The simple life: Birth in a log cabin

The Simple Life… Which was anything but. Back to the earth. Homesteading. The Simple Life. It was the hardest years of my life. We romanticized it. No TV coming in to brainwash our children. Grow your own food. Sit by the fire place and read stories every night by candle light from the candles you made with the kids, squeaky water pump, and chickens. No electricity, no running water. But, hey, most of the 3rd world lives this way already, right?

photo: C. Slattery, 1988, La Crosse Catholic Times

Wrong! We decided that before we took the plunge, maybe we should practice for a while in our apartment before we took on something we couldn’t manage. So we packed up the radio cord and bought batteries instead, stocked up on kerosene lamps, candles, and matches, and got a big cooler chest. We took all the bulbs out of all the lamps, turned the heat off and turned on the kerosene space heater. We didn’t tell the landlord, either. We just took the cooler chest outside every night to keep the milk and cheese cold. If it was below 45 degrees F we were in luck. Above that, and I was just growing various cultures out there. Colder than that and the contents would freeze, which was OK too.

We had no choice but to keep the propane stove and the telephone on. The property we had our hearts set on in Colfax, Wisconsin had both. We eased into our first couple of weeks holding our breaths. I bought a tall laundry rack and washed clothes in the bath tub and hung them to dry. I found an antique iron, the kind you set on a wood stove to heat while you cook and touched up David’s work shirts with that. So far so good. 

Then we thought we were ready for the final, decisive step. With our four kids gathered around our feet, we pulled the plug on the refrigerator. I held my breath. I don’t know what I thought might happen, but the sky didn’t fall. We had crossed the line! We were now bona fide pioneers! We even read Little House on the Prairie to the kids by candle light every night.

My birthday fell on about our 3rd
week of the experiment. David gave me a copy of The
New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency: The Classic Guide for Realists and
–all 8 pounds of it. I read the thing cover-to-cover in a week. Then I
decided it might be time for the next step: learn how to butcher a chicken. So,
early one morning (so the neighbors wouldn’t see anything) on the back steps of
our apartment building, with Chicken Little tightly tucked under one arm and
Self-Sufficiency in the other, opened to the step-by-step how-to guide; I was
ready. David was very chicken and refused to come out and help me. He excused
himself saying we shouldn’t leave the kids alone in the house in case they woke
up. But he did peek out from behind the curtain to watch.

I leaned toward the
instructions in the book to see better in the semi-dawn light and at the same
time, Chicken Little also craned her neck to see what I was looking at. David
wished he had a camera at that moment – it was in the mid-1980s before cell
phones came out.

OK, I told myself. If I want to eat it, I should be willing to kill it, too, right? I had everything ready according to the book: A pile of newspapers, a kettle of boiling water, a clay pipe about 8 inches in diameter standing upright on the paper, and my chicken, compliments of one of our Hmong friends. Well, it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. Quite tidy, actually. The most Kosher, or painless way to kill a chicken is by wringing its neck with one swift crack. Then you step on the head, holding back the neck, with a firm grip on the body, and pull … and the head is off. You immediately fold the wings in and pop it, neck down, into the clay pipe. That insures you don’t have a chicken running around without a head, splattering blood all over the place. After 10 minutes you take out the chicken which has been bled, put the clay pipe aside, put the bird into the boiling water for 3 or 4 minutes, or until a wing pin feather comes out easily when plucked. You set the hot bird on the newspaper and pluck it. Then gut it, much like a fish and bring it inside. We didn’t have a refrigerator you remember, so we would have to cook or can it immediately. We tested our well water when we did move out to the log cabin. The well was 150 feet deep and the water was a constant 42 degrees, which meant we could pump water up and submerge a bagged chicken in a bucket for a while to cool it, or leave a jar of milk in a pail overnight and it would still be cool in the morning. In the winter all we needed was an ice chest that was raccoon and bear-proof. We learned that a large rock on the lid of the cooler doesn’t work. We had our share of raccoons and bears that first year, and a coyote, a bob cat and bull snakes. 

Our chicken and
dumplings that night for supper was quite a revelation. It didn’t taste like
any chicken we had ever bought from a store. It was amazing. Who would have thought?
During the following year, while we were snug in our log cabin, we also got a
little pig to fatten up. His name was Bacon. When fall came that year I learned
how to pickle ham in brine, smoke bacon, render my own lard, and make head

Our first
winter was upon us. Imagine rows of hunky eye hooks screwed into the log walls of
the cabin about 1 foot below the ceiling (the ceiling was only 6 feet high) and
about 10 inches apart to string up clothes lines in the winter. I still had 2 babies in diapers, and now a newborn on the way.

First I piled dirty laundry, one basket full at a time into hot sudsy
water in a washing tub by the wood stove in the basement. Then I beat the wash
with a dasher – you can order them from the Amish non-electric catalog called Gohn Brothers. Up and
down, just like a butter churn, except I had the clothes in a galvanized tub
instead of a wooden butter churn. When I couldn’t agitate it any longer, I’d
run the wash through the rollers, also hand cranked, until all the soapy water
was squeezed out. A tub of clean water caught the clothes as they dropped off
the rollers. Then you swish the clothes or diapers in the rinse water, dump
your soapy water, rinse and fill the soapy tub with fresh cold water and crank
your laundry through the runners once more into the 2nd rinse. Dash
it a while and then run it all through the rollers for a final “spin” cycle.
Bring your clean wash upstairs. In the spring and summer I could hang it all on
lines run between the scrub oak trees in our woods to dry and then pick off the
wood ticks before I brought it all back inside. Diapers were easy: they were
white and ticks are black or dark brown. The jeans were harder.

But in
winter, the clothes had to dry inside, thus the rows of lines throughout the
house. This wasn’t a tiny log cabin: it was a three story log palace. But the
diapers and heavy things like jeans could take up to 2 days to dry, to the
delight of our kids who would play hide and go seek among the vertical walls of
sheets, diapers and everything else.

Winter was
the hardest. Now I know what true cabin fever is. At one point, for an entire
week it was minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit below with the wind chill and all. I
couldn’t let the kids tromp out to the outhouse in that. I found a couple of
chamber pots, complete with lids at an antique barn sale that week. As soon as
one was even half full I’d take it out to the loo and dump it, wash it with a
Lysol solution I’d mixed and a toilet brush and we’d be ready to go. Literally.

But the
worst part was visiting Grandma, over the river and through the woods in St. Paul, that
winter. The heavy rains that Autumn had washed out our driveway the last quarter
mile up to the top of our mountain and the house. The gullies and ruts would
have torn our car to bits. So we got a long toboggan and piled the kids into
that. They were so togged up in their snowsuits and scarves that they couldn’t
have walked even if they’d wanted to. David and I would pull it down the hill
to the car parked at the bottom on the rural route. When we got back home later
that night we would go back up the mountain pulling the sleepy the kids in the
sled. Then we’d undress them one by one and put them to bed in the bedroom
loft, stoke up the wood furnace again and crawl into bed ourselves.

I found a treadle (non-electric) sewing machine at a flea market and after cleaning and oiling it, figured out which parts I would need to get it into working order. Again Gohn Brothers, an Amish catalog from Indiana came to the rescue. They don’t use computers, so you will have to call them or write. 105 So. Main St., Middlebury, Indiana, 46540 or call 574-825-2400.  I got a new leather wheel belt, a new bobbin winder washer and an assortment of bobbins. I ordered a bolt of birds’s eye diaper material from them, too, and 
voilà! We also found Lehman’s Non-Electric Catalog very handy those years.

Before Christmas one year I discovered that peanut brittle can be made in a jiffy on a wood stove. Mine heated up to hard crack in a matter of minutes. We made batch after batch and gave peanut brittle to all our friends that year. I could also make perfect yogurt by placing jars of milk with starter in the warming oven above the wood stove just before going to bed, as the last coals simmered down for the night. Baked beans were a constant presence in a crock on the back of the stove, bubbling away for days at a time. All I had to do was add more water and molasses every few days. Sour dough starter was also very happy and productive in the warming shelf above the hot plates. 

September 27th, 4:00 a.m.
I just couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t sure why, at least until contractions started at 4 a.m. I paced around for about 10 minutes and then called David who joined me downstairs by the wood stove. I knew from past experience that things were revving up quite fast so I had him call our midwife Roberta and our friend Nancy. She only had to come over the hill to our cabin from hers but Roberta had a 15 minute drive. We had not fixed the driveway yet that September, so visitors still parked on the road below and hiked the last 1/4 mile up our mountain to the house.

4:15 a.m. Nancy got there in 10 minutes and put on the tea kettle while David stoked up the stoves. In five more minutes I was huffing and puffing, keeping as quiet as I could so as not to wake the hordes upstairs in the loft. 

4:30 a.m. I rummaged through my birth box and laid out towels, sheets, and an assortment of other things we’d need before going back to breathing and pacing.

4:35 a.m. I started squatting while holding onto the wood stove. David knew instinctively by now that squatting meant we’d see a baby real soon.

4:40 a.m. Hannah was born. Nancy didn’t even realize I was pushing. I kept that quiet too. When the cord stopped pulsing I had David find the cord clamps and cut the cord. Then he lifted Hannah up and held her close to his chest. She didn’t make a sound either. She just kept looking up at him, blinking. He had not gotten the stoves going yet, and it was still rather chilly, so we watched as steam rose from her fat hot little body into the air, much like a turkey right out of the oven.

5:15 a.m. Roberta came into the kitchen grinning, not at all surprised that Hannah was here. She asked where the placenta was. We had forgotten all about it. She grabbed the bowl we had ready and had me stand up. It slid out in one perfect piece. The children started tip-toeing down from the loft, all wide-eyed, wondering who we had visiting so early. They all were instantly in love with our baby and never got enough time holding her. 

A day later I called the county offices and asked them to mail me a birth certificate.
The lady chuckled and said, “Oh, dear, the hospital takes care of all of that.”

I explained that she’d been born at home. The lady was speechless. I said, “Let me give you our address to send it to.” About 3 hours later that same day two child protection social workers came trudging up the driveway, eyes wide as saucers, mouths gawking as they took in the 3-story log cabin.
They tapped on the door, not sure what they would find inside. I was happily nursing my 11-pound newborn on the couch in the living room while my friend Georgianna was busy preparing supper on the wood stove. The house was quite tidy and the kids all actually had clothes on. (Occasionally they would disrobe as the spirit moved them, and wander out to the raspberry patch to graze there for awhile.) 

The ladies kept looking at each other and sort of stuttering. They were quite stunned. They commented then that Hannah looked so well, and I did too. Obviously this was not what they had expected. Georgianna served them tea and cookies and then they left, but not before leaving a birth certificate on the dining room table.

And now they are all grown up and scattered to the four corners of the earth, though the wind does bring them back throughout the year. I am so very proud of each one of them.

Image result for wood cook stove

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