Simple living and back to the basics is having a huge comeback these days, and for good reasons. In this post I share childhood memories of how my parents lived a simple, mostly self-sufficient, urban homesteading life. Not everything back then was good and should be repeated, but there are valuable things that are good to be remembered. How was it, and how did we do it?
The homestead I grew up on was only about 1/3 of an acre, but a highly productive place. In the front were the buildings, in the back was the garden. The buildings were surrounded with trees. The trees gave much needed shade and also provided food for our family. I remember just one tree, in the middle of our front yard, that had nothing edible on it but was good for shade, all the other trees were fruit trees. There were many trees, one could almost say that our house was built in an orchard. Also the garden had trees at the corners.
Our house was a natural adobe brick house that my father had build. He made all the mud bricks himself first and then built the house out of them. The wall was about two feet wide, and highly insulating. All the windows, doors, floors, and ceiling were built out of wood, also crafted by my father. No, my father was not a carpenter, but back in the day every man had to know how to work with wood. Our house was a simple 4 room house, with an enclosed porch, a pantry with access to the root cellar, and also a simple bathroom addition.
Opposite to the house was another building complex. Here was a summer baking and cooking room with a big wood oven that served for bread baking, and a huge round pot also heated with wood. To have these two cooking places in a separate room was very practical. No matter the weather (rain or extreme heat) my parents were able to use them. All summer long my mom baked all our bread in there. In the winter she did it in the house, since we heated the oven anyways. The pot was mainly used during butchering times, to boil big portions of meat and make sausage and lard.
Next was the summer kitchen. This room served as a kitchen in the summer and as an additional cold storage room in the winter. Every spring we would move the entire kitchen here, and in the fall back to the house. As a kid I thought this was really fun! We did not have any air conditioning in the house, so having the cooking outside the main house was important to keep the house cool. And there was lots of cooking and food preserving done in the summer.
The next building in a row was the stable. There was room for a cow and its calf, pigs (only till butchering time in late fall), and the chickens. All of these shared the space in the winter, keeping it warm without any additional heating. In the summer all but the pigs were outside.
Last were the coal and hay rooms, we had to store both for the winter.
Heating and water
In the middle of the house there was a round coal oven. The oven was painted black to absorb as much heat as possible. It had a big oven space in the middle for baking and cooking. Above was an integrated water tank that led to radiators all throughout the house, providing additional heat. The whole system ran only on gravity.
The bathroom had two ways to heat water:
For the winter the bathroom had a stove with a water container on top of it. Whenever a bath was desired, we would make a fire underneath and have a warm space and hot water at the same time. This water was town water that only worked in the cold season.
For the summer a rooftop container would warm up from the sun. At the end of the day we had warm water to shower with. Our summer water supply was very limited, so all the water had to be brought in and up to the roof, so a quick shower was all we could have.
The composting toilet was outside in the outhouse. We did not use buckets but had a hole in the ground. Once a hole was filled, the outhouse was moved to a new location. The old hole would be covered with some soil to decompose.
Gardening and orchard
We grew most of what we ate, and what we ate we grew. Our urban lot was used mainly for gardening. The main crops were potatoes; high in yield and good for storage. Beans, beats, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, and other goodies also grew here for our food supply.
The garden was divided into early, tender crop, and late crop area. The tender crop area was fenced in, so we could start things early, or keep some crops later without the chickens going into it. The rest was free chicken run space, except for during the productive months.
Because of the semi desert climate we lived in, the whole garden needed to be irrigated. An irrigation system was in place connecting our garden, and all the gardens in the neighbourhood, with a water channel coming from the mountains. Nothing would have grown without this important part.
We raised a milk cow, who had a calf every year, one or two pigs, as well as chickens and other domestic birds for meat, eggs, and feathers. We did not grow the feed but had to bring it in. All the kitchen scrub was given to the animals as well. In return, the manure was composted and used in the garden. Having our own milk supply was crucial. My mom would make cheese, cream, and butter out of it. Plus it always made a quick drink or meal for us kids.
I do not recall seeing any of our domestic animals as pets. Butchering them was a normal cycle of life, we depended on them for food. We would make our own sausages, lard, smoked meat, and more. Chickens were there for dual purposes, laying eggs and making a chicken soup at the end of the laying time. Sometimes we had ducks or geese, again for dual purposes: they made great meat and the feathers were used in bedding.
Food preserving and storage
To preserve food for winter was very important. We dehydrated fruit in the hot summer sun by simply spreading them out on a flat roof. This was possible since our summers were very dry. We also canned fruits and vegetables and made jam. In the fall we fermented sauerkraut. The pantry was not heated, making it a great cold storage room in the winter. Dry fruits and canned goods were stored here.
The cellar was keeping potatoes and other root vegetables fresh. The root cellar was a small room accessible through a hole in the pantry covered with a wooden lid. Nothing fancy, but very effective. We stored root crops in there from harvest to harvest.
Animals were butchered in the fall so the meat could be preserved better. Meat was smoked and salted. We also had a fridge, even though it was mostly in the summer kitchen and only used as a fridge during summer months. In the winter the room and the fridge were storage space for meat. In the summer we mostly ate vegetables, eggs, and dairy products, plus an occasional chicken.
Even though we grew and raised a good amount of our food, we were not completely self sufficient. There was no way we could possibly grow any of the grains (wheat or rice) we ate. We also bought sugar, salt, and honey. Conventional cheese or sausages as well as sweets were a seldom treat. Also fats were a desired product. We ate mostly from the garden, not because we wanted to, or thought that was healthier, no it was what was available and what our family could afford. The more produce became available, the less self sufficient we became. This also explains how in such a short period of time most people gave up on growing and raising their own food.
Since I have lived trough the transition from being mostly self sufficient in my parents’ house and going all the way to getting all the food from a store, we slowly make our way back to homesteading. Contrary to people yesterday we do not have to, we want to. Today I see the value of home grown and raised food. I see the satisfaction and the joy that comes with it. I also see the health and taste benefits, even though homemade food is simple, but it is just so good. My parents’ example shows clearly how a family can grow and raise a good portion of their food in an urban homestead. We strive to follow this encouraging example.