February 2013
4-H Extension Corner

Homesteading at Pop Pop’s Playground

 


Larry Watkins and one of his laying hens.

Larry Watkins and his wife Lucille always thought that when they reached retirement they’d probably buy a house along the Gulf Coast and spend their golden years closer to their daughter’s family.

"We always figured we’d just spend our time playing and fishing," Watkins explained.

But something happened along the way.

"I just don’t think that’s realistic now," Watkins stated. "That’s the beauty of having a little homestead. There’s something new to do each day, something different, the days are never the same. You might be fixing a fence, doctoring a goat or weeding the garden.

"Somehow I just feel like getting up every morning and hooking to a boat would get tiring after a while of doing it every day. I guess I just lost my fascination with the ocean."

Those who know Watkins aren’t surprised he would reinvent his life at this time. After all, he graduated from Athens State with a BS degree in vocational cooperative education in 1993 at the age of 46, and then went on to obtain his masters from Alabama A&M.


Larry Watkins greets one of his two pygmy goats.

 

This spring, he’ll be completing his 17th year at Eden Career Technical Center in Ashville where he spends his days as the cooperative education coordinator for students from St. Clair County’s five high schools: Moody, St. Clair County, Springville, Ashville and Ragland.

In the classroom, Watkins helps students prepare for the "real world" of work and business.

"We teach students how to write resumes, how to get along on the job, how to manage money and become smart consumers," he noted. "And we try to teach some life skills as well."

In the other part of his position, Watkins helps the students obtain jobs while in high school and then monitors their work there, but that part has become increasingly frustrating, in that so many jobs now require students be at least 18 before they can be hired.

 


Granddaughter Lindsey gives some extra affection to one of Pop Pop’s donkeys as older sister Rileigh looks on.

"In today’s world, we place a lot of students in fast food now which gives them work experience in maintaining schedules, working with others and meeting the public," Watkins said. "But we can still occasionally still place a student in welding or carpentry."

Help is also available to former students when they are ready to enter the work force or are seeking a career.

Watkins’ work history gives him a great background not only for his job at the school but for working on his 10-acre homestead.

After graduating from Locust Fork High School, he worked in the coal industry; for Robbins and Joy in the drill manufacturing business for 16 years; a couple of years in field service for Tractor and Equipment before working in the late 1980s for Perry Supply building items for Drummond Coal. When Drummond was about to move most of their operations to South America, Watkins began looking at options for the rest of his future.

"Somebody, I don’t even remember who, suggested I look into vocational education," Watkins recalled. "And it was a good fit."

Through the years, Watkins continued with special projects, beginning with things he learned in the original "back to the land" movement while he was reading the old original Mother Earth News magazine in the 1970s.


Larry Watkins and granddaughter Rileigh enjoy special time with the donkeys on Pop Pop’s Playground farm.

 
   

"I’ve always had a fascination with trying to be more self-sufficient," Watkins explained. "I know we can’t be totally self-sufficient in today’s world, but we can certainly do more than most of us do.

"I remember my grandparents, John and Lula Watkins, in the 1950s being almost completely self-sufficient. They owned a dairy in the Compton Community of Blount County (now known as Sand Valley). They went to church on Sundays and went to the store about once a month for salt, coffee and flour. They raised animals and he hunted a lot. They ground their corn for cornmeal. I loved that lifestyle."

Watkins’ mother, Eula Armstrong Flowers, is a remarkable woman in her own right.

In later years, Watkins enjoyed working on the little Blount County farm of his in-laws John Owen and Delma Lee Griffin. First J.O. passed away and then Mrs. Griffin. A little more than 4 years ago Watkins bought the 10 acres and started his own little homestead.

 


Portion of the still-incomplete barn. It is sided with lumber obtained from a neighbor who was tearing down a fence around their swimming pool.

While Larry and Lucille maintain their more modern home in the Blount County town of Highland Lake, he has two small flocks of laying hens, two pygmy goats and two donkeys at what he laughingly calls Pop Pop’s Playground, in honor of his granddaughters, just outside Oneonta.

The first order of business was doing "a lot" of cleaning and clearing. There’s now about a half-acre garden and a small pond.

Watkins’ friend James Bryson, Highland Lake’s former mayor, and Watkins’ brother Mike both have helped build the barn that is still a work in progress. The roomy barn is sided with weathered wood Lucille saw and Larry received from a neighbor who was tearing down the fence around their swimming pool.

He built a ram pump, using plans he found online from Clemson University, to pump water to his animals a couple of years ago and he has other plans on how that can be made more efficient.

While he doesn’t think the little creek is deep enough or contains enough water year-round to generate much electricity, he’s looking into that possibility, maybe supplemented by solar panels.

With his friend Bryson, Watkins planted about an acre of sorghum this year on Straight Mountain and they were amazed at the amount of sorghum syrup they obtained when they had it squeezed and cooked into syrup by an Ashville man.

"The fodder can be fed to the animals and the seed heads to the chickens," Watkins noted.

The two men also planted acreage in heirloom old-time Moseby corn.


All sorts of greens and turnips were still growing in the garden patch in January. The piles of leaves, barely noticeable, are protecting the onion bed.

 


This small shed by the pond is an experiment. Larry Watkins burned and charred the pine wood as “old timers” did when they were forced to use pine, to see how much longer the wood would last.  So far it’s been over a year and the pine has not rotted.

"That’s what old folks around here used to plant," Watkins explained.

They make big ears, 12- to 14-inches long. It could be made into a lot of fodder to feed the stock, made good hominy and made good cornmeal.

"Folks north of here usually planted Hickory King, but Moseby was king here," Watkins laughed.

The men took the corn to Wilber Beavers and Son, close to Blountsville, to be ground into cornmeal. More planted corn and more cornmeal are also planned for this spring and summer.

"You can save the seeds and they are pure from these heirloom crops," Watkins explained. "There may come a time in this modern world when we need those and when we need to know how to do these things."

Watkins’s also been making homemade laundry detergent for his friends and family, and recently started selling a little bit of that as well. He got the basic recipe off the Internet, but "tweaked it" to make it special utilizing the best of washing soda and other items.

Small labels show a photo of his other grandmother Hamlett Armstrong (her father loved Shakespeare!) and the detergent is called Mombo’s Down Home Laundry Soap.

"She had 13 children and raised them all to adulthood," Watkins said.

While last year, Watkins "put up loose hay" using a pitch fork into about a third of his barn, this year he will be baling behind the small Belrus tractor.

Watkins’s accomplished "a lot of work," but he noted most everything he’s done on the little farm "has been fun. As long as I stay healthy, I’ll be right here."

Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County. She can be reached through her website at www.suzysfarm.com.