It’s the self-reliance that makes it a lifestyle, and it’s the freedom that lifestyle gives you that makes it great. This thought came to my mind as I was touring the Pioneer Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia with my wife and our friends Bonnie Ours and Jeff Barger. I have said many times in my previous books that people who seek to live as self-reliantly as they can are pursuing a self-reliant lifestyle, even if they can’t do everything on their own. I learned to cherish that approach to living because it is the best way to maximize your personal freedom and independence. It is the core value that motivated most European settlers to seek a new life in colonial America.
The cheery docent who led our guided tour of the museum’s collection of early American buildings repeated that theme at every stop we made. He explained how the Protestant Scotch-Irish immigrants from Northern Ireland who moved into the Shenandoah Valley were fleeing both religious persecution and the ruthless control of the King of England. Other Irish immigrants fled periodic conditions of great privation and starvation that occurred during sporadic European famines. The Germanic immigrants who left what was then known as the Holy Roman Empire were seeking to own the land they farmed and escape the economic enslavement they suffered from the feudal lords they had to serve. They lived as indentured sharecroppers who had to tend and grow the lord’s crops as well as enough extra food to feed their own families. That system gave them no hope of ever owning their own land and gaining their independence. Even more people were brought to our country from Africa against their will as slaves and had to wait five-to-seven generations to gain their freedom.
Whether they were oppressed by religious persecution, government oppression, slavery or an indentured life of servitude to a wealthy landlord, they came to America in droves, dreaming of a life of freedom and independence to live as they chose—something that was too unreachable for them to ever achieve in their prior homes. This was their motivation and their American dream. It wasn’t easy for them to achieve. There were no governmental institutions to support them. Once here, they had to carve their desperate lives out of the back-country wilderness after they had paid off the debt they owed for their passage across the Atlantic Ocean. They had to defend their land against predators and repeated raids by the Native Americans who competed with them to defend their sacred hunting grounds. Whether or not the treaties the colonial government had secured for the land they settled were valid was not the immediate issue. For them, it was simply a struggle for survival and freedom, which they fought with determined tenacity.
This is the context from which the original American Dream that I internalized from my childhood upbringing originated and must be viewed. Unfortunately, I sense that the clarity and focus of that dream has eroded over the years and has become lost in the daily struggle that most Americans face to pay their debts and avoid the spectre of bankruptcy. As I noted in my previous writings, our economy has evolved into what I would call a modern serfdom driven by the endless pursuit of money and the trappings of wealth and technology that it can purchase to the point where most of us live borrowed lives. How long can this economic struggle continue before Americans decide they need to find a new place to live where they can gain their own freedom from the pervasive plague of oppressive debt?
This is the concept of economic slavery that my adoptive father reviled and struggled endlessly to avoid. It explains why we toiled endlessly to grow our own food, make our own clothes, and produce enough milk by the sweat of our brows to pay our taxes and cover our most basic cost of living. It explains why we sacrificed or “made do” with what we had or what we could make for ourselves to avoid incurring debt to buy things we simply could not afford. It explains why we depended on a closed network of bartering with like-minded farmers to avoid spending money. It also explains why I learned not to become overly dependent on money, because it was not something you could always depend upon to be available when you needed it most. Once you gave control of your money to someone else through a “payment schedule” (regardless of how affordable it might seem at the time), you were making yourself subservient to debt and sacrificing your personal independence. It also explains why I dreamt about owning my own land free and clear of debt for most of my life.
This is the American Dream that I and most other farmers understand. It is also a lifestyle that is gradually being lost to the allure of modern labor-saving conveniences and a lust to possess the latest technological device. As I see it, we are becoming a society so obsessed with our wants that we can’t separate them from our most basic and essential needs. It is a pattern of behavior that better serves our personal vanities than our humility. We seem to have forgotten what’s really important in life and how the work we do to earn an honest living builds personal integrity and character. Perhaps that is why so many less privileged societies despise us so. I simply can’t fathom how our society would have the determination or ability to rebuild it all should it eventually collapse, as so many other great societies have done throughout recorded history. Remember, the people who built the American society we know today were the early immigrants whose way of living and values are preserved at the Frontier Culture Museum we toured yesterday.
As someone who understands and appreciates the values I recounted above, I am proud to report that Barb and I paid off the outstanding balance on the equity credit line earlier today that represents our final debt. It has taken almost sixty years of my life to reach this point, but we are finally debt-free! All our hard work and sacrifice has paid off, even if we don’t have very much to show for it. That’s not what is important to us, though, it’s the fact that we own our own farm and owe nothing to anyone for it. I find it somewhat ironic that we have achieved this dream during the time that Justin Moore’s current hit song, “We Didn’t Have Much,” is climbing the Country Music charts. That song now has new meaning to me.
Tomorrow we will also resume our milking operation here at Peeper Pond Farm for the first time since 2017. I look forward to milking Essie—the remaining foundation goat of our original retirement dairy farm operation—and enjoying the sweet, rich milk that she will produce. Our life is entering a new era, one that we have worked hard to establish and sacrificed to revive. It is that pride of accomplishment, which no one can give me, that makes self-reliant living an important lifestyle choice to preserve. It is a cultural heritage we all share and the foundation of our modern society. We hope that you will join us in our effort to cherish, preserve and practice it. I also hope you will visit and tour the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, VA to better understand it all.