Aislinn's Challenge: Old-Time Living at the Pioneer Homestead

Note:  This guest blog was written by 16-year-old Aislinn Niimi to fulfill the adventure/challenge part of her application for the Congressional Awards program.   To achieve gold, Aislinn needed to step outside her comfort zone and have an outward bound, life-changing experience.  She chose to embrace old-time living in our 1930’s off-the-grid Pioneer House.  This is what she had to say about her adventure:

In early 2018 I started looking at different Expedition and Exploration ideas.  My aunt agreed to accompany me on this adventure, and we started discussing options.  One idea we had was to do a farm stay.  We researched various options and contacted several farms, but none of them felt like a good fit for what we wanted to do.  In March we found a farm in the mountains of North Carolina that had a house called the Old Farm House.  This was an old house with modern amenities.  While reading about Willet Ponds Farm on their website we discovered that they also had a house called the Pioneer House.  It was just being made available and was not yet advertised.  It was built in the 1930s but was maintained in a more rustic style.  It had no electricity, plumbing, AC, wifi, gas, cell service, or any other modern conveniences.   It had a wood-fire stove, a spring running through the back for refrigeration, an outhouse, and candles and oil lamps instead of overhead light.  I discussed it with my aunt, and we decided that it would be a memorable and unique experience.  We reached out to the owners of the farm, Walton and Betty Conway, about a farm stay.   We would be the first people to stay in the Pioneer House since the Conways had fixed it up so they wanted to make sure we were prepared for the pioneer lifestyle.  We picked the last week of May for our stay and began planning.  In April I emailed Mr. Conway with some questions about the house and the farm, such as what supplies we would need to work and cook.  On May 21st my aunt and I met to finalize our menu.  We decided that we not only wanted to have a farm experience, but that we wanted it to be a Pioneer experience as well, and tried to make only foods that would have been eaten in the 1930s.  When making our meal plan we had to keep in mind how we would keep our food cold: some things could go in the spring to keep cool, but we would bring an ice chest for things we wanted to keep colder for a few days.  This was one of two “modern convenience” adjustments we made. However we only planned to have two days’ worth of food in the ice chest.  The other modern convenience was the battery operated lantern we brought.   In addition to helping out with farm chores and living an old-fashioned lifestyle, I planned to hike the trails on the farm almost every day, canoe on the nearby New River, and explore the mountain communities.  It would be a combination “farm stay” and “outdoor adventure”.  My 13-year-old brother joined us as this kind of trip appealed to him. 

Our plans had to be adjusted on the very first day.  When we arrived at the farm on the first day, it had been raining very hard for two days, and would continue to do so intermittently for the next two days.  Canoeing was out because of the dangerous conditions on the New River, and hiking was limited due to flash flood warnings in the area.   However, no matter how hard it rained, the animals still needed to be taken care of so we had to walk to the main barn area across a field and along the creek in the rain to care for the animals.  We didn’t mind, though, because it was a lot of fun caring for the animals.  Even though we only were able to go hiking for one day and only went fishing for two days, we were still kept very busy with chores and just living the pioneer life.  

 Mr. Conway met us the first day to show us how to use the stove and gave us a tip which was both valuable and put to good use: Make your main meal early in the day: otherwise it takes so long to heat up the oven that you will spend your entire afternoon tending the oven in order to get the meal ready before the light fades outside.


So from day one we had to adjust the meal plan we had created.  We made our dinner early on the first day as soon as we got the fire going.  From that day forward we would start the fire in the morning, make breakfast, and then go right into making the main meal which we would cook and then either leave in the oven to keep warm as long as the heat held or attempt to reheat on the outside campfire, weather permitting.    Cooking took much longer than we expected, and was like a full time job.  We had to start a fire every time we wanted to cook something, and the stove top took about half an hour to heat up, while the oven took an hour and a half to heat.   We then had to heat up water for dishes or bathing.  Even though we would get up at sunrise, it was always darker inside the house due to the walls, and trying to build a fire in the dark was difficult, which is why we laid it the evening before, beginning on our second night.  That way, all we would have to do in the morning was strike a match, as my aunt needed her coffee and I needed breakfast.  It still took a long time before coffee (for my aunt) and breakfast (for me) was ready.  We were both grumpy in the morning as we waited.  Only my 13 year old brother, who managed to sleep past sun-up, was unaffected by the delay.  While cooking took a long time, we were never in a rush (except when we were hungry), so it didn’t bother us. 

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We used oil lamps and candles as well as our battery operated camp light but found ourselves quickly into the routine of going to bed early when it was dark outside and rising with the dawn.  Even with those, though, it was very hard to see if it wasn’t bright outside.  The lack of lights took some getting used to, and it took us three days before we stopped reaching for the light switch every time we walked into a room.    For the first few days we helped with the farm chores, played board games inside, and cooked. 


We had good weather the last two days, and were able to go hiking, fish, and to work in the raspberry patch next to our house.  There was a beautiful creek that ran near our house, and a spring that actually ran through the back room of our house, so the sound of running water was the background noise for the week.  I was very relaxed, and the lack of internet or cell service didn’t bother me; in fact I was sad when we left and my emails and messages started flooding in.  We did miss the ability to instantly look up facts on Google when we were playing games or having a conversation.   I am an avid reader and the one thing I did not do, that I thought I would, was read.  There was never any time, but I felt so relaxed that I didn’t miss not having time to sit and read.  When it was time to leave the last day I almost felt like crying.  I didn’t want to go back to my busy life of school and studying and all the other things that take up my time.  Even though we were working it was somehow a very peaceful experience, and I was sorry to leave the Pioneer House.

Staying at the Pioneer House was one of the best experiences of my life.  I am no longer intimidated by the thought of no electricity, indoor plumbing, or Wi-Fi.  In fact, I would consider doing something like this again.  It was a very refreshing and fun experience.  Interacting with the animals, whether it was feeding chickens, petting dogs, moving rabbits or watching the horses from the front porch, was a highlight for me.  I know having animals is a lot of work, but it is fun too.   I hope to have a lot of animals when I grow up. 


We did have to make adjustments in what we ate and when, but we decided that cooking on the wood-fire stove was less difficult than we thought it would be.  Getting time to spend with each other playing games was something I really relished.  We own a lot of games but never set aside the time to play them, and one of the things I discovered was how much fun they are (even though that seems obvious), especially when playing with family.   My aunt also let my brother and me be more independent than my mother does.  My mother would never have allowed us to walk to the farm or go hiking alone or light the fire in the stove.   Brice and I walked to the main barn by ourselves every day and did our chores.    We also went hiking alone one day.   When mom found out, she wasn’t too happy about it.  But I’m 16 and I told her that when I go to college, I’m going to have to do things for myself, even though it probably won’t include lighting fires.  Learning about farm work and pioneer life was an eye-opening experience.  It’s hard work, but it’s also very rewarding.