Monday, December 21, 2009

The Old Homesteaders Cabin

The old homesteader’s cabin on this place was originally built by Jacob Miller sometime around 1880. As a part of the “proving up” process under his homesteader’s deed, he was required to improve his 160 acres of land. In addition to the cabin, Jacob filed on two water rights, fenced his homestead and probably raised cattle and hay. I don’t know how long he lived here but he eventually sold to a member of the early Berry clan.

From what we have learned the original cabin was attached to a small barn. The barn is long gone but the cabin still stands on the banks of South Brush Creek. Other than occasional recreational use, I don’t think the cabin had any human inhabitants until we moved in full time in May of 2001. It was our most primitive home yet, all 270 square feet of it. Initially it lacked power and running water. We added a simple electric power source (actually an electric cord running under the door) in the fall of 2001 and a well in the summer of 2002 though water still has to be hauled in buckets as no actual plumbing exists in the cabin.

The cabin was our home for 2 ½ years while Don built our new small home. Once we moved into the house, the cabin became a workshop allowing Don the space and comfort to spend the next six years building bathroom and kitchen cabinets and all the trim necessary to turn our house into a home.

Then this fall the old cabin was pressed into a new service as we transformed its simple space into a place to ship the products from my brother-in-law’s company (Geomangear). Suddenly we were getting weekly UPS inventory shipments and sending out daily packages to customers around the world. Jacob Miller could not have imagined the future his little cabin would have. In fact I couldn’t have imagined it either. Our wonderful little cabin has sheltered us, provided a workspace and now gives us a place to make a living.

From Fleur Creek Farm

Monday, November 16, 2009

New Fangled Electric Fence

This year in an effort to better manage the grazing in our pasture and to prevent grazing in the wetlands, we installed a new style of electrified fencing along the west side of our meadow. Up to now we have tried to use a temporary style of electric fencing only to have it torn up multiple times per week by passing elk. We decided it was time to come up with a better design that would stand up to elk activity, keep the cattle where they belonged, be safe for our horses, and wouldn’t require constant repair.

After studying many different examples and talking with a variety of people who probably knew a lot more than we did about fencing (just to name one subject), we designed a fence that has high visibility which helps the elk and horses see it, is flexible so that if the elk do hit it the fence posts allow the fence to bend down to the ground and bounce back up, and was simple enough to build by the two of us without the use of heavy equipment. The last factor was really important since all the materials had to be hand carried over 1500 feet across boggy ground. Anyone who has built standard wire fencing with heavy wooden and steel fence posts can appreciate this aspect.

The fencing system is based on the use of Powerflex posts which are a polypropylene (70%) and wood (30%) composite. These innovative posts have a greater strength, lighter weight and superior flexibility compared with steel posts or inexpensive plastic step-in posts.

The electrical charge is carried by a poly-braid rope that is a safe alternative to hi-tensile wire. This rope has a breaking strength of over 1300 pounds. Because it is composed of two strands of ¼” polyester rope, one black and one white, it has a high visibility factor no matter what the background (green pasture or snow) which is important for wildlife and horses. We use a solar charger to apply the electrical charge.

We built the fence with the posts spaced approximately 30 feet apart and two wires spaced at 18” and 30” from the ground. This spacing allows deer and elk to easily jump the fence reducing the potential for entanglement that often occurs with 4 and 5 wire steel fencing. In addition, three gate openings were included in the fence in locations of recurring wildlife movement. We leave these openings be left open during the non-grazing season to allow for ease of movement by deer and elk.

We have completed our first grazing season and I must admit I am pleased with how well the new fence functioned. It did everything we needed it to do – kept the cattle out of the wetlands, kept the elk from flattening posts and dragging the wires off in all directions, and kept the horses from killing themselves on a new fence line. The next test will be the winter season that can drag a fence down to the ground. I’ll report back in the spring on how that went.

We were very fortunate to receive some funding to design and construct the fence so thanks to the Colorado Natural Areas Program of the Colorado State Parks and the Grazing Land Conservation Initiative for financial assistance.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Self Un-employed

You may have noticed that my weekly blogs have turned into occasional blogs. Or maybe you didn’t. As is the history of rural Colorado we in the bust part of a boom and bust cycle. These cycles have occurred pretty much since whites began inhabiting the West and while they often are based in real estate, they affect many other parts of the economy. What started as a downward slide of the general economy has finally taken most us with it.

We have been limping along since September 2008 by cutting back, dipping into meager saving, and did I mention, cutting back. Such is the nature of those of us who make our living by someone else spending money. Since we left our government jobs in 1993, we have tried to make a living on our own. By staying flexible and constantly looking for opportunities, we have been able to get by. Some years have been pretty good and some not so good but overall we have made enough to survive in this rural and distant location.

The last year has been the most difficult we have faced since leaving “real jobs” with a regular paycheck, employer paid health insurance, retirement plans, and normal working hours. To make a living we usually have three or four different endeavors going at once hoping that the diversity would balance the income stream out some. One by one they have slowed down and then disappeared. At the end of September we had finally earned our way to 50% of the poverty level.

Just when we were starting to wonder if we had finally reached the end of this trail another opportunity arrived. A small business owned by a family member is actually flourishing and they needed help handling the order shipping. It is a bit of a challenge from this rural location but we are making it work and we are even able to hire a neighbor to help out. We put in ten hours a day, seven days a week. Who knows what the future holds for this small business but for now we are thankful for the opportunity.

People always wonder how we make a living in paradise. When asked, I tell them we are self un-employed. It seems the best description of our situation.

From Fleur Creek Farm

Thursday, October 15, 2009


One of our most difficult chores of the year is firewood. Since we heat AND cook with wood we need to have at least four cords to be ready for the winter. The task gets harder each year as we age and the wood seems to get heavier.

We have a pretty decent system of firewood collection and try to get started in May with the goal to done by the end of August. It never works out that way but that’s the plan. We hitch our small Kubota tractor to a 4’ by 6’ wagon and head to the woods. We cut trees that are either already down on the ground or standing dead ones that aren’t home to cavity nesting birds. Don blocks up the trees and I load the wagon with the blocks. Most of our firewood cutting is done on our property but we do occasionally cut wood on an adjoining neighbor’ property. He gets his property cleaned up and we get wood.

Once home with our load, Don splits it and I stack it in the woodshed. Don used to split all our wood by hand but reality finally took hold last year and we bought a gas-powered log splitter. Wow, why didn’t we do that a long time ago?

It takes about four wagon loads to make a cord of wood. Our plan is to cut a wagon load each week from May through August; sixteen weeks will yield four cords. This year we found ourselves in September and with only about half of the wood we needed. We made a concerted effort to cut twice per week and in a fit of desperation we ordered some wood from a local woodsman. There is nothing worse than going into winter without a full woodshed.

Now, as I look out, the woodshed is full and there is even a big stack outside covered with a tarp.

Our main firewood is aspen. We like aspen because it burns clean without crudding up the chimney as quickly as the pine does. As it is we clean the chimney once during the winter and then at the end of the season. Because we use a wood cookstove as our heat and cooking source, cleaning is a bit of a chore. There are numerous baffles and other nooks where fly ash and creosote like to hide. Cleaning the chimney and stove is a two hour process from start to finish. And of course the stove has to be cool when we clean it so we usually do it first thing in the morning.

Each year we also cut a cord or so of oak to supplement the aspen. Oak is by far the best firewood and we use it for overnight or on baking day. It produces a long, steady heat that is perfect when you need to control the oven temperature closely. In Colorado, the only source of oak is our native Gambel oak. More of a large, shrubby bush than a tree, none the less, it makes great firewood and rarely needs splitting (a plus).

We have used a wood cookstove as our sole source of cooking for more than sixteen years. It actually didn’t take long to figure out how best to use it and we can now handle about any cooking chore. In fact Don bakes all our breads using a sourdough starter he created more than a decade ago. More about that in another blog issue.

As the wood goes through the cookstove it produces a lot of ash. We keep two metal covered cans for ash collection. We use the ash in the gardens, on the pastures and spread it in the forest to recycle the nutrients back to the earth.

It’s mid-October and I think we are now ready.

From Fleur Creek Farm

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Remembering My Dad

My father would have been 95 this coming Tuesday but sadly I lost him more than 12 years ago. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think of him and how I came to this life and this place because of him.

His Morse family ancestors arrived in America from England in 1635. They settled in the New England area and many remain there to this day. My grandfather loved rural settings and moved his family to a farm where his children were involved in the everyday chores of the place. I’m not sure my father was all that fond of farm life in general but there is no question that he loved the outdoors and spent much of his time hunting, fishing and exploring. Of the five sons, he was probably the one most connected to the natural world.

I am always amazed at the accomplishments of my father and his four brothers considering their rather simple upbringing. Though suffering through a case of tuberculosis while he was in high school, he went on to earn is PhD in microbiology and spent his professional career studying the disease that plagued him as a child. His older brother became a chemical engineer and worked on the Manhattan Project; another brother became a bio-geneticist and part of a Nobel prize winning team; another brother became a pharmacist; and the youngest brother became a science teacher.

My father entered the military and fought in World War II. Because of his medical specialty, in 1953 he was assigned to the Army medical research center in Denver. He couldn’t have been more pleased knowing that the wonders of Colorado were awaiting him. After many years away from the woods and the streams he began to hunt and fish again and when I was old enough, he included me in his outdoor trips.

In the mid-60s my family bought a little piece of land on the Blue River in Summit County and built a small cabin. It became our vacation retreat and hunting camp long before Colorado became the vacation spot and retirement location for millions.

I could tell that my dad was happy when we purchased our first rural property in 1978. I think his favorite part of the place was the chicken coop – he remembered the turkeys that his family had raised so long ago. At our second place he helped us build the livestock sheds. His health was failing when we arrived at our third place (and our first in the Valley). He was only able to visit a couple of times but I could sense that he felt we had achieved something he had always wanted – a permanent home in the high country.

He passed away in 1997 while living in Colorado Springs. We spread his ashes on Pikes Peak where my mom could view the Peak through her living room window. Today, I see Pikes Peak from our meadow and I can often feel his presence looking down on our home – our fourth rural home. He never saw this place in person, or at least I don’t think he did.

Our little place on South Brush Creek was homesteaded in 1880 by Jacob Miller. In researching our property’s past I learned that Jacob died on the exact day my father was born. Maybe my father had been here before.

From Fleur Creek Farm

Friday, October 2, 2009

Forest Symphony

This time of year brings an amazing symphony of sounds in the forest. Often it is the bull elk with their high pitched bugles that end in a strange series of rough coughs or it is the hen turkeys calling to their maturing flock or the little chickory squirrels scolding me for disturbing their morning. The forest is peaceful but definitely not quiet.

Five days a week I begin my day with an hour’s walk in the woods just as the sun is being to lighten the eastern sky. It is my special time to relax and to prepare for the coming challenges of the day. I always grab my walking stick by the front door just in case I need a little help crossing a creek or have to run off a trespassing hunter.

As I walked along this morning I discovered that a mature bull was paralleling me no more than 100 feet to the south. He was so intent on his task of calling out the other bulls that he never heard or noticed me. We both headed west for about a mile until I came to a neighbor’s fence. I waited to see if he would continue on but instead he came out of the woods and passed by me about fifty feet away. He was still oblivious to my presence, still bugling. Sometimes another bull to the north would answer but many of his challenges went answered. Finally he drifted off to the southwest and I headed home.

The sun was just breaking over the Wet Mountains on my return and I thought about just how lucky I am to start my day like this. Most of my friends and family are fighting the commuter traffic to work while I am listening to the forest symphony.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Last Snow of Summer

There is no question that this has been a weird summer. June arrived with a dry cold that keep the grass from growing, seeds from germinating, and any fruit from setting on the tomatoes, peppers, squashes or most anything else. Summer exited in a flurry of snow, wind and cold rain that had woodstoves going all through the Valley.

I pride myself in my tomato and pepper production skills. I start several heirloom types in April and transplant the seedling to my little greenhouse in mid-May. In the past my plants have blossomed quickly, set fruits by the end of June and we are eating homegrown tomatoes and peppers by the end of July. We usually have enough to eat throughout the season and freeze for the winter. Not this year. In June, my little plants just sat there – no growth, no blossoms, no fruits. Finally in July they started up but it wasn't until late August that any of the fruits even started to ripen.

Just when I thought I might get some edible tomatoes and peppers, winter arrived on the last day of summer. Realizing there was no way I could protect my plants through four or five nights of 20 degree temperatures, I picked all the unripened tomatoes, put them in a box between layers of our local Wet Mountain Tribune, and put the box in the pantry. I’ll check the box every week and pull out the ripened tomatoes to enjoy for several months.

There is a local joke that the only month you have to lock your car while you are in town is August. That’s because everyone is looking for ways to get rid of their excess zucchini and an unlocked car is fair game. After stopping at the feed store, library or local market, you are apt to find a great load of zucchini on your front seat. But this year my summer squashes completely failed to produce edible fruits. All that I could find after the freezing summer nights were a few tiny squashes which I left for the local squirrels.

Fortunately we did have some agricultural success this year. Once the weather warmed up our irrigated pasture kicked into gear and produced enough beautiful grass to feed eight yearling cattle for the summer. Mid-way through the summer the heifers enjoyed a visit from a young bull (their inexperience reminded me a little of college) and the girls are now pregnant. The heifers belong to a neighbor and have returned home for the winter. In exchange we get some hay from our neighbor to feed our horses. All in all, a good trade.

From Fleur Creek Farm.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Coming Home

For years, we had hiked past this place. Finally I got up the courage to write the owner and ask that she let us know if she ever wanted to sell. I had no idea what we would do if she contacted us.

Then it happened. In 2000, she came out for her yearly visit and told us she was thinking of selling the place. Before she changed her mind we submitted a contract not knowing how the heck we would pull it off if she accepted our offer. After all, we had offered more for this unimproved property than our present place would bring if we could find a buyer.

Before we knew it, our contract was accepted, our old place had sold and we were moving all our possessions, horses and cats the last week of November – to a place with no electricity or running water and only a 120 year old cabin that had not been inhabited by anything but furry creatures in more than fifty years. Nothing like a challenge to get the spirit moving.

During our first year we focused on the basics like making the old cabin comfortable, clearing out the rodents (the cats threw themselves into this task) and getting electrical power added back to our lives. For water, we hauled buckets from the creek next to the cabin and heated it on our wood cookstove. Baths amounted to standing in a large bucket, soaping up and pouring water down the body.

The second year we added a well and started building our new home. Our goal was to create a small, sustainable space that could be easily heated with wood and someday could be powered completely by a renewable energy source.

Two and a half years after the relocation we moved into the new home. Though it still lacked a lot of features, like a bathroom and a kitchen, it was warm and rodent-proof. Over the last six years we have continued working on our little home adding doors, a working bathroom, an almost working kitchen, and some of the final touches that most people take for granted.

This place was once part of a 160 acre historic homestead. In 1880, Jacob Miller came to Colorado from Pennsylvania and staked his claim on this land. He built the small cabin, filed on the water rights, and probably produced hay and cattle. Of the six owners of the land since the late 1800s, only we and Jacob Miller have truly called this place home.

From Fleur Creek Farm .

Friday, September 11, 2009

Starting our homestead life

After years of hounding by friends and family to write about our homesteading lifestyle I finally realized that we would either have to move and leave no forwarding address or start a blog. The blog idea seemed easier.

We started our homesteading odyssey more than 30 years ago with the desire to live more simply and sustainably and in harmony with natural world around us. Over the years we have changed our location four times finally coming to rest at this special place.

Our first homestead location was a tiny rural property of two acres and a very run down home. We planted our first garden, started our first poultry flock and worked on the house learning new skills with each project. It wasn't long (actually four years) before we realized that we needed more land.

The next homestead location was forty fenced acres - no house, no barn. We got to work on building a barn and had the 1200 square foot, passive solar house built. Starting from scratch on the barn was a new task for us but somehow we muddled through. I think the barn is still standing 26 years later.

During these early homesteading years we still worked at conventional jobs. But in 1993 those jobs disappeared and we were forced to make a decision - leave Colorado in search of new jobs or follow our hearts and move to the Colorado mountains. In the end the decision was simple and we found our next property at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in southcentral Colorado.

This time it was just forty acres - no fence, no home, no barn. And we had just two weeks to packup all our possessions (which included 6 horses) and move. Over the summer we put up fence and built a 36' by 48' barn, all this while living in a tipi. By September we were tired and still without a home. And winter, real winter was coming. In six weeks we built a 24 foot by 24 foot cabin and moved in just before the first snowfall of the season. Over the next seven years we learned how to garden, cut firewood, heat and cook with wood and survive in a much more hostile environment. But we also learned just how special this wild setting was. But we still had one more relocation in us.

Our current home, Fleur Creek Farm, started with forty-five acres and a 120 year old log cabin. Though only 15 feet by 18 feet, the old homestead cabin, without running water or electricity, became our home for two and a half years while we hand built our new small home.