What would it really be like to have no running water, electricity, sewer, newspaper or Internet? No supermarket or fire department close at hand?
I have a good imagination but I decided to talk to someone who would know first hand what it was like: my mother. She grew up on a homestead in the middle of Montana during the 1920s and 1930s. It was a two room Cottonwood cabin with the nearest neighbor three miles away. She was oldest at 9, so she was in charge of her brother and sister. This was her reality; I feel there are lessons here for the rest of us.
There was a Majestic stove that used wood and coal. The first person up at four thirty A.M., usually her father, would start the fire for breakfast. It was a comforting start to the day but your feet would get cold when you got out of bed.
A crosscut saw and axe was used to cut wood for the stove and after that experience, you got pretty stingy with the firewood because you know what it takes to replace it. The old timers say that it warms you when you cut it, when you split it, and again when you burn it. The homes that were typical on homesteads and ranches of the era were smaller with lower ceilings than modern houses just so they could be heated easier. The saw and axe were not tools to try hurrying with. You set a steady pace and maintained it. A man in a hurry with an axe may loose some toes or worse. One side effect of the saw and axe use is that you are continuously hungry and will consume a huge amount of food.
Lights in the cabin were old fashioned kerosene lamps. It was the kid’s job to trim the wicks, clean the chimneys and refill the reservoirs.
The privy was downhill from the house next to the corral and there was no toilet paper. Old newspaper, catalogs or magazines were used and in the summer a pan of barely warm water was there for hygiene. During a dark night, blizzard, or brown out from a dust storm, you followed the corral poles-no flashlights.
There were two springs close to the house that ran clear, clean, and cold water. The one right next to it was a “soft” water spring. It was great for washing clothes and felt smooth, almost slick, on your skin. If you drank from it, it would clean you out just as effectively as it cleaned clothes. Not all clean water is equal.
The second spring was a half mile from the cabin and it was cold, clear, and tasted wonderful. The spring itself was deep – an eight foot corral pole never hit bottom- and flowed through the year. It was from here that the kids would fill two barrels on a heavy duty sled with water for the house and the animals. They would lead the old white horse that was hitched to the sledge back to the buildings and distribute the water for people and animals. In the summer, they made two trips in the morning and maybe a third in the evening. In the winter, one trip in the morning and one in the evening. They did this alone.
Breakfast was a big meal because they’re going to be working hard. Usually there would be homemade sausage, eggs and either cornmeal mush or oatmeal. More food was prepared than what was going to be eaten right then. The extra food was left on the table under a dish towel and eaten as wanted during the day. When evening meal was cooked, any leftovers were reheated. The oatmeal or the mush was sliced and fried for supper. It was served with butter, syrup, honey or molasses.
The homemade sausage was from a quarter or half a hog. The grinder was a small kitchen grinder that clamped on the edge of a table and everybody took turns cranking. When all the hog had been ground, the sausage mix was added and kneaded in by hand. Then it was immediately fried into patties. The patties were placed, layer by layer, into a stone crock and covered with the rendered sausage grease. The patties were reheated as needed. The grease was used for gravies as well as re-cooking the patties. Occasionally a fresh slice of bread would be slathered with a layer of sausage grease and a large slice of fresh onion would top it off for quick sandwich. Nothing was wasted.
Some of their protein came from dried fish or beef. Usually this had to be soaked to remove the excess salt or lye. Then it was boiled. Leftovers would go into hash, fish patties, or potato cakes.
Beans? There was almost always a pot of beans on the stove in the winter time.
Chickens and a couple of milk cows provided needed food to balance the larder. They could not have supported a growing family without these two resources.
The kitchen garden ran mostly to root crops. Onion, turnip, rutabaga, potato and radishes grew under chicken wire. Rhubarb was canned for use as a winter tonic to stave off scurvy. Lettuce, corn, and other above ground crops suffered from deer, rats, and gumbo clay soil. Surprisingly, cabbage did well. The winter squash didn’t do much, only 2 or 3 gourds. Grasshoppers were controlled by the chickens and turkeys. There was endless hoeing.
Washing clothes required heating water on the stove, pouring it into three galvanized wash tubs-one for the homemade lye soap and scrub board, the other two for rinsing. Clothes were rinsed and wrung out by hand, then hung on a wire to dry in the air. Your hands became red and raw, your arms and shoulders sore beyond belief by the end of the wash. Wet clothing, especially wool, is heavy and the gray scum from the soap was hard to get out of the clothes.
Personal baths were in a galvanized wash tub screened by a sheet. In the winter it was difficult to haul, heat and handle the water so baths weren’t done often. Most people would do sponge baths.
Everybody worked including the kids. There were always more chores to be done than time in the day. It wasn’t just this one family; it was the neighbors as well. You were judged first and foremost by your work ethic and then your honesty. This was critical because if you were found wanting in either department, the extra jobs that might pay cash money, a quarter of beef, hog or mutton would not be available. Further, the cooperation with your neighbors was the only assurance that if you needed help, you would get help. Nobody in the community could get by strictly on their own. A few tried. When they left, nobody missed them.
You didn’t have to like someone to cooperate and work with him or her.
Several times a year people would get together for organized activities: barn raising, butcher bee, harvest, roofing, dance, or picnics. There were lots of picnics, usually in a creek bottom with cottonwoods for shade or sometimes at the church. Always, the women would have tables groaning with food, full coffee pots and, if they were lucky, maybe some lemonade. (Lemons were expensive and scarce) After the work (even for picnics, there was usually a project to be done first) came the socializing. Many times people would bring bedding and sleep out overnight, returning home the next day.
A half dozen families would get together for a butcher bee in the cold days of late fall. Cows were slaughtered first, then pigs, mutton, and finally chickens. Blood from some of the animals was collected in milk pails, kept warm on a stove to halt coagulation and salt added. Then it was canned for later use in blood dumplings, sausage or pudding. The hides were salted for later tanning; the feathers from the fowl were held for cleaning and used in pillows or mattresses. The skinned quarters of the animals would be dipped into cold salt brine and hung to finish cooling out so they could be taken home safely for processing. Nothing went to waste.
The most feared occurrence in the area was fire. If it got started, it wasn’t going out until it burned itself out. People could and did loose everything.
The most used weapon was the .22 single shot Winchester with .22 shorts. It was used to take the heads off pheasant, quail, rabbit and ducks. If you held low, the low powered round didn’t tear up the meat. The shooters, usually the kids, quickly learned sight picture and trigger control although they never heard those terms. If you took five rounds of ammunition, you better bring back the ammunition or a critter for the pot for each round expended. It was also a lot quieter and less expensive [in those days] than the .22 Long Rifle cartridges.
If you are trying to maintain a low profile, the odor of freshly baked bread can be detected in excess of three miles on a calm day. Especially by kids.
Twice a year the cabin was emptied of everything. The walls, floors, and ceilings were scrubbed with lye soap and a bristle brush. All the belongings were also cleaned before they came back into the house. This was pest control and it was needed until DDT became available. Bedbugs, lice, ticks and other creepy crawlies were a fact of life and were controlled by brute force. Failure to do so left you in misery and maybe ill.
Foods were stored in bug proof containers. The most popular was fifteen pound metal coffee cans with tight lids. These were for day to day use in the kitchen. (I still have one. It’s a family heirloom.) The next were barrels to hold the bulk foods like flour, sugar, corn meal, and rice. Everything was sealed or the vermin would get to it. There was always at least one, preferably two, months of food on hand. If the fall cash allowed, they would stock up for the entire winter before the first snowfall.
The closest thing to a cooler was a metal box in the kitchen floor. It had a very tight lid and was used to store milk, eggs and butter for a day or two. Butter was heavily salted on the outside to keep it from going rancid or melting. Buttermilk, cottage cheese and regular cheese was made from raw milk after collecting for a day or two. The box was relatively cool in the summer and did not freeze in the winter.
Mice and rats love humanity because we keep our environment warm and tend to be sloppy with food they like. Snakes love rats and mice so they were always around. If the kids were going to play outside, they would police the area with a hoe and a shovel. After killing and disposing of the rattlesnakes- there was always at least one-then they could play for a while in reasonable safety.
The mice and rats were controlled by traps, rocks from sling shots, cats and coyotes. The cats had a hard and usually short life because of the coyotes. The coyotes were barely controlled and seemed to be able to smell firearms at a distance. There were people who hunted the never-ending numbers for the bounty.
After chores were done, kid’s active imagination was used in their play. They didn’t have a lot of toys. There were a couple of dolls for the girls, a pocket knife and some marbles for the boy, and a whole lot of empty to fill. Their father’s beef calves were pretty gentle by the time they were sold at market – the kids rode them regularly. (Not a much fat on those calves but a lot of muscle.) They would look for arrow heads, lizards, and wild flowers. Chokecherry, buffalo berry, gooseberry and currants were picked for jelly and syrups. Sometimes the kids made chokecherry wine.
On a hot summer day in the afternoon, the shade on the east side of the house was treasured and the east wind, if it came, even more so.
Adults hated hailstorms because of the destruction, kids loved them because they could collect the hail and make ice cream.
Childbirth was usually handled at a neighbor’s house with a midwife if you were lucky. If you got sick you were treated with ginger tea, honey, chicken soup or sulphur and molasses. Castor oil was used regularly as well. Wounds were cleaned with soap and disinfected with whisky. Mustard based poultices were often used for a variety of ills. Turpentine, mustard and lard was one that was applied to the chest for pneumonia or a hacking cough.
Contact with the outside world was an occasional trip to town for supplies using a wagon and team. A battery operated radio was used very sparingly in the evenings. A rechargeable car battery was used for power. School was a six mile walk one way and you brought your own lunch. One school teacher regularly put potatoes on the stove to bake and shared them with the kids. She was very well thought of by the kids and the parents.
These people were used to a limited amount of social interaction. They were used to no television, radio, or outside entertainment. They were used to having only three or four books. A fiddler or guitar player for a picnic or a dance was a wonderful thing to be enjoyed. Church was a social occasion as well as religious.
The church ladies and their butter and egg money allowed most rural churches to be built and to prosper. The men were required to do the heavy work but the ladies made it come together. The civilizing of the west sprang from these roots. Some of those ladies had spines of steel. They needed it.
That’s a partial story of the homestead years. People were very independent, stubborn and strong but still needed the community and access to the technology of the outside world for salt, sugar, flour, spices, chicken feed, cloth, kerosene for the lights and of course, coffee. There are many more things I could list. Could they have found an alternative if something was unavailable? Maybe. How would you get salt or nitrates in Montana without importing? Does anyone know how to make kerosene? Coffee would be valued like gold. Roasted grain or chicory just didn’t cut it.
I don’t want to discourage people trying to prepare but rather to point out that generalized and practical knowledge along with a cooperative community is still needed for long term survival. Whatever shortcomings you may have, if you are part of a community, it is much more likely to be covered. The described community in this article was at least twenty to thirty miles across and included many farms and ranches as well as the town. Who your neighbors are, what type of people they are, and your relationship to them is one of the more important things to consider.
Were there fights, disagreements and other unpleasantness? Absolutely. Some of it was handled by neighbors, a minister or the sheriff. Some bad feelings lasted a lifetime. There were some people that were really bad by any standard and they were either the sheriff’s problem or they got sorted out by one of their prospective victims.
These homesteaders had a rough life but they felt they had a great life and their way of life was shared by everyone they knew. They never went hungry, had great daylong picnics with the neighbors, and knew everyone personally within twenty miles. Every bit of pleasure or joy was treasured like a jewel since it was usually found in a sea of hard work. They worked hard, played hard and loved well. In our cushy life, we have many more “things” and “conveniences” than they ever did, but we lack the connection they had with their environment and community.
The biggest concern for our future: What happens if an event such as a solar flare, EMP, or a plague takes our society farther back than the early 1900s by wiping out our technology base. Consider the relatively bucolic scene just described and then add in some true post-apocalyptic hard cases. Some of the science fiction stories suddenly get much more realistic and scary. A comment out of a Star Trek scene comes to mind “In the fight between good and evil, good must be very, very good.”
Consider what kind of supplies might not be available at any cost just because there is no longer a manufacturing base or because there is no supply chain. In the 1900s they had the railroads as a lifeline from the industrial east.
How long would it take us to rebuild the tools for recovery to the early 1900 levels?
One of the greatest advantages we have is access to a huge amount of information about our world, how things work and everything in our lives. We need to be smart enough to learn/understand as much as possible and store references for all the rest. Some of us don’t sleep well at night as we are well aware of how fragile our society and technological infrastructure is. Trying to live the homesteader’s life would be very painful for most of us. I would prefer not to. I hope and pray it doesn’t ever come to that.