As the summer progressed, the house went up.  My dad bought a little green generator to rnu the power tools, and it was my job to shut it off when they were done with it.  That was accomplished by pressing a metal tab against the spark plug.  Every now and then I got a pretty good kick from it.

They put the floor joists in, and then covered it with plastic to keep it all dry until we coud get the floor on.  It rained though, and the water pooled between the joists, and threatened to pull it all in, so we went around with pencils poking holes in the bottom of the pools.  That was a lot of fun.

When it came time to put the walls up, my dad contacted the power company about getting power in, and they told us it would be $20,000 for the hookup.  Apparently, they only ran free hookups 50 feet from the pole, which is fine in a housing development.  We were a half mile from the nearest pole.  $20,000 was a lot in 1979, so my dad said no.  It would be almost 15 years before we got electricity in there.

We dug the well about 10 feet from the north side of the house.  They only had to go down about 26 feet before they got good water.  We put up an old fashioned red handpump.  We used to have water fights with old detergent bottles, but it’s hard when everyone has to come to the pump and help each other pump the water out.  So that was the truce zone.

The floor went down, and the walls went up.  My dad was concerned about getting the roof on before winter, so we left the walls as frames for a while.  The big truck with the rafters oozed down our narrow road and left them on the ground in front of the house.  One weekend my Grandpa, uncle Ron, uncle Troy, and uncle Mike all came to help put them all up.

They carefully lifted them up there, set them on edge, and put in some bracing nails.  We have a picture of it happening, and I wish I could post it.  They were moving so carefully, walking on wall edges, balancing huge rafters.  The roof is barn shaped, so the rafters were quite massive, relatively speaking. 

When they had almost all of them up, my uncle Ron slipped.  He caught himself in time, but he pushed over a rafter, and it started a domino effect.  I have no idea why no-one was hurt, there were people all over the rafters.  But they all fell down.  Two fell off the end, and only one of those was destroyed.  He felt so bad, but they were still able to get the rafters up that weekend, and the roof went on soon after.

The wood stove came that summer too.  We picked it out at a place in Tawas, and they delivered it.  It’s a Timberline, dual door stove.  It’s basically a big box, with a large flat top.  My dad was afraid it would hurt the wood floor, so he bought a big sheet of asbestos and cut it with his table saw and put it underneath.  Oh the things we wouldn’t do today.  🙂

They put the chimney in after the house was built, just laying the bricks and cutting holes where needed.

We didn’t have any wood for the winter, so my dad needed to start cutting quickly.  He had a small Homelite saw that quickly proved insufficient.  If you ever get a chainsaw, get either a Stihl or a Husqvarna.  My dad swears by Stihl, my father-in-law by Huskies.  So my dad got a Stihl, and he still uses it, almost 25 years later.  He cut 20 full cord of wood that fall. A cord is 128 cubic feet of wood stacked tightly. This is typically stacked 4’ high by 4’ wide by 8’ long (4X4X8).  More on that later.

We got a water pump before the snow flew, and it could be powered by the generator.  So about once a day we’d run the generator to run the pump to fill the water tank.  That gave us running water in the house.  Except the bathroom wasn’t done, so we just had the kitchen sink.

That was pretty much it for appliances the first year.  My mom cooked on the top of the wood stove, and got quite good at it.  It had a large, flat, hot surface, which is all you really need.  We got insulation in the bottom half of the house, but not the top, so we had a sheet of plywood over at the top of the stairs that we’d move when we needed to get up there.  We also didn’t have anything over the insulation yet, so it was just open insulation in the rooms.  We had only put anything on the outside walls, so we could still slip from room to room through the walls.  We had sheets put up around sleeping areas, and we used the small space under the stairs as the bathroom.  Since there wasn’t any plumbing yet for the bathroom, we had a small port-a-potty that my folks had to go empty about once a week.

Since the house was so poorly insulated, we had to burn a lot of wood to stay warm.  We burned that entire 20 cord of wood that winter, and were out scrounging more before the snow was off the ground in the spring.  by comparison, last winter my folks burned 2 cord.  And this last summer they decided heating with wood was too much work, and got a heater and air conditioner.  Can you imagine?  We’ve come a long way.

For laundry we went to the laundromat in town.  I spent a lot of time there the first couple years.  For bathing we had one of those old cast iron bath tubs with claw feet.  We’d head water in big pots on the wood stove and pour it in there, and hurry to use it before it got cold.  My dad had it running off into the crawl space when we were done.

To keep things refrigerated, my dad built a small shelf outside one kitchen window.  He set a cooler on it, and we’d get ice regularly.  When we wanted something from the "fridge" we’d open the window, lift the lid, and grab it.  Once the weather got cold, the cooler was more to keep the snow off the food than anything else.

Our road was classified as "unimproved" by the county, which meant that the mail man didn’t come down it.  I don’t know if he wouldn’t, or wasn’t allowed to.  Given that we couldn’t in the spring, I suspect he wouldn’t.  They all use their personal cars up there to this day, so there’s more at stake for a mail man.  So the mail box was a half mile away, where the nearest neighbor was, and the power ended.  So every day we had to go get it.  It usually coincided with a trip to town, so it wasn’t that bad.

The bus stop was at the same place.  The bus driver lived down a small road that split there, so we were practically her first stop.  We could see where she parked the bus at night from our stop.  That also meant we had to be there VERY early.  My middle sister was in kindergarten that first year, but she went in the first half of the day, so she had to get up early too.  I remember sitting in the living room at 5:30 am, trying to stay awake, shivering while my dad started the fire.

Through all of that, I have no memories at all of hardship.  It was a great adventure.  Everything was new and exciting.  We came up with a solution for every problem.  I don’t know if that’s because I was a little boy with parents to take care of all the really bad things or not.

Stay tuned to see how a modern family deals with living without electricity.

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One thought on “Chapter 5: The First Fall and Winter

  1. “So about once a day we’d run the generator to run the pump to fill the water tank. That gave us running water in the house. Except the bathroom wasn’t done, so we just had the kitchen sink.”

    For a second, I thought you were using the sink as a toilet. 😉

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