July 24, 2024

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For the last 20 years I have been working on my genealogy. The research is fascinating to me. Old certificates and wills captivate me; the search for my ancestors is like a treasure hunt. One part of genealogy that I have found most valuable is personal journals because of the survival lessons from old-timers.

Their stories of survival and endurance have always left me in awe and reminded me that I have life pretty easy. I have done my best to apply their wisdom to my family and learn from their life experiences. I want to share what we can all learn from the branches, twigs, and occasional nuts in our family tree.

Table of contents

Survival Wisdom From Old Timers

1. Grow and garden and eat real food.

There is something to be said for planting, caring for, harvesting, and eating your own food. Think about some of these benefits:

  • It helps you appreciate the food on your table each day.
  • Not only is the food you eat full of more nutrients, but you are healthier for working in the garden.
  • It counts as exercise and gives you your needed sunshine.
  • Being outdoors and listening to nature is good for the mind.
  • Spending time away from any screen and being with yourself can be therapeutic.
  • Having your hands in the dirt and caring for your plants helps connect you to Earth. A reverence and feeling of gratitude for nature and animals can be felt.

An old farmer once told me, “It takes 10 years to really get to know your land.”

Even if your land is just a backyard, this is still true. Think about it. You plant a few things one spring…and nothing grows, or only the mint grows and ends up taking over your entire garden plot. Well, that’s Year #1.

Next year, you know you need to better amend the soil, move some of your plants elsewhere in the yard, keep your mint in a pot!, b   or maybe even move the entire garden to a sunnier/shadier spot. This time around, your garden still experiences successes and failures. That’s Year #2!! (I know experienced gardeners out there are nodding their heads!)

This is why you need to start growing something right now, even if it’s just a windowsill herb garden. The learning curve for growing anything successfully is surprisingly steep.

2. Check out your farmer’s markets.

For items you can’t or aren’t able to grow or make yourself, your local farmer’s markets are great ways to connect with small businesses in your area. These might include foods like:

  • Whole grains
  • milk
  • eggs
  • cream
  • butter
  • seasonal fruits
  • vegetables
  • fresh eggs
  • seafood
  • other meats

My ancestors, and yours, ate them usually in the form closest to how God made them. They also grew and preserved herbs to season food. Many of these foods were homegrown or found out in the wild and were full of vitamins and minerals.

Could you forage for food? Most people nowadays cannot and would walk right by wild edibles and herbs. Real food is better for you and tastes so much better than processed food at the grocery store. There are no words that describe the difference between a store-bought tomato and one that is picked right from the vine in a garden.

NEXT STEP: Gain a plethora of gardening know-how from a master gardener here.

3. Learn herbal remedies.

They used herbal remedies as medicine. Nowadays, we have to seek out information in books like this one (something for beginners!), because we probably won’t learn it from our own parents and other family members.

Herbal medicine allows us to be less dependent on Big Pharma, because it’s designed to not only treat ailments but to support health and well-being.

NEXT STEP: Read this post for the steps to learning the art of herbalism to maintain health and prevent disease.

4. Raise animals.

Depending on the amount of land you have, you might be surprised by what kinds of animals you might be able to keep. Most people immediately think of chickens, or perhaps bees. But what about meat rabbits? Always check your local laws first to see what the possibilities are.

NEXT STEP: For those who don’t want to go the barnyard animal route but would still like meat raised close to home, consider contacting a farmer about buying beef or other meats.

5. Notice your surroundings.

Our ancestors went outside and paid attention to nature. The migration of animals and the life cycles of certain vegetation let our forefathers know of the changes in seasons. Specific species of animals are sensitive to changes in the atmosphere. Farmers were able to pick up on the behavioral changes in these animals and know what weather conditions may be coming their way.

Understanding how to read the sky above and the ground below was once a skill passed down throughout the generations. They knew their environment and were sensitive to its fluctuations. Observation skills are something we can learn and teach our children.

NEXT STEP: Experiment with using this pioneer weather wisdom.

6. Use it up, do not waste anything —  Another survival lesson from old-timers.

Old-timers didn’t spend money freely and, often, there was nowhere to shop! Clothes were worn, handed down to the next child, and then the next. When it was not able to be worn, the article of clothing was then taken apart and reused, often for quilt squares, patches for other clothes, or a dust or dishcloth.

Last year’s new shoes became “new” shoes for the younger sibling or old work shoes for this year. In fact, back in the 1930’s a product that used beeswax to seal shoes was invented! Sno-Seal is still a popular product today and something that can extend the use of our own, modern-day shoes!

Scraps of leftover food went into a soup later or they were used to feed the animals. My grandfather could extend the life of ordinary items with odd stuff he had in the garage. Any lumber or hardware was stored away for future needs. An old paper bag could be found filled with bolts, nuts, washers, and nails. Over the years he learned to fix and maintain cars, appliances, and homes. It kept him out of my grandmother’s hair, and saved money but also kept his mind and body active.

NEXT STEP: There was so much wisdom our ancestors had. Read this partial collection of what we can learn from those who survived the Great Depression.

7. Be dependable and helpful.

Survival lessons from old-timers also embody character and values like dependability and helpfulness. Many of my ancestors were farmers. When harvest time came, everyone chipped in. It required many people with a variety of skills to get the job done. Harvesting from the fields, cleaning the produce, and getting it ready to sell or for preservation was a big job that needed everyone to help.

My great-grandmother Nelson lived on the same block as her two daughters, two grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. This arrangement allowed her to stay in her home. There was always someone around to drive her where ever she needed to go, to help with the avocado tree, or move something heavy.

Now that she has passed, those simple tasks are beautiful memories for our family. It has also served as an example to future generations about caring for your elders. There were other times when someone was sick or had a baby, the neighborhood women would get together and help. Between caring for the sick, cooking, cleaning, or tending to children, the job got done.

Some pieces of old timers’ survival lessons seem like they ought to be common sense, don’t they? Friendships and a sense of community grew from service to one another. Pitching in and assisting those around you benefits everyone.

NEXT STEP: Read this post to explore options for homecare nursing.

8. Plan ahead and prepare for the unknown.

Our ancestors’ lives depended preparedness. Food preserved in the fall gave them something to eat in the winter and spring. Wood cut and stacked during the summer months provided heat in colder months, and food for livestock and the family needed to constantly be stored up.

Life was more unpredictable for them. Disease could come and take out their livestock or family in a matter of hours. Injury required more time to heal, and death was more of a possibility. My third great-aunt buried more babies than anyone should ever have to. With every pregnancy, she knew there was a chance that her baby might not survive. So in her mind, she mentally prepared for a possible burial.

For some ancestors, one snowstorm could keep them homebound for weeks. We may not need a winter’s supply of hay for livestock, but being prepared and having a backup is wise.

Having additional light sources, additional food, water and medical supplies, fuel, and money set aside is a good idea. Check your life, health, and other insurance plans. Maintain your physical, mental, and emotional health. Set money aside for a rainy day, because it rains in all of our lives at one time or another.

NEXT STEP: Big picture survival lesson from old-timers? Do not assume the worst will happen, prepare for it in case it does. Survival Mom’s family preparedness manual is the best one around for getting started on all this, which can be overwhelming! Or check out her Prepping 101 course which will give you a customized plan in under two hours!

9. Have hope, maybe rebel a little.

America would not be the great country that it is if it were not for those who were willing to rebel against the King of England all those years ago. Others left behind their homeland and risked their lives to come to America. Many of my ancestors came over on the Mayflower in search of religious freedom.

My Irish family traveled to America because of the potato famine. Others came with the simple hope that things will be better, if not for them, then for their descendants. They had a hope and perseverance that carried them through obstacles in life.

Most of us have not had to leave behind family, learn a new language and culture and try to assimilate to a new life. Our ancestors did it for us. What we can do is follow their example of hard work, and hope, and maybe rebel a little. Stand up in our communities when injustice occurs. Or get involved in our local government. Be the kind of citizen that stands up for their rights, and gives a hand up to someone in need.

NEXT STEP: Learn more about how volunteering in your community can make you a better prepper.

10. Be a thankful and happy person.

Our society bombards us with advertisements for all of the things we do not have. Some have the pressure of keeping up with the Joneses. Most of my ancestors were not rich. They had what they needed and were content with that. There was not the desire to have excess that is in today’s culture.

Everything they worked hard for, they appreciated and took care of. They blessed the food before they ate, just content to have a good meal. They read the Bible after dinner and taught children to acknowledge their blessings. We forget to look at what we have and be thankful for the blessings in our life.

This is all part of being a survivor, both mentally and emotionally. It’s surprising how often people who have everything, both for everyday life and survival, often do not thrive and may even perish.

NEXT STEP: Discover what beliefs you have that threaten your ability to be self-reliant.

11. Have a hobby and laugh.

In my home, I have a christening dress made by a talented great-grandmother. Every tiny pleat and gather is pure perfection.

On a shelf, I have wood animals, hand-carved without a detail left out. These items were not necessary to my ancestors or my survival, but it is a reminder for me to slow down, take the time to develop a talent, and do something new.

It’s a reminder that life is not all about a “to-do” list, it is also about doing things you enjoy. Nowadays, we have to really seek out time for hobbies and then, once we have a bit of time on our hands, it’s not easy to decide what to do with it!

When I think about my grandmother, it’s always her laughter I hear in my memory. I used to think it was the Irish in her, but she survived the depression by eating some foods that make me gag when I think about them. Perhaps it was an old timer’s survival lesson as much as her County Cork roots. You can laugh or cry, but life is so much better when you can laugh.

NEXT STEP: Read this post for dozens of ideas for hobbies.

12. Develop a sense of humor.

Tough times come to all of us at one time or another. It is better to laugh during some of these times.

My great-grandparents had their car break down on them three times during a road trip in the 1930s. Money was tight and they were hoping to drive from California to Colorado to buy a chicken farm in order to provide income for the family. When the car broke down two hours from home, they just laughed about it. The family camped on the side of the road until they could get the part they needed to repair the car.

Even now, my older relatives get together and laugh about all of the things that happened in their younger years. They learned to have a logical perspective during those difficult moments.

NEXT STEP: Read more about your most important tool, a survival mindset.

13. Learn multiple self-sufficiency skills.

My husband’s 2nd great-grandfather, old-timer Noah, was a great example of this. Consider this:

  • He farmed and raised pigs to sell.
  • He learned how to become a blacksmith, which came in handy when the water and grain mill burnt down.
  • When family needed a place to live, he was able to clear trees and build a home on his land.
  • If something broke, he fixed it himself.
  • If he wanted to learn something, he worked for someone who would teach him.

He was never a rich man but had learned a variety of skills so that he was able to take care of his family.

His wife, Leona, also used their resources wisely. She prepared healthy meals with whatever they harvested. She made and mended clothes and darned socks for the family, made sure the kids went to school and helped with the crops and animals. They gave their newly married children a better start in life by helping them build a home, giving them land, and learning a trade.

Between Noah and Leona, they were able to do just about anything. Being educated in one thing is good. Knowing you have other skills to fall back on is better.

They came from a time when there was little to no money for shopping, but time and skill could fill the gaps. Gardening allowed many families with no money to still eat well. Sewing repurposed clothes or made them last; one woman reversed her husband’s shirt collars when they frayed. They played cards and party games at home for entertainment. And they did a lot of their own repair work.

NEXT STEP: Think about learning about home/car maintenance and repair or other employment skills. See if you have the skills to survive another depression.

14. Save, save, and save some more.

Many watched their parents struggle through the Great Depression, so they understand the value of having money in the bank. They’re willing to work hard and sacrifice today to have insurance against suffering in the future. Their self-sufficiency helped them to live within their means as finances eased up. And then they used the extra money they had to save and prepare for retirement.

More recent generations seem to have lost some of these lessons. Many of them are relying on Social Security and/or a pension to take care of them in their golden years, but they have very little saved in the bank or in investments.

However, there is good news. Fifty-two percent of Millennials, according to a 2014 survey by Hearts & Wallets (a retirement market research firm) have made having an emergency fund their number one priority. While they are drowning in a sea of student loans, they see the value in having a supply of cash for emergencies.

Hopefully, as student loans are paid off and finances ease up for this generation, they will begin saving for retirement. After all, with an average life expectancy of nearly 80, retirement funds need to last 15 or 20 years now.

NEXT STEP: If you need some help getting started with saving, check out this 52 Week’s Savings Plan as a starting point!

15. Cherish family, community, and strong roots.

Previous generations were less mobile. They cherished family, built neighborhoods, and established strong roots in their community. Their friends were only a sidewalk away and their extended families were often just around the corner. They did business with the same stores and companies for decades and their personal banker knew them personally. They looked out for one another and helped each other out as friends who have known you for years and years and years will do.

In contrast, we rely on being able to call, text, email, and Skype the ones we care about. We move across the country or even across the world pursuing careers. Companies have fewer and fewer satellite offices and larger central headquarters. Consequently, we are spreading out around the globe.

These days it’s less and less common to know your neighbor’s name. And while technology is there for our loved ones, there is still something lost when we don’t have real face-to-face contact. These people who would have been a support network in the past are too far to help with things like child care.

NEXT STEP: Traditions are an important part of building strong bonds in families, friendships, and communities. Consider some of these ideas for making the most of get-togethers.

16. The value of reputation.

Even as youth, older generations understood your word was your bond, and a handshake meant something. Because of their tight-knit communities, they understood you couldn’t behave in a way that would get the gossip mill going. And, while there is no doubt that teenagers of yesteryear did some foolish things, they at least made an effort to keep it somewhat secret when they did.

Loans were issued on reputation as much as credit reports. And merchants would let you buy on account. When I was a kid we bought gas on account from “Courtesy Corner.”

The generations of our modern world, on the other hand, dabble and experiment with their reputations constantly through social media. They have spent more than two decades, since Facebook started in 2004, posting pictures of every funny, sentimental, and embarrassing moment of their lives. They’ve blogged, and video blogged their private thoughts for all the world to see on the internet. The more gossipworthy their tweets and posts were, the more popular they felt. The adage “there is no such thing as bad publicity” seems to have really resonated with these generations. But, now they are maturing.

The first Millennials are now early 40s. They’re having to live in a world where their college stupidity is searchable on the internet and out of their control. Children are finding evidence of their parents’ follies. Companies are starting to search historical social media records to make hiring decisions. And suddenly, Millennials are learning what their grandparents knew all along – reputation matters and a bad reputation can hurt you more than a good reputation can help you even.

Final Thoughts on Survival Lessons from Old-Timers

It has been said that those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it. Many of these lessons we think are part of the modern era are new packaging on old problems. We see them as survival lessons from old timers, but it was just how they lived. We can learn a lot by seeing how a generation born and raised post-prohibition, post-stock market collapse, and post-settling the West learned to overcome the pitfalls of short-sighted decision-making. Millennials, we might find, or perhaps the children of the Millennials, will be the next Greatest Generation.

We begin each day with the opportunity to learn from the lessons of those that have gone before us. Their sense of family, traditions, and faith is something that can be shared with future generations. In us, we can carry their bravery, dreams, beliefs, and the lessons learned from their life.

What is the most important survival lesson you’ve learned from an older generation?

Originally published February 26, 2018; updated and revised by Team Survival Mom with contributions by Kelley G.

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Erin Foster is mom to 5 kids. West Georgia is home where you can find her reading, camping, enjoying a play and on any adventure she can do with her family. Along with a B.A. degree in Emergency and Disaster Management, she has an EKG technician and nursing assistant certificate.

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