ALEXANDER, Maine — On the crest of a hill along Route 9 is the entrance to a couple’s dream, a lane about one-tenth of a mile long, only partly covered with gravel and the muddy ruts thankfully frozen so vehicles can drive up to their home, which is within sight of the rear of Alexander Elementary School.
There, in their tiny, unfinished home, Brian and Susan Giles have embarked on their journey of hewing out a life as homesteaders. They have a ways to go.
The Gileses are committed to pursuing a lifestyle of living “off the grid” and eschewing many of the modern conveniences others take for granted — for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is they want to demonstrate to other young adults that they can live affordably and comfortably — albeit modestly — in impoverished Washington County.
“Washington County loses young people,” said Brian Giles, 36. “People graduate high school here and go to college and don’t come back here. … There’s not a lot of opportunity for them. It causes the ‘brain drain.’”
“We think it’s important,” he added, to try to create a life together and at the same time to demonstrate to other young adults that they can live modestly in Washington County without being burdened by heavy debt, such as a home mortgage. Giles recalled a saying frequently attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change that you want to see in the world.”
Brian Giles is one of those young men and women who left Washington County to pursue their ambitions. He spent his boyhood in Bangor, but his family moved to Baileyville when he was about 14, and he graduated from Woodland High School. He pursued work as an actor and stand-up comic — he was an admitted “class clown” — for a few years before attending the University of Southern Maine, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in geography and anthropology with a minor in philosophy. He obtained work as an archaeologist in New Orleans for a few years, all the while continuing his pursuit of acting and comedy along the East Coast.
Giles began immersing himself in books about homesteading when he grew disillusioned during the recession of the early 2000s. He began looking for land to buy and purchased 38 acres with owner financing in 2006. “That’s when I started to dream about building my own house,” he said, and growing his own food and living sustainably. He later purchased more land and now has 60 acres.
Susan Giles grew up in Vanceboro, in the northeasternmost portion of the county, and went to high school in New Brunswick — the nearest high school in Maine would have been Lee Academy, a two-hour drive one-way. She earned a bachelor’s degree in criminology and psychology from the University of Fredericton, N.B.
Unable to get a job in her field, she worked in a grocery store for several years before accepting a position as a behavior specialist for the Aroostook Mental Health Center, which has facilities in Washington County, and moving to Calais in order to be closer to her family.
Brian Giles began working for the same agency about three months later, and they became friends; he teaches special education, and she works with troubled youngsters. They began dating and eventually married.
Susan Giles, 29, said she was somewhat familiar with homesteading before she met him, “but I never understood what it really meant.” She read “The Good Life” by Scott and and Helen Nearing and other books as he shared his interest with her. She became intrigued, she said, especially that people could live with “so little and still be so happy.”
The Gileses homestead is a work in progress, both their house and land.
Their house was designed by a friend, Alex Lehnen of Portland, an architect. “He’s an inspirational guy,” said Brian Giles, adding that Lehnen designed a “small but comfortable” house. “There’s plenty of room to do everything we need to do.” The two-story house, which the couple moved into in June 2013, has a footprint of only 16 feet by 24 feet. It has a lot of southern exposure that the Gileses plan to take advantage of by installing more windows in the future. The first floor contains their bathroom, kitchen, and living room with a kitchen table and chairs to eat. The second floor contains one large bedroom with one end doubling as a family room with a sofa and television.
They unabashedly salvaged both materials and furnishings. They found their 1920 wood stove on the side of the road and had it refurbished. The kitchen cabinets came from an old house in Calais. Kitchen table, windows, door and bathtub were similarly salvaged — Brian Giles calls it recycling and upcycling.
The Gileses rely on their refurbished wood stove for heat. For cooking, their kitchen stove burns propane. Although they live off the grid, they have a gasoline-powered generator they run occasionally.
“It’s not the ideal situation,” noted Brian Giles, to rely on a gasoline generator for a sustainable living lifestyle, but it is a temporary solution.
Though they also use oil lamps and candles, the couple employs a system of batteries — recharged regularly by the generator — to power some lights, their television and other devices that require electricity. They have running water in the kitchen and bathroom, but the pump is powered by the generator, so they periodically run the water and fill up numerous bottles and jugs to store water. Their shower is a small camp-type one, filled with hot water from a large pot left continually on the wood stove. Their toilet for now is a mere five gallon bucket — with a seat — and sawdust; eventually they plan to purchase a composting toilet.
“We’ve just been roughing it,” said Giles. For refrigeration, the Gileses rely on ice and coolers. They make their own ice in winter by putting bottles or jugs of water outside; in the summer they purchase ice from local stores.
For a while the couple was able to keep batteries charged with a 100-watt solar electrical system consisting of four solar panels that they received as a wedding gift. However, the solar panels were damaged by high wind in the fall. (The Gileses have established a website where people may make a donation to help them obtain a new solar energy system; the website is http://youcaring.com/gileslandiasolardream.)
They have about 7,000 square feet of land devoted for gardening. Susan Giles “is the driving force” behind their efforts to produce their own food, acknowledged her husband, who called her the “master force” of the garden. Last summer they grew garlic, onions, carrots, potatoes and beans. She canned tomato soup, pickles, corn relish and other food. They also have reclaimed an old field and are trying to bring along a number of indigenous apple trees. Some of the open land has blueberries that will eventually be cultivated. They plan to add livestock, too, probably starting with chickens and goats.
Brian Giles plans to continue in the teaching profession, which will allow him to use his summers for working on their land and in the garden. Susan Giles hopes eventually to devote herself to homesteading full-time, including growing extra food they can sell and perhaps having a small consignment bakery business.
Help from family, friends and neighbors has been essential, the couple said.
“This is one of those kind of places … where your neighbors will help you,” said Giles. “You can barter and trade for things that you need. You can rely on your self and skills in order to survive.”
“We got a lot of support from the local community,” said Giles, including labor to build their house. The area is home to about 10-20 other homesteading families or couples, he estimated. They singled out Ted and Liz Carter, who homestead nearby, for giving them assistance, including some financial help.
“I don’t know if we could have done this … any place but Washington County,” said Brian Giles. “The people here have shown how strong and supportive a community can be. I don’t know if it exists anywhere else.”