Allen C. Benson, Writer, Photographer, Librarian

Back-to-the-Land: The Ozark Mountains Experience

This photographic essay tells the story of a back-to-the-land experience which began in February 1989 and lasted through July 1992. For three years Gayle and I lived on 55 acres near the Buffalo National River in north central Arkansas where we built two small cabins, raised free-range chickens, practiced organic gardening, captured a spring, and designed a gravity-flow water system.


Here I am playing a Hohner button accordion for a young visitor. We used the galvanized wash boiler setting on the wooden table behind me to heat water for washing dishes and taking showers. The outdoor shower system consisted of a 2.5-gallon jug hanging from a tree branch. The jug was fitted with a ball valve, short hose extension, and shower nozzle.
View of pole building. Poles are made of Eastern Red Cedar, which has fragrant, brownish-red heartwood naturally resistant to rot. Board and batten siding is locally grown, rough-sawn, yellow pine. Birdhouse gourds (Mexican Bottle Gourds) are growing in the foreground. There’s an old Ford 8N tractor parked in the shed. The drive-through design accommodates easy access to the mining road over which the shed is built.

The fish skeleton above the tractor shed is fashioned after the logo used by the Swiss Mariner’s Fife and Drum Corps, Basel, Switzerland.

Cutting corrugated metal roofing for the pole building. Excavation for this building, as well as the cabins, was done by hand to avoid disturbing the natural surroundings. There is an organic, raised bed in the foreground, left side. The tree growing
The completed pole building. Hubcaps found along Highway 14 are mounted on the front wall. A galvanized washtub, used for bathing until a shower was built, hangs on the sidewall. A stack of rough-sawn yellow pine, stickered for air-drying, is setting in the foreground. Stickers are 1x2 in. spacers placed every 14 inches or so between each layer of boards. Stickers promote air circulation and help keep the boards straight while drying.
Front view of the pole building taken during mid-summer, 1991. Sweet corn is growing in the organic raised bed. Resting a heavy slab of Eastern Red Cedar between large stones made the bench in the foreground. The potting stand on the right was built from yellow pine that was leftover after finishing the pole building.
Detail of pole building’s joists and cedar poles.
Detail of pole building’s exposed rafter ends.
Handmade trestle bench and tea table. The trestle bench is modeled after a handmade Swedish bench I found in a cabin I renovated on Big Island, Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota, ca. 1987. I built the bench using western pine and used yellow poplar to build the tea table.
Here I am making Swedish trestle-style benches for sale at local craft shops.
The foundation system used for Cabin No.2 is called post and girder. The floor joists rest on top of two girders running full length of the house. The girders are bolted to posts that are set in concrete.
In the summer of 1990 we started building a second cabin, a larger, more substantial cabin than the first cabin. The siding was made from 4x8 sheets of channel-groove cedar plywood siding.
We devised systems for holding roof members in place while getting ready to install roof rafters. Here I use a vertical brace to hold the ridge board in place. The ridge board is the board that runs along the top edge of all the roof rafters.
Cabin No.2 near completion. The 12x16 section on the right provides space for storage and a woodworking shop. The multi-lite window on the end of the building was salvaged from a discarded double-hung sash window. I turned one sash on its side, attached hinges, and fastened it to a custom-built window frame to create a casement window that opened outward.
View of the backside of Cabin No.2 facing Bear Hollow. The small, green building on the right side of the photograph houses the water pump, storage tank, and pressure tank. An outdoor shower is attached to the outside of the pump house
The bathroom in Cabin No.2 has a washbasin, small 2x2 shower stall and composting toilet (not shown). The walls are made from western cedar.
Cabin No.2, view of entrance to the bathroom from the kitchen. The composting toilet is to the left of the doorway.
Long view of completed cabin No.2. The only excavation performed during construction was done in the foreground. A bulldozer came in and leveled an area large enough for a turnaround. Clearing for the building site was all done by hand to minimize disturbing the natural plant life around the house.
View of cabin No.2. We grew buckwheat in the raised beds and then tilled it back into the soil just after the flowers appeared and before the seeds had a chance to set. Buckwheat grows quickly in warm weather and serves as an excellent green manure. The structure behind the raised beds is a composting bin made from hickory saplings.
Front view of cabin No.2. There is a small, handmade bird feeder attached to the top of the red cedar stump near the boardwalk. The stone fire pit and wooden deck served as an outdoor kitchen.
Detail of the exposed rafter ends on the outdoor composting toilet.
View of the inside of the main living area in cabin No.2. All of the windows in this cabin were salvaged from buildings being torn down. Cabin No.2 was designed to accommodate each window's individual size and shape.
View of cabin No.2. From this viewpoint the chicken house is just to the right and the spring branch that supplies the home's water system is higher up the hill and to the left.
This is the first cabin we built shortly after arriving on the property in February 1989. We attended Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis where we briefly studied architectural drafting. Before leaving for the Ozarks, we drew up the blue prints for this small cabin that measures 8x10 feet (2.438 x 3.048 meters). Like cabin No.2, this cabin also used salvaged doors and windows and the walls were designed to accommodate their various sizes and shapes. The cabin’s foundation consists of dry-stacked stones placed under each corner of the house. The cabin took about 10 days to build.
Winter scene (probably around March 1989), cabin No.1. Construction is started on additional storage space in back. Snow is rare in the Ozarks and usually melts away after a day or two.
Cabin No.1 was non-electric. A kerosene lantern (a #80 blizzard lantern from Lehman's hardware catalog) provided light and a kerosene space heater was used to heat the cabin on cold days. Non-potable water was captured from a spring branch using an Ozark credit card, which was a local euphemism for a short section of rubber hose used for siphoning.
View of the interior showing the kitchen area. Water was supplied by gravity flow to the plastic washbasin. Water was stored in 5-gallon plastic containers mounted outside on the back cabin wall. The PVC pipe extending down from the sink drained grey water into a simple French drain, which was nothing more than a trench filled with gravel directing the water away from the house.
Rear storage area is finished. Several cans of fuel mixtures are needed for chain saws, kerosene heater and lanterns. A gas operated, 4000-watt Briggs & Stratton generator was used when building the cabins. The generator powered various electric hand tools.
Framing cabin No.1 is complete. It's difficult to see from the photo, but the cabin is setting about 4 feet from the edge of a bluff--a vertical drop of about 40 feet. The green you see behind the cabin is the tops of trees growing at the base of the bluff.
Long view of cabin No.2 in the winter. The overstory trees in this part of the Ozarks consists mainly of Eastern Red Cedar, Yellow Pine, American Sycamore, Gum, and several varieties of Hickory and Oak. The most common understory trees are Dogwood, Redbud, Serviceberry, and further down in the hollow it's common to see Witch-hazel and Pawpaw.
Interior view of cabin No.2 with vaulted ceiling and built-in storage cabinet.
Interior view of cabin No.2 showing built-in storage cabinets located where the roofline meets the loft floor.
Simple chest made of pine and cedar built to fit between the end of the bed mattress and the edge of the loft floor.
One of the free-ranging Barred Plymouth Rock chickens we raised. Chicks were purchased at Miller Hardware Co. in Harrison, Arkansas.
View of the chicken house in summer 1991.
Detail showing exposed rafter ends on chicken house roof. The chicken house was built using rough-sawn, local yellow pine.
View of the chicken house in January 1992.
Interior view of the chicken house.
We faced two challenges gardening on his land: lack of sunlight and lack of rich topsoil. Our land was classified as Clarksville soil. Clarksville consists mostly of chert (also called flint), clay, and carbonate rocks (limestone and dolomite). Along the high ridges the ground was dry with little or no topsoil. The deeper you traveled down into the hollows the topsoil became darker and richer.
Scarecrow scared away the birds, deer and tourists.
The ground was more shaded in the hollows and the shade helped retain moisture throughout all the seasons. The high moisture content helped decompose the leaves lying on the forest floor. We raked the leaves and rich, moist humus into large piles on rainy days and added cottonseed meal into the mix to help breakdown the leaves more quickly. The compost in this photograph is one year old and was the only source of nutrients for the raised beds.

© 2008 Allen C. Benson. All Rights Reserved