My grandparents were born at the turn of the century, right around 1900. They were married around 1920, and my grandmother died in 1923, a year after my dad was born.
Their entire life was, in a snapshot, the epitome of today’s prepper beliefs. If it didn’t happen virtually without the involvement of anybody except the immediate family and what was there at the farm, it didn’t happen. It did help that they were far in the woods on top of a mountain in Vermont.
The funny thing is that when you really look into it, they had everything we have today, everything that matters anyway. Maybe they didn’t have the medicine, doctors, or technology that would save my grandmother from a far-too-young passing, but for day-to-day living they had the necessities. Even the lack of today’s medicine was a trade-off. In ther day, the reality was that they might die from things that are pretty easily cured today, but then again the dangers of fast cars, air travel, overcrowded cities and loose borders, as well as the new and inventive ways to harm ourselves and each other weren’t nearly what they are today.
When I was young, in the 1970’s, there was still no running water or electricity on top of “the hill”. That’s right, I’m talking about the 1970’s. They didn’t miss it; rather, my grandmother said “Why would we do that?”
Their technology was marvelous. The wood stove in the middle of the kitchen not only heated nearly the whole house (there was a large steel grate in the second floor above the stove, which was a terrific “duct” for heat upstairs), but it also had virtually every kitchen appliance that we have today. It was a monster, about seven feet long by four feet deep. It had six griddles, two reservoirs on the sides always full of hot water, a cooking oven in the middle, and a warming oven on the top. Of course the fuel system was unstoppable: a mountain of firewood that accumulated and dried all year long, which saved them from -20 degrees Vermont winters.
The house was right at the high point of the hill, and a spring shot out of the hillside next to it. Some talented, non-degreed engineer drove a length of pipe into the rocks and put a 30-gallon washtub below it. It was always full of the sweetest, clearest, coldest water that could be found. It may still be there today, if the enamel coating has survived.
The outhouse was about 30 feet down below the house, perched on a small stream that ran further down the hill. A better sewer system has yet to be devised. Of course you had to watch closely for bear, big cats, wolves, and so on after dark as well as the occasional house cat that would somehow knock the spinning wooden latch closed, while you were inside.
My grandfather had the first self-driving car, back then. When he was down in the village, maybe after a few too many, he would crawl into the back of the cart, slap the horse on the backside, and sleep while he was successfully delivered about eight miles back to the house.
He also had a state-of-art security system for the homestead. A big blacksnake lived in the drainage culvert below the driveway, and it very seldom came out to bother anyone in the family during normal daily life. However, the snake would always respond to unknown visitors or a commotion. Those who had the pleasure of his scrutiny were instantly well behaved and interested in fitting in.
My grandfather planted the fields with a horse and a wooden plow. My grandmother cooked and canned a year’s worth of food with nothing but the glorious old woodstove and ball jars. My father and uncles brought more food home with their .22’s, shotguns and fishing poles.
The farm, wild animals, and fields fed the family, but of course you need a cash crop. The cash crop was maple syrup. It doesn’t get much simpler (though it’s a huge amount of work) than hammering spigots into a few hundred majestic, old growth maple trees and collecting endless buckets of sap that ran like the spring beside the house. The technology was the huge, wood fired stove that boiled the sap 24/7 during the winter season. They had a whole good-sized barn that housed this stove, and it would burn for days and weeks until the sap no longer flowed.
They were veterinarians, engineers, butchers, carpenters, masons, and 100 other things, both men and women. They were called farmers, but that was maybe 25% of their existence. They did every last thing, which we as preppers think we are inventing, plus they did a lot more that we haven’t thought of yet.
I don’t believe that the depression or the world wars hurt the folks very much. It didn’t do much in the way of changing the maple trees, the fields, or the firewood that they cut and burned. Some things did hurt my grandfather profoundly, such as the loss of his wife of just a few years, or the loss of his first son at one year old. However, he soldiered on, raised a second family with more children, and tended to the earth and animals that stayed unchanged throughout the years from the 1920’s through the 1970’s.
I remember walking nearly the whole mountain with my father, after his dad had died and not much was left working. For him, it was still working and always would be. Why is that?
I believe that it’s the essence of prepping. What does the earth give us that will remain unchanged regardless of the passage of time or the calamities that man can create for himself? It’s those things that we can do for ourselves that don’t require a lot of formal teaching or training, things that the earth gives freely that are there for the taking and just a bit of reverence, respect, knowledge handed down, and hard work.
Today, when we study the details of natural medicines and simple shelter, the abundance of edibles and water and materials in the wild, the simple ways to create warmth or cooling or safety, we are only reawakening knowledge that was never expected to lull. These things were previously passed to our elders of not long ago at all in the 1920’s all the way back from our ancestors of a truly distant past.
Today’s exciting media renditions of American Indian life, ancient Egyptian life, or frontier life seem like a glimpse of things that will never be pertinent or applicable again. We have too many layers of guidance, protection, and worldly knowledge to ever be those people again. Yet, it doesn’t take much of a hiccup in the daily fabric of modern life to create a complete void in that utopia. That’s another essence of prepping.
Would my grandfather have suffered much from an earthquake or tornado? Besides the immediate damage or injury, the rhythms of everyday life probably would not change much at all. Because they were simply on their own, they didn’t expect a different reality, and they wouldn’t really have a reason to look for one.
My grandfather had one other huge slap in the face. He was well on his way to being a well-off gentleman farmer with a large, growing herd of cattle. However, along came those poorly-understood sicknesses that took animals as well as humans. His herd was wiped out in one fell swoop, when the government agents diagnosed and dispatched his animals. I don’t know that he ever really got over this or his worse losses, but I do know that he moved on and lived nearly the same life for another 40 years.
Besides the agents of that chapter of the story and the occasional blessings of the town doctor, nobody else impacted their lives much on the hill. They stayed happy and prosperous, until children moved away or elders passed away.
We, preppers, often think that we are creating a grand, new, intricate web of survival and intrigue, one that mixes in equal parts of Rambo, hippies, druids, Jeremiah Johnson, and so on. That’s fine. We deserve a measure of heroism and satisfaction for being the people that our ancestors would be proud of. However, we need to mix in equal measures of thankfulness and respect for those whose DNA is driving our efforts.
When we put away the rice and beans and MRE’s in totes in the house, we need to pay homage to our grandmas who pulled the steaming ball jars out of the woodstove with their bare hands. When we carefully and safely acquaint ourselves with weapons that feed as well as protect, we should think of those young boys who took their .22’s to school and put them in their cubbies so they could go hunting as soon as the afternoon bell rang. Some young ladies did the same or maybe chose to sew and prepare food. Everybody planted the fields and split the wood. I look at my generator, propane tanks, and related equipment, and I’m thankful that it’s just as effective as the mountain of firewood and the car-sized stove that my dad worked with.
Will we ever be as good at it as they were? Somehow I doubt it, but it won’t be for lack of good mentors. I know that I come from a good stock that was A-OK to go anywhere, do everything, and overcome anything. My sons both are outstanding Eagle Scouts; if the rough times come, I think they’ve got it in them to succeed anywhere, in any conditions. I’m the bridge; I need to remember and live all the very, very lucky lessons that I was given and never let my sons forget about them.
We all need to remember that our interest in or dedication to prepping is not coming from the last several movies or TV shows that we thoroughly enjoyed, or even that great website that we read. It’s coming from none other than our family and all of the families before that. I’m glad that we are really doing something that connects us to them, to the earth, and to everyone that knows these truths.