Couple honored for self-sufficiency
By Pam Reinig, Register Editor
In a newspaper article written nearly 25 years ago, Leslie and Andy Gibbons were described as modern-day pioneers for their decision to leave suburbia for a new life in the country. Their commitment to that decision and the hard work they’ve done to achieve their dream has earned them a new title: 2014 Homesteaders of the Year.
Leslie and Andy are one of three couples to share the honor presented annually by Mother Earth News, a national publication dedicated to simple living, recycling, family farms and related topics. The magazine has a circulation of more than 500,000.
With characteristic humility, the couple focuses less on the honor and more on their nomination. Their youngest child, Christie, now a pastor living in California, submitted their names for the honor.
“She was just a week old the day we signed the papers on our property, and just two when we moved here,” Leslie said. “Until she left for college, it was the only way of life she knew. It means a lot that she thought enough (about what we’d done) to nominate us.”
The couple has two other children, Carrie, who was 10 when they moved to Iowa, and Seth, who was 4. All three were raised without the electronic gadgetry that marked their friends’ coming-of-age years.
“They never seemed to miss it,” Leslie said. “They’d finish their schoolwork and then they’d run out the door, exploring and things like that.”
Andy and Leslie are native Chicagoans. They had a beautiful home in the Windy City suburb of Wheaton, where they also worked at good paying, demanding jobs to maintain their American dream lifestyle. But the rat race coupled with concerns about widespread drug use among school-aged children started taking a toll. The longer the family lived in Wheaton, the more Leslie and Andy craved a simpler, more wholesome and self-sufficient lifestyle. It was a dream shared by Leslie’s dad, Paul Sipe.
Though all three were committed to moving out of the Chicago area, they also wanted to be within a three- or four-hour drive of it.
“It’s where our families were and we didn’t want to be too far away from them,” Leslie said.
Paul was given the task of finding a backdrop of the trio’s revised American Dream. He quickly found 100 acres of hills and trees along the Volga River, a few miles northwest of Elkport. Paul purchased 50 acres; Leslie and Andy purchased the other half. Over the next two years, the Gibbons family remained in Chicago, saving for a permanent move to Iowa. Paul, who owned a contracting and construction company in Chicago, built his house and relocated ahead of his daughter’s family. He then helped Leslie and Andy build their home.
“Other than the plumbing, we did all of it ourselves,” said Andy, with hard-earned, well-deserved pride.
The couple’s 2,200-square-foot house has three bedrooms and two bathrooms. It took them less than two years to build and cost just over $20,000. A large three-seasons porch was recently added. It features four doors dated 1875 and oak flooring made from trees harvested on their property and cut with their own sawmill.
The entire home is heated with wood. To facilitate the building of the house and other projects, Andy built a sawmill. The property also includes an art studio for Leslie, a garage, barn and a guest cabin with outhouse, all hand-built by the couple.
The couple’s handiwork is evident in the land, as well. Formerly a cornfield, the acres are now native prairie and forest.
“We have about 20 acres of tillable land, on which we’ve planted rye grass, red clover, Timothy grass and foxtail,” they told Mother Earth News. “We plowed, disced and seeded these when we first moved in. We have frost-seeded wildflowers and prairie grass, too, including big bluestem. We pull the seeds off the grasses and spread them by hand. We sometimes dig up wildflowers, such as columbine, from nearby ditches and transplant them onto our property.”
Since moving to Iowa, the couple has lived debt-free, which was one of their original goals. They live simply and they have few expenses. They raise about 25 percent of what they eat and barter with neighboring Amish for goods they can’t produce. Hunters who use the couple’s guest cabin “pay” for their stay by sharing their meat. To earn money for expenses they can’t cover with labor or bartering, Andy works at several part-time jobs and Leslie makes and sells up-cycled goods.
A self-sufficient lifestyle is not without it’s challenges. Still, both Andy and Leslie are happy with the choice they made.
“People thought we were nuts when we became homesteaders,” they told Mother Earth News magazine, “but now we’ve proved them wrong! Well, some still think we’re nuts. To us, this means freedom—freedom from debt, from the feeling that we have to work all the time to pay our bills, from having the expensive cars, from the consumer lifestyle.”
The list of the Gibbons’ accomplishments as homesteaders is impressive, yet Andy isn’t quite satisfied.
“I thought we’d be farther along, even more self-sufficient,” he said. “But overall, I’m happy with what we’ve achieved. And I’d never go back.”
The couple has an impressive list of future goals, which they shared with the magazine interviewer.
“We’ve resolved to begin farming in the neighborhood,” they said. “With our expansion into three neighbors’ yards this year, we have the potential to provide nearly all of our family’s fresh produce, as well as sell to others. We are actively looking for restaurants and small businesses that will allow us to pick up food waste to begin composting on a larger scale. We continue to find ways to incorporate repurposed materials into our building projects. Longer range, we’d like to have solar panels and a full greywater collection system, host community workshops to share thrifty-living tips and know-how, start selling bread baked in our new handmade, wood-fired bread oven—the list goes on!”
The issue of Mother Earth News that features the Gibbons is currently on sale. Interviews and more stories of families practicing a do-it-yourself lifestyle are available on the magazine’s website: www.MotherEarthNews.com/Star-Modern-Homesteaders.