When we started our journey and telling friends and family about how we bought fifty-five acres of completely raw and undeveloped land we had a range of responses. Those ranged from oh that’s so cool, what are you going to do with it, to it has utilities right, to wow….ummmm that’s nice. There was also a good share of people who indicated us good luck with a laugh and questioned our sanity. In a way so do we to this very day; and if you want to reach out to us to question our sanity click the link to shoot us a message 😉
Anyways, we are not the first of our kind to move farther off the beaten path and not the first in our family to have our sanity questioned. Here’s the story of John, Evelyn and Family in Jackson & Spring Arbor, Michigan.
So where should we start, the beginning, I guess…
When I brought over a bribe of Crumbl Cookies to my dad, he was more than happy to oblige and got right down to business. John was working for the Pontiac dealer in Jackson, Michigan in sales and Evelyn was an accountant for adjacent Studebaker company. One thing led to another and on June 24, 1931, they got married. They were an older couple at the time being 29 (John) and 30 (Evelyn) when they wed. As I type this I am genuinely tearing up a little bit and let me share some insight quickly.
John was born on April 11, 1902, I was born on April 11, 1984, I share my grandfather’s birthday; a man that I never had the chance to meet. We also were nearly identical in ages when we got married, I was married on July 27 when I was 29 also.
Okay, just took a moment
Not terrible long after they were married, they decided to move about ten miles outside of town to the small town of Spring Arbor, Michigan. They found twenty acres on M-60 and they decided to take the leap to change their lives. Everyone thought that they were crazy. After all, why would anyone in their right mind leave their stable jobs, established homes in town for 20 acres of land out of town without a well, without septic, without connections to town. But they had dreams ideas and plans on how to make this work.
You see, John was on good terms with the owner of the Pontiac dealership and knew that he was looking to focus his attention on new vehicles and didn’t want to have deal with the used vehicle side of the business anymore that John was already running. With his blessing, John and Evelyn started the used car business out to middle of nowhere, crazy to contemplate, and started their own rural life.
Step one however, they needed to build the garage to work on the vehicles, perform the repairs and the service station in order to sell the used vehicles. This included the need to install the metal septic system and drill their own well, all 110’ of pristine Michigan water. According to my dad, John was so proud of the well and insisted that the water was some of the best water quality around, clearly better than the city water in Jackson.
The got the used car business all set up, the Standard Oil fuel pumps, both, hooked up and was ready and got business started. John ran the front end of the business and the day-to-day activities associated with the customers with the car sales, garage and facilitating the service station while Evelyn made sure the business would stay afloat, ran the bookkeeping, ordering, etc.
Over time, John started getting questions about an old shanty behind the garage; they wanted to know if it was a cabin to rent for the night. “no, it’s just an old shanty” “no, it’s just storage” “no, it’s empty” Eventually however, John and Evelyn talked and cleaned up the old shanty, got a bed and tied in access to the original well / septic and got access for accommodations for the night. Over time, they built a separate outhouse which tied into the septic system they built which housed 4 separate toilets.
But the Car sales and Garage was only the start of the 20-acre development. Over the years, John’s father, Amos had been working on and through combined efforts had built the family a house adjacent to the garage. They, had to install a second septic system and tied the home into the well that was drilled for the business as it was such a good well and neither quality nor quantity was a problem. Then in 1939, the now family of five moved out to their land.
In the process of moving though, concessions were made compared to their home in Jackson at the time. You see, they were now roughly ten miles from everyone and as the business went and the family grew, the oldest child, Mary Ann, was in kindergarten. There was so much school missed that she actually had to repeat kindergarten. It just goes to show you that schools made questionable choices regardless of the generation.
Once they moved out formally, John who was a lieutenant in the national guard calvary was able to convert a garage stall into a barn stall for his horse Gene. Life was easier to maintain Gene on their own land, especially as World War II was about to start and training up at Camp Grayling was required every summer.
After the move was completed, John and my dad, his name sakes junior helped to build two more cabins to expand the growing cabin business looking to stay overnight, typically on their way to the big cities farther east. They established another septic system to tie into the additional cabins that were built. The garage, car sales and cabin business flourished and by 1943, Gene the calvary horse had passed on John was senior enough where he didn’t need a horse anymore. They then decided that it would be best to get some cows, typically either jerseys or guernseys for their high fat content so they could make their own butter, cheese, cream and cottage cheese with apple butter made from the apple trees they established on the property as well.
Two of the cows that live in memory most clearly were Betsy and then there was Susie. Susie was an exceptionally tall cow and had her height in her legs. The typical practice employed by the family was that they would buy a young bull to service the cows and once their job was completed, to the butcher shop they would go to repeat the process. Susie however was a perennial problem maker-but this was not her fault in the least. Her long legs inhibited the bulls that had short comings. In order to assist these bulls who without a doubt if they were anthropomorphized, would be the ego filled mansplainer trying to measure up in the world.
In order to help these bulls, Junior and brothers worked with John to make a cut in the hillside by the bar garage. When it came time to service Betsy and Susie, the bull would be placed in the slot in the hill side and the cows backed up to them. More often than not, these bulls evidently would try to over exert themselves and would overshoot their goals and end up out of the hill cut and on their backs.
Along with the cows on the twenty acres of land, there was rotating pasture lands established where while the cows were allowed access to one of the fields / prepped for winter feed, the other was regrowing for consistent food supply for the cows. Having lived through and thriving in the 1930’s and entering the 1940’s a garden was established not only to help subsidize potential shortages, but for a way of life. Apple and pear trees were planted along with wild cherry trees along the back line of the property and pasture lands. A myriad of vegetables were grown from rhubarb, string beans, carrots, corn, cabbage for sauerkraut, lettuce, beets, turnips were all grown and seeded. Tomatoes and peppers however were always bought and planted as they just didn’t want to start right and was more successful to just buy those from the store to start with. After the store bought seedlings were established there never were any issues. Throughout the summer and harvest season, canning was constant to have food for the harsh Michigan winters.
Now there came a time however that the original metal septic tank tied to the garage and car sales that needed to be replaced with something better, stronger and more permanent. John then had a pumping company come out and purge the tank so that it could be removed. Now the winch that was located on the back of the garage’s pick up that could remove and install engines was deemed strong enough for this task so with the help of his son’s dug up the septic tank and prepared the tank for removal. When it came time to actually raise the tank out of the ground, not a problem.
In place of the old metal tank is a stronger better cement tank. They back up the truck and get the winch set to lift the new heavier tank into the hole where the old tank was. The winch was started but not much happened to start. The next thing you know, the back end of the truck starts getting drawn to the ground and the front end of the truck goes up.
Everything immediately stops…Reinforcements are clearly required. Best reinforcements are obviously your children. Soon after, all available children are standing on the front bumper of the truck to act as a counterweight for the winch and it works, the new tank is maneuvered into place over the hole, the order is given, one of you kids go lower the winch. A child jumps off and the truck immediately starts to keel back threatening to break the new tank and have a truck join the potentially broken tank in the hole. Panic and yelling to get back on the bumper. Eventually enough yelling happens to get the winch down to prevent damage to the tank or truck.
Over time as children got older and more free labor was possible, the property development expanded and more cabins were built, more septic systems installed, well lines run and eventually another business, a mobile home park was established on the back acreage of the land. Concrete pads were laid and a big hill on the back lines by cherry trees was found to contain gravel, so a gravel pit business was also established. They all worked hard to create these businesses where John ran the garage and car sales, Evelyn nearly single handedly ran the cabin business from preparing and cleaning the cabins, she book kept for all the businesses and john ran the mobile home park for a long time until it was passed down.
They did always have electricity, but they had coal fired furnaces, water well, and multiple septic systems. They were told they were crazy, insane, stupid for the style of life they were choosing and condemning their family. Instead, their crazy choice of going rural and living off their land was exactly what they needed for them and became one of the most successful families in the area.
I can hope that being crazy enough to buy acreage and live off the land is truly genetic and that genetic predisposition will be equally fruitful.
We hope we can make you proud…Also comment below if you would like for me to intersperse posts like this more often. They might not all be directly related to working or developing land off grid but should be entertaining none the less!