It is often said that if students read during the summer, they retain what they learned the preceding school year. With that in mind I thought maybe I should to set aside a little reading time whenever I can—just in case it really works.

Summer reading is a time for light hearted reading, so my selections are often a biography or someone’s life experience. The one I most recently completed was the story of one family’s homesteading experience in Alaska.

They were homesteaders, but not in the time frame that is normally thought of. Rather it was in the 1960’s and their homesteading was done in Alaska. Which means that if my parents had chosen to homestead, I would have been the age of the children in the book.

This mother who knew life with all the modern conveniences, electricity, indoor plumbing, heating and cooling set by a thermostat agreed with her husband’s dream to homestead. Bye, bye quick trip to the store or eating a meal at a restaurant.

Culture shock would have been huge, when the train dropped you and most of your worldly possessions off in the middle of nowhere, and you were told to walk through the tall grass in that direction until you find the house.

The house, which would hardly qualify as a shack, had a very leaky roof, no door to keep the bears out, which were seen on occasion and windows that fell in when she tried to open them.

Her husband was gone during the week, working a job in the city while trying to sell their home. He would come up on weekends to chop wood and help with major jobs.

She learned to lug water for all their needs, wash clothes in a creek, operate a some ancient model of wood cook stove that she soon learned had major problems and needed a lot of TLC.

Maybe it won’t bring back any geometry or diagramming sentences facts, but Mary T, Lovel in Journey to a Dream did an excellent job of getting me to imagine summer days without a darkness. Nightfall is usually what makes us come out of the gardens, when would we quit if the sun didn’t set?           

Life without electricity, being solely dependant on yourself to stay warm when the thermometer dips down to forty below. Staying fed means being content with what you had in the house, eating bear and moose meat after you cut it up and froze or canned it.

Not going sir crazy when natural light is limited to the sunrise/sunset glow. Realizing that a full moon lights up your part of the world with more light than you saw in the daytime.

I certainly admire, how the Lovel family didn’t give up, but took on the challenges using their noggins to learn new skills of survival forging into the work that lay ahead when it certainly would have been easiest to just pack up the bags, move back into the city and just say it was nice a dream—at least we tried.

But if my parents had homesteaded in Alaska, they would have prepared me for one facet of my life. Growing vegetables for the farmer’s market. The Lovel family had a huge garden, it saved on grocery bills big time. They packed crates of vegetables to send by train to the McKinley Park Hotel.

And just think of the tales I could tell my grandchildren, ‘back when I was your age this bear….’

Reading a good book does have its merits.

Essays from My Farm House Kitchen | Renae B. Vander Schaaf

Renae B. Vander Schaaf, freelance writer, lives on a real working farm in northwest Iowa.

To Contact Renae B. Vander Schaaf, please email her at [email protected]



Vintage John Deere tractors on display.

2 cylinder 103


2 cylinder 196