November 29, 2004
A down-home feeling
Rock Falls family lives a half-modern lifestyle
By Whitney Carnahan
A wood stove straight out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder illustration heats the spacious room which smells like lavender. Cast-iron pans are stacked on a burner and a butter churn is on the counter.
Old-fashioned tins and oil lamps sit high on wooden shelves. Below, jars of honey and pickles wait to be bought. A chalk sign lists prices for butter, milk, soap and lotion.
It's not a historical museum, nor a general store. It's the Muller family kitchen.
When a car drives up to the Whiteside County farm, a gaggle of geese, ducks and turkeys stream out to the oncoming car, honking a greeting and barely getting out of the way. Horses amble in the pasture, chickens feed in the pen, and two dogs make themselves known despite a four-foot high fence. A shed with multiple horseshoes and other iron configurations sits empty.
It's here in this throwback to early homesteads that Paul and Cyndi Muller and their three children live their half-modern life, taking advantage of indoor plumbing, computers and electricity to accommodate their interest in history.
"Waste not, want not" is the theme of their home, where Mr. Muller used wood from an old barn to create a kitchen table, bench and hardwood floor. A pie safe holds the entertainment center, and a hand-carved wooden paddle scoops out homemade butter from a wooden bowl.
In the blacksmith shop, Mr. Muller makes his signature hoof pick, the Muller Pick, as well as latches for various gates. A buggy and wagon sit next door. Butchering chickens is done on a chopping block in the back yard with a sharp knife and a hatchet. "I mean it's just down home", he said.
A 5.5 acre field in back of the house is worked by the pair of Belgian draft horses, Buck and Bess. The field, which a tractor could plant in 40 minutes, takes a full day to plant with the horse team, he said. "I love doing my farm work with horses, " he said. "I can't do it to the degree I want to because of time constraints."
The "Little House on the Prairie" series by Laura Ingalls Wilder are among the Mullers' favorite books, he said, and the 1870s to 1890s lifestyle is part of what the Mullers try to emulate, stacking loose hay, churning butter and butchering chickens on their farm. However, the family still goes to the store for food and other items, which cause things like Uncle Ben's rice to show up, and seem out of place, among the homemade items. "What we don't buy a lot of is fresh vegetables, meat, soap and lotion," he said.
It's definitely a choice," he said. "We don't do it because it's economical, practical or time-efficient. It's because you love it. We love history and we love to relive history.
"It's a real trend," he said. "There's a definite movement to going back to small acreage, farmettes. Even in the U.S., there are a lot of people who work farms with horses. Big acreage, too. Not just the Amish. If you get into that circle, you find that they're everywhere."
When they aren't working around the farm, Ms. Muller works for National Hardware as a computer tech, and Mr. Muller has his own handyman business - "anything your husband won't do," the slogan says. He also makes furniture and works part time as a blacksmith at the John Deere Historic Site. "I'm Mr. Mom," he said.
The Mullers offer tours of their farm, scheduled in advance only. Families, often from the Chicago area, come to learn about the old-farm practices and buy the benefits, including whole mil, butter, honey, poultry and soap. "The people who come out from Chicago, they won't leave without spending $200." he said.
The tours, he said are "real laid back. What we do is our life. We've finally found a way to share what we do. The lion's share of the people who come out here, they leave with a different appreciation for the country. Whether it's the lifestyle or the food they eat. The light goes on - there's an alternative.
"We're not trying to be radical," he adds. "We're trying to figure out how to make our farm pay."
The Muller menagerie includes Dolly, the Jersey dairy cow, who produces about four gallons of milk a day, and has soft, brown doe eyes. She shares the barn with her counterpart, Dolly, and Clark, an Angus-cross calf. They share spaces with the 12 geese, chickens and five breeds of turkeys and the Mullers' "barn angels," several doves and pigeons which are just hatching new chicks in a loft above the horse stalls.
In addition to Buck and Bess, who perform the farm work, there's also Festus the mule and Lacy, the saddle horse. Maverick, Mr. Muller's dog, chases after animals as needed.
Although the goal of getting back to basics is often improving health or going organic, that is not the Mullers' motivation. The family buys grain from the local elevator as needed, regardless of its chemical composition. ** "We don't try to go nuts about organic," he said. "For me, it's always been a goal to be different. I'm one of a few men who milks a cow before going to work. It's a commitment."
Organic grain is not available in any of the local feed mills. We buy what they have available and it is freshly ground according to our specifications. Our cattle, both the beef and milch, are grass fed in warm months and are eat chemical-free hay during the colder months. We do care what our animals eat, but we also need to be responsible about finances.
Paul Muller of Rock Falls visits Buck and Bess while
Festus the mule kibitzes.