SANGERVILLE, MAINE — Forty years ago, a retired Air Force captain and his family built a bunker-like home on a stake of land in rural Sangerville and prepared for the worst.
The man, Will Cobb, had seen a lot — maybe too much — during his military career, according to a yellowing newspaper clipping from 1982 that tells the family’s story. He expected disasters to befall the planet, including the potential for nuclear war, nuclear winter and a total collapse of the global economy and civil order.
But Will and Lila Cobb were survivalists, and they banked on their ability to take care of themselves. Toward that end, they tended a 1-acre garden, planted a small orchard and stocked their small pond with brook trout. More unusually, part of the house was buried 4 feet deep into a manmade hill. They counted on it to function as a nuclear fallout shelter, built as it was with 10-inch cement slabs and 7 tons of reinforced steel girders. It was stocked with hundreds of jars of canned goods and an 80-gallon tank full of fresh water, just in case.
The disasters they prepared for did not come to pass, and time went on normally for the family. By 2014, both Cobbs had died and the house was on the market. It caught the attention of a Michigan couple, who had taken a very different path to arrive at the same place as the Cobbs did in the 1970s.
Transitioning from grass to grub
Stephen DeGoosh and Brooke Isham had been living in Marquette, Michigan, a small university city of about 20,000 located in the state’s forested Upper Peninsula. DeGoosh, 68, is a retired professor of geography, planning and sustainability, who grew up in western Maine. Isham, 34, is originally from Flint, Michigan, where her parents always kept a big garden and put up a lot of the family’s food from it.
“That made an impression,” she said. “But I didn’t really think a lot about sustainability until I met Steve.”
When she did start thinking about it, the idea took root. In Marquette, they lived in a small lot in a neighborhood where they raised some eyebrows among the neighbors when they dug up the entire front yard and much of the backyard to grow their own food. They kept chickens, planted all kinds of vegetables and fruit trees and even grew more unusual offerings such as hazelnuts and hops. DeGoosh took a course in permaculture design and used his yard to implement the things he was learning.
“We were definitely odd in regard to the neighborhood,” Isham said. “[Steve] had lived there 20-some years and never really talked to some of the neighbors before.”
“When we transformed the yard from grass to grub, they all came over, asking, ‘What the heck are you doing?’” DeGoosh chimed in.
Eventually, skepticism turned to enthusiasm. A neighbor who agreed to let the couple use her yard as a staging area for their compost delivery asked for their help when she decided to plant her own fruit trees. Marquette was just that kind of place, according to DeGoosh and Isham.
“We had a great community there,” Isham said.
But having that community wasn’t enough to keep them there. The duo is part of the international Transition movement, which aims to respond to global challenges such as climate change by building self-sufficient communities that are much less dependent on things like oil. The movement started in England about 10 years ago, DeGoosh said, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the United States soon after that. There are 160 designated “Transition towns” in the United States, including three in Maine — Portland, Belfast and Ellsworth.
People who believe in the Transition movement often talk about peak oil, the notion that oil demand is greater than the global supply. DeGoosh and Isham are among those who think the decline of oil reserves will be deeply problematic for humans, especially those who live in communities that have come to depend on oil to run their cars, heat their homes, grow and transport their food and much, much more.
Peak oil is a controversial but not a crackpot theory and has had such proponents as Matthew Simmons, an international energy expert from Maine, who worked to create a more environmentally sustainable future for the state until his 2010 death.
“The United States’ oil reserves peaked around 1970, and we’ve been in decline for our own production since then,” DeGoosh said. “It has led [Americans] to be more dependent on foreign oil and more vulnerable.”
He and others who are part of the Transition movement believe oil will become more and more costly to extract from the earth, and as it becomes more expensive, it will lead to a disruptive future. Some of that disruption is happening now, DeGoosh said, including the current unrest in Syria.
“How it plays out, we don’t know. Nobody’s quite got the lock on the crystal ball, but it’s probably time to change gears and get to a place where we can do the kinds of things we want to and work out the details so we can get as proficient at it as we can,” DeGoosh said.
Leaving Michigan, finding Sangerville
For DeGoosh and Isham, changing gears meant leaving their small plot of land in Marquette and building a new homestead somewhere else. They wanted to leave Michigan because food security is very important to them, and they witnessed how a state agency had come close to putting friends who raised heritage Mangalitsa hogs on a small family farm there out of business. That didn’t sit well with DeGoosh and Isham, who want to be free to grow their own food and purchase grains, produce, dairy, meat and other foods from local suppliers.
“Friends of ours had seen their livelihood influenced negatively by conflict with rulemaking by a state agency that made decisions to the favor of industrial hog raising to the detriment of small-scale hog raising,” DeGoosh said.
That’s why the couple was searching for a place to live that had a robust food sovereignty movement, and Maine fit the bill. To date, 18 municipalities across the Pine Tree state have adopted food sovereignty ordinances. Under those ordinances, local food producers are exempt from state licensing and inspections governing the selling of food, as long as the transactions are for home consumption or for community events such as church suppers.
There is a strong connection between the food sovereignty and the Transition movements, DeGoosh and Isham said.
“The point of Transition is that to have your community more resilient. You need each other,” Isham said. “We really need a community. We’re not going to grow everything ourselves. If we can rely on our neighbors to have the food we want, that’s great. I think every town should have that.”
Maine appealed to the couple for other reasons than food sovereignty, too. DeGoosh’s adult children live in the Portland area, and the burgeoning local food movement here was another draw. So they packed up everything they owned into a UHaul trailer in late summer 2014 and drove to Maine. They parked the trailer while they shopped around, looking for the perfect spot to build their new home and — perhaps just as important — to find their new community.
“We spent nights online looking at properties and the days driving around,” Isham said.
They knew what they were looking for. Their new home needed to be on at least 10 acres, with water of some kind on the property, some woods and some fields. Additionally, DeGoosh wanted a bermed house, where the earth covers some of the sides and even the roof to provide natural insulation. The Sangerville property — built for the specifications of the 1970s survivalist family — had just about everything on the list written by the Transition couple.
“We were in love with the property,” Isham said. “Even though the house wasn’t my dream house. I couldn’t see the potential. But Steve did.”
The new survivalists?
The utilitarian 800-square-foot house was less than half the size of their old home in Marquette, so they have had to temporarily downsize, leaving much of their furniture in storage until they get around to building an addition. Since they moved there just over two years ago, they’ve spent their summers working on the garden and outside projects and their winters working on house projects in an effort to make the space feel less like a concrete-walled bunker illuminated with fluorescent lights and more like a home.
On a recent February day, sunshine poured into the big, south-facing front windows, where tropical plants such as lime, lemon and coffee looked lush and healthy in the afternoon light. Still, the house’s history is apparent in the unusually thick concrete walls and the windowless utility room, which still boasts shelves packed with hundreds of jars of preserved foods. Nowadays, though, these are Isham’s relishes, tomato sauce, maple syrup, beet wine, fruit jellies and other creations.
There have been challenges, of course, as they figure out how to homestead in Maine. There are new garden pests and diseases to contend with, including squash beetles and a 2015 bout of late blight that wiped out 100 tomato plants, leaving them with just a handful of ripe tomatoes instead of the bushels and bushels they had hoped for. A couple of hives of bees froze to death, and their efforts to build a large greenhouse have progressed slower than they wanted.
But they are persevering. They joined the East Sangerville Grange and have met many of their neighbors as they are working diligently to try and get a local food sovereignty ordinance passed in Sangerville. Meanwhile, they are living on DeGoosh’s retirement as they do the work to get things up and running mostly by themselves, though friends and others have helped. Isham also has worked as a farmhand on several local farms, which is helping her learn more about larger-scale gardening.
“If I had a sizeable retirement, I could pay somebody to do all this, but then I wouldn’t have the experience,” DeGoosh said. “It’s a small retirement account that’s dwindling away. It’s gambling on what we think the game is.”
The couple find it fascinating that they are settling down in a homestead originally built by survivalists and recognize some similarities between them and the Cobbs. Still, there is an essential difference in what they are doing now, they believe. Instead of going it alone in an uncertain and possibly frightening future, they are working on building a community that can survive it together.
“If there’s a nuclear war and you can get through the winter, then what?” DeGoosh asked. “We say doom, not gloom. We’re preparing in a constructive, positive way to meet the future. We want to be resilient.”