Ritchie County, West Virginia -Homesteading in the 70’s
Back in 1974 we were idealists and left our home state of South Jersey (which is totally different from North Jersey) to fend for ourselves, build our own house, raise our own food, make our own clothes, and be beholden to no one. None of the trappings of the gridlocked, power hungry, rat race for us. Eck had been driving a truck for a few years and had managed to save up a few thousand dollars so we headed to West Virginia where property was cheap, as in $50.00 per acre cheap, and the people still knew how to live close to the land. Driving through there in the truck had offered us glimpses of their backward ways, ways we could be comfortable with. The Pine Barrens was a great place to grow up in but it was fast becoming impossible to live there anymore. The shear numbers of people, and not friendly ones either, made just getting from point A to point B a major under taking. South Jersey drivers cussed in Italian while continuously honking their horns and would run you right off the road. I was just learning how to drive and could hardly stand to leave the sandy back woods roads. Mostly I didn’t. It was too stressful. I didn’t know any of those people anyway. Just about everybody I had know n growing up had already left. Well, we were leaving too, to live in a place where you knew you’re neighbors and actually cared about them. In South Jersey it had gotten to the point where you really didn’t want to know, there were too many weirdoes mixed in.
I was only 17, but I had gotten my GED when I was 15 with special permission from the superintendent. Normally you have to be 16 to take the test. I really couldn’t stand high school another day though. I had always been a good student, even if I didn’t fit in so well after the hormonal thing that transformed all the girls round about seventh grade. They were all so bizarre and mean after that. They were bad enough before. So in Jr High and High School I was pretty much a loner or I hung out with older kids with at least half a brain. The plan was for me to make a living as a potter in West Virginia. I was going to build a gas fired kiln, use the free gas that came right out of the ground sell or trade my pots for what we couldn’t grow ourselves. So why should I continue in high school, being miserable and wasting my time? I had previously made a verbal deal with the school board to graduate in two years if I agreed to attend summer school to pick up the English and History credits I would need, which I had done. They had reneged on their promise and decided instead that I I needed to take eleven empty credits of gym and study hall to graduate. At that point, any faith I might have had in their system of justice faded to zilch. So I quit and went for the GED, which I passed.
Eck had spent a fair amount of time looking at land in real estate magazines and had gone down to Ritchie County and bought 80 acres for 6,000 dollars in 1973. It had five acres of good cleared bottomland with a creek running through the middle and 70 acres of woods on the hill. The ground was good for growing a garden and was already growing hay. We had been down camping on it a few times and met the neighbors who seemed helpful and friendly. They had us in for ice tea and told us all about the history of the place and their family. They had ten kids, most of which had moved out by now and the Dad worked at one of the local sawmills. They had a big garden and put up a lot of food, canning and freezing. The Mom sewed all their clothes and did a lot of washing, cleaning and feeding. They were great.
So, in 1974, we gathered everything we could, like a big red Massey Harris tractor to plow and make hay with, my potters wheel, our very little bit of furniture, and our VW bug, and we loaded it all into a U Haul truck. The VW stuck out the back a little so the door wouldn’t pull all the way down but we had nailed wheel chocks to the floor so it was safe enough. Looked a little strange though. We did get stopped by a State cop in Pennsylvania on the way out but since my cat had just puked all over me and I was in desperate need of washing it off in the closest mud puddle he decided to leave us be. It was a long drive and took us about 12 hours along all the winding roads. There weren’t any good four lanes back then until you got all the way to Clarksburg, 45 miles from the end of the trip.
When we got to our new home, a never finished cement block milking barn with three walls and no floor, it was dark and we were really tired so we just pulled out our sleeping bags and slept in the hay that had been piled up in there. In the morning we woke up with six inches of new snow. It was April Fools Day. The U-Haul truck looked like it had sunk half a foot into the mud and snow over night and it was cold. We were cold. We had to unload the truck and get it back to the rental place first thing though or it was going to cost us more money, and from now on money was going to be tight. We finally managed to get the truck unstuck using some of the old hay for traction and got it backed it up to a steep bank along the gravel county road. First out was our 1966 VW bug, next came the tractor. Then we drove the truck back down to the barn to unload the rest. There wasn’t all that much to unload, a table and deacons bench, our clothes, my treadle sewing machine that I bought for 12 bucks, 2 kerosene lanterns, some books. That was about it. With the weight out of it though, the truck couldn’t get any traction on the wet ground and it wouldn’t budge. We had to get the tractor going and pull the truck all the way out to the road, probably a good 500 feet. It was a good thing we had the tractor and could get it running. The ground was made of slippery red clay that was gumming up on the tires and our boots. Not anything like the sand in South Jersey and something we would have to get used to around here. The rental place was clear out in Parkersburg, 45 miles to the West on the Ohio River and it took us the rest of the day to deal with. We stopped at the Midway diner to eat on the way and they welcomed us to the neighborhood. It was nice to be in such a small place where people asked about you, and the food was good too.
Over the next few days we cleaned up our little barn, throwing all the hay out into a big compost pile and picking up some used windows and lumber at a salvage yard nearby. We added on the fourth wall with two windows in it, plugged up all the holes between the roof rafters with scrap wood and bought a used tin drum type woodstove. It was lacking a proper lid so we used a disk from a harrow which worked fine. Stuck a nut and bolt through the hole in the middle for a handle. We had to talk to the two guys who did the well pumping on Saturdays to get us set up with the free gas. Wood we had plenty of. We hauled our bathwater from the creek and heated it on the stove in a three gallon speckled enamel canning kettle, which only took about 30 minutes.
The problem was a bathtub. It was too cold to take one outside. We took sponge baths for awhile and shampooed our heads in the bucket but that wasn’t really cutting it. We started going to the local Friday night auctions in town about 8 miles up the road for entertainment and I found a cast iron glass topped coffee table for three dollars. It worked fine as a bathtub by removing the glass and draping in a plastic shower curtain held up by clothes pins. I set the bucket down inside, climbed in squatting, and poured the water over me by the cupful. It felt so good to get clean. When I was done I gathered the top edge of the curtain all together and threw it over my shoulder to dump it outside. I used that table as a bathtub in the winter months for the next six years. It did throw some people who happened by. They had a little trouble at first trying to figure out what I was doing in the table. It was hardly even drafty as long as you stayed hunkered down in it. Once the weather warmed up though, we would just take the hot bucket of water outside and pour it over us while standing on a rock. In summer, once the creek got warm enough, we bathed in that instead, using Dr Bronner’s soap and used the bucket to rinse, a little away from the creek. That same three gallon blue speckled enameled bucket was also the dish washing sink and the bucket to heat up clothes washing water.
I eventually got a real nice set of Ideal brand aluminum wash tubs from Sears that had screw out drains and a flat topped removable lid. I kept it out by the wash line on the way to the outhouse. There was also a washboard for scrubbing the real dirty denims. I hated doing the wash when it was really cold. My hands would crack and the clothes would freeze stiff as boards out on the line. Then I’d have to bring them in and hang them from the ceiling to finish drying. It made it a little hard to get around in our 16 by 24 foot one room barn- house.
That first spring we plowed up about two acres but we didn’t have a disk harrow so I ended up having to break up all the clods by hand with a hoe. The neighbors thought I was crazy and they were probably right. That was the beginning of my knowing what hard physical labor was like. I did the whole thing though, by myself, can’t remember what Eck was doing at the time. I even have a picture of my young self hoeing that field.
We planted all kinds of stuff. Lots grew lots of potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, corn, squash, peas, onions, lettuce, spinach, turnips, carrots. You name it we planted it. And it all did well. We worked hard in that garden, weeding, mulching, building teepees and trellis. It was fun and a full time job for me. I had also gotten 60 day old baby chick through the mail and raised them up so we could sell eggs and they could eat and compost garden scraps. We didn’t really need two whole acres of garden though, and the next year it was much smaller and we still had plenty to eat.
I canned everything we didn’t eat right away and traded some for honey. We had managed to get the natural gas set up and found an old gas stove for cooking, so I had a regular kitchen area in our shack. Still had a dirt floor though, which was getting old. It is hard to keep anything even remotely clean when you have a dirt floor. So we decided to get Eck working part time at the feed store to get up enough money for some kind of floor. We didn’t want to use our saved money for our temporary barn-shack. We needed it for building our new house up on the hill. We only planned to stay in the shack long enough to get the real house built, which we knew would take a while, but not be forever. It did not take him too awful long to earn enough to buy the cheap 4×8 sheets of pressed -sawdust and the 2X6 floor joists. Having an actual floor was a major improvement. We even bought a couch for a dollar at a farm auction to make it feel homey. It came with three old ladies sitting on it. They got up when we loaded it.
We had finally gotten a pickup truck by now, a 1950 Chevy with a slant six and a wooden bed with cattle racks. It had 16 inch wheels and a crawl gear and a starter button on the floor. That truck would go anywhere. It was blue but it used to be green, and red before that. I loved that truck. It cost us $350. Gas was cheap then too. Of course this was during the Arab Oil Embargo and when we were still in NJ we had to wait in line to buy gas on the days your license plate numbers matched with the even or odd calendar date. In West Virginia they didn’t have that problem, not as many people wanting to go places I guess.
At some point we decided to raise milk goats. We were home all the time anyway so being there twice a day to milk wasn’t an issue. Plus we were vegetarians, had been for about three years. With goats we could make our own yoghurt, sell the babies for money and make our own cheese. Milk goats were expensive, $150 apiece for Registered does of breeding age. We bought two Nubians with long droopy ears, Kasha and Lollipop. We had to come up with our own herd name to be able to sell registered kids and we decided on Backwoods Teats. All the kids born on our place got tattoos in their ears with the initials of our herd name plus their own name, so if they were stolen or something they could be identified. It wasn’t a lot of fun to put the tattoo in but it was better than the dehorning that came next. That involved heating up a solid copper rod with a wooden handle in a fire until it was glowing red with heat. Then you had to hold it on the little starter nubbins of horn growing out of the baby goats head and hold it there for 30 seconds while they screamed bloody murder. As soon as you took it off they stopped yelling, shook their head once and scampered away like everything was fine. It obviously hurt like hell when it was happening though. This procedure kept them from growing horns that they would be able to butt and hook you and other goats with and was supposed to prevent injuries.
Another fun job was castrating the young males not destined to be breeding bucks. It involved a very sharp penknife. I was attempting to do this to a very good looking little buck one day because I had not managed to sell him and did not want him breeding his mother and sisters. I was sitting cross legged on the ground holding him down with one leg and one arm and about to slice into him but every time I’d even get near his scrotum he’d cry like a baby. He was making it very hard for me to actually cut him. I was on about my fifth try when this car stops by up on the road and hollers down to me, “Got any buck goats for sale?” A buck was worth at least fifty dollars more than a whether (a buck that had already been castrated) and I really was not into the whole procedure anyway (neither was he) so I was glad to oblige. Lucky little guy went trotting right up to them and climbed into their backseat. Some things are just meant to be.
Sometime later on, I thought it might be nice to start a flock of sheep since we had plenty of pasture. Then I could spin the wool and weave cloth and make clothes out of it. I already made a lot of our clothes using mu old treadle sewing machine. You could still buy the leather drive belts for it at the local hardware store. My Mom and Grandmom both taught me how to sew early on, and I had been in sewing 4-H in 4th grade, so it was not hard for me. I love to sew. Spinning and weaving are along the same lines. Our neighbor Harry down the road knew a sheep farmer over in Mountain, a little tiny side of the road place that actually used to be called Mole Hill. They made a mountain out of a mole hill- it was even printed on the state road map as “Mountain (Mole Hill)”.
For some reason the man with the sheep had it in his head that I was wanting a lamb for 4-H ( I did look pretty young) so he only charged me 20 dollars. I tried to argue but he would have none of it. So we loaded our lamb onto my lap and carried her home in the VW bug drove her home. On the way we named her Una, after another neighbors niece. Una was a Southdown, an old fashioned hardy West Virginia breed that has gotten pretty hard to find these days, and she was a real sweet tempered ewe. Southdown’s tend to go wool blind if you don’t keep up with the wool that grows down over their eyes, and they are small and easy to manage. She was just old enough to leave her mama and grew up with the goats, thinking she was one of them. She would jump up on the milking stand to be milked just like they did so every once in awhile I would oblige, if she had milk. The milking stand meant grain to eat and they were all for that. They all seemed to like the udder massage and hot towel treatments too. We took Una for a ride and a visit to a nearby ram once every year, always hoping for ewe lambs to increase the flock, but every year she gave us a ram lamb, which we would have to eat.
We had to stop being vegetarians because it wasn’t practical to go around being hungry when you had animals that were trying to feed you. What else can you do with a ram or an old chicken? And when we worked in our neighbors hay all he could afford to trade was beef from his cows. We had our own hay. It was a matter of natural practicality. Once you have lived on a farm it all makes a lot more sense.
Working with Harry’s beef cows was an experience in itself, a lot of experiences actually. He had about 350 acres and usually 40 or so cows and then the calves that went with them. On one side of the road were the Herefords and on the other the Black Angus. He didn’t want to mix them because they had different temperaments and might teach each other bad habits. Some of the Herefords came with the farm when he bought it and he figured out why they were left behind afterwards. They were so wild you couldn’t get near them. They were almost impossible to herd into the loading pen when it came time to vaccinate and castrate their calves and the calves weren’t going without their mamas. He fed them all grain on a regular basis to get them used to him and when he honked his truck horn they would always moo back. It sounded like they were mooing “H-ar-ry” back at him. But they always knew when something was up and they’d head up to the very top of the hill and into the back forty.
I used my pony, Daniel, to help herd them because we could run faster, especially up the hill, than guys on the ground and we would head them off and back to the pens. Usually we herded them up twice a year. Once for the shots and such and then again when it was time to sort them out for the feeder calf sale. Every now and then we’d do a target roundup and try to just get in one sick or injured cow. There was one cow that was so wild that he never seemed able to get a hold of her calves and they would end up as wild as she was. When they were females it wasn’t too bad but with a bull calf it was bad news to have a wild one. Bulls can get really big and ornery. We tried for days to get this one wild bull calf penned up. We had him in the loading pen one day and with six of us trying to get him up the shoot and into the truck he managed to break through the gate and knock three of us flat down on the ground in the process, pinned under the broken gate. We were ready to kill him. Another day we managed to get him in the barn. Figured we’d feed him corn and make him settle down awhile before we tried to load him again. He kicked down the wall and escaped. We just kept telling Harry “why don’t you just take your gun, go out and shoot him and we’ll butcher him where he falls?” It would be a lot easier. He didn’t want to do that. That is, until the day he had his truck out in the field fixing fence, and that bull rammed it about five times and smashed the whole side in. That changed his mind. He managed to get around the other side and into the passenger side door and pulled out his rifle. That was the end of that bull. He didn’t get butchered on the spot though. He was bound to be tough so we used the front end loader to put him in the truck and took him to a guy who could grind him into hamburger. He was tasty too. After that we managed to snag his mama and take her to the sale barn so she wouldn’t be generating any more like him. After a few years all the original wild cows were replaced with well mannered ones. It sure makes a difference in how you feel about working them. And I never really saw that much difference between the Angus and the Herefords, it was more the wilds and the better mannered.
Cows can give you all kids of reasons to wish you were somewhere else. One day when it was icy and blowing a hard cold wind Harry came down and got us to see if we could help him with a cow. She had been walking along the edge of the creek and must have slipped because she had fallen in-upside down. She was not able to get herself righted and though her face wasn’t in danger of drowning, she was in danger of dying from the cold and sheer stupidity. He needed one of us to operate the tractor while the other two put ropes on her and tried to pull her out and back on her feet. So now two people and a cow were getting wet. This operation took us about 45 minutes and it must have been about ten degrees outside. Stupid cow. We finally got her out and got her rubbed down sort of dry using burlap sacks. Then we fed her some grain and Harry heated up some warm water for her to drink. She lived. Another time we had to help him pull a very dead calve from a downed cow using a come along. It was gross and I felt bad for the cow. The calf had been too big to make it through and had gotten stuck and unfortunately the cow had hidden herself away where Harry couldn’t see her. Normally he caught problems like that in time. We managed to get the dead calve out but the mama was sick for a couple of weeks and had to have a lot of doctoring. If not for antibiotics she would have died.
Just before the annual fall feeder calve sale the 300 to 700 pound calves were sorted into a holding pen and fattened up on corn. This lot made a great place to grow potatoes and one year we went in with Harry and his brother and planted a whole bunch of Irish Cobblers, Kennebecs and Red Pontiacs. Our share was 20 bushels. That is a lot of potatoes for two people. Since we didn’t have a root cellar yet we had to store them above ground in mounds of hay covered with dirt to keep them from freezing. It worked really well. We traded potatoes for all kinds of things that winter. We dug them up using a tractor, thank goodness. Digging them up by hand would have done us in. These days I plant only about 7 or 8 short 25 foot rows and digging them is still a major chore.
I learned a lot of different skills while Homesteading in West Virginia and there are a lot of stories to tell yet.
-Wendy lee Maddox
Writing at edgewisewoods.com