Chester Martin Remembers Some Places That Were Off The Grid

Friday, June 10, 2016 - by Chester Martin
Living off the grid near LaFayette, Ga.
Living off the grid near LaFayette, Ga.

Back when I first started at the University of Chattanooga, Miss Terrell Tatum, Head of the Department of Spanish, used to teach some Spanish history  along with the Spanish Language. One of her favorite topics was how the Moors had lived in Spain for 800 years before Ferdinand and Isabella drove them out. She had spent a lot of time in Spain and visited the ancient cities of the south, such as Cordova and Seville - where Moorish palaces still exist - that had running water, central heating, and many of the amenities of modern life.

This while in Northern Europe Charlemagne's court was still slogging around in the mud, traveling from one cold and dank castle to the next, as they had no certain home of their own. Think also of the mud hole that London once was at the time of Sir Walter Raleigh when he spread his cloak over one of many puddles so the Queen of England would not have to get her shoes wet...

I am thankful every day of my life that I live in the present age, horrible as certain things may be, but we at least have electricity and hot and cold running water, and that all the plumbing is indoors! What a blessing all that is! I have told my wife many times how grateful I am to live in the present age with all the amenities that were NOT available 100 years ago! I would never have survived!

When I was growing up, however, my dad had family who still lived in the first houses built along the Broomtown Road, south of LaFayette, Ga. These houses dated from the period immediately following the Cherokee Removal, about 1840. They were beautiful and very picturesque - but they were all "off the grid"! There was no indoor plumbing whatsoever, and that area was not in the Tennessee Valley watershed, so did not qualify for TVA power. Heating in the front of the house was accomplished by wood-burning fireplace; no coal was available, or was very hard to get. The kitchen was two rooms away and was warm only when cooking was being done. In summer it was far too hot. Living room and master bedroom were one and the same! I have been in many an old house where it was common to find one of  those old-fashioned beds that looked like a small mountain (because of its height) in one corner of the living room. When I visited there with my parents I was seeing life almost like it had been in Colonial times - and even for centuries earlier.

On a cold winter night, then, everyone sat in the living room around the fireplace in straight up "ladder back" chairs. The fire was cozy and warm, of course - to your front side - while your back side froze! Everyone would laugh about it at the time, but it was not really very pleasant. Plus, the room's only light would be from that same fireplace. Think about Abe Lincoln, supposedly studying by such poor lighting! Oil lamps were kept handy, of course, but were not used when the fireplace was going, unless for some special need. Oil was not always readily replaceable, and cash was something a farmer only came by at harvest season.

A "special need" might include wanting something from the kitchen - which was two rooms away. Remember? Doors between rooms were always kept closed in cold weather. The route into the kitchen was pitch black, so you had to ignite one of the stand-by oil lamps to light your trip to the kitchen. The wavering shadows cast by the lamp's flame were ever-changing, flickering in different directions to your every move. Lamplight is omni-directional, totally unlike a modern flashlight. You cannot aim  the light from your oil lamp, so  body motion and flame motion are in a sort of spooky competition. I much prefer overhead electric lights that have wall-switches that go "click"!

I will spare you all the delightful things you missed by having indoor plumbing and running water. But in the houses I am telling about, every drop of water used indoors had to be brought in from the well - which was outdoors. THAT was always a daytime job, so they would keep at least one bucket of frigid water stored in the kitchen. Water had to be heated in vessels that sat on the wood stove, mentioned earlier - and this heating process took forever. Any bathing was also done in daylight, and there was no such thing as a quick morning or bedtime shower. Drinking water was from the same storage bucket, and a tin drinking dipper (many times a gourd) was kept nearby for all the family to use. In the house I am telling about, the pathway to the well was roofed over, but you had to go two or three steps down from the kitchen to a wooden floor leading into and through a roofed wash-house, which had no doors. You pushed the well-covering open and fumbled with the icy cold tin bucket attached to an equally icy cold get the picture, I think. Just hope you didn't get frostbite!

Fortunately, I never was faced with the prospect of bathing in such a place! I think that if I had lived there I would have taken a lot fewer baths than I do now. I only slept one or two nights in such a house, happily, as bed time presented its own set of problems in frigid and pitch-black circumstances. Go figure it out for yourself! Oh, yes, the "bathroom", or "privy" was at least 75-100 feet from the house, making it impossible to use at night, so "chamber pots" would be provided beside each bed - exactly like the ones George and Martha Washington used at Mount Vernon in the 18th Century! Be grateful - even if you only have a "double wide" trailer to call home -so long as it is hooked up to a sewer or septic system! You are king of the universe if you do! Poor Charlemagne had none of that good stuff!

But back to kerosene lamps: I had always loved visiting in the country where kerosene lamps were regularly used for a time every evening.  I really got to loving the smell thrown off by such lamps and the odor always made me think of warmth, and comfort - and home (even though we did not use them in the city). Many years later, while in the U.S. Air Force, I rediscovered this comforting aroma on the departure end of runways: you would be driving along the road to the main gate when suddenly the strong smell of jet fuel would be wafted into your car. Jet fuel is just a highly refined form of kerosene - and the smell of it could transport me nostalgically back to my childhood and I would for a moment be re-living my own happy childhood memories of "out in the country".

(The picture shows the main house described in my story. It started about 1840 as two 18-foot-square log cabins with a breezeway in between. Later the breezeway was enclosed to make the one house you see in the photo. When electricity was added 110 years later, the electricians had a difficult time drilling through the logs where the wiring had to go. That house is still being used as a private home – and lighting is just a click away!)

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )





Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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