Some Adventures I Experienced
To Locate, Develop And Power A Heritage Farm,
On A Shoe String
The Communal Land Rush
In the nineteen seventies, the back to the land movement coaxed many people to rush out and find land upon which to start a self-sufficient lifestyle. The concept that motivated many of the land rushers was to feel healthy naturally by living off the land and if possible independent of the controlling economic or political system. Being in my mid twenties at the time and a farm boy from Manitoba, Canada, I was different from most of the people in the movement in that I actually had experience with farming and being on the land. I can tell you that most of the interlopers I was involved with knew very little about what the land required from them in order for it to provide for them.
My initial experience with helping people work toward self-sufficiency took place in northern British Columbia, Canada, with a group of people younger than myself, mostly Americans. "The Farm" experience started in the early spring; the weather was warm, but the work was hard and the bugs, including the work related variety, were many. These bug factors, combined with the idealistic notions of the people about what existence on the land was like, limited the ventures potential from the start. So, by early fall with most of the farm workers gone to "visit an ill grandmother" and no stored provisions in the cellar, it was over.
The Personal Land Rush
After a couple of other similar communal efforts of varying length and success, I struck out on my own to find land. I owned a one-ton 1966 GMC truck and a twenty-four foot gooseneck trailer upon which I hauled a 19-foot home built camper. Then as now, I was mobile,yes sir I was free, full of adventure and equipped to search. So I set out, and eventually the search led me to the Peace Country of British Columbia in the area around Dawson Creek and Ft. St. John. As I recall, I arrived there in spring or early summer in the mid nineteen seventies. Because I had a wide range of experience with farming, mechanics, welding and the operation of all types of heavy construction equipment, work on local farms was simple to secure.
I spent some time working on different farms while looking for land and getting to know the friendly people of the area. As they say, one thing leads to another and by fall I was lined up with a piece of land. It was 80 acres of beauty, situated at the end of the road on the bank of the Moose Creek, miles from the power grid. It was a half-mile long strip of land a quarter-mile wide, and flat, about 300 vertical feet above the meandering water of the creek. One could easily walk to a vantage point where could be seen a maze of lovely cut banks and jutting points that made up the majority of the creek banks. And, here and there giant carved out pillars stood like hoodoo lookouts watching over the bank and the creek with all its wild inhabitants. It was perfect, and the great barter deal was soon made, I could work for the farmer for the next few years. I would receive some cash and the rest of my wages would go to land payments; I had my place and the farmer had a steady reliable worker.
Let's Build A Farm
I moved on to the land immediately, living in my camper. There were no buildings on the property and everyone knows a farm needs buildings. Possessing the talent to do so, I set out to locate solid old buildings and then move them home. Being an avid re-cycler at heart, and having a limited cash flow, I set about the task of building the farm this way. This heritage house is an example of one such building being moved onto the BC place. I moved many smaller buildings with this one-ton truck and my home-made moving dolly.
In the nearly 24 hours of daylight at that latitude my free time that summer was well used up. When I wasn't working for the farmer or dealing with buildings I cleared and worked down the land for fields and pastures. The pastures were seeded to grass and fenced; eventually I even had makeshift corrals. I needed to learn and adopt many animal husbandry techniques and tools because I had three horses that I had acquired some years earlier. I liked to ride horses but also had the desire to do a little farming with them. The desire grew so I began to collect abandoned horse equipment of all types and haul that home as well. That first summer and fall was very busy and the long days of sunlight faded, becoming shorter and shorter... and then it was winter.
Let's Go To College
The idea of farming with horses had grown over the summer and with the onset of winter I set off to the Fraser Valley College near Mission BC and took a certified Farrier course. Before leaving I had left lots of feed in the field and arranged with a friend to look in on the place and the stock once in a while. This farrier course was a good thing, and I would return able to earn a few dollars helping others look after their animals and look after my own horse's feet like a pro. The course and the winter at the coast was a success, and the trip produced other unplanned rewards as well.
During that winter in the south I met an elderly gentleman that had retired from farming some years before. We had many wonderful conversations of the old days of farming and I learned much from him. When he heard what I wanted to do, this very generous man gave me many pieces of his much loved heritage farm equipment. Among the pieces came a special little prize, a VA Case tractor. It can be seen as it arrived on this load from the south, and more pictures will follow. This little tractor was over all, the most valuable piece of equipment I have ever had; it became my main worker, helping me with all the lifting and carrying that was needed over many years to follow. But, that was not the only find in the city that winter; I met my first wife also and in time she moved up to the farm along with her belongings, horse and dog.
The Comforts Of Home And Electrical Power Too
Wow, a new wife, and lots of help with the building of the farm via the extra equipment and animals, things were good. Let's get to it! As my centennial project in 1967 was to become a private pilot, I made time to level out a piece of the field to land a plane on so now we even had an airstrip down on the homestead. It was my opinion that every pilot needed one of those, even though at the time, I did not own an airplane. But, most of my time was focused on the practical side, such as had become necessary for living it seems. We continued living in my camper, which included most of the comforts of home, including 12-volt DC electric lights.
Yes, even I'm prepared to admit we all need light for making breakfast or supper, eating, reading and most of all those get ups in the night. In those days the power system was very simple, consisting of recycled automotive light sockets and bulbs. When originally built in 1969, all wiring in the camper had been installed as 110-volt AC. I simply used it for 12-volt: it was not very efficient, but it did work, mostly because of the short distances and low amperage draw.
For lights, I collected a few burned out 110 light bulbs and after removing the glass, soldered the 12-volt tail, or interior light sockets removed from old cars, to the threaded base. Then I added the appropriate bulb and screwed it into the 110 sockets. To plug in a radio or other polarity sensitive items into a 110 wall plug I used a tester to test the polarity at the 110 V AC wall plugs, then marked them and any male plug that I used, with paint. Then, when plugging in, assured that the paint matched; the system was not fool proofed but then it really didn't need to be.
Charging The Early System
To power the system, I would switch batteries from the camper with my truck or VA tractor each time one got low. This worked well as long as I was going someplace or working the VA sufficiently, to charge the battery again. And those times when we were staying home and not using the tractor and had a low battery... no problem. I had rigged a universal gas-powered charger using my truck or tractor alternator/generator respectively. With a gas engine taken from an old clothes washing machine (yes people used to wash clothes with a gas engine powered washing machine) and a v belt, I would head for the truck or VA.
On the truck it meant raising the engine hood, taking off the alternator belt, and connecting the gas engine to the truck with a simple mounting bracket that I had fabricated. This lined up the engine and the trucks alternator, which I connected with the v-belt. Then, just by starting up the little engine that could, I was in the 12-volt electrical power generating business. It was much the same procedure at the VA and later I converted it to a modern alternator when a generator bushing went south.
Storing The Power
As I said in those early days the batteries I used were the automotive and not the deep cycle type, so once in a while they gave up, refusing to take on or hold a charge. This meant taking a bit of a drastic measure to encourage them to co-operate, you could say I reincarnated them. To work this magic I used my gasoline powered electric welder with an 80-volt DC welding current to convince them to conform to my request for extended life. I would hook the welder's leads to the battery, start up the welder and give it a few minutes of push at a higher voltage; of course the welding leads were long and I stood well back "just in case" the hydrogen I produced during the process wanted to "show off" it's power. This may be a bit radical sounding, but I will say by being careful I had no trouble and the battery plates were cleaned. As most people know auto batteries are not built for cycling, but in general with this type of help, they did the job admirably at that time. Finding a better way of keeping the power topped up in them was becoming a priority though, so I started looking.
A Better Charging And Storage System
My first piece of technical equipment was an old "Viking Aircharger" wind generator, complete with its tower. I acquired this on one of my hunts for the old and abandoned, but valuable. The prop, housing and bearings were in great shape, but rodents or simply old age had removed the covering off most of the windings in the generator, causing a short circuit. Some inquiries were made about having it rewound but the expense of that was a deciding factor.
Another draw back that discouraged repair was that it was 32 volt DC, and nothing that I was aware of was 32 volt DC anymore. So I took out everything that was not needed and turned it into a drive for a 12-volt DC automotive alternator. I hooked this directly to the battery without a regulator, using a diode. Because car alternators need to be excited in order to charge, a wind regulated exciter switch, which I also designed and built, was installed. In a good wind 15 to 20 mph, the likes of which blow often there; it would produce 2 to 4 amps 12volt DC.
This picture is the Viking wind generator converted to 12 volt and on the tower. It was not great but enough to help out a lot with charging a large 3000 cold cranking amp battery (out of a crawler tractor) I had acquired for the farm system. This was a supplemental charging system because when needed, I still had the operational small engine powered truck / VA alternator charger. Yep everything worked just great and the farm was coming along nicely.
A Reason To Move And Collect Even More Stuff
A little piece of land in a wonderful location with a beautiful view, lots of peace and quiet, natural energy power, a dream come true! But, like the old truth goes; this too shall pass. In the second year of this farm dream, it happened. The titled landowner (my employer and friend), as I was not "on paper" anyplace, changed his mind! The deal was off he said, and there was very little I could do about it.
This was simply an example of a handshake deal that did not have a satisfactory ending. Never the less it came as quite a shock and somewhat of a slap in the face. After I picked myself up, we moved to the east about 100 miles across the provincial border into the Alberta Peace country. And as a side note, if you have never been there: do treat yourself to a summer vacation in the Alberta Peace Country, you will be glad you did. Anyway, previous to our arrival there I had rented an abandoned farmyard. I spent a month or so of time with my truck and trailer and hauled all our belongings over from the BC place to the AB place. Altogether we spent a couple of years at the new sight and while living there I collected more heritage equipment for homestead farming and electric power.
New Opportunities And New Equipment
The farmyard we moved into had an old 1940s house and before the first winter it had been cleaned up, made liveable and we moved in. We heated and cooked mainly with wood, although we had propane back up for those times we were away. As for electric power, the house was built pre grid electricity; it had no wiring in it at all. I intended to do something about that oversight.
Being a diehard scrounger, I picked up some of the components for powering a solar system... so I figured, lets build one. Initially I found and used a couple of marine 6-volt deep cycles I had acquired in my travels and later six 2-volt deep cycle batteries purchased from the phone company. The cycling of these batteries proved to be wonderful and I never used auto batteries after that.
I had collected 100 feet or so of uncovered # 1 copper lightening rod grounding wire and a few hundred feet of covered # 10 multi strand 2 wire copper. So, during the winter I proceeded to surface wire the house for 12 volt DC. I used mostly recycled automotive lights, switches, radios, tape players etc. and connected them to the system with the salvaged wire.
Electrical Codes... What's That?
Right from the home made battery box, built into the pantry and vented outside, to the lights and plugs hanging from the ceiling and walls, none of it would have passed a single code. In defence of my understanding of low voltage power and ability to make do with what's available, in reality it was very safe.
For the positive and negative main lead wires I used the uncovered # 1, they ran semi parallel across the house and were spaced about two feet apart and fence stapled to the bottom of the floor joists. I routed them under the floor in the crawl space to where I wanted a light, or a 12-volt power outlet in the room above.
Once the main leads were in place, I simply drilled through the floor and brought up the covered # 10 two wire. The #10 were coated wires and after making the appropriate connection to the rigidly separated #1, everything was covered. One of these ran through a switch and to the light or directly to a polarized power point 12-volt plug. As the total multi use power draw was low, I installed one 30-amp automotive fuse to a main lead at the battery bank.
The system was well protected and safe and I never blew the fuse under normal use. If I touched wires together as I was adding new circuits and had neglected to disconnect the battery that's another story. The house had lights, music, TV, 12-volt vacuum cleaner, 12-volt drill and even a fan in the house for circulation. Circulation was important, as I said this was an old house, and it had no insulation at all, zero!
This is how the wall was built back when that house was built - beginning outside and working in: the wall consisted of asphalt siding, building paper, 1 inch 1x6 lumber, normal studs, building paper, 1x6 shiplap lumber, building paper glued to the shiplap and then either painted or wall papered on the inside. The ceiling had paper on the inside of 1x6 shiplap and 3 inches of wood shavings on that. And at the ground level outside, the flower borders that surrounded the house acted as a dirt seal to prevent the cold wind from getting directly underneath the building, and that was the extent of the insulation!
There's an R rating for insulation and walls should have R20 ceilings R30/40. In this house it all added up to be about an R1 (maybe) and keep in mind the Peace country can get minus forty for weeks on end in the winter. We needed the fan to keep the heat from the often red-hot airtight tin heater circulating. Daylight comes about 9am and leaves about 4:30pm on the shortest days of winter, so we needed the lights and the other electrical utilities, to pass the time in any kind of comfort.
Comfortable we were, we wintered well and during this time period I continued to do some work for farmers, but the oil patch was the place to make some good money so I went there. I started into oil patch salvage and cleanup, road and lease construction, and toward the end of the second year this lead me into a Community Economic Development project management. During my travels I came into contact with people from a community that was a few miles back west, on the same road that lead to my lost BC farm. These people where small farmers and they were discouraged because once their children were out of high school, they had to move away from the farm in order to find employment. While talking around their kitchen tables, which happened often at that time in the country, we came up with the idea to create employment ourselves, for our own children. I say we, even though I had no children that needed employment, but inside I felt as though I was somehow obligated for young peoples welfare in general, even though I wanted to be a heritage farmer.
I wanted to experience what it was like to use old style open gas tractors and equipment from the 40s and 50s. I also wanted to experience horses and the equipment from that earlier period, prior to tractors. In order to meet everyone's needs a project that included several components was outlined. More kitchen table talks around the idea and loose plans were drawn up.
Then it went beyond loose plans to better plans and a suitable site was even selected adjacent to the local main highway. The site was near an established school and a subdivision that had lots for private housing development. We reasoned that for a successful project we needed to utilize what was available locally, and we had an unlimited supply of Aspen trees (commonly called Poplar) and we had an experienced master cabinetmaker that used this very wood to build beautiful furniture.
It naturally followed that our original idea was to set up a combination furniture factory and heritage farm. The furniture factory would produce jobs and revenue, the farm would supply food and horses to horse log, and provide wood, which would mean more jobs. Pictured here is china cabinet that is a fine example of the Aspen furniture we planned to build.
Red Tape Anyone?
The farm, my baby, would cover two aspects of the project. Initially it would produce much of the food for the workers and would also provide and house the horses used for the selective logging of good furniture wood. We could see that the farm could be developed to fit the new tourist industry as well, that was being talked of elsewhere. Then came the red tape. We soon had a monkey wrench thrown into our idea by the provincial government. It came to pass that the land was not zoned for building furniture and they did not intend to re zone it to accommodate this project, even if we could build beautiful furniture.
We found out that the land was zoned to allow a facility to be built that would service the highway though, so we considered the prospects of that. We soon realized that this was not as good a project in the short term, but we considered the future and reasoned that if we got started now, the traffic on the highway would only increase. We could build a facility to service the local business and expand to go for the future highway traffic and tourist market later. It was a given that the traffic count was low at the time and this project was not as lucrative as marketing quality furniture to known chain store outlets, that had already indicated a willingness to sell our furniture. Pictured here is an aspen table and chairs retailers loved. The fact was we had little financial resources to begin with and the financing we did have dwindled to near nothing with the change in focus. Our small but determined group knew that all building projects require capital, and in those days there were no known government programs that would come to our aid with money for tourism development, so we needed to be inventive.
The group consisted primarily of local farmers, and I operated and managed heavy equipment for dirt moving contractors in the patch near by, so we came up with a revised plan. The plan at that time was to form a company, then ask people to put in labour, fuel, transportation, food, equipment, talent or whatever they had in return for shares in the company. The participants would then end up owning the company, which would own the project. Many people in the area accepted the idea and we began by acquiring a lease from the provincial government, on the previously chosen parcel of land.
The negotiated terms of the lease were supposed to let us build a subdivision of lots. These would be used for business development, and when they were ready, people could come and build a business there. The land was covered in bush at the time, so out of necessity we started from ground zero. We planned the project to include an access road off the highway with serviced lots for such businesses as a restaurant, general store, garage, and motel.
A New Project Begins
Once we got the lease and the go ahead from the landowner, local people came on board. A local farmer brought over his land clearing equipment and helped to clear the bush and trees to prepare for the heavy earth moving construction. This picture is of our first foot hold on the new site, note the first piece of equipment supplied by a local farmer, and my truck and camper referred to at the beginning of the article. Although others did help occasionally, one oil patch contractor in particular let heavy equipment come to the site to complete the heavy dirt moving, site development and road building. Several people put in their talents and time doing things from management of the project to labour and equipment operating and many man and equipment hours were logged as a consequence. By the end of the first year the lots where ready for people to build businesses on.
More Red Tape Anyone?
We sent word to the landowner (the Alberta provincial government) via a request from a family willing to build a general store on one of the lots: What a great start. With the response to this application came our first surprise; there was now a new senior bureaucrat working in the government office that had issued the original lease. At his discretion, he deemed that the original lease we had acquired through negotiation with his predecessor, in order to develop this project, was not the kind of agreement we needed. Our reply was to "simply issue us the correct one".
That was not to be; the bureaucrat in all his wisdom said "no, you people (the company) must give up the lease you presently hold." The only way around this he said was for us to give up the lease we held, including all improvements, and reapply for the correct type of agreement. Of course, he went on to say, this also means that once you do give it up, every Albertan, or Canadian for that matter can apply for the property and improvements from us (the Government) and there is no guarantee that you will be awarded a new agreement". Oh, and by the way, they said "we do not know what the correct agreement is that you need, so just pay your rent on the old lease and we will get back to you when we figure out what to do with you".
Photo break, this is a picture of a building that started as a mobile camp kitchen, and then it was a farm kitchen. We acquired it and for us was used as a post office, coffee shop, store, and a part of my house.
Some Progress Anyway
Being the voluntary leader of this project, I had looked fairly good up to this point, but now it seemed I had a lot of egg on my face. Having little experience dealing with government at this level I simply didn't know what to do. Meanwhile based on the original lease arrangement I had taken up residence and moved everything I owned including several quite large buildings onto this property. This picture is of one load of salvaged horse equipment out of the three we moved, and the old rental house mentioned previously.
Needless to say, I was in a bit of a pickle. The intent was to concentrate more on developing the heritage farm now that the commercial site was ready. People wanted to build and start businesses, but alas the powers that be put them and the project on hold. For several reasons that were not strictly the government's fault, this hold on the business development went on for several years.
Powering The Development
During this lengthy period some ventures went ahead on a temporary basis despite things being on hold officially, for example, we operated a Canada Post Office and a roadside coffee shop and then later a small grocery store was started in place of the coffee shop. (Picture is of the post office, store, team and sleighs). I wanted to find an energy source for these ventures, because although the energy grid ran past the door, we were not hooked in, before the hold on development continued.
Therefore, the building that housed the P.O. and coffee shop, and later the store, was run on solar energy from the batteries that I had owned previously, with an added PV cell and a wind generator for charging them.Pictured is the store showing the addition of the wind generator. I was able to keep the batteries charged with one PV cell for several years because of a unique power generation situation that presented itself. I was hired as a school bus driver, and in the rural area we kept the bus at home in order to service the route five days a week.
An enlarged image of the Windstream. In the summer months with the long daylight hours, about 22 hours in June, and the constant wind of the flat land, the system was able to maintain charge without much help. And during the long dark winter, with an approved connector between the bus and system, all bus warm ups where adding 12-volt DC to the battery bank.
In winter during the coldest nights, the bus had to be started and run for 30 minutes out of each 3 hours just so that it would start for the morning run. I had rigged a remote starter switch to the bus and an alarm clock awoke the activator of the system... me. I could start and stop the bus from my bed so it was not a bad exchange for the benefits we realized. The bus had a 100-amp alternator and added many thousands of amp hours to the system over the years.
Remember the VA Case? Here it is helping out once again, this time blading dirt... note the rear-mounted forklift, it did lifting that most people would not believe! The years the project was on hold allowed me time to fix up and repair the old equipment that I had collected.
Also over this period there were significant changes in my family and my second wife came to live at the farm. Being the kind of fellow that kept busy, over the years development took place on the heritage farm, but it was not until we came to a settlement with the government that development got serious again. We came to a settlement when the commercial subdivision site was eventually taken over by local government, and a friend and myself purchased the farm portion of the property at public auction as a subdivided piece of land.
Red Tape Cleared Up
Once I had the title to my piece of the property, things soon began to happen. As mentioned earlier, various heritage buildings had been purchased and moved to the site. So, over time the buildings were placed, fields, pastures, corrals and even another airstrip was built. Along with the VA case another piece of equipment was very useful. Pictured here is a D7 M Caterpillar that was spotted sitting in the back of a neighbours' yard, with three-inch aspen and willows growing up around it. This fine unit came from the original Alaska Highway building days, then it completed many years of service for the AB government and was purchased by the neighbour to do land clearing. When it's job was done it was simply parked. It's worth noting that this old girl sat for many years, and when we went with some fresh gas and a bit of diesel, we had it running in less than 2 hours. This D7 was the powerhouse of the place in true heritage fashion; as for years it did much of the heavy work around my farm side of the place.
About The Buildings
Every building on the sight was operated on some form of natural energy. Pictured left the sites main house was a combination of 3 buildings placed together, with a piece built in between, which served as the main entry way into the house. The resultant house was a large ranch style building. Toward the last years of the project an addition was made to this building. About 20 feet, away in back of this house, was a 24' x 44' art and taxidermy studio (#2 wife's hobby.)
This picture is of the main house during construction and before the studio and wood shed were added. If you look closely though, you can see the solar array had been installed. Unfortunately pictures are unavailable of the finished facility but I will take the time to explain some of the set up. As mentioned the studio was about 20ft. away but it was connected to the main house underground by a cellar level walkway that doubled as the heat ducting which supplied heat to both buildings.
The heat came from mid way along the cellar level walkway, where the furnace room had been built. This heating system was very convenient because directly above the furnace room, but outside above ground level, was the woodshed. In addition to this, vegetables were within easy reach as well because further along the walkway under the studio, the root cellar had been dug in. The picture shows the ground breaking for the root cellar.
Heat And Convenience
The wood feed to the main furnace protruded up through the woodshed floor, which made it possible to feed the furnace directly from the woodshed. The furnace was designed and built in my shop using the two-chamber principle, a wood chamber, which burnt across the bottom of the wood not up through the wood, as most furnaces do. The flames, smoke and gas passed into a separate heat chamber at the back of the furnace and more air was introduced there, which helped the burn and produced most of the heat.
The furnace proved to be quite efficient and needed wood added on an average of every 12/18 hours during the winter. The furnace heated both the house and the studio. There was a walkway that doubled as the heat and cold air duct between the two buildings. To make it work fairly large, cold air floor registers were cut in the floor at the farthest corners of each building. These registers encouraged/allowed the cold air to go down and flow under the buildings and along the bottom of the walkway back to the furnace room.
A large 3' x 4' hot air register was mounted into the floor at the top of the stairs and doubled as an entry way into the studio. This register/door was at the end of the walkway so the hot air traveled along the top of the walkway and up into the building.
At the other end of the walkway, a large hot air register was mounted in the floor in the central part of the house. The movement of the air circulated through out the two buildings without need for circulation fans. Although the studio and house could be entered from an adjoining sidewalk outside, the underground walkway made it unnecessary to go outside to get to the studio. The root cellar where the root crops were stored was accessible from the same underground walkway at the studio end, and this made collecting items from it very convenient in the cold of winter.
This Image is of the house and yard taken from the driveway, in the main season of the north. When entering this part of the yard off the county road, the house and studio were the first buildings a person came to. Around the perimeter of that main yard we placed a 28' x 35' shop, 32' x 34' barn, a single car garage, the farm fuel tanks and oil shed etc., all were conveniently situated.
Pictured is the open shop door with work taking place on a new firewood processor machine in front of it, other pictures will follow. The second 30' x 40' house on the property was situated a few hundred feet away and was the first house off the country road. It had a cellar and its own single car garage as well. All these buildings were equipped with their own solar power systems and heated by wood. I will do my best to explain each solar system before the end of this article, but I should say, that in all the houses the auxiliary heating, hot water and fridges where hooked to propane units.
Wood Heating Takes Wood!
The 5 heating systems on the farm worked very well, but they consumed from 12 to 16 cords of wood each winter. To visualize what constitutes a cord, (in case you don't know) think of a stack piled 4'x4'x8'. Now, 16 times that is what was necessary to stockpile, and that was a big pile, even for two men to put up, and a lot of the time I worked alone with the VA or horses to help gather the wood. Of course firewood must be split both to season properly and to fit in the stoves.
Pictured here is the wood splitter that I used before it was equipped with it's own splitter. It was a fantastic splitter and fast; a big help. The big wheel had a thin axe blade attached to it and when running rotated at about 40 rpm. This wood all had to be bucked/sawed into length before it could be split and that was done primarily with a chainsaw, and that is a lot of sawing! Then it all had to be handled again to split and again to stack etc.
Seeing this as a labour problem and having a mind that wanted to solve problems, this magnitude of wood consumption prompted me to design and build a firewood production machine. This wonderful back and muscle saver was built from parts of combines, trucks, pipeline pipe, heritage buzz saws, and specialty pieces selected from my locally famous 'steel rack'. That was the place where I stored all my salvaged steel 'prizes' out back of the shop.
The wood machine did require some new hydraulic components to achieve the desired performance specs for the production, but all in all most of it was built from salvaged material. The 'Firebird' as I affectionately named it, was complete with the nameplate taken off a wrecked Firebird car, could hold 4 or 5 full-length trees on its deck. Once they were there, an experienced operator could buck, split and drop stack a block of firewood every 5 seconds.
Pictured is the Firebird in full production on a contract job that I accepted. On the farm I produced and maintained a main wood stack that heated the farm buildings. Such a stack dropped from the elevator on the machine, was 18/20 feet high and made an A-frame looking stack. By moving the machine along little by little the stack was extended to some 50 to 60 feet long or even more.
Pictured is the Firebird's hydraulic splitter, that once so equipped, this machine could produce large amounts of firewood. So I chose to produce quantity and carry on a small farm based firewood business on the side.
I built and used a large wood and snow bucket on the loader of my big old international farm tractor, pictured in part, holding the back hoe earlier. This bucket was used to remove snow in winter as well as to transport wood to the various woodshed and building piles from the main woodpile. I also used this bucket to load wood for customers; 2 scoops equalled an over flowing pick up truck box.
Getting the wood from the wood lot was usually a joint venture with friends and neighbours. I had friends within a few miles that needed firewood, and some times we would trade skidding, (moving the logs from where they were cut to my yard) for bucking and splitting. I also had other friends in the logging business that would drop by with a faller buncher and a skidder for a day in the spring, and deck me up some wood. Once in a deck in the yard I could spend the break up days of spring producing firewood for the next winter. This system worked well for the heating of the 5 buildings and the barn.
The Solar Electrical Systems
The main house was made up of three buildings as mentioned earlier, and the 20' x 24' gray house in the pictures was now part of it. The other main part was the 24' x 48' white building in pictures and the third part was the porch off the big 2-story house I used for the shop. This, now one big house, had the largest solar system that I had put together up to that time. The summers in the northern latitudes are nearly 24hours of daylight but the winters were quite the opposite. Daylight began at 0900 and ended about 1600. That's about 7 hours. Because of those short winter daylight hours, 7 PV cells made up the main charging array for the power system. They were various brand names but all were 3 to 5 amps 14 - 16 volts DC, hooked in a parallel circuit. These were mounted on a custom-made manual sun tracker. You guessed it... designed and built with more used auto parts.
Building Components And A System
Shown here is a seven-panel array mounted on the homemade tracker. I built a mounting plate that fit the roof angle of the house and secured it through the roof under the rafters in the attic, with long bolts and good long supports. To that mount I connected a three-quarter ton pick up truck front spindle, hub, and brake drum assembly.
This assembly had been modified with all the internal brake parts removed and a series of notches cut into the brake drum. A spring-loaded locking device was attached to the backing plate, which for those that don't know is the part that used to hold the brake shoes. A locking mechanism fit into the notches to set and maintain the panel angle in relation to the sun. Then came the manual tracking system.
To build this part of the tracker was simple, I attached 3 ropes to various parts of the array, one at each side, which allowed me to turn the array in either direction simply by pulling one or the other rope. The third rope I had connected to the spring-loaded lock so that I could release it when I wanted to turn the array. I did have to go up on the roof in March and October to set the vertical angle of the array to match the north south travel of the sun in relation to the latitude.
This array worked fine and ran through a 50-amp charge controller to 6 - 2volt 850 amp (on the 20 hr rating) deep cycle batteries hooked in series to develop 12-volt DC. The charging system also sported a 4-amp 16-volt DC Windstream wind charger hooked directly to the batteries with a diode. It was mounted on a 20-foot piece of 4" pipeline pipe as a tower. The tower could be lowered or raised like a flagpole for servicing the charger.
At one point I stopped driving the school bus, after that charging system left the farm the batteries did need a bit of help during January if it was cloudy very much. For that I used a home built gas powered 40 amp-charging unit. Pictured is the house, barn and some of the petting animals much loved by young tourists and neighbours.
Moving the power from the batteries was easy as the power traveled to the various lights and plugs by much the same method as I had used in the other house (explained earlier). The difference being that I ran the two main leads through to the cellar of the house at the end of the underground walkway. The wires I chose for these main leads were salvaged # 0 multi strand copper welding cable.
To build a junction box I stripped them and attached them vertically to the 2x6 pine wall of the cellar 2 feet apart. The positive and negative main lead sections of bared wire were about 2 feet long and provided me with a primitive 12-volt junction box.
From these wires I used more salvaged wire as secondary leads, it was covered 2 wire # 10 multi strand copper. This was run to reach each room that required 12-volt lights or plugs. How the junction box worked was by simply attaching a fused #10 wire to the negative main lead with a screw and a washer through both the #0 and #10 wires and into the wood behind them; this served to secure a connection and clamp the wires together solidly. I would then connect the positive to the other main wire lead using the same method.
Another break from the technical, this is an aerial photo of the farmyard, airstrip and commercial area.
To carry the wires to each location, they were secured with staples and were run along the cellar wall or under the floor of the building to the selected room. Then # 12 or 14 multi copper wires would run up through the wall, or at times on the surface, through a switch to a light fixture or directly to a power point 12-volt plug. In the main living areas of the house the light fixtures were single tube 24" fluorescents, and each one of these drew about 4-amps. In the bedrooms, bathroom, cellar and walkway, lighting was a variety of different sized automotive bulbs; the amperage of these circuits was also about 4-amps. The walkways lights were activated by three-way switches so they could be turned on at the end you entered and off at the exit end no matter which way you were entering from.
This aerial photo shows the farmyard area, the airstrip was out the driveway to the top right.
The water pressure system, TV, various radios, and stereos, were 12-volt. The electrical system sported a Statpower 2000 watt, sine wave inverter, which powered the vacuum cleaner, clothes washing machine and our 486-computer system. The house and studio had covered wooden walkways from the parking area to their respective doors. These walkways were lighted with (used) strategically mounted car head light sealed beams. They where turned on and off by a three way switch installations that could be operated from each door and the parking area.
Powering The Studio
This photo is of the commercial area, also from the air.
The semi-attached studio was a 24' by 44' 1950s Catholic Church. I moved this building some 40 miles from the next province with the equipment you see pictured below, but with a much smaller building on it.
That studio-building move is a story in itself, which I will leave for another time. Unfortunately I cannot provide photos of this building, it's move or what it looked like set up, they have sadly been misplaced. The old church-come studio, was pre-wired for 110 volt AC, and because it was mostly used in the day light hours I powered it from the 2000-watt inverter installed in the house power room.
I diligently checked out all the wiring and made some changes and additions to suit our needs. I also made sure it met code because of the voltage involved. Then for lights, I installed 10 of the best power saving fluorescent bulbs that I could find. On occasion an evening art or taxidermy showing did take place, but the system had no trouble handling it.
The power tools that were used in the studio, for the most part had their own 12-volt rechargeable batteries, which could be charged directly from the 12-volt system at times we chose. Such things as the air compressor, shaping tools and saws where used intermittently anyway and the system had no problem keeping up.
The Out Buildings
An image of the barn ready to come home.
The 32' x 34' barn had one fixed position 12-volt 4-amp PV panel, supplying power to two 6-volt deep cycle 225 amp batteries hooked in series for 12-volt. There was one light circuit in the barn. It had a switch by the door with two automotive bulbs strategically placed in the hallway to give adequate light in all parts of the barn.
There was a permanent 12-volt rechargeable flashlight in the barn for out and about in the barnyard lighting, or those special events like birthing or other issues that may arise. The system worked fine and was used for everything from harnessing or saddling horses, to helping animals give birth, to doing morning or evening chores; light was always available when it was needed.
One 4-amp PV panel also powered the 28' x 35' workshop. This panel had a scaled down version of the house sun tracker for its mount. The mount was a pipe pushed into the ground at the southwest corner of the shop with the tracker welded to it. The tracker was a car spindle and hub with the PV panel mounted vertically to the top on a bracket that could be tilted. It was controlled manually with ropes that came inside through holes drilled in the wall. It was very convenient because my workbench was on the south wall. When working in the shop I could set the tracker to follow the sun hourly if I chose to.
The batteries for the workshop system matched the two 6-volts in the barn at 225 amps each. With the wiring I did something a bit different. When wiring the shop, I ran a positive and negative from the batteries under the workbench and along the wall about one foot apart and waist height, to my gas-powered welder. The main leads were connected to the engine starting system of the welder and this way the building system batteries served as the welder starting battery and when the welder was working it offered charge to the building system in return.
This photo is of the six room two-story house that is the workshop; it is the biggest building that I moved. It is pictured in the spot where it became the workshop and the porch became part of my house.
The gas powered welder was in an old bedroom just behind the door you see open and to the left of the big main doors (pictured earlier) on the north end of the building so the wires running to it gave me hot leads the full length of the shop.
The drills and lights I used were portable 12-volt and had spring clamps on the end of their 12 - 18 foot wire leads. No matter what location I was working at in the shop I would simply attach the clamps to the main leads and presto, power. At the workbench I installed a permanently mounted swing light for lighting jobs done there.
Innovation At Work
I know this is a different story in general, but to my knowledge I did a rather unique thing with this workshop, I solved a height problem. I built the main 16' x 35' work area and produced the two main doors and workbench all at the same time: I'll tell you about it. The shop started out as the two-story house pictured with four rooms and an entry way down stairs. On one side of the house were the kitchen/dining area and the living room 16 x 35 feet in total. On the other side were two bedrooms, the entry way and stairwell, 12' x 35' in total. I could see that once I knocked out the wall in between the two-living/eating rooms, it would make an area big enough for a decent sized farm workshop. It had one problem... an 8-foot ceiling, to low too be practical, as most equipment is higher than that, so what to do?
After some thinking I remembered that I had a couple of big logs retired from my building moving dolly, so I went out back and got those two big logs. I had the building jacked up, so I placed the logs on a built up gravel footing, and then placed the building on them. In total this effort gave me a 36" raise of the building and therefore the ceiling, it was now 11 feet from the dirt that I wanted as the floor. This height is acceptable for small trucks and tractors so I was pleased with that result.
Now that the whole building had been raised, I had the original floor of the house raised up also to the 3-foot level inside the building. This effectively made it impossible to get in the shop, so this floor had to be removed. To better view the new shop as it could be, I started my chain saw and cut out a practical sized 14-foot wide door from the north end wall. The wood from this wall was put to use closing in around the now raised end walls of the house and the rest was saved for future use.
For a short time I evaluated what my next move should be. Always one to make do with what was at hand as much as possible, I sat down to study the situation in order to get the best out of it. The house floor was made from 3.5 x ¾ inch tongue-and-groove surface lumber, nailed on a diagonal to a ruff 1 x 6 inch sub floor. This made the floor nice and solid with about 1-3/4 inches of solid wood, with paper in between the two layers, I noticed later.
Having completed the thinking process I moved on to making doors from floors. To do this, out came the measuring tape and the big square (a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood). I marked out the doors on the floor, the size to fit the hole I had previously cut out of the wall. During the marking process I made sure to leave a 30" section of the floor intact across the south end of the building, which I figured made a great workbench.
Then, out came the chain saw, and for those that don't realize it, a chainsaw will cut through an amazing amount of nails and such, and any damage will occur only to the chain and that can usually be repaired with a file. Within minutes I had cut out the doors leaving the workbench in place; what a time saver. With a little trimming I had my specialized doors, and they were mounted in short order, each on three big strap hinges. It was lovely; the original house builders, over 40 years earlier had provided the perfect solution to fabricating the big doors.
The shop was later heated in winter by a self made wood stove. It was two 45-gallon (55-gallon US) drums one on top of the other with the bottom one being the burning chamber and the top a heat exchanger. Yes this shop was a very useful addition to the farm.
Another Addition To The Farm
My adult daughter and I met for the first time in the early nineties and she decided that the rustic backcountry life near dad was for her. The other main building on the property was a 30' x 40' house that was moved to the farm to accommodate her. This is a picture of that house sporting the solar array. Her husband was a handy fellow and he put in his own solar system with a little coaching from yours truly.
The system was a near duplicate of mine; it had seven PV panels on a manual tracker. His tracker was made from the mate to the truck spindle and hub my tracker was built from. He too could walk outside his door and by pulling ropes track the sun at will. The batteries were six 2-volts, but he had a 2500-watt Trace inverter.
The main difference between the systems was that he used a traditional bar type junction box and more traditional wiring methods.
The house was wired for 110 volt AC, so he kept all of that intact and powered it with the inverter. The main living area of the house, the water pressure system and his single car garage, he wired for 12-volt lighting. His TV, VCR, Radio and stereo were 110 V AC and was inverter powered. He used a 5000 watt 110/220 gas powered generator with a 70-amp battery charger to supplement his system, on average once a week in December and January.
The generator was also used to power his small, Mig wire feed welder when he wanted to use it. He took on automotive engine rebuild and small welding jobs to create cash flow. His house was next to the 2500-foot turf airstrip, near the end that had the visiting aircraft tie down and camping under wing area.
The Flying Was Good
From time to time we hosted fly-in guests, some using the airstrip for commercial ventures and others coming to stay over night or enjoy the heritage farm and studio. In the summer we hosted an annual fly-in pancake breakfast, which was attended by several aircraft. The small plane that we owned was flown from our strip for site seeing and for transporting me to and from oil patch and logging contracts that I took on from time to time. I flew the plane both summer and winter, but I must say, I spent much more time cutting grass in summer and ploughing snow in winter, than I did flying.
Grass Cutting Was Great But The Snow Ploughing Was Cold
The Cessna 120 CF-UZT I used to get around with was tied down in our yard when not in use. The mowing of the grass on the 75' x 2500' runway was not a big ordeal. I had two mowers; one was a 7' sickle hay mower, the other an ordinary 5' farm rotary mower. Both worked well to clip the grass short, so I used whichever one was handy at the time. I could pick suitable weather and travel at fairly high speed, in tractor language that's 10 miles per hour. So for example, I could be done in an hour on a cool evening. Snow ploughing was a totally different thing!
The image of the VA Case ploughing the driveway shows it could move only a little snow at a time with an 8' blade; it could plough snow ok, but only shallow snow. This meant that when it was snowing I had to be ploughing while it snowed. I would plough six inches, then after another six more inches, plough again. Each ploughing took about 1.5 or 2 hours and since this was an open tractor, snow ploughing was not that much fun on those snowy occasions. The other picture shows that in winter both the VA Case and its operator had to be winterized to stand the cold.
The Warm Snow Plough To Come
So, thinking ahead one warm day in spring when it was too wet and muddy to do much else, I set out to build a 'keep me warm' snowplough. Yep, you likely guessed it, with more used parts!
I had acquired a 5-ton single axle truck with a badly damaged cab. I brought it home to salvage its box hoist, which I used on the other truck pictured earlier with the moving dolly. On closer inspection the chassis, excluding the cab, engine and transmission, was in good shape and usable. Being a jalopy man at the time I also had a 1974 Oldsmobile car with a good engine, transmission, cab and more importantly a heater.
I stripped the truck clean down to the frame and running gear and prepped it to accept it's new role on the farm. Up to the shop came the Olds, and out came all the front wheels and suspension. With a hammer and chisel to cut it off behind the front seat. That done I had another cab, engine and transmission for my soon to be warm snowplough.
Using my wonderful little helper, the VA forklift tractor, I lifted the car cab, complete with its power and comfort up onto the truck frame. I manoeuvred it into position, and lined up the steering mechanisms of car and truck.
Next, I found some brackets on the 'steel rack' and welded the truck and car parts together. I attached the steering, brakes, driveline, gas tank and lines, and then gave it the big test. Yep it moved, and rather well too if I do say so myself.
I went back to the 'steel rack', picked out a piece of 36" pipe, cut it in strips welded them together and presto, a blade. If you look at the picture closely you can see the blade sticking out in the shadows.
I used the original truck steering box linked to the steering wheel of the car for steering. So the power steering box from the car with some hose extensions, an electric power window motor and switch (out of the car) became the blade lifts main components. I did have to add a couple of salvaged bicycle sprockets and some chain, but in the end, the lift worked fine with the pushing and pulling of a little electric window switch similar to what you might use in your car today.
I salvaged a cement block from a neighbour to add on the back of the plough for traction and off we go. The next winter ploughing snow was as much fun as it could be; comfortable seat, heat, radio, company if I wanted it, what more could a man want.
Let the planes come the strip is open. Some did come in the winter too; here is a picture of one of the planes that used our strip from time to time.
People Came Out Of Curiosity And To Have Fun
People usually came in summer and most drove to the farm. The main attraction for many of the people was simply enjoying a visit and the country life. Some liked to watch while we performed various farming activities with the horses, or older gas powered farm equipment. Others would just walk around looking at the rather odd pieces of equipment I had, like the wood machine or snowplough.
Others loved the old horse farming equipment like, the disc, cultivator, ploughs, hay mowers, rakes and loaders, the sleighs, wagons, harrows and more.
Pictured here is the team of Shiloh and Dandy, followed by yours truly working up the ground with a disc. For some of the old timers with the talent and those that wanted to take the time to learn, there was the opportunity to try their own hand at some of the activities, but always under our supervision.
Even riding behind the horses hitched to a sleigh or wagon in the respective seasons, were a main event and enjoyed by young and old alike. The team of Shiloh and Taffy pulling the wagon with me at the reins is pictured above.
When winter came we would hitch a car hood, selected for it's appropriate shape, behind one or two horses, add a few passengers, and take to the deeper snow and the back country. These fun trips in the winter could also have a string of 3 or 4 toboggans and skiers on ropes behind the "hood toboggan" and this was a much loved activity by all. These trips usually ended with a grand campfire and some tasty food to top off the days events.
The farm was situated a half mile from the top of a river valley and in the summer horse back riding down into the valley was the desired thing to do. This was not a dude ranch though and most people required a lot of training time before they would be allowed to use my horses' solo, and most never did. My horses were work capable animals, not pets, and my stallion named Star, was often the real Star of the show.
His mother was Shiloh, and I raised him from a colt and while doing so, I trained him to come to me when I would toss something, like a small piece of wood, in his direction. People would be amazed to see me go out to the corral or pasture, bend down and pick up a root, toss it at the horse and have him run over to me and place his head on my chest.
More than one person was looking for some place to hide, thinking that this 1400 lb. animal was mad at me, and possibly even them by association. Many a laugh was had about the things Star would do for me; for example, after he learned how, he liked to swim. Going into the river or a pond was a pleasure for him. He would run to do it.
Often with me holding the children on his back, in we would go. Of course the water was usually not deep enough for him to actually swim, but the young people liked it never the less. This horse was also a good puller and could pull a hay dump rake by himself. He would skid trees out of the bush, pull his wagon with a load of people or lope for hours under a saddle. Pictured here are friends visiting in the river valley, the horse in the back is Star.
Usually Something To Do
All of the different things to see, do and experience made the farm an enjoyable place for regulars and visitors alike. One of the farm highlights was when the winter season and the wild native animals of the area served as entertainment. We often had as many as 10 or 15 mule deer out in the fields. We had several of the does raising their fawns in the safety of trees near the building site.
One of the oldest of these would actually bring hers out to show us in the spring; she would parade the little one or sometimes two, past the outdoors sitting area in the evening. This was a conversation stopper as she was giving all a good look, and then she would go on about her deer business. While she was there the whispers were "ah isn't that cute", "they are so tiny, I want one" and the like, then when she left it was a new conversation about, "did you see that?" when of course we all did.
We had moose as well, and sometimes deer and moose would be at the haystacks at the same time. Mentioning moose reminds me about one occasion when a young fellow was wintering with us. As with most young fellows he craved excitement, so having watched this moose come to the bale stack for several nights in a row he requested the chance to attempt to ride it. Pictured is the doorstep Moose of another year, the camper door was just to the left of her shoulder! Back to the story, after some discussion about methodology I obliged him with a "sure, go for it".
He got dressed up warmly one night not long after our conversation, and went out to sit on the haystack and wait. It was a very clear, crisp night with a bright moon; the moose came out and eventually stuck its head in the stack to eat. The boy waited with some patience for the moose to get into a good position for his launch. Then off the stack he went, landing perfectly on the moose's back, but alas the moose did not wait for him to get settled very well.
The path the moose immediately chose to run was about 110 feet (33 or 34 M) to the trees. The moose had only one thing on its mind, and that was getting there. So the boy with his body swaying back and forth to the moose's pace, slipping farther off to one side and hanging on for dear life, made it about 40 of those feet (12 M) then lost his grip. He hit the 3 or so feet of snow and disappeared into it. Seeming not to notice at all that he was completely under the snow I could hear his voice yelling "I DID IT, I DID IT" repeatedly at the top of his lungs while laughing an excited, nervous, laugh; all of which was just muffled a bit by the snow, until he appeared again.
I must say that was the talk around the shack for much of the remainder of that winter. Everyone that came heard the story and I believe the ride got a bit longer with each telling. Besides Moose and Deer, there were lots of Coyotes, Foxes, and some Wolves around, especially down in the river valley and north of it. There were also many birds, from Geese to Orioles.
Forms Of Energy
There was always lots of farm work to keep one busy so the summers where full, but winters and especially the winter nights, are long in the north. I found it does take an active mind to survive inactive times. One of the extra games I invented to pass the time on the long nights was car skiing. Car skiing though is another story and this article was to be about finding and powering a heritage farm and the flexibility of natural and solar energy.
There is no doubt that natural non polluting energy is the best way to provide what we need in the way of energy on this planet. Energy from the sun, and the wind are important, as is energy from people, animals and water. Yes, water can supply unbelievable energy forces, which are harvestable in the form of hydrogen, tidal and current movement to name but a few.
Natural, sustainable, non-polluting energy is plentiful and could replace the carbon fuel we presently accept and use. What is absent at present is the will. Each individual like you can learn to ask for these fuels to be developed and made available if you don't already do it. This little story outlines what can be done on a shoestring with a little bit of imagination, will and determination. If I can do these things, you too can do things differently if you desire to, even things you never thought you could!
Let's Wrap It Up
I hope you gained some insights or at least enjoyed some of the story I shared. The variables that made the solar energy necessary for the farm were not that different than our planetary need of today.
Business as usual is too expensive a price to pay today. Possibly it is momentarily cheaper to carry on this way, but what is the real price we will pay? Will our planet and we be able to experience optimal health over the long term? Will we keep the diversity of species that we have? Will there be an atmosphere that the young of tomorrow can live in?
All these are serious questions and each of us must help produce results that assure a positive outcome. It is not up to the famous "They" it's up to you and I!
But, before I go too far, I'll do, as Will Rogers said, "Never miss a good chance to shut up."