New books available from Cumberland Books

After way too long, I’ve finally added the Herrick Kimball collection to the Cumberland Books website. For those of you thinking of raising your own chickens and those who are actually doing it, Herrick has come up with homemade designs for two critical gizmos—a chicken plucker and a chicken scalder—that won’t break the bank and that will give you the satisfaction that making something useful always yields. And for those of you who aren’t yet to the chicken-raising stage, you’ll admire these books as excellent examples of how to guide a willing novice through the process of building a mechanical device.

Oh, and there’s also a short treatise on the wonders of garlic powder—what makes a garlic powder great, how to grow great garlic, and how to turn that great garlic into a great powder.

Home for the holidays

Christmas is a very family-centered activity for us. Since Chris’ birthday is December 24, we’ve tried hard to not let it get lost in a holiday whirl, and so we’ve developed a routine that keeps us home and in one another’s company. As with any other birthday, Chris gets special treatment in getting to select the day’s menu. In the afternoon we put up the Christmas tree and decorate it. Dinner will be a birthday extravaganza with birthday cards and presents to follow. Then we may or may not watch a video of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” (the George C. Scott version). The next day there is a special breakfast, presents are opened, and a large holiday meal follows in the early afternoon.

This year it’ll be a little different, because of Christmas coming on a Sunday. We’ll venture out soon after presents are opened, and the holiday meal won’t be quite as elaborate because we won’t have the morning to prepare it. But it’ll still be an enjoyable and special time for us all.

Next year one of the projects that Chris and I have taken on is a daily fifteen-minute Ridgewood Boys podcast. We have a number of reasons for doing it, and getting the podcast widely heard isn’t one of them. But we hope that at least some people will hear and enjoy it. This afternoon we recorded the first three installments of the program. The podcast will make its debut in another place on January 2, but we thought it would be good to give readers of the weblog a preview. Feedback is welcome; send it to

Podcast—Week One, Monday

Podcast—Week One, Tuesday
Podcast—Week One, Wednesday

Plain Talk recordings almost done

The recordings will probably be available for sale next week, after we deal with the usual unexpected delays (the label printer ran out of ink, the automatic disc duplicator went on the fritz). But I thought I’d share the cover art with you. The picture will be on the front, the text on the back.

Can we even imagine what a small town would look like if its residents were truly obedient to the Word of God? Pastor Thomas McConnell not only has a vision for such a town, he and his flock at Covenant Reformed Church in Rayville, Missouri are actively engaged in the hard and joyful work of creating a community founded on the principles of biblical agrarianism. Join us for some plain talk about the path to forming such a community, and the joys and sorrows which lie along that path.

God wants His children to be peacefully content, having an unshakable confidence that He will provide for our every need. And He often develops these attitudes in us by thwarting our own carefully laid plans—and then giving us something far better than we could have ever imagined for ourselves. Just ask Christina Fuller, who prepared for a career as a social worker but found herself inexorably guided into a life centered on husband and family and dairy cows. Join us for some plain talk about contentment, providence, and good food.

Jim Cutler grew up on a farm in Iowa, but like many modern young men he didn’t want to stay there. Instead he married, studied civil engineering in college, pursued a career in a high-techology industry, and moved to another state. But even in this God had a different plan for Jim and his family, one that involved returning to Iowa, buying a farmstead, renovating an old farmhouse, and slowly building a multi-generational family business that raises and sells clean food. Join us for some plain talk about family friendly farming before the face of God.

Although I had been working toward a simpler life for many years, my introduction to agrarian thinking came in late 1999, when I stumbled across View from an Iowa Homestead, John VanDyk’s new weblog. We became friends, first in cyberspace and then in person. When we get together the conversation ranges widely and is always thought-provoking—and, as you’ll hear on this recording, I tend to dominate it. Still, I think you’ll enjoy hearing us engage in some plain talk about the difficulties of rural living, the challenge of developing skills we weren’t raised with, and the need to temper our ideals with reality.

Nobody doesn’t love to read Tom Scepaniak’s weblog, Northern Farmer. It is filled with practical wisdom and earthy observations from a man who is not only carrying on the family farm with his father, but has taken it in new directions by rejecting the propaganda spewed out by Big Ag, looking instead to the past for ways to make his farm healthier and more productive. On top of all that, he has somehow figured out how to write with a Minnesota accent! Join us for some plain talk about the goodness of a farming life, the rewards of hard physical labor, and the joys of using one’s own loving hands to provide for a family in ways that money simply can’t buy.

John Mesko grew up on a farm in Minnesota and wanted to stay there, but his Dad told him that he could always farm later but needed to go to college soon. So John went to Purdue University and immersed himself in the world of Big Ag, both as a university extension agent and as a corporation man. He learned enough to decide that he wanted something different for his wife and family, and has since begun to explore the possibilities of small scale farming. Join us for some plain talk about corporate slavery, the dangers of industrial agriculture, and the joys of living an agrarian life and teaching others about it.

Chad was kind enough to spend part of a visit with us recording the first of these conversations, a trial run that I hoped would be good enough to release. Well, the conversation was good, but I made the mistake of having us sit on our porch for the recording, and the noise of the wind is intolerable. The picture I took for the cover didn’t turn out well, either, because I neglected to use a fill flash. Chad has graciously agreed to try it over again in the near future. Meanwhile, I thought I’d at least memorialize the experiment, since even though it didn’t work out it inspired me to get on with the project.

What I've learned so far about wood heat

The best website I’ve found that talks about heating with wood is The articles there are practical and informative, and I learned what basic practical fire-building skills I now have from reading them. The fellow who writes the site is an advocate of what he calls “top-down” burns, meaning that you place kindling on top of the woodpile rather than under it. I tried it once and it didn’t work well, but at that point I hadn’t built many fires at all, so the disappointing results may have been due to operator error.

It took a little experimentation, but I can now reliably build a fire from scratch that will blaze quickly. Things went smoothly once I learned that air space between and under the logs is a good thing. I layer the fuel by first putting down some newsprint (not too much), followed by small kindling and then larger kindling, arranged so that logs placed on top of the kindling will have lots of air underneath. Then I light the newspaper and close the stove door; the logs begin to blaze in just a couple of minutes.

I have a thermometer that magnetically attaches to the stove; on top, near the stovepipe, the temperature has read anywhere from 500 to 800 degrees with a good fire burning. 500 degrees seems to be a good place for the stove when the house is as warm as we want it, 600 is good for gradually rasing the temperature, 700 if it is cold and we want to warm the downstairs quickly, 800 is where I get nervous and shut down the air supply.

During the daytime I periodically add wood to fill the stove about halfway; I’m usually refueling every hour or so. In the past few days I’ve tried for overnight burns by letting the fire burn down to embers just before bed, then stuffing the stove as full as possible, getting the logs to start flaming, then shutting the air supply almost completely off. This is good for about five hours. I did this last night at 10:30pm, then woke up at 4am to find that the stove was just warm with a thin layer of embers left. I filled it completely again, got the fire going (a little kindling was needed), and when I checked it again at 7am the stove was still hot, no flames but huge piles of charcoal. I think if I move the middle-of-the-night refueling back to 3am it will work well.

While I’ve been experimenting the temperatures have been fairly mild, usually lows in the mid-20s, occasionally warmer. There have been a few cold nights where the temperature has dropped to 12 degrees; those were early on, though, and so I’m not sure if I know enough yet to keep the house tolerably warm during the coldest winter nights. Some of it will surely involve adaptation on our part; it’s a modern luxury to wake up in a warm bedroom.

One topic I’m not having much luck in researching is the matter of heat sinks. When I was visiting Jim Cutler, I saw that he had built a wall of brick behind his wood stove, and that the raised floor on which it sits is also massive. He told me that the stove heats the walls and floor during the day, which continue to release their heat during the night. Since then I’ve found information about masonry stoves, which take the heat sink principle in an extreme direction by using very hot, very short fires to heat a huge mass of brick, which then will radiate heat for twelve hours or longer. But I’ve found nothing to indicate that anyone tries to improve their stove’s efficiency by surrounding it with bricks or anything else.

Christmas songs

We’re not done yet, and I haven’t even had time to tweak these in the audio editor. But they are Christmas songs after all, and you ought to have an opportunity to hear them before Christmas. Here’s the five we have done so far.

Turkey Ran Away
O Mary, Where is Your Baby
Star in the East
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
Lullay, the Son of Mary

Again, random notes

In my last post I mentioned that the usual year-end obligations were leaving me short of time for posting on this weblog. Well, shortly after I wrote that I found myself with some unexpected work that has taken up most of my time for the past two weeks. Now the work is done, I think, but I am also two weeks behind on everything else. I’ll catch up eventually, but some things I promised for mid-December (like the Plain Talk recordings) won’t be available that soon.

Speaking of the Plain Talk recordings, they are turning out really well. I have finished editing five conversations, am halfway through the sixth, and have one more to do after that. I would like to have an eighth recording ready before I make them available, but the one I had planned has needed to be rescheduled twice now, and so I don’t know if it will happen.

The content of the recordings is very good, but some folks will want them just to hear the voices of the people who write their favorite weblogs. I don’t think they’ll be disappointed.

One of the fairly urgent tasks I’ve been putting off is recording a Christmas CD. After preparing for three Christmas programs this month we have fairly polished versions of a number of Christmas songs, and Debbie thought it would be a good idea to make a CD of one-take recordings of the songs for my mother’s Christmas present. A great idea, but one we’d better execute pretty quickly if we want to get it to her on time. We may record the songs tonight, if I get the equipment set up. After we’ve recorded them, we may make them available to others in some form—as downloads, or on CD-R discs.

We’ve done two of the Christmas programs so far, and they’ve both gone well. The program lasts around ninety minutes, half of it performances by various folks and half of it singalong, all led by our friend Ron Short. We accompany Ron during the singalongs, and we also sing three songs on our own. The two programs were held in small rural towns in eastern Kentucky, Blackey and Cowan, and both of them had more than 100 people attending.

Next Friday will be the third and last program, at the Appalshop theater in Whitesburg, where around 200 people will be in the audience. It will also be broadcast on Appalshop’s radio station, WMMT, which has an internet feed if anyone is interested.

Today we ransomed our minivan from the body shop, the one that was sideswiped by a deer. The cost was over $4200, all of it paid by the insurance company, just $600 short of the blue book value. When I picked it up the fellow explained to me how he had juggled a few things to get the cost to exactly equal the insurance company estimate. He also told me that the estimate had specified labor as costing $35/hr, whereas his rate was actually $38/hr, but that he would be working with the insurance company to get the difference paid to him—he wouldn’t ask me for it. I just sighed, said thanks, and signed my name.