A Memoir Excerpt

A Memoir Excerpt

In September 2012 Madison Magazine and I teamed up to offer one lucky reader the chance to see his or her life story become a book. We received over 50 entries, many of them so good we’d like to share them with readers of this blog. We’ll start with this entry from Barb Kehrein, author of the 2 place entry. Enjoy! 

 Sarah White


By Barb Kehrein

I hung up the phone. It was settled; my husband, Marty, our 6-month old son, Jeremy, and I would move from our Chicago apartment to a rural farmhouse in New Glarus, Wisconsin. It was 1975. Our friends, Kem and Jeanne Luther and their two young daughters would join us. We were going back to the land so both families could reduce expenses and figure out what to do next.

For income, Kem would continue his free-lance writing and I would commute to Chicago to work part-time at United Airlines.

For food, we would plant four huge gardens, raise chickens, pigs, bees and milk goats. It seemed a plausible plan, except for the fact that we were terribly inexperienced in all areas. We were greener than the grass we mowed!

After the gardens were planted and the animals settled in their new living quarters, Kem and Marty started making the rounds to auctions. The goal was to find tools, and with any luck, a wood-burning stove to provide heat for the house. They came home with rakes, shovels, a scythe and yes, a cheap stove that worked. Old-fashioned oil lamps were a quaint luxury that was added to the spoils. It was official! We now looked like we knew what we were doing.

For beginners we had an impressive first-season yield. We learned how to can tomatoes, pickles and beets, we stored root crops, and we even made goat cheese and butter (with cow’s milk). But trust me; this work did not come easy. For a city woman, I was on a huge, humbling learning curve, but what an adventure!

Many neighbors did not think too highly of our grand plans. Putting in a wood-burning stove only put us “over the top” and gave folks something to talk about. Despite that, our men kept cutting and hauling wood.

Winter came and so did the bitter wind, ice and snow. Fighting the elements, Marty and Kem continued to look for decent firewood. Most of the time all that could be gathered was elm, a woefully inferior wood that burned quickly. It was better than paying for oil for the furnace, so the cutting, collecting and burning continued.

The ice storm of 1976 was particularly bad. We were without electricity for almost a week. Farmers were struggling to care for their animals. They scrambled to find generators to provide enough electricity to milk the cows. Meanwhile neighbors were cold and hungry.

So, it was with great pleasure and a sense of accomplishment we opened our doors to all our neighbors. Our warm house was heated with firewood. A large kettle of soup was simmering on top of the stove and our oil lamps were ablaze. Can you imagine how good it felt to help our neighbors? It seemed a rite of passage for us. Yes, we were living a frill-less life that was distinctly different and frequently laughable. Yet, it was this simple lifestyle that became the bridge to new friendships and earned respect.

Barb Kehrein lives on Madison’s east side. She teaches part-time at Countryside Montessori preschool and revels in playing with her two grandchildren.

Photo: “American Gothic” back-to-the-landers Barb and Marty Kehrein, circa 1976.