My only explanation at the time was that some god or spirit had it in for me.
I thought I was doing well, working as an inventory control geek for the local John Deere dealer in Hutchinson, Minnesota--due west of Minneapolis-St.Paul...
I was blind-sided by a big, fat envelope that I had to sign for before they'd let me have it. Somehow some fool had left me a legacy of a big farm in western Minnesota--two sections, or two square miles. What I found odd was, it had lain fallow since close to the turn of the century. 1900, that is.
Then the other shoe dropped.
There was a contract associated with the legacy. I had to spend three years living on the place with a limited monthly allowance. I had to provide myself shelter and food throughout that time, never sleeping anywhere but on the farm. Also, I couldn't have electricity run in or buy any modern farm equipment. Anything that grossly impacted my way of life that didn't exist at the time the contract was drawn up was forbidden.
The packet had aerial photos of the place. It was a large farm at one time. The buildings had collapsed for the most part. The whole project looked impossible.
I took everything I had been given to my boss, an old Swede. He was fascinated with the idea and gradually infected me with his fire. A few things had to be done before the project could be remotely feasible. The well had to be re-dug and I had to inspect the place to insure that the plow and harrow were useable.
The project was budgeted for twelve hundred dollars a month. I had no idea if that was despicably useless or massively over-funded. Only time would tell. No matter what happened I decided to log what happened over those three years. I bought a digital camera with several spare memory cards, a huge bag of double-A cells for said camera, a financial journal to track where the money went and a diary to note my decisions and their ramifications.
The lawyers that administered the project agreed to get the well back into working order. I traded my burned-out jeep for an old rebuilt Chevy 3100 pickup truck with a blade hitch on the rear bumper. It would connect to any plow or accessory an old tractor or team of horses would use, pre-three point hitch, when hydraulics made farming a lot easier. It was much easier to work on than a modern pickup. That was my mule. The lawyers quibbled and bitched, but eventually caved in on the mule issue. Where was I to get a mule these days, and how would I feed the poor thing?
I came into this circus with a decent savings account. I used a good portion of it to buy that pickup, then to stash a couple hundred gallons of fuel on the farm. I knew that my first goal on site was to construct a place to stay.
I spent a small fortune at a discount hardware outlet buying a chain saw, a small welding setup, a little gasoline-powered generator, a heavy extension cord, the heaviest electric drill I could lay my hands on and a box of very long half-inch drill bits that were screw-type and not spade bits. I couldn't afford to build a place to stay out of new materials or to buy a prefab home. I planned to re-use what I found there and modify my plans as I discovered my materials.
The old barn had mostly fallen in, but a large proportion of the timbers still survived. I used a cable and a welded-together drag hook attached to the pickup truck to clear the building's foundation. The surviving timbers were used to create heavy walls that would blunt the fangs of the storms coming out of Canada and the near-constant wind from the west. I cut the ends of the beams into lap joints then as each course went up I drilled and spiked them together. The beams were just long enough to make a 40x40 structure with enough timbers to reach almost eight feet tall. I'd never worked so hard in my life.
Once I had a three-walled 'ramada' in place, I hauled in several pickup-loads of six-inch-thick Thermax panels along with a couple loads of 2x4s. There was no way I was going to make it through a northern Minnesota winter without some decent insulation between me and the weather, and those panels were measured out to roughly R40. Once the frame was complete I used construction adhesive fill in the walls of my home. I used a box frame form with an 'airlock' or small porch to keep cold winds outside when I opened each door. Three small framed windows and two pre-hung doors completed my home-to-be. I left a ten foot wide space to one side of the building enclosed by the ramada as a 'car port', which I would roof over as I had the time, hopefully before winter arrived.
My floor was dirt. That wouldn't do. I framed up a 2x4 grid and covered it with boards that had walled the old barn, using the surviving lumber that was straight enough for the purpose. Those nights I fell over at the end of the day and slept where I fell.
I had to dig a privy. You can't just shit in a ditch like a serf and expect to stay healthy. Besides, an outhouse protects your bottom from the weather and gives you a place to squat while out of the weather. Digging that six foot cube out of summer-dried dirt was definitely not something I enjoyed but it sure brought a measure of satisfaction when it was all said and done. Thinking about what could go wrong I double-roofed the hole and put in a barrier made of rock and wood around it to keep out rainwater and meltwater. Thinking about what a slimy muck might crawl out of that thing after a torrential rain or during the spring melt was the stuff of nightmares.
The old farm house boasted a huge stove with a water tank attached to the back to keep a warm water supply constantly available. It was too big for me to deal with, besides the fact that it had taken a lot of damage over the years--more than I could cope with.
Instead, a little two-eye wood burning stove was salvaged from the machine shed. I had to wait for the second month to afford the smoke pipe, fireproof wall penetration, mastic and junctions I needed to install it. All the broken boards lying about were fair game for my firewood. I collected some every day and broke or sawed it into useable lengths.
It was August--too late in the season to plant. I was either going to starve or live off of game. I'd recently bought a Ruger American .22 WMR (Magnum) bolt action rifle. I found it relatively inexpensive to put down baits where I could take game. I didn't just take deer. I took raccoon, badger, rabbit and porcupine as well. The first few times I butchered my kill were a travesty, but I learned--I learned. I used more of the old lumber to construct a smoke-house and used sheets of old garden fencing to hold up the cuts of meat while they smoked and dried.
I was truly surprised how much kitchenware I was able to salvage from the house site. Not only did I find glassware and china but also flatware, cooking implements and quite a bit of useable furniture, as the walls shielding the kitchen area were the only house walls that had not collapsed. The pots and pans required a severe scrubbing but I regarded it as a cost to be paid for a free lunch. I recovered a kitchen table and a chair from the house. I was amazed that the surfaces were quite useable with a good sanding and a coat of varnish or oil. The bedroom furniture had been on the second floor and was pretty well destroyed when the second floor attempted to merge with the first floor. I hammered together a bed frame with siding wood. I made thicker beams out of boards glued together with industrial adhesive. I didn't have any sort of wood vise, so I put a spare beam on the ground, put the glued-up wood sandwich on top of it and topped it all with another beam. Then I parked the front end of my pickup on top of it for a couple days.
Every day I woke, cleaned up, dressed and pumped my water reservoir full before doing anything else. Once a week I boiled up five gallons or so of water and had a bath. Then I did the laundry. Doing laundry by hand is tedious--a real pain. Once you beat the clothes in hot soapy water you must wring them out by hand. Then they must be rinsed in clean hot water at least once, and usually three times. Then they are wrung out and hung to dry. Doing a week's load of laundry can easily take half a day. In the winter the finished clothing is frozen on the lines and must be taken inside to thaw.
My budget was a life-saver. I bought cabbage and made sour kraut to eat over the winter. I bought flour and baking powder to make biscuits and bread. Potatoes kept me alive. I was surprised at the amount of salt I had to buy.
Once the snow flies the game dries up. If you don't have food preserved for the winter then you're going to starve to death. My smokehouse was reasonably full by the time the snow covered everything. I could only hope that it would last until about Easter when the game seemed to come back.
I recall looking outside the porch, seeing a smooth covering of snow where nothing lived--nothing survived. The wind blew sheets of white across the landscape.
I was unprepared for the cold and wind. Winter clothing was more expensive than I could afford. In its place I bought wool blankets and canvas tarps. I sewed together long blanket shirts and leggings, as well as a couple canvas anoraks than went almost to the ground. I did manage to buy a pair of winter snow-pack boots with replacement felt liners. With all this and home-made mittens I did pretty well for myself.
The darkness in my home almost drove me to despair. I had bought a kerosene lantern and a big five-gallon can of lamp oil. (The residue from burning oil smells much better than that of kerosene.)
.... There is more of this story ...