The Simple Life: Birth In A Log Cabin
The simple life was anything but. Back to the earth. Homesteading. My husband, David, and I tried it in Wisconsin in the mid-1980s, and they were the hardest years of my life. We romanticized it: No TV coming in to brainwash our children. Grow our own food. Sit by the fireplace and read stories every night by candlelight, using candles we made with the kids. Squeaky water pump, and chickens. No electricity, no running water. But, hey, most of the Third World lived that way already, right?
Wrong! Before we took the plunge, we decided that 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. We stocked up on kerosene lamps, candles, and matches, and got a big cooler chest. We took 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˚ F, we were in luck. Above that, and I was just growing various cultures out there. Too much colder and the contents would freeze, which was okay, too.
We had no choice but to keep the propane stove and the telephone on. The property we had our hearts set on—a log cabin in Colfax, Wisconsin—had both. We held our breaths as we eased into our first couple of weeks. I bought a tall laundry rack and washed clothes in the bathtub 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.
We thought we were ready for the final, decisive step. So 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 candlelight every night.
My birthday fell on about our third week of the experiment. David gave me a copy of The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency: The Classic Guide for Realists and Dreamers— all eight pounds of it. I read the thing cover-to-cover in a week. Then I decided it might be time for the next step: to 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, I had Chicken Little tightly tucked under one arm and Self-Sufficiency in the other, opened to the step-by-step 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. 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. Cell phone cameras weren’t invented yet.
Okay, 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, and a clay pipe about 8 inches in diameter, standing upright on the paper. And lastly, my chicken, compliments of one of our Hmong friends. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. Quite tidy, actually. The most kosher, and 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 ensures the chicken doesn’t run around without its head, splattering blood all over the place.
After 10 minutes the chicken will have bled out. You take it out of the pipe and put the bird into the boiling water for three or four minutes, or until a wing pin feather comes out easily when plucked. Then you set the hot bird on the newspaper and pluck it. Then you gut it, much like you would a fish, and bring it inside. We didn’t have a refrigerator, so we had to cook or can it immediately.
Our chicken-and-dumplings supper that night 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 cheese.
We’d tested our well water when moved to the log cabin. The well was 150 feet deep and the water was a constant 42 degrees, which meant we could 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 raccoonand bear-proof. We learned that a large rock on the lid of the cooler wouldn’t keep wildlife away. We had our share of raccoons and bears that first year, and a coyote, a bobcat, and bull snakes.
Laundry was another big chore. I still had two babies in diapers, and another was on the way. First I piled dirty laundry, one basketful at a time, into hot, sudsy water in a washtub by the wood stove in the basement. Then I beat the wash with a dasher—you can order them from the Gohn Brothers Amish non-electric catalog. Up and down, just like a butter churn, except I had the clothes in a galvanized tub. When I couldn’t agitate them 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 I would swish the clothes or diapers in the rinse water, dump my soapy water, rinse and fill the soapy tub with fresh cold water, and crank my laundry through the runners once more, into the second rinse. Then I would dash it awhile, then run it all through the rollers for a final “spin” cycle.
I’d bring the clean laundry upstairs. In the spring and summer I could hang it all out to dry on lines run between the scrub oak trees in our woods, 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. Imagine rows of hunky eye hooks screwed about 10 inches apart into the log walls, about 1 foot below the 6-foot ceiling. I strung up clotheslines between them in winter. 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 two days to dry, to the delight of our kids, who would play hide-and-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 70 below, with the wind chill. 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. As soon as one was even half full, I’d take it out to the loo and dump it, then wash and scrub it with a Lysol solution and a toilet brush, and we’d be ready to go. Literally.
But the worst part of that winter was loading everyone into the car to visit Grandma, over the river and through the woods in St. Paul. Autumn’s heavy rains had washed out the last quarter mile of our driveway, 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 had to go back up the mountain, pulling the sleepy kids in the sled. Then we’d undress them one by one and put them to bed in the bedroom loft, then stoke up the wood furnace again and crawl into bed ourselves.
I found a non-electric treadle sewing machine at a flea market, and after cleaning and oiling it, I figured out which parts I’d need to get it into working order. Again, the Gohn Brothers came to the rescue. I got a new leather wheel belt, a new bobbin winder washer, and an assortment of bobbins. I ordered a bolt of birds’-eye-weave diaper material from them, too, and voilà! A Lehman’s non-electric catalog also was very handy in 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. 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 smoldered 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. Sourdough starter was also very happy and productive in the warming shelf above the hot plates.
And then, of course, there was actually giving birth in the log cabin. Our daughter, Hannah Rose, was born in the fall of 1987, after we had lived in the cabin for a few years. Here’s a play-by-play of how it went.
September 27th, 4 a.m. All night, I just couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t sure why, and then my contractions started. I paced around for about 10 minutes and then called for David, who joined me downstairs by the wood stove. I knew from experience that things were revving up quite fast, so I had him call our midwife, Roberta, and our friend Nancy. Nancy lived in a cabin just over the hill, 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 quarter mile up the mountain to our house.
4:15 a.m. Nancy arrived in 10 minutes and put the tea kettle on, while David stoked 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 on to 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. David found the cord clamps and cut the cord when it stopped pulsing. 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. David 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 tiptoeing 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.
The next day, 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 three hours later, two child protection social workers came trudging up the driveway, eyes wide as saucers, mouths gawking as they took in the three-story log cabin.
The women 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 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 awhile.)
The child-services workers 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.
Now my kids 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.