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.)
My allowance came in on the first of March. I drove into town for groceries and bought 12 volt bulbs, sockets, a switch and wiring. Two big truck batteries finished off my purchase. Back at the farm I set up the generator in the car port, drilled a little hole through the house wall and wired up the batteries. Then I hung wire and nailed up a few lights along with a switch. Once charged the batteries lasted over four days while keeping the place acceptably lit. Come summer I planned to add one or two 12-volt fans.
My monthly trips to town also gave me the opportunity to use the commercial washers and dryers for my bedding. Washing quilts and blankets by hand is no fun.
It was the middle of April. Thank God that the terms of the contract specified that I wouldn't have to worry about any taxes until after the contract expired. The tax on two sections of even fallow farmland was more than I could hope to afford.
The seasons had turned and it was May. The mud had dried. I spent a lot more time out of doors. I created projects just to stay out of the house. One of the first things I did was to put up another clothes line to dry my laundry. The winter winds had taken the old one far, far away.
I decided to inventory the machine shed. I discovered a cache of antique tools that weren't severely rusted. I wrapped them in a roll of canvas and soaked the whole thing in lamp oil, then put it in a garbage bag in the hopes that any further damage caused by my handling or environmental issues would be stopped cold.
A lot of what I pulled out of there was trash such as old ropes, mouse nests and paper wasp nests. I dug a small pit and kept a pretty constant fire going for a while.
The farmer must have used mules and horses rather than anything engine powered. I discovered a lot of harness work that was so decrepit that the leather cracked, split and even turned to powder with even gentle handling. The shovels and pitchforks were in fine shape if you disregarded the splits in the handles. There were three sickles that must have hung on the wall until it collapsed. I found them in the dirt, their blades almost rusted away. Only the shapes of the snath or handle told the tale.
Back in one corner someone had carefully packed away what must have been a family heirloom--a leaded crystal chandelier. I wondered at it while holding a carved pendant in the sunlight and watching the rainbows. It must have been a family relic of better times. I carefully packed everything away once more and moved the chest into my house. Once cleaned and assembled I figured that it would be worth a small fortune.
I realized that the boonies of Minnesota weren't the place to get the best prices for antiques. I packed away everything that I thought might have some value to collectors, to deal with after my three year obligation was over.
It was time to get the fields into shape. I planned out the two fields I wanted to plant, then reduced the blades on the plow to three because I had all that sod to cut through. I put the truck into low gear and started in. It put a lot of strain on the engine but that pickup did the job. Within a week I had the fields plowed, then I used the spiked harrow to level out the soil. Without a planter I had to fall back onto hand casting the seed unless I wanted to use a stick to mark a row, dribble in seed and cover it over with my foot. I did do that for the vegetable garden, but while seeding the clover field I was no where near as meticulous. I had no use for the clover myself, but I could sell the standing crop for good money once it matured. If it brought in enough to make it worth while I'd double or triple the land under cultivation the next year.
I'd realized that the canvas anoraks I'd made for the winter were quite comfortable once I'd broken them in. Instead of buying expensive jeans, dungarees or overalls I spent some evenings sewing together a couple pair of britches. I did buy a couple shirts, underwear, socks and shoes though. Working on the farm was damned hard on shoes.
I realized that I'd never surveyed the farmland. Oh, I'd driven around the fence lines but I'd never really inspected it for woodlands or watersheds. I packed a small shoulder bag with some food and a canteen, rolled up a blanket with a small tarp, took up my rifle and started walking.
The land rolled more than I thought. The aerial photos were deceptive. I found some shallow bottomland that had come up in trees and bushes over the half-century and more that the place had lain fallow. Several of the fence lines had filled in with trees, making wonderful snow breaks. The trees had spread out from the fence lines, however, and were reforesting the land--especially in the lower lying areas where the ground water seemed more plentiful. I saw many signs of wildlife, especially where the brush provided shelter.
On my way back to the farmstead I found an odd hill that didn't seem to belong there. It was long and low, about twelve feet high. On further exploration I realized that it was man made. It held the root cellar! Some of the overlaying dirt had fallen over the doorway and became covered with blackberry canes. It took a good bit of effort to clear it all away and some shovel work was needed to expose the door, or what was left of it. The remains showed that the door was at least six inches thick when it was built.
I needed a flashlight to see what was inside. The cellar was lined in dry-laid stone and had an arched roof. Someone had put one hell of a lot of time and effort into building it. It must have taken several years to complete, considering everything else that had to be done on a farm, unless a full-time mason was hired. That got me to thinking about how daily life worked on this farm.
Come to think of it, I hadn't seen any evidence of a dairy. I saw the remains of a chicken house and what probably had been a hog pen though. I was getting the idea that the place had been more of a cattle operation than anything else. With the Northern Pacific running through the area it would give the local farmers timely and relatively cheap access to the Chicago stockyards. The structure of the fences and the presence of the big hay barn made more sense. Two sections was surely enough land to operate a thriving cattle business, as long as the temperatures didn't get so low as to kill the cattle in the fields. Modern ranchers in the northern tier of states provided livestock shelters in low-lying areas for their stock to take cover. The cost of haying operations had come down dramatically with the advent of big roll bales, but it still demanded the investment of a tractor, and not a little one, at that! Those bales are quite heavy and demand the use of a mid-range to large tractor to handle. A five foot diameter bale five feet long can weigh a thousand pounds. The benefits though are great. They don't require shelter or stacking. The farmer puts a synthetic stocking over the things and leaves them in the field like a windrow. A stab attachment in the place of a hydraulic front bucket lets the farmer move them around on demand. A little work with a corn knife and it's an instant feeding station. Hmm. Wells, windmills, stock tanks and water heaters would have to be in place before the first steer was bought. It certainly was an idea of how to make the place self-sufficient, though.
The root cellar was deep and wide with the remains of shelving littering the floor. I was surprised to see a row of large stoneware crocks still intact, sitting against a wall. They were probably pickling crocks, no doubt used for corn, pork, cabbage, cucumbers and other vegetables. Pickling was an easy way to preserve food and, unlike salting, could be used to preserve foods other than meats while it didn't require the meticulous care needed for canning. I wanted to get that cellar in operation as soon as possible in preparation for the fall harvest so every day I put some time into cleaning it out, rebuilding the shelves and building a new door. A good part of my monthly allocation went into canning supplies, including a propane tank, burner, boiling pot, jars and lids. I thought about what else I'd need for the harvest and bought a big wheel barrow, plastic buckets and plastic dish pans.
I was regularly shooting deer and porcupine, working at keeping the smoke house filled. I didn't bother processing the rabbits but I figured that I was gradually depopulating the damned county. I got to the point that I needed more room to hang the meat so I built a second smoke house, keeping one wall in common with the first one to minimize the labor. That let me spread out the existing meat as well as provide space for more so that it would all get a better smoke. I was glad that I was using rim fire ammunition because it was cheaper to shoot. The .22 magnum loads were still powerful enough to take deer but I wouldn't have wanted to try to kill a pig or anything larger with them.
I sold the clover! It brought in 125 dollars per standing acre for six acres. It cost me about ten bucks an acre for the seed, ten bucks for the inoculate for nitrogen fixation and about sixty in fuel costs. Hmm. Not very efficient at a net return of 45 bucks an acre. However, the next few yields should be cost-free as it would come up from the roots (as long as the temperature didn't dip below zero for too long and kill the rhizomes). After reading up on the subject, I found that I would probably have to fertilize with potassium and phosphate once I noticed the yields start to drop and the leaf color changed.
200 bucks of that bought me a mid-season feeder pig. That was in mid-July. I kept it fed from the garden culls and an occasional bag of cracked corn mixed with dried beet pulp. There was some clover growth outside the borders of the field that didn't get harvested. I bought a scythe and harvested that for the pig as well. By Thanksgiving I'd had a solid month and a half of feeding it straight bagged corn so it was in as good a shape as it was going to get. Besides, I was tired of spending money on feeding the damned thing. I slaughtered and butchered it for the smoke house, except for one tenderloin I held out for broiling and stewing. I discovered that a pig is a lot harder to butcher than a deer, even if they're small. I later learned that a full cycle for feeding up a pig is five to seven months. I prepared the hams with a sweet cure, consisting of wrapping the hanging hams in clean gunny sacks after packing each one in salt and brown sugar.
During the same period the garden came in. I spent a day at the library taking notes on how to can and pickle various crops. I put in some damned long days that month. After all that work of harvesting and putting up that garden I was glad that at least the culls, vines and runts went to the pig so that nothing went to waste. Even the guts from my kills went to feed the pig. I bought a hell of a lot of sugar and vinegar that fall for pickling.
I really didn't think that five measly potato hills would amount to much come harvest time. Mother Nature sure played me for a fool. Once I started digging up those little bastards I had to quickly go to the library to find out how to keep them. I ended up buying five hundred pounds of dry sand and layering the spuds on the floor at one end of the larder so that they didn't touch. The book said to check on them with my nose once a week to catch any that were going off, then take out the bad spud and the sand around it that had soaked up the liquor with a shovel. I had meat, potatoes and vegetables lined up for the winter.
Before the weather got too bad my curiosity pushed me to clear out the remains of the old farmstead's house. I really didn't lose any time over it as I salvaged out the good wood as I went or cut the broken stuff for the fire which needed doing anyway. Finally the only thing left was the fireplace. I decided to re-use the rocks to line out a path between the house, the well and the outhouse. I used a rope to pull down the chimney and used flat sections that had hung together to fit into holes that I dug out of the paths. The inside of the firebox was filthy with soot so I broke it open, exposing it to the weather to leave it so over the winter. The structure from the mantle to the footing was all that was left. Since it hadn't been used in so long I used a hammer and a cold chisel to try to shift any loose stones that had come free from freezing and thawing. A few sections surrounding the firebox did come away which I hauled away in my wheelbarrow. Then came the big surprise. The floor of the firebox came up in one big slab. Beneath it was a cavity. Of course! the homeowner's bank! I carefully dug out the hole, piling the dirt to one side as I went. Eventually I cleared away enough dirt to expose the shape of a box--a till. That thing didn't want to come out of that hole for anybody. I had to do some further damage to the firebox to get a rope around it before I managed to heave it up and out of that hole.
I had a red face and was staggering by the time I had that thing out and on the ground. I was huffing and puffing for several minutes while giving it the evil eye. Finally I reached out to the snap-catch to open it. It was frozen. It figured. I got up and found where I'd put the hammer and cold chisel. Rather than give my fingers a whack I wrapped the chisel in grass stems to make a quickie side handle. Then I positioned the chisel edge and gave it one hell of a whack. The catch ripped free of the lid and lay there dangling.
I used the cold chisel and hammer to tap around the edge of the lid to free it, then gave it an upwards pop along the top edge. The lid came free.
Well, no wonder the thing was heavy. It was over half full of silver dollars. There was also a leather drawstring bag in there about the size of my fist. I opened it, shredding the leather tie as I went, and poured the contents on the floor.
Gold. Gold coins. Some were large and some small. I carefully put them back in the bag and heaved the whole lot of it, box and all, into the wheelbarrow. This was going to the house.
I got that box into the kitchen area then started laying out silver dollars on a blanket covering the kitchen table. I counted fourteen hundred coins. They were all scratched and worn, definitely in 'circulated' condition. It was no wonder that I'd almost ruptured myself. I could probably put the damned things on Ebay with a reserve of $25.00 and clean up.
Then came the gold. I carefully stacked the different coins from the leather poke and marked down their denominations. I had eleven $20.00 gold pieces, twelve ten dollar coins, six five dollar coins and fourteen one dollar coins, all in gold. I whistled to myself. I wondered if anyone else knew about this stash. I figured that my best bet was to fill in that hole, claim fifty silver dollars in the poke as found and hide the rest until I could sell them off anonymously.
By God, THAT sure put a spring in my step and a smile on my face! I spent the next few days at the library posting Ebay sales with pictures of each coin. I set a reserve of thirty bucks on each one and tacked on five bucks for shipping. Over the next few weeks I sold most of 'em for the reserve value, but a few of the nicer looking ones sold at forty or forty five bucks. I wrapped them in cardboard and secured each package with packing tape then sent it out insured for fifty bux, return-receipt-requested. I had a few checks bounce, but not many. There's always an asshole out there in every group. Some people wanted to deal in PayPal bucks, but I refused to get into that mess. They've been known to freeze accounts just because they could.
I used that money to have the truck tuned up and get its drive train checked out. It was my faux tractor so I'd be SOL if it crapped out on me.
All else being said and done, I finally got those paths rock lined before Christmas.
The machine shed originally had a smithy attached to it--a blacksmith's forge. It was too cold and windy to work outside during most of the winter, but when the weather broke I was usually out there with a broom and a shovel clearing the place out. In my secret heart of hearts I'd always cherished a little fantasy about learning blacksmithing. Now I had my chance! I had a little spare cash from the coin sales and I'd saved up some of my allowance income. I wondered how tough it would be to rebuild the smithy, build or buy a big two-cavity bellows and equip the place for operation. There was a supply of a few hundredweight of bar stock still there and a little coal. I found a source for hard coal and put in an order for a ton, delivered in fifty pound bags. It would run a little over a thousand dollars. I hammered together a box for it against the rear wall of the smithy. Then I went on a salvage mission looking for big beams to use to rebuild the place. After spiking the walls together I planned to roof it with more beams taken from the machine shed, then whitewash the interior. The anvil was in fine shape, as was a swage block. When I hit the anvil a good lick with a long-handled hammer it rang like a bell and slowly silenced. I couldn't help but grin like a fool. The case-hardened face was in excellent shape and the horn only showed a little wear. I found a few hardie hole tools like a cold chisel and a hold-fast, but they were pretty beat up. The hammers needed new handles and only a couple sets of tongs were useable. I found some cold chisels, punches and other less identifiable pieces that appeared to be in good shape. The knee vise was totally corroded and unsalvageable. The forge itself needed rebuilding as the pan was rusted through, and the chimney was a battered wreck. I knew that this was going to be a longer term project because I had to buy several high-dollar parts.
Each month that winter I ordered a small part or two for that smithy. I found plans for the bellows and a decent line diagram for constructing the chimney out of galvanized sheet metal. I'd never learned to rivet before so it was going to be an experience.