“Do you know, Caroline,” Pa stopped singing to say, “I’ve been thinking what fun rabbits will have, eating that garden we planted.” — Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie
Part One: Farmer Boy
Once upon a time, a little boy lived in the Driftless Hills of Wisconsin in a little gray house made of straw and clay.
The steep, green hills of the Driftless Region stood all around the house, and beyond them were other hills and beyond them were more hills. Long time ago, when big glaciers drifted down from the far north and made the rest of the Midwest even and flat, they bypassed this part of Wisconsin, leaving its hills and valleys and streams untouched.
Amish lived on farms all around the little boy’s homestead, and he loved watching their black buggies go by, pulled by sleek, brown ponies. The Amish women wore long blue or green dresses and black bonnets, and the Amish men and boys wore blue pants and jackets and wide, straw hats. The Amish children often ran barefoot, and so did the little boy.
The little boy’s Pa was a blacksmith,
and made a living forging beautiful things out of iron and steel for people in cities far, far away.
The little boy had a baby brother. The boy and his brother were both born in the little house.
The little house was a wonderful place to live. Pa and Ma built it themselves with the help of friends and neighbors, and worked hard to pay for it so that they wouldn’t have to borrow money from a bank.
The house opened into a greenhouse, and, every spring, Pa and Ma started seeds in large black containers to give a head start to the vegetables and flowers for the garden. Fruits and vegetables that they couldn’t eat were canned or stored in the cellar for the winter.
Phoebes made nests in the rafters on the back porch when they returned for the summer.
In addition to the house, Pa and Ma built a forge for Pa to work in, and, next to it, they put a clothesline for Ma to hang her wash because she didn’t have dryer.
And every day the hens laid delicious brown eggs for Pa and Ma and the little boy and his brother to eat.
Farther down the hill Pa had put up a new barn,
And for the windows he forged beautiful steel hinges in his blacksmith shop.
The barn was the home to Ma’s milking goats,
And Pa’s draft horses.
Because Pa didn’t have a tractor, he used the horses to plow up the garden in the summer and clear up snow in the winter.
When he wasn’t playing with his little brother or doing school with Ma,
Or playing on a play set that Pa had built for him from round tree trunks,
The little boy loved coming down to the barn and talking to the horses.
But recently the little boy was worried – and worried a lot. People were saying how a city company might put a big, loud power line next to their place, too loud to be around. The little boy was upset because he didn’t want to leave the home he loved.
Part Two: On the Banks of Beaver Creek
In the summer of 2004, our friends Summer and Robert Schulz began the realization of their life-long dream when they purchased a piece of land to begin building a sustainable, off-the-grid homestead. Although neither of them came from a rural background, Summer, who grew up Georgia, and Robert, who comes from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, became interested in self-sufficiency and traditional arts, and settling in a rural area fit this vision. Believe it or not, Robert presently supports himself as a master blacksmith.
The Schulzes’ new property consisted of approximately forty vacant acres near Hillsboro, Wisconsin, deep in the heart of the Amish country. They found themselves fitting right in, as they shared their Amish neighbors’ taste for a simple life rooted in hard-work and self-reliance.
The Schulzes’ spot included a segment of the Beaver Creek, one of the many clear Driftless streams. This access to clean, fresh water was crucial, since, true to their commitment to off-grid living, they had no plans of digging a well and installing the kind of complicated water system that would require the use of a large amount of electricity, not to mention pose a significant expense. They nicknamed their stream “The Old Faithful,” for having their own, electricity-free water source was, in Roberts’ own words, “their greatest sign of independence.”
Part Three: The First Four Years
The land the Schulzes purchased had no structures, which fit them just as well as it kept the mortgage low and allowed them to build everything from the ground up the way they liked it. At the heart of their dream was an efficient, solar-powered home, but since they were not comfortable with the idea of taking on a large debt to hire a crew that would built their home over the course of one summer, they began by building the foundation/basement for their future home to serve as a shelter during the first winter. It took them nearly four years to finally have the house erected with the help of family and friends, and, in the summer of 2008, their house was, at last, mostly completed.
With time, they added a guest house, which currently hosts the Driftless Folk school work-studies (Robert is the Driftless Folk School registrar), and a number of structures, including a forge for Robert to work in, a chicken coop, a large barn for their horses and goats, and an outhouse.
Having gone without electricity for quite some time, the Schulzes were finally able to afford a set of solar panels, which now take care of all of their electricity needs.
And here’s the best part – thanks to this kind of fiscal discipline and frugality, only seven years after the purchase, their land mortgage is nearly paid-up, and there is no debt on the actual home itself. How many people can boast that these days?
Part Four: The Big Power Line
To me, the Schulzes are a present-day pioneer family, with the lifestyle right out of the Little House books. I don’t think that the majority of people of our generation, myself included, have any idea of what it takes to come to a barren place and create everything from scratch with very little outside help, but Robert and Summer do.
Unfortunately, this is not the only parallel. Like the Ingalls family at the end of the Little House on the Prairie, the Schulzes are now facing the risk of having to suddenly uproot the life they have built because a certain power company is mapping one of potential high-voltage power-line routes next to Robert and Summer’s place. And since the line will technically go through their Amish neighbor’s yard, the Schulzes won’t be receiving any easement money either. When I asked Summer about her power-line related concerns, she mentioned the constant humming noise and the risk of stray voltage – the problem that would be all the more acute as it could potentially affect their sole water source.
When I think about how much effort went into the Schulzes’ carefully hand-crafted, debt-free homestead, I can’t help but flash back to the Little House on the Prairie, which my daughter and I have just finished reading. If you remember, upon settling in Kansas, Pa built a log house with the trees he had hauled from creek bottoms, and when he didn’t have nails, he used hand-carved wooden pegs instead. Pa also built the barn and the stable and dug a well. They got a cow and a calf and their life just about began to get back to normal when the news came that soldiers would force the white settlers off the Indian territory where the Ingalls family had settled. The garden that they planted had to be abandoned to rabbits. While wild creatures would feast, the Ingallses would have to start over in a new place.
To see my friends potentially facing a similar situation after they have finally completed their dream home and the many outbuildings is wrenching. Few people that age can claim to completely own their residence, and this will no longer be the case for the Schulzes if the power line is erected and they decide to leave. The proximity of the power line will depreciate their property’s value dramatically, not to mention that selling might be problematic in the first place, since the folks who would want that kind of life would probably not want to live next to a power line of that magnitude. It can’t begin to imagine what all of this would mean for them financially, and while for most people in America today moving around and taking on enormous debts seems easy enough, for this particular family it would mean re-examining their entire value set. Isn’t it ironic that an off-grid life can be turned upside down by a power company?
Part Five: The Facts
By Tamara Dean
American Transmission Company (ATC) plans to install a new high-voltage line to carry power from La Crosse to Madison. At this stage no one, including ATC, knows exactly what route the line will follow in the 3200-square-mile study area identified by the company. ATC representatives are meeting with the public now to explain the project and hear concerns. Choosing a route will take two years. Preference is given to existing transmission line corridors, however, and one of those goes from Viroqua to Hillsboro, crossing the Kickapoo Valley Reserve (KVR) and many farms along the way. KVR is a vast, locally treasured nature preserve that provides year-round recreational opportunities and habitat for many species, some rare.
ATC claims the 345 kV line is necessary to transmit power from the Dakotas to Madison, Chicago, and points east. The company also claims that some of the power will be generated by wind turbines. Transmission line opponents question whether the company is being forthcoming about power sources and destinations. What is clear, however, is that electricity carried by the line will not be used by the any of the Kickapoo Valley residents whose property the line crosses, should it be sited in our area.
At a recent public meeting residents expressed concerns about a reduction of property values, aesthetic degradation (towers are up to 160 ft. high and require a 150-ft.-wide easement), potential health threats to humans and wildlife, diminished tourism revenue, noise, archaeological disturbances, and damage to the landscape during the construction process. Residents also questioned the need for additional power even in faraway metropolitan areas when usage is trending downward and energy efficiency is increasing.
When asked how the line benefits the local communities it traverses an ATC spokeswoman responded that communities in the power line’s path will be paid a share of 5% of the estimated $425 million project cost. In addition, she said, residents would benefit in general from a larger, more reliable power grid.
ATC is encouraging people to submit written comments that list their specific concerns. The company will include all comments in its application to the Public Service Commission. Rural power line opponents feel optimistic that with early and organized resistance they can convince the company to site the new line next to Interstate 90, at the north edge of the study area, or abandon the project altogether. Contact the company at P.O. Box 47, Waukesha, WI 53187, or email email@example.com.
Tamara Dean is a reporter for community radio station WDRT and an author whose works include The Human-Powered Home and various stories, essays, and technical books. Like Sofya, she thinks housecleaning is overrated.
Read more about the Schulz family’s journey in Robert’s Mother Earth News article, “Learning to Live a Self-Sufficient Life.”
Read more about the Badger Coulee Transmission Line Project here.
Spring 2012 Update: As of spring 2012, the ATC has excluded the area around Robert and Summer’s homestead out of consideration as the potential power-line route. All is well.