Until WWII a lot of people in this country lived on subsistence farms and had for generations. By subsistence I mean that they produced most of their own food and, in addition, raised cash crops like milk, hay, eggs, meat or maybe something more exotic like tobacco. The cash was used to buy equipment, extras and foodstuffs they didn’t produce themselves. They didn’t go to malls or supermarkets. Those did not exist.
My father’s family lived in what might be called a “kin” neighborhood in a part of Virginia that can now almost qualify as a suburb of D.C. Relations owned four or five contiguous properties and had lived in this spot since the 1840’s. Often they worked together, sharing labor, teams and equipment. All the places had names: Mt. Atlas, Oak Shade and Hagley. Hagley was my grandfather’s place. Before he built Hagley in around 1910 there was Old Hagley founded by his grandfather. New Hagley was built on higher ground and closer to the road. By US standards the family had been attached to that property for a long while. I was in the sixth or seventh generation to spend time at the place.
I found Hagley fascinating as a child for it was like dropping in on another planet, another style of life and almost another language with the drawls and “you alls.” There was so much food. Tons of food for every meal. Breakfast was breakfast, lunch was dinner, dinner was supper. My grandmother and aunt seemed to live in the kitchen and wouldn’t let you hang around in there. They would shoo us boys out so we helped where we were able or dug worms and headed to the pond to fish. From this photo it appears my brothers, cousin and I were doing something vaguely agricultural.
I liked to look at the cellar with cured hams hanging from the ceiling and shelf after shelf of home canned goods. I remember the food most of all, fitting because subsistence farming is all about food: vegetables, pickles, milk, eggs, cheese, chicken, ham, beef, fish, bread, corn, biscuits and on and on. They not only grew food for themselves but for the animals as well: hay, corn, orchard grass, oats, rye and wheat.
At that time I really didn’t understand or appreciate what I was looking at and shortly after I graduated from college it all came to an end when my grandfather decided, perhaps in his dotage, to auction off the farm, all the implements, all the antiques, all the stock and knickknacks and everything that had accumulated in that spot in the previous hundred or more years. I guess he’d had enough of subsistence. He sold it off and along with my widowed aunt and bachelor uncle moved to town and began shopping at the supermarket just like everyone else in America. Grandpa sat on the porch til it was time to die, my old uncle went to the basement and turned wood bowls on his lathe, while my aunt kept cooking breakfast, dinner and supper.
The era of subsistence farming was over. Three generations later it’s starting to regain traction. But it’s much tougher now. There are building codes, safety rules and employment laws one has to follow. Plus, we live in a litigious society where some one will sue you at the drop of a hat or narc on you to some code official. The only instruction I recall getting at Hagley was “Stay out of the pig pen.” There was, apparently, a real danger of being eaten by a large boar. In the hallway was a .22 rifle on the gun rack which I was free to take it out and shoot at stuff like skill pots (snapping turtles) or squirrels. They would no doubt been shocked to learn I’d never even see a .22 before I took that one out in the woods and shot it.
Recently, my cousin who still owns his dad’s farm across the road from Hagley made a diagram of how Hagley looked in 1955 just a few years before the sale. I marvel at this information which details almost a village worth of buildings and functions. Take a look by clicking the link below.
First of all note the two large kitchen gardens with a grape arbor in between. Then take a look at the functions and activities represented by the various buildings: hog pen, wood shed, meat house, hog butcher pen, hog butcher tub, chicken house, blacksmith shop, tack room, the dreaded pig shed and pen, turkey/guinea house, tractor shed, mill house and granary, corn house, milk barn and more.
Imagine the difficulty today of trying to get approval for these outbuildings. Then imagine the cost of building them. In those days, all these farmers were also carpenters and mechanics and veterinarians in addition to being horticulturalists. They were experts in animal husbandry as well. The women were experts in everything else. There wasn’t much specialization. One had to know how to do a bit of everything to survive in comfort.
There really aren’t that many back to the land people around today. It’s rare to find someone with a garden in the city. More rare to find a subsistence farm in the country side. It’s possible that we might have to get back to that and important that we maintain some bank of knowledge of the skills we need if we have to do the work ourselves and if we reach a time when we don’t have petroleum to do our work for us.
Today, Hagley still looks like an old farm house. It’s been updated some and the land around it sub-divided and partitioned into a small suburb for folks commuting to the capital and other venues in N. Virginia and Maryland. They are back on the land but not subsisting there. It will be hard for them (and all of us) to make the transition to a simpler, sustainable existence if circumstance dictates that we must.