Friday, November 16, 2018

1868 House Reduced by Half

My husband.

Such a hard worker.

I so envy his ability to keep (literally) pounding away at this old house on our property. He has almost singlehandedly removed nearly 50% of this building and board by board recycled all that he could. He often works all morning on the house then works all evening at his off farm job. Fortunately he is home weekends.

The 1868 house in June

The 1868 house in November
Missing its south side

Although I help some with burning of trash and pick up duties, my main focus on this project has been in the sidelines. I do all the evening chores and some of the morning chores if he's strapped on time. I keep Keith well fed, well clothed and well hydrated. You know what they say; Behind every demo man stands a woman with fresh cinnamon rolls. Or something like that.

Now, that we've accepted the fact that Fall has been stolen from us and winter is here to stay, we're on our fifth snow already, the demo work will slow and the construction work in the barn will accelerate.

Last week Keith and son Jason started on a couple of the inside barn walls and closed in most of the south side which was open all last winter. This has cut down the wind inside the barn dramatically and makes a more comfortable place to work.

Living in a simultaneous destruction/construction zone is a challenge, especially with the freezing, snowing, melting and subsequent mudding of the property, but at least we have plenty of scrap wood to burn in our rocket mass stove. We expect a messy, chaotic and very cozy (inside) winter!

My writing studio at dusk last week

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

And Hello ...Cold, Wet November!

A beautiful fall day in Pontiac Illinois
Last week

Followed by cold, frosty weather, the very next day

A little ticked about our lack of fall here. A few nice days in October but seems like we're spiraling quickly towards winter. The leaves have been stripped from the trees due to high winds when coupled with the Daylight Savings leap backwards into time and night falling that much quicker, it's obvious what's coming.

Can't complain too much though because we only fired up our rocket mass stove once so far, last night. With the recent damp days our concrete floors were getting cool and even though I bake and/or cook every day, which heats up the ambient air in the grain bin, it's not enough to keep the place warm for too long this time of year.

Still, we made it to November 4 which is over two weeks past our initial rocket mass firing of 2017. Not sure if the weather stayed warmer longer or we are just tolerating cooler temps better each year. Generally if it's 64 degrees or more in the grain bin we are comfortable. But last night the rain made it feel colder and so we broke down, cleaned out the RMH and set our first fire for the fall.

Prepping the stove for another winters' work does not take long. We removed the lid from the steel barrel and vacuumed up all the fine dust that accumulated in the fire brick tower (wrapped in Kaowool, a ceramic fire insulator) and down at the bottom of the barrel. Because the fire burns so hot, the ash is fine and a years accumulation equated to about a half gallon worth of ash.

Then we vacuumed ash from the take out point (black disk to left of barrel) which was minimal. That's the coolest thing about a RMH. There is very little ash or creosote build up in any of the stove pipes we have buried under our concrete floor, and by the time the heat/smoke gets to the main stove pipe leading out of the grain bin, it has been converted into a very clean steam.

It is the ugliest, most efficient heating device we have ever used.

After the cleanouts, we fired up the RMH and within thirty minutes the temp had risen 5 degrees and when we shut it down about two hours into the burn, it was 75 inside! Keith was walking around bareback and I found sleep uncomfortable. I love a cool bedroom. Now, over 24 hours later since firing up the RMH, the inside temp is still cozy at 68 degrees.

Freezing temps are expected later this week however, so we'll likely run the RMH some tomorrow night to keep the concrete floor "battery" charged with heat, which will be slowly released in the hours in between burns.

The stainless steel barrel, which acts as the primary conductor for the heat generated by wood burning, was hot enough last night for Keith to cook an egg on and warm enough today for me to rise bread and then finish drying a couple pair of jeans still damp from hanging outside.

Ah, if only I were so multi-talented.

Soon we'll be full blown into the routine of gathering wood every day to burn, stacking it in the mudroom to ensure a dry load for the next burn, scooping out the ashes from the wood feed chamber the day before, restarting the fire and then sitting close to the RMH for 2-3 hours every evening while feeding wood into it, but for now we'll probably only need to burn it every two-three days.

It's part of our ritual for bringing in the next season, and considering the person who stocks the stove ends up sitting/reading in the rocker next to it, we're not that disappointed to see this cool season arrive a bit early. Pros and cons, pros and cons.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Ba-Bye October

Yard Décor Seen on The Spoon River Drive
Fulton County, Illinois
I blame all of it on aging, the way time just screams past. The older I get the shorter the days. I blink and my own children are middle aged,  I take a deep breath and my GK's are in high school. I cough and...never mind.

My baby sister, for crying out loud, turned fifty a couple days ago! Below is a rare pic of Keith and I together at her birthday party. 

Each day I wake up with a long list of things to do, excited about the possibilities and then realize seconds later it's already midnight and I've accomplished only 1/10 of my goals. Faster and faster this carousel goes-but most days-I'm happy to ride it.

I'd just like to have one day a week drag a bit. Just one. I might blog more (among other things). 

We did take some down time this past month though, and I'm so glad we did. I love the fall and hate how it speeds by. Early in the month Keith and I did the Spoon River Drive on the west side of Illinois. It was rainy and cold that weekend but that meant better deals at the flea markets! It's always easier to run around on rainy days anyways as we don't feel so guilty about not working back home

In mid- October my three sisters and I went away for two nights to the Lake Geneva area in Wisconsin. We try to get away together every year for a couple nights and this year we travelled about three hours north and rented a .Quirky-Fun-Eclectic-Artists home. We also found a farm slash winery that offered wine tasting out of their garage! We shopped, thrifted, ate out, talked and talked. I love my sisters dearly and treasure them more each year as we creep towards that sixth decade of life. Well, at least I'm creeping in that direction. Those other three are lagging behind.

In the midst of the short trips I've been running a bit between some of the elderly folk in our family with Dr. appointments and surgeries, while enjoying the First Birthdays (!) of two of our youngest GK's born just 10 days apart. Happy birthday again to little Eli and September. We also found out last week that GK number seven is on its way. Our youngest son Kyle and his wife Amanda are expecting child number three due in May. 

We're still plugging away at tearing down the old house. The second story is half gone and most of the good floorboards of the second story bedrooms are now relocated to the new barn where they'll be used to build lofts. Keith boarded up the open south side of the house for winter. Yesterday he started building some walls in the new barn and had me helping with some small concrete pours. It's nice to be back building up again instead of just tearing down.

And then finally today, the last day of October and Halloween. Below is eleven year old GK Wesley aka Spiderman. I was able to spend an evening with him last week at his schools Fall Fest followed by a morning of thrift shopping. We are so blessed to have all six of our GK's within twenty minutes of us, not all in the same direction, but still, all are close. 

Happy Fall !

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Homesteader Defined

A couple of days ago I made pork chops for dinner and then posted the above photo and following comment on Facebook. "Pan fried, pasture raised, Red Wattle pork chops with home grown garlic. Tonight is an excellent night to be a homesteader."

A Facebook follower then sent me a message and asked "Could you explain the exact meaning of homesteader in this day and age?"  An excellent question. So, here you go M.K. a blog post about being a homesteader in 2018, but first a bit of history.

The original definition came from the federal Homestead Act of 1862. Specifically it applied to large areas of unsettled land, usually about 160 acres in the western states, which could be granted to any US citizen who lived and farmed that land for at least five acres. Today the definition is broad and encompasses a house, some outbuildings and people to live and work there. Usually, homesteader is applied to those who live in rural residences but the term "urban homesteader" has gained popularity. Think of those folks who raise veggies and bees on New York city rooftops.

The almighty Wikipedia further defines it as a lifestyle of self-sufficiency which includes food preservation, sustainable agriculture. and small scale production of salable goods like textiles or crafts. They also state that homesteading is more than just rural village or commune living in that most homesteads are isolated. 

Our unconventional homestead above surrounded on four sides by conventional fields
New barn is the silver building in the middle
With all that said, here is what homesteading is to Keith and I. Simply, it just means raising, growing, cooking, preserving, recycling, reinventing, reusing as much as we can while spending as little as we can. We work extremely hard here at home so we don't have to work so hard away from home in order to enjoy our home. 

I understand, that's a bit convoluted, especially in light of the fact that Keith has a full time off farm job. In fact, since we started this whole self-sufficient hippie homesteader thing just four years ago, it's unlikely we'll ever be totally self-sufficient by the time we die. But each year we get a bit closer. Our plan is for Keith and I both to be home full time. 

Lets talk specifics about our self proclaimed homesteader label.

Food. We raise or grow about 80% of all our own food. This means all our meat: beef, pork and chicken, all our eggs and milk. We preserve (via canning or freezing) lots of veggies from our summer gardens but not yet enough to get us through the whole winter and spring. We do buy fruit, flour and sugar but raise bees for lots of honey. One day we'll raise our own wheat for flour, and we have several fruit trees gaining maturity. Any food scraps goes to dogs, chickens or pigs. Extras become fall décor.

Clothing. No, I don't make our own clothes but we buy about 95% of our clothing in thrift stores or at garage sales. We also happily take freebie clothes offered from relatives. Keith usually needs replacement chore boots once a year and it's unusual to find good ones in his size at the thrift stores.

Utilities. We provide 100% of the heat needed in our grain bin house via our Rocket Mass Stove. The wood comes from our property which we gather and cut. We do use a small 100 pound propane tank to run our gas cook stove. Electricity still comes from "the man." as solar panels are not in our current budget. We do not own a microwave, dishwasher or clothes dryer so our electricity bill is small. We each have a simple smartphone and use TracFone for our data at the cost of $25/month for both. We do not have cable or regular TV, just Netflix at $7.99/month.

Transportation. We drive very old vehicles with very high mileage. Three vehicles insured at minimal liability costs us less than $40/month. 

Disposable goods. We only buy toilet paper. A girl needs some luxuries. We do not buy paper towels, plates or napkins. No glad bags, aluminum foil or plastic wrap. We do use plastic bags given to us by family and we use newspaper to spread oil in pans, clean windows, wrap leftovers or to wrap gifts.

Personal hygiene. I make our own toothpaste, deodorant, laundry soap, bath soap and shampoo bars.

Hot process soap, made in a crockpot
Home improvement projects. We recycle, reuse, beg, borrow and barter for supplies whenever we can. Currently we are dismantling an old house on our property and setting the pieces it aside to finish the building of a 'new" barn made with about 70% recycled materials. For example, the floorboards of the old house have been removed and set aside and soon will serve as the new floorboards in the two lofts of our barn. See picture below. 

I thinks that's enough specifics. Overall for us M.K., homesteading means that if (when) our country's infrastructures begin to fail, we will have the ability to feed, heat and shelter ourselves and any other family members who want to jump aboard.  Like the homesteaders of the past, our residence is not likely to ever make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens but it will fill our bellies and keep us comfy and warm for some time to come. 

Why do we homestead? Because it is a deeply satisfying (although often exhausting) way to live. I worked for others outside the home for decades, mostly in nursing. I made a good salary and had all the wonderful benefits but I did not have the benefit of time. My time did not belong to me, it belonged to my bosses. What I gained in "security" I lost in time away from my children, my husband and the pursuit of things that made me happy, like reading, writing and making super excellent tomato juice. 

I hope that answers your question M.K. Thanks for asking it!

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Room with a View in the 1868 House

Demolition continues in the 1868 house with the roof of the south side completely removed by Keith along with a good hunk of the side walls in that upstairs section.  The picture above and on the left is taken looking south into what was once two upstairs bedrooms and a hallway. The picture on the right is taken while standing on a ladder and looking north into the section of the house which we will we will leave standing this winter. 

Looks a bit Chalet like doesn't it? 

The pics below give a better view of the floor boards that will be removed after the walls are down. We'll use that wood to build the lofts in the new barn. Since the staircase comes out of the newer (1900?) area of the house, we believe the two original floors were connected by only a ladder, Little House on the Prairie Style.

While up there I couldn't resist climbing on the ladder and taking some shots of the surrounding areas, even though everything all around the 1868 house is generally an organized mess.

This is the old deck that Keith is using to sort lumber for reassignment, burn pile vs keep pile to be used in the barn. It was likely added onto the house in the 70's. Just south of that is...

our new barn. I like this view because it shows all the recycled steel sides from the 1950's machine shed we bought, had dismantled and moved here, and then reconstructed, along with the brand new steel roof. The south side of the barn still needs closing in. 

Behind the barn is my horses pasture. To the right is our current feed shed which is in poor condition but we'll tackle THAT project another year! Moving around to the east...

is our current cow milking shed. Keith built it a few years ago and it's holding up well. The white pipe running from it to the old house, connects to the vacuum pump still located in the small section of back porch of the house not yet removed. That part won't be torn down until we can move the vacuum pump into the new barn for milking. It's huge and heavy. We use the green metal pen just to corral Liz long enough for milking. The rest of the day she is out on pasture. Moving further north east...

you can see the livestock trailer which will be loaded up with all the recycled aluminum siding (the pile of beige) torn off the house. That livestock trailer has been put to use for many tasks this year, not the least of which was actual hauling of livestock. 

That concludes todays tour. Please leave your donations at the front desk.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Meat, Meat and More Meat

It is Fall.

 Fall in Illinois means cool nights, sunny warm days, rapidly changing leaf colors and of course, in our instance, livestock to the lockers.

Our Freedom Ranger broilers were more than ready (size wise) for their trip to Arthur, Il and Central Illinois Processing Plant. We were up at four last Friday in order to get chores done and make the two hour drive south. We borrowed chicken crates from our friends at Timberfeast (thanks again Katie and Mark) and loaded up the birds after dark on Thursday. Easier to catch that way.

Exact butchering/processing cost was $134 for 38 birds or about $3.53 per bird which included the slaughter, the carcass cleaning, the cutting into pieces of half the birds while leaving the other half whole, the vacuum packing, and cooling of carcasses.  We dropped the birds off at seven am and they were ready for pickup at noon.

So happy we did it this way instead of butchering our own as we've done for the last 20 years, especially since Keith is spending any free time he has on the 1868 house demo.

After dropping them off with our instructions for cut up, we cruised the wild Amish streets of Arthur, got a bite to eat and found a HUGE, HUGE, HUGE, garage sale. Seriously, it was big. The owners were "Storage Wars" folk who buy up at auction, various storage units. They sell some of the loot on Craigslist, but what's left becomes part of their twice a year garage sale. I forgot to take pictures as I was too busy stuffing my basket with deals.

I scored great, inexpensive stuff, for future Birthday and Christmas gifts as well as our own farm needs. Work boots and jeans for 50 cents each ? Yes, please. My savings from my purchases there more than paid for our gas, the cost of the broiler butchering, and our meals out that day. 

On the way home we took a detour west to Lincoln, Il where we purchased five tiny piglets for our winter hog crop. They are cross bred Red Wattles and we'll raise them until early spring 2019. They are the replacements for the three big fat summer hogs who went to the locker yesterday, plus two more as a couple of our regulars voiced a need for a whole hog rather than just half. 

Below are the 7 month old big hogs meeting their five week old replacements.  Note the difference in the pasture area. Hogs, over time, do a great job of tilling the earth and working organic matter like bedding and manure into the soil, while eating grubs at the same time. Here in the US less than 5% of all hogs raised get to feel the earth under their feet as ours do. The rest suffer their entire lives within the walls of concrete bedded confinement buildings. 

Of the three big hogs, one  will go into our freezer while the other two will grace the freezers of three other customers. They had a most excellent time here the last few months eating organic grain, slurping up leftover milk from our cow, digging happily in their large pasture, and bathing at will in their spa like mud hole.

Even their last day was filled with pleasure as I used a few eggs to tease them onto the livestock panel before their ride down porkchop highway. 

Now the issue is rearranging all the meat in our freezers, (those big birds took up tons of space) so we'll have room for the bacon, chops, hams, sausages, hocks and shoulder roasts that will be ready for pickup in about three weeks.Yes, you're right, we have nothing to complain about, our meat needs are more than met! 

Except for Salmon. We need to figure out a way to raise Salmon here on the prairie.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The 1868 House Blows its Top

The two stories on the left of the old 1868 house
will be gone by late fall...we hope.
I hate that I am not blogging more but oh well, que sara sara.

It remains super busy here and I am looking forward to our first big snow day where we have good excuses to work INSIDE. Between garden produce management, livestock chores, demo duties, junk in the trunk events to sell more items we no longer need,  and family...we are in a run-run-run-state.  I also recently decided to go back to school for my MFA, but I'll blog about that later. 

It's an insane decision, I'll say that. 

For now our main outdoor focus continues to be on the tearing down of the 1868 house in order to salvage enough wood to build up the new barn. Keith has toiled long and hard in between working his regular 40 hr a week job and our farm responsibilities. He has removed one porch and the sole bathroom plus torn the kitchen part down to the studs. This past week he's focused on removing the roof.

Our plan remains to demolish the south side of the house, both stories (probably added on between 1900 and 1950 in bits and bobs) but to keep the original 1868 house (just four small rooms) as storage until all the loft storage is built in the new barn. It is our hope to have the south side of the house gone by late fall this year. 

Keith's approach to tearing off the roof is one I love safety wise. Working from inside the house, standing on ceiling joists, he is able to avoid actually getting up on top of the roof. 

Look closely in the trees and you'll see Keith

Each day he gets in a couple hours where he rips off old boards with their layers and layers of tar shingles, and slides them down the roof and onto the ground. 

My job is then clean-up. After he leaves for work I'll pick up the shingles and get them in the dumpster via the tractor. I will also separate the wood we can hopefully recycle from the wood that must be burned. Some of it goes directly on the burn pile while smaller pieces is piled up for use in our rocket mass stove for this winter.

The days have been hot, high 80's, and humid, but the nights have cooled off enough for good sleep. Summer just keeps hanging on here in Central Illinois. By Sunday though we expect rain and cooler days. Looking forward to it.