Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Owner-built... Mobile Home??

Note: this is #4 in a series of stories of settling in the North Country

It was a Sunday morning and we were still in bed, exchanging groggy good mornings, and then Husband spoke.

“You know, maybe we could buy a trailer and live in it while we build a house.”

“You’re kidding! I was just thinking the same thing!”

And so the plan to move from town to the land was hatched. A little more than a week later we had bought a used 12’ x 60’ “mobile home” and were making arrangements to have it delivered to a small clearing we planned to call home.

Its delivery turned out to be not as easy as we expected. The wheels of the trailer were some forty feet behind the truck that was towing it, and the “driveway” had a drop-off on each side, making it impossible to cut the corner while towing it in. The trailer would have to follow the truck on a more-or-less straight line, and the situation simply didn’t allow for that.

....."I think we've got a problem, Harvey"

If the road had been wider, the driver could have made a sweeping turn and come in straight, but the road was narrow, and across the road from this driveway entrance a rock ledge rose up. A John Deere pulling a manure spreader would have had to navigate that turn carefully, but a tractor pulling a 60’ trailer didn’t have a snowflake’s chance in hell, so there we were, blocking the road, kicking stones around and scratching our heads.

Soon we began to meet the neighbors. It was late afternoon, and those coming home from work found a mobile home blocking their way. Rather than turn around and take another route, they parked their pickup trucks and settled down to watch the city-slickers in their predicament. Maybe the news traveled down the road, because there soon was a group on the other side of the trailer parked and watching. Some joked about trading cars with people on the side they were trying to get to, but it was clear that this was an entertainment nobody wanted to miss.

..................Neighbors watch while Herb (lying under trailer) jacks up again - note tire "skid" marks on the road from the
..................previous landings

Country ingenuity prevailed. The delivery driver jacked up the “home” and then everybody pushed hard until it fell off the jack, thereby inching it slowly more cross-wise of the road. This was done over and over again (as we wondered how the interior could possibly survive all of the bouncing of each fall) until finally the truck was able to move forward a few feet. More jacking and pushing, and somewhat past dinnertime our new “home” was parked in the clearing.

......................The "Homette" and the Happy Homette Owner

It was July 27, 1976. We lacked electricity, water and a septic tank, but we had shelter, and it even came with some furniture, appliances and curtains. We were as happy as pigs in slop.

Next episode: "First You Get Your Pole Up"

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Back to... the Land

Note: this is #3 in a series of stories of settling in the North Country

Fall and then winter began closing in on the realtors. There were no new offerings hitting the market and we had looked at what was available.

We liked the village and were comfortable. The house we rented belonged to a spry but deaf ninety-year-old widow; she lived in the left side of it and we occupied the other half. She was a great landlord who enjoyed our company and got a kick out of my enthusiasm for learning how to can and root-cellar vegetables, sharing some of her “secret” recipes for old-fashioned sauces and pickles. Our daughter walked to school and had many playmates. It was a safe and convenient place to live, and so we felt no pressure to get on with our plans.
My husband is a very bright guy who has always had a weird interest in helping people find jobs. In the mid-seventies, CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) was a federal government program created to fund/authorize job-training programs for low-income people. The local CETA director happened to know my husband’s former boss in Rochester, and based on his recommendation created a job opening. CETA was growing rapidly , and within a relatively short time, my husband was designing training programs geared to the needs of the North Country.

I, on the other hand, was one of those people who preferred NOT to be matched up with a “real” job… I liked dirt. I liked animals. I loved power tools, whether saws or sewing machines. I was never bored at home.

It seems to me (looking back on it) that I secretly wondered whether my husband would really be happy “on the land.” Not that he wasn’t a worker - for despite his intellectual brilliance, he'll slog through daunting, boring, no-brainer physical tasks with steady energy and never a complaint – but it did occur to me that he might not be happy if his life’s work was primarily of a physical nature.

I had also spent my childhood summer vacations in the Adirondacks. I liked farms, but I also loved the woods.

In early December I was browsing the local newspaper and a classified ad caught my attention:

Hmmm… sugar bush, timber, springs… Not a farm, but something new and at least worth checking… I called and learned that it was in the Adirondack foothills thirteen miles to the south of town, it had a couple of meadows, and the price was reasonable. The next day we drove out to see it, met a down-on-their-luck family, and were led around over hill and down dale through woods, meadows, and streams for over two hours and what seemed like many miles by the long-legged husband. The land seemed remote and very “Adirondacky” to me. It had every sort of natural wildlife habitat, and snow covered the rock outcroppings that might have tipped us off to one of the challenges of the place. By the end of the day, in the same desperate, emotional way I once craved (and then convinced my parents to bring home) a big-eyed dog from the animal shelter, I wanted it.

My husband was less enthused. It wasn’t, after all, a FARM. “But it once was a farm,” I countered, suggesting that we could do a reasonable amount of "farming" there if we wanted to (a totally unrealistic argument). After all, I reminded him, the Nearings grew food; they didn't keep animals. The price was $10,000, the seller willing to hold a mortgage without interest charges.

Maybe he mentioned this and I failed to hear (or register) it, but Husband – who never has found it easy to say “NO” to his pleading wife – rationalized buying it by thinking we could always sell it when we found the farm.

The seller was eager. He had three kids and they had no money to buy Christmas presents. (Should we not have seen through that?!?!)

We bought the land. The timing was such that we couldn’t close until January – after the holidays – and so we also bought an old wood-burning cookstove that the seller had, shoving $125 in cash into his hand the week before Christmas.

We had found our place in the country.

Stay tuned for the next episode: The Owner-built...Mobile Home??

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Almost Farmers

Note: this is #2 in a series of stories of settling in the North Country

When I was growing up, there was a large Middle Class. There were rich people, but they were the few and everybody knew who they were: The Rockefellers, John Paul Getty, and some movie stars. Even athletes earned Middle Class salaries in those days. There were poor people – usually Black – and (at least if you lived in the North) you thought of them as that: poor in the sense of “unfortunate”. I saw them in the ghetto near the college or when I drove out past the migrant camps northeast of the city. In the three decades after WWII, it was easy for just about any average, able white person to find a job, and so it was that we made the move to The North Country confident of finding some sort of gainful employment that would carry us until our “farm” was established. Within a couple of weeks, my husband was employed by a County agency just a short walk from our apartment home.

Within days of our January arrival, we met a neighbor whose father was a well-respected organic gardener, and as luck would have it he planned to offer garden plots on his farm about three miles outside of the village. The organizational meeting for this endeavor was to be held the next evening, and we attended. It was our first acquaintance with several people who would become dear friends and my introduction to the man who would teach me the tricks and the know-how that I have used every growing season since the summer of 1975.

As spring approached, in addition to planning our garden, we began looking at real estate. Thank God for my husband’s patience and good sense, because I was ready to buy ANYTHING that looked green and rural, and the United Farm Agency sales folks were wily indeed. They easily spotted me as another “back to the lander” and knew how to play that angle. The first thing they showed me was a swamp with a railroad track running through it. I guess they figured I was dumb as well as eager. Still, I dragged my family back to look at it a second time…

We also spent time visiting our friends’ dairy farm and began learning to milk and care for cows. Our 30’ x 30’ garden plot was growing well and we worked to keep it weed-free. We were taking small steps, but important ones, and then in mid-summer, a beautiful old farm came on the market. It was less than five miles from our friends’ dairy, and its 200+ acres were mostly rolling hay fields and pasture. The back of the property sloped down to woods and swamp – a place we could cut firewood in the wintertime. The house was old but solid and charming; the barn was small but sound, a healthy crop of alfalfa was thriving on its gravelly loam soil. Adding to its charm was its location a quarter of a mile back off a paved country road. We knew that jumping into dairy farming there was not feasible at the outset. We would have to enlarge the barn and we had become a bit more realistic about our ability to go “cold turkey” anyway.

I remember this conversation:

.....“Do we really want to milk a herd of 40 cows twice a day, every of the year?”
.....“How do we know??”
.....“Is there anything physical we’re doing now that we have to do

.......twice a day, every day of the year?”
.....“Brush our teeth? Sometimes I don’t even want to do that!”
.....“You know, that doesn’t even compare with milking ONE cow…”

What suddenly made sense to us was to raise heifer replacements for our friends and possibly for other nearby dairies. My husband would keep his job (although the 15 mile commute was troublesome), and I would do most of the livestock care.

We made an offer on the farm.

The seller countered.

We offered as much as we could.

The seller came down to $2000 above our offer, saying that was his lowest price.

For want of $2000 we lost that farm.

Months later, shortly after we purchased 90 acres of non-farm land in the Adirondack foothills, I was walking along Main St. and ran into the owner of the “lost” farm. He greeted me enthusiastically and asked if we were still interested in his place. “I’ll come down the $2000 if you want to buy it,” he said. But it was too late. Our money was spent, and our course had changed.

That farm did sell to something called “Sealand Restoration”. They were a company hauling toxic waste from downstate that found this remote farm in a town without land use zoning the perfect place to dump their loads. The farm we came so close to buying was eventually designated one of New York’s “Superfund Sites” – one of the most polluted places in the State. Its meadows and stone walls have been bulldozed, its buildings are crumbling. According to the Environmental Protection Agency:

"The Sealand Restoration, Inc. site covers 210 acres. The site, formerly a dairy farm, was acquired by Sealand Restoration in 1977, and was operated as a waste disposal facility. Petroleum wastes were landfilled in a disposal cell near the southern site boundary or spread on the ground surface in the central and northern parts of the site. Three areas are being addressed—a land spread area, an empty drum storage area, and a disposal cell located 100 yards from a wetland. On-site ground water is contaminated with heavy metals and volatile organic compounds including benzene, trichloroethene,1-trichloroethane, toluene, and acetone. Surface water was found to be contaminated with aluminum, iron, lead, manganese, and zinc. Low levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides, phenols, and heavy metals were found in soils in the land spread area. Direct contact with or ingestion of on-site contaminated ground water may pose a health threat.”

If we had purchased this farm, would Sealand have bought a neighboring parcel of land? We went back once and saw the empty drums and the ravaged fields, but my memory of the place is of a sunny day when I walked along the farm lane beside an old stone wall, listening to the singing of birds and feeling that it was the most wonderful and peaceful place on earth. Two thousand dollars changed our lives.

Next: The Owner-built... Mobile Home??