A lantern-lit life

cabin porch

Evidently, there are a LOT of folks out there who dream of living a simple, self-sufficient life in a rustic log cabin perched on the side of an Appalachian mountain. Water from the springhouse, a lantern-lit vintage farmhouse, food foraged, farmed, & fished. For some, it’s a longing, and for others it’s a matter of being prepared for an impending cataclysm. While my cookbooks reflect a time in America’s past when we all knew how grow our food, cook it with live fire and make our own soap; my readers aren’t who recently alerted me to this rather desperate yearning that so many have for this self-dependant lifestyle. It was the 223,000 viewers that read my rocket stove post (thanks to several popular homestead/survival groups) in one day a couple of weeks ago that gave me the heads-up.

rocket stove 12

Letters continue to pour in from Africa, India, Egypt, Poland, England, Iran, Mexico and countries I’ve never even heard of with stories of cooking on similar make-do stoves and lives lived in mountain cabins & huts in far-flung lands. This has been so much fun, I can’t help but ponder the whole homestead/survival phenomena and recollect about how I wandered down this mountain road myself, so long ago.

Road to cabin

When I was 21, and still in college in Blacksburg, VA, I moved into this pre-civil war era farmhouse with my then-boyfriend. It was 1976, the back-to-the-land movement was in full swing.

farmhouse blacksburg

Springhouse down the hill, outhouse out back, an ancient wood fired cookstove in the kitchen and one other wood stove to heat (or not heat) the rest of this big old house. No rent, just get up 5am to feed the cows before class in exchange for living here. One morning it was -9 outside and a bucket of water stood frozen next to the woodstove going full-tilt in the living room. But I was in love and didn’t notice. Ok I did notice that I was not ready for the love part, but I was ready to semi-homestead on my own. So, in 1978, I found this 300 acre farm in Pilot, VA, owned by a Va Tech professor (again, the cow-feeding rent-exchange) where I could do some serious growing up. 23 years old and very much alone.


Pilot, VA farmhouse
Photo by Richard Renfro who, after all these years is still my good friend

And grow up, I did. I bought a chain saw, a lawn mower, a wood cookstove, a bucket, a truck, bees, a hoe and some rustic furniture. Eggs, butter and milk were bartered or bought from my neighbors and kept cool in jars floating in the springhouse water troughs. A ham from our pig (from life in former farmhouse) hung from the rafters of the old smokehouse. The rock canning house was filled with jars of beans, pickles, tomatoes, corn, fruit and jams from my garden. The porch was stacked with wood I cut and chopped and the antique metal bed was covered with a scrap quilt I made on my great grandmother’s frame. My bees shared their honey to sweeten my cakes, and I pulled whole grain loaves of fresh-baked bread weekly from the cookstove. I purchased a $5 Mickey Mouse fishing pole at K-mart to fish (successfully, I might add) for trout suppers in mountain streams. I learned to clawhammer a banjo, clog, and even had time to be a social worker in nearby Christiansburg. It was good. But the professor wanted to update his farmhouse and add plumbing. So, after living there two years, I moved to another smaller farm, and, then, at 27, found my way to Asheville.

Stef and I shared a farmhouse
Stef (right) and I shared a farmhouse near Asheville. We’re still buddies too.

 One more abandoned farm later, I met and married Wayne; we bought an 1880 board and batten house near town, adjacent to the national park where we still live. Three kids in two years, grad school, work, writing, blah blah blah, time passes. It’s now 1999, the kids are teens, and I missed pioneer Barb. Fortunately the millennium was looming and folks who owned rustic properties started to put them on the market in hopes of selling to Y2K-ers. After a year of searching for just the right farmhouse (old house, no other houses in sight, no plumbing, cheap), up pops an ad for our land in the local paper … “Perfect Y2K property, 65 acres, springs, streams, fantastic antique log cabin” and it was affordable. And remote, yet only one hour from our Asheville home.


It had been lived in 2 years out of the last 50, and was filled with 1970s back-to-the-land books, primitive local furniture and a 1970s Jotul wood stove in perfect condition. It’s always been, and always will be off the power and plumbing grid. (And for now, there’s nary a cell tower in range.)

cabin kitchen 1970s

Here’s the kitchen as it was left in the 70s (above), and below as we found it 25 years later … cold water is piped into the kitchen sink from a spring up the mountain.

kitchen then

The kitchen today. The sink cabinet had been made from an old springhouse door.

cabin kitchen

So our kids and their cousins learned to glaze bubble glass windows, chop wood, tear down old out-buildings, dig an outhouse, cook with wood and clean 25 years of animal vestiges from the nether-regions of old furniture and the cabin.

cousinswes and annie

But best of all is the friendship we shared with Effie, who was born ( in 1914) and raised in this cabin that was built by her grandfather in the 1880s. Wayne did some asking around and we found her living just 35 miles down the mountain from Asheville. Effie brought this little mountain cabin to life with stories of her childhood and that’s part 2 of the cabin story.  She passed away in 2008 and I miss her every single day.  Here she is with her mom on laundry day when she was in her 20s.

Effie and her momma

And interestingly enough, I’ve also become friends with the niece of the man who sold us the cabin. She lives in Brasstown NC and works at the John C Campbell folk school where I also teach. Small world in cabin-land. 

Me an Wayne

This journey wasn’t about being ready for a grid-crash where I have to defend what I have from all those who, like the Little Red Hen’s so-called friends, didn’t prepare. I’m not interested in living in a world where I can’t invite my neighbors to our table. It was about being strong from the inside out, and stubborn independence probably, and finding someone to love. Of course. For now, this is a weekend and summers cabin, since we still enjoy our work and life near town. Another path might have seduced me to homestead this steep, lonesome, mountain land, but I’ll gratefully take the life I’ve got with the feller I spend it with. And you, dear friends, are always welcome to share whatever we have at our time-worn cabin table.

lanterns lit

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  1. Loved this story. The kids got to do some fun stuff as part of the prep, too. My inner homesteader is envious…for now I’ll have to be content with making jam and foraging berries…and visiting you all in Asheville again! 🙂

  2. What a saga! Thanks for sharing. And that last picture with the lamps is pure magic!

  3. I just loved this story, thanks for sharing! There is a big part of me that wants to move to a house just like yours!

  4. I enjoyed this story sooo much.Took me back to my grandparents homeplace,so many memories.I also cooked on a wood stove,carried water from the spring,heated water for wash day in an iron kettle,outside,chopped wood,milked cows,by hand and got my homework by an oil lamp.
    Thanks for taking me down this almost forgotten path!

  5. Thanks Barbara, I find a comforting spirituality in vicariously connecting to a simpler human time by appreciating your lifestyle and teaching myself fiddle through Wayne’s books. You build a beautiful bridge through time and technology, living as you do and ironically sharing it with us via an internet blog! As our culture and eventually our species move into transformative changes ahead, the life and work of you and Wayne will help keep alive our roots closer to nature and the enchanted gospel music world. Thank you!

  6. I tried to write something last evening, but couldn’t. Too many memories. These I won’t share. But I did enjoy my life growing up in a semi-proverty setting, and it was the best life for me to have lived

  7. Hello Miss! I love your story! I’m a 52 year old guy, was born in the East San Francisco Bay Area. Back then and really, until 1980, this area was “the boonies” ha ha now, it is where the wealthy live! Seriously, $3 million houses are common. The house my folks bought in 1969 for $22,000 now sells for $1.2 Million! And the crappy personalities and attitude came with those prices! Luckily, i bought a small redwood log cabin up in the woods. It is very similar to yours. It was built in 1923. I have slowly been rebuilding it, strengthening it yet keeping it’s flavor and charm! I am not a builder, but i am learning as i go! My little place has blossomed in value as I am a quick commute from Silicon Valley and yet, still in the woods, no development as the land around us is all owned by the SF Water Dept (watershed)… i have a great creek out front and 100’s of miles of horse tries behind me on the mountain. all types of wildlife and still right in the Bay Area! I will send you pictures if I figure out how!

  8. Jennifer Thomas

    Oh Barb, you make me cry with your poignant and evocative writing. It’s a tale of growing into the fine woman you are and valuing what is most important in life. I love your cabin(s) and the life you have made with your family and friends. Thanks for sharing it!

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