Raising children can be tough. Raising children off-the-grid on a homestead without electricity and running water can seem near impossible. From the outside, the question of what future children raised and educated in such isolation could have always seems to linger.
For Jenn and Justin Ward, raising their four kids — Dakota, Ayana, Solana and Jonah — on their off-grid homestead in Stow was their way of living life on their own terms and teaching their kids to fend for themselves.
“I figured if we teach them how to build a fire, run a chainsaw [and] build their own house, they could run off and do whatever,” Justin Ward said. “They would be able to do all this stuff, even if you don’t have to do it for the rest of your life.”
Despite growing up without running water or reliable electricity (eventually, the family developed what Justin Ward described as a “very humble solar system”), their oldest, Dakota Ward, dove headfirst into life on-grid. After earning his high school diploma, the 22-year-old went on to study computer science and now teaches graphic design at Central Maine Community College.
“He actually knows how to use a computer, which is crazy, because he didn’t even touch a computer until he was 17, and now he’s teaching it at 22,” Justin Ward said.
Dakota Ward and his parents don’t see his chosen career as a contradiction to his upbringing, though. In fact, Dakota Ward sees his off-grid childhood as central to developing the skills that he has today.
“I owe [my parents] because I definitely wouldn’t have made it here without them,” Dakota Ward said. “So many of the skills that they taught me did transfer over so well. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
How the Wards wound up in Stow
Jenn and Justin Ward bought their property in Stow in 1996. Prior to that, the couple worked in the restaurant business in Auburn, but were frustrated with their job prospects and the shoddy rental market. They decided they wanted to buy their own property off the grid.
“I don’t think it ever occurred to us that we should do anything different,” Jenn Ward said. “We both knew we didn’t want to just throw our money away renting a junky house or buying some place in town and feeling kind of trapped.
Every week, they looked in Uncle Henry’s weekly classifieds for land within their budget.
“We drove everywhere,” Justin Ward said. “Every Thursday, [if we read about] any piece of land, owner-financed and under twenty grand, we’d drive there.”
After about five years of searching, they found a 40-acre, owner-financed plot in Stow with an outhouse, barn and hunting shack — and a mortgage of $220 a month. With the deed in hand, the Wards set about starting their new life.
“We built a house, all by hand,” Justin Ward said. “We never hired anything out, ever. We didn’t know what we were doing either. We did stuff that should have been in northern California, [like a] groovy solar room, and 20 years later we were like, that was silly, but we were young. You learn what makes sense.”
Justin Ward said that learning new skills without the unlimited resources of the internet was especially challenging for the young couple.
“We were totally piecemealing it,” Justin Ward said. “[We had a] shelter book from 1972, [a book called] ‘How to Build a Multi-Use Barn’ and some funky cordwood building book. Half the stuff I built [using] simple framing techniques.”
Construction projects weren’t the only task that the new parents piecemealed in the early days.
“I would wash cloth diapers by hand with a hand pump,” Jenn Ward said. “It took a lot of time. It was pretty intense. Hauling dirty wet diapers around wasn’t a nice thing to do, either.”
Raising the family off-grid
In the family’s early days, Justin Ward worked in Bridgtown at the Paris Farmers Union and Jenn Ward stayed home raising their children. The family spent most of their time in relative isolation, though they would wander back onto the grid for certain amenities.
Sometimes, the Ward children had trouble adjusting to the modern world.
“Any time we’d be out shopping or dining or whatever, they would freak out over the toilets,” Justin Ward said. “It’s a pretty powerful flush.”
In many ways, though, their childhood was bucolic, with freedom to roam and explore without modern pressures. Dakota Ward, for one, never felt as though he was “missing out.”
“I was pretty happy and content that I was able to learn what I wanted and chart my own course,” Dakota Ward said. “That sometimes doesn’t exist in a conventional childhood.”
However, Dakota Ward struggled to connect with kids his age growing up in the rare times he and his family ventured off the grid to parties and family events.
“It was just the lack of experiences that I shared with them,” Dakota Ward said. “I couldn’t relate to them in terms of going to school or TV shows that they watched or many of the things they were interested in. In a way, I envied them for [that] community aspect. ”
The Ward children were homeschooled in relative isolation.
“We didn’t have a homeschool group or anything like that,” Dakota Ward said. “We were isolated, but not in a negative manner.”
The Wards’ homeschooling curriculum, Justin Ward said, featured “a little bit of everything,” from practical skills around the homestead to grade-appropriate math and reading workbooks.
“It’s a long journey,” Justin Ward said. “We were criticized a lot pretty early on, like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you’re homeschooling, the kids are going to be messed up.’ I don’t think anyone on the planet would say our kids are messed up.”
The Ward family relied strongly on the public library in nearby Lovell, where the two oldest Wards eventually took Maine Adult Education classes to receive their high school diplomas — and graduated with honors.
“We have a great library — like, the best anywhere really,” Justin Ward said.
In fact, it was at that library where Dakota Ward caught the computer science bug. As a kid, he had always been interested in electronics, tinkering with rudimentary solar electricity systems and disassembling old watches.
Still, he called his first in-depth interaction with a computer “a wild experience.”
“I was 17 the first time I had more than just a passing experience with computers,” Dakota Ward said. “I ended up finding an old Mac from the early 2000’s and I basically taught myself the basics off [of] that.”
“Learning to write all over again”
After receiving his high school diploma, Dakota Ward enrolled at Central Maine Community College to study graphic design.
“I went into it with zero expectations,” Dakota Ward said. “The first day [I walked] into this classroom and I was like, ‘Wow, I have no clue how a classroom works,’ because I had literally never been in one, [but] I found out that I enjoyed it and I was able to learn relatively quickly.”
Even though his classmates had more experience with computers than he did, Dakota Ward quickly took to coding and programming. His biggest struggle, he said, was typing.
“It was like learning to write all over again,” Dakota Ward groaned. “I took a web design class where I was writing HTML code and I felt very in the deep end, two-finger typing miles of code.”
Overall, though, Dakota also thinks that his upbringing makes him a better programmer. The “fix-it yourself mentality” of growing up off-grid translated well to creatively troubleshooting lines of code.
“If you break something working in the woods, you can probably fix it if you try some things,” he said.
The rest of the Ward family has also modernized. They now have a refrigerator instead of a cooler, as well as a washing machine and running water.
“Our house looks mostly like a regular house, [but] we’ve chosen to still use an outhouse,” Jenn Ward said. “I don’t know why sometimes.”
The Wards also now run what Justin Ward called a “micro, microscale” farm business called Flyaway Farm. Dakota Ward set up their website, of course.
Dakota Ward enjoys life on the grid, but he hasn’t ruled out the off-grid life entirely.
“I’d like to find a way to strike the balance where I could live off-grid very self-sufficiently but continue to be involved in the ‘normal world,’ so to say,” Dakota Ward said.
His parents have noticed their on-grid son misses some aspects of the off-grid life, too.
“When he comes home, he says he kind of misses the outhouse,” Jenn Ward said.