision to move to Virginia came from the opportunity
to settle near friends in the Piedmont of the Blue Ridge.
We were fortunate that the bleak building prospects in the
Midwest were not the case in central Virginia. Kip
immediately began to build and restore log cabins and has
moved on to build custom homes, as well as create custom
cabinetry and furniture.

I continue to garden in the Piedmont’s clay soil, but
Virginia has restrictive laws on farm product sales:
Unpasteurized milk (cow or goat), homemade cheese and
butchered meat cannot be sold by private citizens. Once we
were settled here it was clear I needed an income other
than farming. Early in 1983, I began my career as a
costumed historic-house interpreter. My longtime interest
in African American history became the foundation for my
work over the past 15 years as a consultant to museums and
historic houses.

In 1988, an opportunity to attend college presented itself
through a degree program at Mary Baldwin College — I
snatched it. Now I am working to complete my doctorate in
American Studies from the College of William & Mary. I
also am the Director of the Reynolds Homestead, an historic
house museum and continuing education center owned by
Virginia Tech. Much of what I learned while farming in
South Dakota still plays an important part in what I teach
to the public and to undergraduate students —
American rural history of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Kip is building us a new house to replace our 100-year-old
farmhouse that burned to the ground just before Christmas
2000. It was determined that the rear chimney cracked open,
high in the second story. As hard as it was to lose so many
of our cherished possessions we were grateful Kip wasn’t
hurt — he dived buck-naked out a second-story window
into the snow at three in the morning just before the roof
collapsed! At the time I was in Seattle visiting our
daughter and son-in-law.

The new house is going up on the footprint of the old
house. It is only one story, has an open-plan interior and
is full of windows for light. The western cedar siding
gives the house a rich glow, especially in the fanned
pattern in the gables. Kip chose oriented strand board for
the subfloors and sheathing, with floor joists made of a
similar material. We found used glass for the living room
skylight and for the three elliptic eyebrow windows in the
gable ends. Most of the finished wood for the house’s
interior is coming from various reclaimed woods —
heart pine, chestnut and oak — that Kip found and
stored over the years.

We will again have a wood cookstove as the kitchen’s
centerpiece, but there also will be hot water baseboard
heat throughout the house. Kip designed the heat pipes to
run behind soapstone conductors, a combination that should
be both beautiful and warm. Eventually much of our hot
water will come from solar heat. The fireplace, and the
kitchen and bathroom counters and sinks all will be made
from soapstone. Not only are the multihued grays of the
stone beautiful, but soapstone is a nonconductive,
nonreactive medium that is perfect for hard use and for
thermal mass. Our eldest son, Kierk, owns New World Stone
Company, a source of Virginia soapstone for architectural,
landscaping and art use across the country.

It’s been 30 years since either of us has lived where there
are streetlights or sidewalks. Oh, I lied. I did go away to
graduate school and live in student housing for a while. It
was fun to walk to the movies, or to get an ice-cream cone
whenever I wanted. But I was glad to return to our home
that lies 16 miles from town, just below the crest of
Shenandoah National Park, with the woods and the river
framing the sky.

So MOTHER, I got everything I asked for in my 1974 letter
— and far more than I ever could have imagined.