Two years ago, Susan Odom began living out her dream of homesteading — a lifestyle of self-sufficiency, practicing sustainable agriculture and homemaking. A Michigan native with roots in South Carolina, she spent seven years as a lead presenter and special events supervisor for a famous historical hotspot, Greenfield Village. Susan spent those years dressed in traditional garb, reenacting the ways of our forefathers for curious visitors. These practices still play an important role in every day life at Hillside Homestead, her picturesque home and bed & breakfast located in the quaint town of Suttons Bay, MI. Recently, Matt and I had the pleasure of visiting Hillside Homestead and getting to know Susan.
Hillside Homestead sits on two acres of open fields and is home a pair of mud-bathing pigs, about two-dozen gorgeous free-roaming chickens, and an especially social rescue cat named Beena. The farm house was originally built around 1900 by a Bohemian immigrant named Joe Reicha and is maintained by Susan and one dedicated part-time employee — the daughter of a neighboring farmer. Staying in this cozy bed & breakfast evoked a strong sense of place for me, conjuring my upbringing on my family's farm near MI's Mackinaw Bridge.
Susan initially stumbled upon the property while visiting a friend in the area. Though she loved the location and house, she was hesitant to commit due to the lack of acreage, originally hoping for ten acres or more. Working with a realtor, she couldn't seem to find anything that matched up, so she ultimately decided to alter the scale of her plan. When the land went back on the market a year later, she wasted no time and purchased it.
During our short stay with Susan,I had planned to read and nap, but from the moment I arrived I was so captivated by my surroundings that I spent my time engaged in conversation, taking hundreds of photographs and mental notes of her incredible stories. I learned how to make Cherry Bounce, that eggs can be stored all winter-long without refrigeration, and how to prepare currant jam. Nearly everything Susan does on her farm is consistent with nineteenth-century ways of life — from morning coffee preparation (this near 45 minute task includes cracking an entire farm-fresh egg, including the shell, into boiling coffee grounds) to cooking traditional meals on a wood-burning stove. Her aprons and dresses are specially made for her using pre-Civil War era patterns, and every piece of furniture, artwork, book, plate, and baking tool was expertly curated through estate sales and vigilant Craigslist scouring.
I got a sneak peek into her "modern kitchen" — something she doesn't usually share with guests — where she washes all the dishes (by hand, of course!) and has plenty of counter space to prepare large-scale meals. I also had the pleasure of cooking breakfast with her — biscuits, cream potatoes, and pepper and cheese omelets. Susan even taught me the proper way of rolling out biscuits (I've been putting too much pressure on the pin all this time!).
Matt and I enjoyed our delicious breakfast with Susan in her sunny breakfast nook while sharing stories and viewpoints on everything from vegetarianism to politics, somehow managing to drink an entire kettle of coffee. After our conversations, I gathered that Susan's motivation when starting Hillside Homestead was not only to carry on these precious traditions, but also to educate future generations about patience, the grave importance of proper farming practices, and living off the land. In the age of iPhones, Wal-Mart, and microwaves, my generation doesn't give much consideration to Susan's historical values and self-sustaining traditions. Most every ingredient used in her daily cooking is local – if not from her farm, from nearby farmers. Like in the olden days, she and her neighbors encompass a close-knit community that often trade goods and services in order to support one another. Speaking of neighbors, Susan took us to a recently opened local cidery, Tandem Ciders — just a mile-and-a-half down the road. The cidery offers almost a dozen handmade hard ciders ranging from ultra-dry to super-sweet. Each one is expertly crafted using a mix of apples farmed on their own land and sourced from other local fruit farmers. I sampled about half of them, and I hope we'll be seeing these bottles carried at Whole Foods nationwide within the next few years.
Susan is active in several educational programs in the area. Every seventh grader in the county visits the Homestead for a day and gets to experience a home-cooked traditional lunch. College-level visits with Northern Michigan University students and hands-on workshops like "Apple Butter Making" are other highlighted educational offerings.
Part preservationist, part food historian, Susan's chosen path is a difficult but important one. I hope the future generations she is helping to educate will be as impacted by her work as I was. I hope that one day soon farmers and homesteaders like Susan will receive more tax breaks, incentives, and grant opportunities. And I hope when this happens, it will more easily enable similar projects to pop up throughout the U.S. and beyond.
All photographs by Matt Morris, shot on a 1970s Polaroid land camera.