Growing Up Off-Grid: Interview with a Traditional Skills Pioneer

This article was produced from a 2019 interview with Renee, a 57-year-old retired librarian and knowledge manager, and married mom of two adult sons who lives 12 miles south of the state capital in Warren County, Iowa. As Renee will tell it, she “was raised with MOTHER EARTH NEWS.” And while she doesn’t claim to be an expert, but rather someone that learned and utilized information from the magazine from an early age, she’s used all the skills she learned through the years. “I still ‘use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without’, Renee says, and brings her feelings of blessed happiness into daily reading, weeding, crafting, and cultivation of the simple life.

The beginning and a catalyst for the way I was raised was the marriage of two people with five kids with a one-income family who needed to figure it out. My mom and stepdad were city-raised but going back one generation further, and it’s the farm.

The credo for my family was use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without. We moved to a 3.7-acre homestead, with the vision of being self sustaining. It met all the requirements that my parents were looking for: It was rough and wild and a good price with well water deep on the Jordon aquifer. Running water on the land. Dead wood and living trees. A house with three bedrooms and one bath and a double basement.

Reflections on Firewood

In the ensuing years, we cleared the brush and dead wood to stoke and feed the wood-burning furnace.  Some days, it was so hot inside we sweat. My parents learned about what wood burned best and hottest.

They bartered with other farmers in the area to clear the dead fall for the hauled-away wood.  My dad made a log splitter, and in August after the hay was put up we, would start the wood brigade. Pickup truckloads of wood carried, split, and stacked — one year we did 11 cords! We always kept the wood pile about 50 yards from the house to discourage critters and bugs. Every night after chores, we all carried a large arm-full to the house. Mom preferred apple wood, but my dad liked the walnut and other hardwoods.

We had a 100-by-100-foot garden, fruit trees, room for a barn, a chicken coop with 50 chickens, ducks, and geese. We had two 3-tier hutches for rabbits, a goat, a milk cow, usually three to five Angus steers, and another three to five hogs.

Remembering Home Dairying

This all started in 1968 when I was 8 years old and my siblings were 7, 5, 3, and 2. We all had jobs; Collecting eggs, feeding, watering and grooming the horses and other animals, and washing eggs. We separated milk and cream, using the pasteurizer, and started the rennet for yogurt and cottage cheese.

Our cow Molly was a Guernsey-Jersey milking shorthorn who gave 4 gallons of product each milking, twice daily, with a 1-to-2 ratio of cream to milk. We made ice cream every month — and each month was a new flavor.

My mom’s creative flavors rivaled Ben & Jerry’s. January was peppermint. She made banana from overripe fruit sold by the A&P at a reduced price with walnuts that we collected and hulled. She made maple-flavored from syrup that was from our trees, and lemon. But her best was the Mexican vanilla — it was to die for!

My grandfather was a paper goods salesman for Hawkeye foods, so we had all the discontinued sample containers to put product in to.

On Food Preservation and Making a House a Home

We had a split-level basement. On the top level, there was my dad’s shop and tools, then a shower stall, washer and dryer that rarely were used, because we hung clothes on the line because god wind and sunshine were free.

My parents set up a stove and a standalone aluminum sink with cabinets where we washed the eggs, did all the cleaning of the separator, and had the sprout jars set up for alfalfa, wheat, and beans. It was my littlest sister’s job to spray mist and turn the jars every day.

We had two large chest deep freezers and a fridge down there as well, one for meats, one for vegetables and fruit that were not canned or jellied. The largest fridge was for dairy and eggs. We had shelves upon shelves of canned vegetables, fruit, fish, other meats. Jelly and jam of every kind, because we picked berryies all the time: Raspberry, blueberry, elderberry, rhubarb, currants, wild grape, apple, and pear. Pickles for every taste along with super-hot pickled peppers my dad would trade at the tavern. Mom wore triple gloves to make those!

A Time for Work and a Time for Play

I wore my Uncles hand-me-downs until I was 15 years old. We all can sew. Some can knit, crochet, or quilt. My brother can do beautiful embroidery. I discovered Goodwill and Salvation Army thrift stores after I purchased my own car. I was able to get my own clothes then.

I have worked full time since I was 13 years old when I was a Nanny to three little boys during the hours of 3:30pm to 10pm after school and half-days Saturdays.

We did not watch TV (well, except for on Sunday nights to watch Wild Kingdom). The radio was on my mom’s station to hear the weather and news. Somehow she could hear from a far distance when we changed the channel when we would wash dishes. “Turn it back to KSO”.

You never said you were bored because if you did, mom would give you a 5-gallon bucket and tell you what to fill it up with.  Mostly it was rocks, sticks, dandelion greens, carry water, or pick up windfall fruit and take it to the chickens. No, we made our own fun when we were not doing chores.

It was not all work, though. My mom was very creative. She built a full-sized tee-pee from old sheets that she let us decorate with house paint. We went on field trips and picnics to free attractions. We went to city parks to play on the equipment.

I’m glad to live in town now but I still use many of my learned skills to this day. I have an odd and wide skill set. I can rewire lamps, outlets and switches. I can butcher beef, pork, rabbit, or fowl. I know how to can and make jelly. I had a waste barrel system. I know herbal remedies and how to use food to heal. I can drive anything from a John Deere tractor pulling a baler to a VW Thing. I can change tires in 20 minutes, know how to change oil and service my own car. I play guitar, because my mom bartered ironing my teachers shirts for lessons. I know weather by the clouds.

So, like I said, I’m glad to have the knowledge I do. I bring all of this into the city, where I live now.