I absolutely adore those living history reality TV programs. You know,  the ones where you throw a bunch of modern day history buffs into the life of one of our ancestors and you watch them struggle to stay alive and not kill each other because you know they cast the most obnoxious of personality types for dramatic effect.

I could do without the crazies, but the historical aspect of how people lived day-to-day absolutely fascinates me. I want to know how people lived without running water, electricity, cars, grocery stores, cheap oil, and modern technology. So I recently watched Frontier House for the third time. It is the story of the pioneers who settled the frontier out in Montana, having to survive five years before they could call the land their own.

It is not unlike our own journey having moved off-grid, onto two acres, and trying to move towards a sustainable, more self-sufficient lifestyle. But I won’t kid myself and say that I understand what they went through or how hard it was. And I don’t necessarily believe the pioneers were the ideal agrarian example.

What I do know is that we can learn from them.

The biggest problem I am seeing in our survivability here on the homestead is our thinking. We are attempting to come out of an industrialized way of living that gives you everything you could ever want, when you really only need a few things.

In short, the pioneers lived more simply than most people today are willing to live and that is why they survived with no grocery store, no cheap oil, no cars, no electricity, and no running water.

So we are trying to reap the benefits of a pioneer-like life while dipping our toes into the industrialized world in order to make it happen.

And it causes me a great deal of angst.

There is something inside of me that feels a real urgency to cut all ties and run. To live on this land, to raise our children, to only go to town for the most basic of supplies (salt and coffee, anyone?), to just live with what we have, and to just make it work. But I realize that’s not going to happen, seeing as how we lack two things:

  1. Physical and Mental Infrastructure. The ability to live every day life and produce food for one’s family take both knowledge and a general system for doing so. We are in the process of learning about and building these things.
  2. Capital. Setting up that infrastructure can take years if done systematically, project-by-project, as money is available. Unless, of course, you have all of that money ahead of time, in which case you buy fencing and chickens and goats and seeds and fruit trees and building materials and (literally) tons of compost and mulching material to make your desolate land viable for growing actual food.

So we can either move slowly ahead, project-by-project and build our infrastructure while we work for money to buy materials, machinery, and those in-between comforts; or we could cut tail and run and go with what we have.

Considering our gardens have failed for the most part, our chickens no longer live on our property, we can’t get goats or a pig until we have some fencing up, water is always an issue, and we have three children to feed; I think we’re going to have to keep up the toe-dipping.

Plus, only one in three pioneer families actually made it out West when they started with nothing. I think we can all do the math on that one.

But this urgency just won’t leave me alone. I know we still have to buy food and supplies and materials to actually build infrastructure, but it’s like dipping your toes into shark-infested water. Eventually you either realize it’s infested and never go back, or you dive in head first and never come back up.

What do you think, am I crazy?


28 Responses to Learning From the Pioneers: Building a Homestead from Scratch

  1. Stephanie says:

    I don’t think you’re crazy at all! Like many things in life, this is a journey. I think your goal of living a “pioneer” life is a brave and beautiful one, and I’m sure God has so many things to teach you and your family in the process. What a blessing! I will be praying for you and your family!


  2. Linda says:

    I don’t think you are crazy either. I understand that sense of urgency. I think you are a true pioneer. When I read your post yesterday about the heat I really felt for you. I had been wondering how you were dealing with it. Here I am in my fully gridded life trying to keep up with cooking and baking from scratch so there is plenty to eat and that is sometimes a struggle for me! I really want you to make it because I know this is what you really want. Good luck.


  3. Rachel says:

    Please go easy on yourself. The pioneers didn’t require so much relearning and de-programming.
    There were essentially two types of pioneers, IMO. Those that came from “the East”, meaning the eastern coastal cities and surrounding areas, who had gotten accustomed to a comfortabel life for the times. Then there were those who, like the Ingalls family, who had come from pioneer stock themselves: Ma(Caroline) Ingall’s family had been pioneers mving to “the West” that was west in her parent’s time and the same with Pa(Charles) Ingalls. They grown up with moving and starting over, foraging for food, hunting and building and making it work your supplies are running out. Not to mention their physical tolerance for discomfort!
    So, you see, they had the skills bred and raised into them and even the government still gave them five years to establish a homestead in order to claim the land. How long have ya’ll been there? Less than a year?
    Our generation on the other hand has gotten used to a far more comfortable lifestyle than even the richest had back then and very few of our mothers and fathers passed down any functional skills for “keeping a home” for our part or building a home for the man’s; and even more so is the mental and physical challenges.
    So be patient with yourself -it’s process. Try not to beat yourself up for having to dip that toe in occasionally-you can’t get to the goal that ya’ll have for your family if you don’t survive the first few years! Remember, even the Ingalls had to go to store for supplies some time. Survive now so you can thrive later when others are screaming at the grocery store clerks because food is sky high and there’s a shortage-then you can bless others as those who are already established there are blessing ya’ll now. Keep praying, too and maybe re-read the Little House books just for inspiration!



  4. Lea says:

    I feel the same way… and sometimes I am pulled in both directions…. ” I must beef up our self sufficiency”…. but oh how fun it would be to just flow with normal society and live in a cookie cutter house , driving a gas guzzling SUV, and spend all my time watching QVC….

    Our garden was dismal this year too… but we are learning, and I am learning contentment, and we are all in this together…


  5. Heather says:

    I definitely don’t think you are crazy! In fact, I wish that we could just pull out of the real world and instead be pioneers. Unfortunately, we have too many student loans to deal with right now for that to be a reality We are slowly working in that direction though! And I love Frontier House, I think I watch it twice/year…partly because of the crazy drama. I was hoping they would do a follow up “where are they now” since it has been 10 years since the show was on…Keep doing what you are doing! You guys are doing a great job!


  6. El says:

    Hi Shannon,

    As others have concurred, “crazy” may not be the right label for you and your ideals. You have simply bitten off a lot more than you can chew. There was no one tipping point…though of course that adorable baby girl takes a lot of energy out of you (and she would have even if you still lived in Michigan) and perhaps your general mama tiredness over such a long period (combined with heat and general homestead worries) simply isn’t helping your mental outlook.

    Can you do more research into indigenous Texas architecture? You know, pre-pioneer adobe construction? Mudbrick houses are cool in the summer and retain their heat well in the winter, that, and they require very little in terms of the big-box retail store for supplies. So maybe the European pioneers aren’t always the best examples of how to do something. Remember, they were setting off away from their own technology to start from scratch too.

    But Rome wasn’t built in a day. I am thankful for your wonderful neighbors. Pick your future projects wisely and maybe it’s goats and pigs in a year or two, chickens back with you next year…


  7. Mandi says:

    If you are crazy, you and I could start a support group for Homesteading Lunatics. I kinda like the sound of that, actually. Anyway, while I am not off the grid yet, it is my fervent hope to be doing so soon. It has always been my most treasured dream, as evidenced by the fact that I was obsessed with Laura Ignalls Wilder, and still am, likely.
    I still live in suburbia, but I have a garden, rabbits, ducks, chickens and turkeys (the turkeys are for Thanksgiving). I can as much as I am able. You give me hope that one day I too will join the ranks of a Homesteading Lunatic. Many virtual hugs for you from one Lunatic to another.


  8. Jen says:

    It’s not that you are being crazy, you’re just not being practical about your limitations. What you are attempting is extremely difficult for two able bodied adults in ideal conditions, let alone with small children. You’ve changed climate, dealt with a newborn, and limited income with which to start over from scratch. I’m surprised you haven’t run screaming away!

    That said, Pa had to go out and get carpentry work and work for a railroad and Laura helped with jobs she contrived and Ma ran a boarding house. They also did a ton of other things not written about other than LIW’s bios. Don’t worry that you all need to work and get supplies from elsewhere. Grace never tasted anything but store bought pork and they were pioneers!

    You will be turning a year in this journey soon, always a good time to plan and make adjustments. Prayerfully, a long time reader.


  9. Rhonda Rogalski says:

    Hi Shannon,

    I know that urge you are speaking of – mine is not a strong, but it is there. It is a divine urge to live a better life. Embrace it & love it but don’t let it run you. Keep your eye on it while you move forward. Be grateful for the industrialized world – it is there to help you as you build the life of your dreams.

    I truly believe that God gives us everything we need to live our dreams and it seems that for you, that means being able to get some support from the world you are wanting to leave behind. It is not a bad thing – it is a blessing. Be grateful for it too. Imagine how much harder it would be with the homestead lessons if you didn’t have the industrialized world to “dip your toe in”.

    You are definitely not crazy. Failures (lessons) can sometimes be difficult. Add to that the heat you are dealing with, sapped energy from a new baby and that urge to get it done right can all lead to emotional upheaval. Pray. Be grateful. Find things all day long – big and small – and speak your gratitude for them. It makes it easier to be happy when you are living in a state of gratitude. We can all achieve our dreams as long as we are moving forward, even though the path may look different than we expected. But God knows the path and will support you every step of the way.

    Bright Blessings!


  10. Chiara says:

    I only just discovered your blog and I love it! I wish I could do the same, I am nursing the idea in my mind and trying to figure out how to live a more sustainable life. So I say keep going! Even if it is one step at a time, if it’s your dream you will make it! Good luck!


  11. Crayl says:

    Not crazy. And I am amazed by you and your family.
    I also loved watching Frontier House long ago.
    But just a reminder: Nobody survived doing it totally alone.
    Even in Biblical times they relied on a group of people working together to survive. It wasn’t one man, one woman and some kids surviving while tending to flocks. It was a grouping. And, they still had markets and trading going on to supply what they couldn’t make, create, or grow for themselves.
    We are not designed to do this alone. Off grid should not be the same as 100% self sufficiency.
    And I am with the above commenter, look into adobe. There is a museum in Yuma, Az that has an original adobe structure home, with a detached summer kitchen as to not warm up the rest of the home, (or burn it down, fires were common). The home had very high ceilings and super thick adobe walls, and a wrap around over hang roof and was amazingly cool inside even though it was 110 degrees plus outside when we visited. They also created a garden fence of a certain kind of cactus, tall straight rod like spiny plants. It was very successful in keeping pests out. We have the advantage to learn from the past. Praying for your success. We know something is coming here, but God is asking us to be available to help out others when whatever happens…trying to learn off grid stuff as well.
    It’s all a learning process. It doesn’t take perfection to be successful.


  12. I don’t think you’re crazy but you’re in the proverbial space between a rock and hard spot. You happen to have deep convictions, I know what that’s like, in a society that is set up completely opposite.
    Our family walks in a grey space between those worlds, though in a very different way than yourselves.

    There is no ideal, here on earth, though. Not in the farm, not in the mountains, not in the monastery. I’ve stopped striving for “home” here on earth. I’m just passing through. Smile.

    Blessings to your family Shannon. I have loved following your journey.


  13. Cindy says:

    Thank you for this truthful post, Shannon. This whole process is going to be iterative; you’re right that unless you have limitless funds, you’ll have to do and build and create as you’re able. It’s mind-boggling and awe-inspiring that you’re even upright after the move, the new life, building infrastructure, dealing with Texas heat, and having a newborn. Be gentle with yourself that this isn’t going to happen overnight.


  14. Chandelle says:

    Oh, I hear you! I am often pulled between the two. For us it’s definitely the lack of capital that limits almost every single one of our plans. Scratch the “almost.” If we had the money I would have pulled roots and gone for it years ago. For now it’s toe-dipping, and I’m starting to think this is a better way.


  15. Jen says:

    I respect what you are doing. In many ways, I’d like to do it too – but maybe not in the same order or for the same reasons. Being self-sufficient would be a wonderful, fulfilling thing. Unfortunately, my DH is one who dosen’t share the same drive to accomplish such a thing (though he said he was early on – but his actions say otherwise) and it isn’t something you can go into when one spouse isn’t on board with it.

    I think another mentality that is different is the mortality-acceptance issue. Pioneers had to suffer with knowing that being a pioneer came at a price – sometimes of a family member’s life – or their own. I’m sure if your child’s life was critically at risk, you would get them help – where that wasn’t always an option.

    They also weren’t aware of the dietary needs and did not have modern medicine to combat diseases the way we do. With knowledge, comes responsibility to take caution in these areas. We generally only hear the success stories of pioneers because so many didn’t live to have success.

    I think the pioneering phase of our country was an amazing thing. Our world had never seen such an organized way to settle a land in history, as far as I know… unfortunately at the expensive of the native culture. Maybe that has happened elsewhere, I guess I don’t know. But I love the read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and even that “primitive” life seems modern with boughten goods and farm machines and railroads- when you read Farmer Boy you read about a mother making her own cloth for their clothing for example.

    I with I had more time so I could read the other comments and polish my own – I don’t intend to sound like a hater – I hope I didn’t – I look forward to reading your blog!


  16. gail firenze says:

    Hello Shannon,
    I’ve watched your blog for quite awhile now and I can understand how hard things are right now for you and your family. I also have noticed the happy faces on your children. To see your little guys with their Dad enjoying each others company. I also think I remember a pic of your husband with your dear little girl in his arms sitting on the bed. Such a beautiful sight. You’ve achieved so much since you took over your block. You’re hot and you’re probably rather tired and you’re living in difficult circumstances but you are moving forward. From what I can gather you have good neighbours who have been where you are now. Draw close to the women in your community and ask for advise, they truly won’t mind and actually will be flattered. Hang in there and don’t feel bad that you have to go to the shops. This better way of living will take time, but every little achievement brings you one step closer. You and your family have my admiration. Keep posting, because you will receive encouragement from those who really want you to succeed at this.
    And I too will pray for your strength and stamina.
    Blessings Gail


  17. Dellaina says:

    You’re not crazy, but you’re looking an awful lot like what I imagine “discouraged” looks like. Keep in mind that steps backward do not equal failure. The hurdles help you learn. I’m glad you have neighbors close by.

    I have no wish to shower you with pithy sentiments (I’m so good at that!) so I just say, I’ll be praying for you, sweet lady.


  18. skye says:

    i so relate to this post. sometimes i have that same feeling of overwhelmed ‘but it needs to happen now’. we moved to 7 acres with dreams of a rambling vegie garden, orchards, animals, chickens, kids exploring all free space and left the city and our little home that was all set up and now here we are with broken fences, a horse that keeps escaping, my husband with a broken back from an accident at the local waterhole, flooding, foxes eating all our chickens and ducks and unexpected double blessing of twins and me not homeschooling my eldesr four which was a huge contributing factor of finally leaving the city. nothing has gone the way i envisioned…but isnt that the way god teaches us about trust, about ourselves, about him. have faith – he has led you and willl keep leading you but it may not look like what you imagined but it will be infinetly better. one day at a time, one step at a time, trusting. warmly, skye.


  19. Patty says:

    Sometimes our longings are for more than the situation we feel will achieve those longings. You are to be admired. I live in the waters where you don’t want to dip a toe. We go grocery shopping and, though we grow a back-yard (organic) garden, if it fails, we don’t feel the pain, we get in our car and drive to get what we want. I appreciate the convenience, but know it is wrought with problems for the earth and even our spirits. Whenever we step onto paths less traveled, we feel the loneliness — truly what pioneers feel. We feel the separation from all those we know and the familiar. That is what makes pioneering so dangerous and singular. We are all called to different things and we must pioneer somehow or we will live a life-half-lived. So, thank you, for your example. Your sense of failure or missing-the-mark is just you working through the realistic options you have and all the while you courageously show the rest of us how to inch out into new frontiers. Keep wrestling, but with grace.


  20. Marie says:

    not sure how old your children are, but you can easily herd goats, that was and is often a job for the younger members of the family. So no fence needed.


  21. Copier says:

    You’re absolutely loony. I know this because I suspect that I am, too. Adonai has put into MY heart also the need to take care of my family sans many of the modern conveniences our culture has deemed “necessary for life.” For almost a year now, I’ve wanted to be able to have just a little land with a few cows, a few sheep, some bees, some chickens, and a big garden. My funds are severely limited, since I am the only one working outside the home. (My wife homeschools our three daughters.) Most of the land around the Dallas area is a bit out of my price range, and animals are in that same category. My small backyard garden failed miserably this year, as well, so my green thumb skills seem to be highly questionable. Even so, to be able to venture out of the mainstream modern way of convenient living and into what could quite possibly a MUCH healthier way is on my mind continuously, and you completely have my respect for giving it a go. May the Holy One give you peace and success on your journey.


  22. gail says:

    I think it’s important to remember that God’s love is everywhere, always, including in the industrialized cities and stores and corporations and war zones…….Without this understanding, the dream of independent living can become one of “fighting the good fight”–polarizing and exhausting. I have to trust that the Creator takes the long view on all this, and doesn’t expect perfection or immediate realization to be a necessary part of our obedience.


  23. rhondajean says:

    Hello Shannon, this is my first comment here but I’ve been reading for a little while.

    Bloom where you are planted.

    There is nothing wrong with feeling what you do but I reckon you’re a doer, so you need to know what’s to be done next. Well, you’ve acknowledged the feelings, you’re aware of your current limitations so now you get on with it. Working day by day you will build your life, just life the pioneers did. It’s always slow. And that is not a limitation, it’s an opportunity. Being slow and mindful allows you to fully appreciate what is happening. When you have time, I hope you visit my blog. I am much older than you but I think you might find things there that will help you.


  24. Milehimama says:

    “There is something inside of me that feels a real urgency to cut all ties and run. To live on this land, to raise our children, to only go to town for the most basic of supplies (salt and coffee, anyone?), to just live with what we have, and to just make it work. ”

    I feel this way too (except we don’t even OWN land,we are renting in the city!) I feel this urgency, this push… and then I complain about the laundry, the laundry I have to simply move from machine to machine, then fold. Or making dinner, when I simply have to browse the fridge and cook on my gas stove. I waffle between “SIMPLE PIONEER LIFE” and “WHO AM I KIDDING!!!”

    Do the best you can, move towards your goal, and don’t fret because you aren’t AT your goal yet.


  25. Jennifer says:

    I love Frontier House! I learned a lot from watching that show and we recently watched it again with all our kids. My garden is yet again failing as well. Yes I have gotten some lettuce a few cucumbers, but in reality it is not producing the amount of food that it should be. Entire tomato plants are dying overnight and I have no explanation because they looked great the day before. The green beans were eaten by rabbits, the peas didn’t produce much at all.

    BUT there is still time to try again. Plant a fall garden of lettuce, radishes, peas, beans, etc. Legumes are great for the soil so even if they don’t produce much they will help improve your soil for the future.


  26. Shawna says:

    Hi Shannon,

    I read you blog often and comment seldom, but I relate so much to this post that I just had to speak up. I really understand the desire to unplug and run. However, I believe that while the practical separation from the world is a big part of the Christian walk, total separation is not possible this side of eternity. However, God desires that our hearts be separate….even if your bodies cannot.

    And in some ways…many ways…this modern, industrialized world offeres many blessings. In another time, the epic fail of the garden fence would have resulted in watching my children starve during the winter. Recently, my own sister delivered a 29 week preemie, and without the miraculous modern medicine available, both the baby and my sister would have died….leaving four orphans.

    So, I too am torn. I want so badly, so many days, to cut bait, unplug, and opt out. The physical separation does make the heart separation easier. And yet, we NEED modern technology, and God has provided it for us, at this time.

    But I do hope you are encouraged by all the comments here. Your family is doing GREAT. You have taken a huge step of faith, and I’m sure you are learning so much every day. God is guiding you, and He is faithful. It is His grace and mercy that saves us.

    Thanks for writing. It is always a joy to read here!


  27. Julia says:

    OMGosh is it ever the hardest thing I have EVER done and you know, it is the best thing. My husband and I had talked about this after the kids were grown and then he passed away after a long illness. Then I lost a son and inherited two smalls girls (which most likely kept me from falling into a depression and dying lol) and one day about a year after he had passed, I decided to do it. Middle aged with two small children and an elderly sister inlaw I took in. LOL….so I bought this little run down house on quite a few acres with a pole barn sitting on it….and I worked it. I have internet….the only true luxury I allowed in this house besides electricity and running water…and I found (for free) chickens and roosters over a period of three months. I joined small groups on the internet near my county….and I was pretty far out…told my story…chicken here and rooster there. Then two rabbits along with a rabbit hutch! I did buy my Goat but got a HUGE deal on her because the women had heard about the widow learning to homestead LOL. I have always been into herbal remedies and make my own as well as soaps. So I traded quite a bit in exchange for a few things…including hay. You don’t even want to know how ridiculous my “homemade” fenced in garden looks but it keeps the chickens out so they can free range. I’m not going to say this is easy and I have rigged so many things…but I have learned so much and in fact am looking forward to this coming year because “I know” I can improve upon my fence. I know people who want to do this and if you have a well bodied young man to help you wives then you are already a step ahead. Go for it….you live once. Don’t let anyone tell you it cannot be done without money. That is bull. All of us pull our weight and we just “Do it” I had hardly anything left after buying this place and as hard as it was….and still is…I’d do it again.


  28. jen says:

    Shannon you’re not crazy, but I’ll be honest (I’ve been reading you for 4 or 5 years), I think you’re experiencing geographical climate shock. I’m a midwesterner like you (hoosier), but I live in the South, not Hot Hot Texas. I also live with the normal western conveniences. I could not, would not have moved from any easy comfortable growing climate to a hot dry bad soil state. I understand you wanted land, but moving away from family to a inhospitable climate/water stressed region is not crazy, but very, very, hard. I might have found a wooded acre on a paid for yurt. Still very rough, but at least familiar. I hope your health and prospects improve. Blessings, J


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