There’s an old saying that I learned in Vermont that goes “use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without”. So you’ve used it up, you’ve worn it out, now we are on to the make do stage. Sure, you could just go to the store and buy it, but if you’re like me, that isn’t always an option. Besides, what fun would that be anyway?
I was once working for a farmer in Wisconsin and when he found me back behind his shed admiring his piles of lumber, scrap metal, and other odds and ends that he had stashed away over the years, he said two very interesting things to me. The first was, “You know, my wife gave birth to our first son in that tub over there”, which I did not reply to, hoping silently to myself that it had been on some other location at the time (you know you’re too much of a hippy when these things don’t even phase you anymore). Next, he said “you can tell how good of a farmer a man is by the size of his junk pile”. Well, at least he didn’t end that sentence at junk.
I started to think about what he said, about the farmers and their junk, and I realized that there could be some grain of truth to that statement. Homesteadrs absolutely have to be creative and handy in order to build and fix what they need to without spending too much hard earned cash. A good farmer is like a Macgyver type, he can fix anything with duct tape and bailing twine. Okay, maybe not, but you get what I mean.
The really sad thing is that in this day and age you can find man made items on almost every corner of the planet. Luckily for us, you can find man made items on almost every corner of the planet. It’s about time we tap into our creative little noggins, go get our tetanus shot, quit buying, and start creating.
If you have read this blog before, you probably already know that when it comes to food, scavenging is kind of my thing. From eating roadkill, foraging for wild edibles, and gleaning produce that would have otherwise been thrown away, to scrounging up free livestock feed, I’ve got a long track history of eating on the cheap. Oddly enough, I have never once in my entire life set foot in a dumpster, although millions of pounds of perfectly good food goes to waste each year in dumpsters behind grocery stores across the country. Today, I think I’ll just stick to tips for scavenging non-food items, although my stomach may sway me otherwise.
I enjoy long walks on the beach after big storms… to look for all the good shit that washed up, is what my dating profile would say if Zak hadn’t already wooed me with his incredible ability to eat anything that I don’t want to and his eagle eye for finding free stuff. In all seriousness, though, beaches are one of my number one places to find stuff. When we are living on the island, we spend lots of time walking on the beach, especially in the spring when the ice goes out, looking for whatever we might find. This is a great place to find all sorts of things, but lumber especially, mainly because people’s docks, stairs, and chairs get washed into the lake during violent storms, broken up into individual boards, and dropped elsewhere on the island, often before they become rotten at all. Zak and I have always joked that if we had a boat, we could collect enough lumber from the beaches to build ourselves a cabin, and it would be made completely out of treated wood and cedar too. Maybe one day, but for now our building projects are a bit smaller. Last week, I made myself a nice little wood rack to go next to the wood stove out of two pieces of adirondack chairs, a board from a dock, and a couple of heavy duty nails that I had laying around the house.
Depending on where you live, these might be a little harder to find than beaches, but it is my personal opinion that there should be a free box in every church, library, etc, across the country. I first encountered the mystical free box in college, where each dorm had one. They were just plastic tote boxes with “Free Box” scribbled on the side in sharpie, and you could put anything into it and take anything out, within reason of course. Coming from Illinois to go to school in Northern Vermont, I got a lot of much needed winter clothes out of the free boxes over the years, and a whole lot of other stuff too. The free boxes were open to the public as well, who loved to come after graduation to snag all the great stuff students had left behind. After that, the rest went to goodwill. I think that most colleges have something of this sort, but you can find free boxes elsewhere too. The year before I met Zak, he was through hiking the Appalachian Trail where, he said, there were free boxes the whole way where you could pick up or leave any sort of hiking gear you could possibly want. Here, on the island, we have something that is sort of similar, except it is an entire building called “The Exchange”. It is housed at the recycling center and is open for several hours a week. There, you can leave or take all sorts of items, including, but not limited to furniture, clothing, books and movies, and home goods.
Back in the day before you had dumps, recycling centers, trash collection, and what not, if you had trash to get rid of you simply dumped it over a bank, into a river, or into a pile in the woods somewhere. Today, these places are fairly easy to find, especially if you are in New England, where people have been getting rid of their junk for hundreds of years. Simply find yourself an old farmhouse (or the site of one previous) and take a good look around. Where would you dump your junk if you had to? Somewhere that wasn’t too far to carry, but also somewhere that wasn’t visible from the house. Go there and start digging around awhile. While generally most everything in these piles is broken or rusty, you may get a good find now and again. Zak once came home from one of his river ramblings carrying a huge 5 gallon fermentation crock for me- unbroken and still usable after a good washing!
Your best bet in these sort of places are old bottles. Many will be broken, but of the intact ones some will be pretty cool looking. Not to mention that if you know your bottles, you may even find one that is worth some money, old mason jars too. Even if you don’t, it is always pretty interesting to get a little taste of how people were living and what they were throwing out way back when- it’s a great way to find out some local history! In fact, people have been making these midden piles for as long as they were human. Today, archaeologists find these piles, which can consist of dozens of feet of shells and broken pottery shards, among other things. Scientists in Denmark recently discovered an intact clay pot in a midden, complete with what appeared to be some sort of cheese like product burn to a crisp at the bottom. Whoever had let this pot sit on the fire too long had decided that it would too much of a hassle to clean out and simply tossed it in the trash in disgust.
While I would not suggest rummaging around through ancient midden piles, if you are going to look through a more modern one, make sure that you are not trespassing before crawling around in these places. You should wear sturdy gloves and shoes, too.
Clothing swaps are very common at churches and schools and are often open to the public. I’m almost certain that everyone has heard of these, but if not, basically people drop off unwanted clothing ahead of time, which is then organized by volunteers. Then, they open it up for a day or two and people tear through it looking for the best stuff. If you go to one of these, remember to bring more bags than you think you need, get there early, and watch out for little old ladies- they’re tougher than they look. My best clothing swap find? Down booties that now live in the bottom of my sleeping bag on winter camping trips.
The Side of The Road
When I was a kid, trash day was one of my favorite days of the week in the summertime because my dad and I would ride our bikes all around the neighborhood looking for stuff people had left out at the curb.When we found something that we wanted, and we found good stuff too, we would race home as fast as we could and drive back with the truck, hoping nobody else had taken it while we were gone. In some suburbs, there is one day of the year where people leave out all their free stuff and everyone gets out to rummage through it. If your town doesn’t do this, you may be able to find one nearby that does. In the country, it is a little bit more relaxed with people putting their free stuff by the side of the road whenever they feel, sometimes with a cardboard sign saying free. If you see a cardboard box saying free, stop, you never know what may be in it, I recently got myself a nice pair of boots and a bunch of fresh veggies this way. Also commonly availably on the side of the road, tasty venison, grouse, pheasant, and more, just make sure you know your local roadkill laws before picking any up.
Free Cycle is this great website where you simply choose your local area and you can browse the free stuff people are giving away. You can even request free stuff that you are looking for. Plus, if you sign up for their email list, they will email you whenever a couple new listings are added, so you can always get to the free stuff you want before its gone.
While I have found that dumps frown down upon rummaging through the trash (and they’re pretty nasty places, anyway), recycling centers often attract kinder folks, who may understand if you ask to rummage around for that grate you need for your grill or that handlebar to fix your bicycle.
If you are working on a more serious project and are need of a whole lot of lumber, craigslist is the place to go. You can often find people with old buildings that they just want gone, who will allow you to scavenge whatever you want from their barn or shed. Sometimes, they will even pay you a bit if you take the whole thing away. Not to mention that old barn siding is seen as rustic these days, so if you’ve got the time and energy, you could even make a pretty penny selling your reclaimed handiwork.
These are only a handful of a the great places to find free and usable material. If there is a place you love to look for other people’s trash or an all time favorite find- we want to hear about it! Let us know in the comments below!
Disclaimer: This blog is just my opinion. While I try my hardest, everything may not be accurate or complete. Do not hold me accountable for anything you do to harm yourself or the world around you. I do make a small amout of money from this blog. If you click on any of the links in this blog, I may make a small amount of money from it, at no extra cost to you. I am not sponsored by any of these companies I just honestly love their products and want to give you the resources to find them. I am not a medical practictioner; consult a health care professional before using any herbal remedies. I am not claiming to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any ailment.