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Homestead Act’s Legacy Lives On In Northwest

It’s been almost 40 years since the Homestead Act was repealed. But the legacy of self-sufficiency and living off the land continues today.

Julie Sabatier, host of the public radio show, Destination DIY, visited some modern-day, Northwest homesteaders who grow and make most of what they need in everyday life.

Goode and Carol Jones are what you might call “Old School” DIYers.

“Well, when we grew up, DIY was called ‘making do’,” Carol says.

Carol and Goode Jones live just outside Salem, Oregon.

Carol and Goode Jones live just outside Salem, Oregon.

Julie Sabatier/DIY

She’s 66 now. Carol and her husband Goode live just outside Salem, Oregon. They call themselves “experimental archaeologists.”

They’re both fascinated by primitive art and tools. In the summertime, they conduct workshops on “early living skills.” And Goode has an impressive collection of clothing made from hides he tanned himself as well as arrowheads, baskets, bowls and other stuff he’s made. But Goode doesn’t just use these skills for a few weeks in the summer. He’s a year-round maker.

“I broke the handle on one of these spoons the other day. So, I forged out a new handle for it,” Goode says.

Goode has a forge behind the outdoor kitchen on the property he and Carol have shared for the past 17 years.

“We work as a team. Goode can make almost anything, but I’m like the artistic director,” Carol says laughing.

“Real quick, the greenhouse back here’s almost all recycled material. That’s where I start a lot of my plants that we’ll live on through the year,” Goode says.

Even though they make more than they buy, Carol says she doesn’t identify as a modern-day homesteader.

“If we were younger, homesteaders are awesome people, but that’s going back a little too far for me. I don’t want to start from zero again, to have every single part of every single day be work, something you had to make or do yourself,” Carol says.

Rebeka Vincent is half Carol’s age and she lives with her husband Nik and their three kids on a small homestead in Clackamas County, Oregon.  “Well, she’s right, but what is life if not work? I don’t know if it’s a homestead. We call it an urban homestead because I don’t know what else to call it,” Rebeka says.

President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1862 as a way to encourage westward expansion. The new law allowed any U.S. citizen to claim 160 acres of government land for a small filing fee.

After five years, homesteaders could qualify for ownership for the property, provided that they lived on the land and improved it by building on it and planting crops.

The law was repealed in 1976, but the concept of homesteading stuck around and is still associated with self-reliance.

That’s how the Vincent family interprets it.

Nine-year-old Stella Vincent holds one of the family's chickens.

Nine-year-old Stella Vincent holds one of the family’s chickens.

Julie Sabatier/DIY

“It was exciting. We woke up this morning, we came out and we found a new mama who had hatched 10 little, baby ducks. And ducks actually are perfect for Oregon homesteading. We do have chickens, but ducks are so well-adapted. They love the rain. They come out and dance in the rain,” Rebeka says.

Nine-year-old Stella was holding an unruly chicken as she recounted a list of the family’s livestock, “there are ducks, chickens, goats and turkeys.” The chicken chose that moment to flap its way out of her arms, which might be why she forgot to mention that they also have geese and rabbits.

Many of these animals will eventually become food for the family. And they do a lot of their own butchering.

Thirteen-year-old Josh says that took some getting used to.

“Yeah, it was a lot harder when we were younger. Like, the first time we butchered a lot of chickens, we accidentally got one of my favorites in there and, yeah, that was kind of sad,” Josh remembers.

The kids sometimes complain about all the extra work they have to do when they get home from school, but Stella says she wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Vincent Family and others like them are proof that a simpler way of life is still possible, even in our increasingly digital world.

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