Living Off the Grid in the Okefenokee Swamp

lily pads

The Okefenokee Swamp was strangely silent last Saturday. The only sound was a pinecone dropping from a towering conifer, first snagging in the filmy Spanish moss, then ricocheting off the tin roof like a shot. No gators bellowed their mating song; even the raucous woodpeckers seemed reserved.

But 75 years ago at this homestead in Georgia, the air was filled with the sounds of children playing, chickens cackling, and dogs barking. People bustled about attending to the everyday chores that go with rural farm living … in a swamp.


After our up-close-and-personal encounter with one of the resident alligators, we took the pine-needle covered path, bordered by a split rail fence, leading to the Chesser Island Homestead.

When we emerged in the clearing, a simple board-and-batten cottage stood, surrounded by a crude picket fence set on white sand that mimicked snow.

Tom and Iva Chesser spent $200 to build this rustic cabin in 1927, on an island surrounded by the swamp. They raised their large family here; then moved on in 1958 and the house became part of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. In those 30 years they never had electricity.

The Chessers were a rugged family, carving out a life in the often harsh conditions of the area. Their history is typical of many area settlers; they ate what they could shoot, trap, catch and grow on the sandy soil. Cash crops were primarily sugar cane, tobacco, and turpentine. They lived simply, worked hard, and played hard, when possible. –Wikipedia

As we entered the farmhouse it took a while for our eyes to adjust to the low light in the simple parlor, where forked branches served as hatracks.


It was like stepping back in time, reminding us of childhood visits with our grandparents. The house had that country feel; you could almost smell the bread baking in the oven, knowing there would be cousins and puppies to play with in the yard.

Chesser Homestead

Doorway after doorway lead to tidy bedrooms where beds were draped in colorful quilts fashioned by loving hands from old shirts and dresses.

Bed w Blue Quilt

It takes plenty of beds to handle a family with 7 kids!

Wood stove

Finally, as we made our way to the back of the cabin, we discovered the heart of the home, the kitchen. The wood stove held center stage, flanked by the massive dining table and green pie safe (my personal fave)! My grandmother was a world-class pie baker and I spent many a day gazing into the depths of her pastry cupboard, longing for a bite of cherry or blackberry.

Pie safe

And this improvised newspaper “shoo fly” helped to keep flies off the food!

fly swatter

The finishing touch was the screened back porch that housed the pump … and the family bathtub! The Chessers were livin’ large!

The Chesser Homestead was a good reminder that as much as I value simple living, I also treasure my creature comforts.

I just heard from my cousin Anita that my Grandmother in Indiana (the awesome pie baker) had the same print of the little girl beside the hatrack. Anita now has it. I knew there was something so familiar about that scene, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It truly is a small world!

Off the grid for a while,


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

40 thoughts

      1. Do you know by fact or by rumor that folks homestead way back into the swamp? Can a person find a place where he will be by himself ?

      2. Bill, most of the country around Okefenokee Swamp is now state or national park, so private property is rare. But, having said that, there are a few pieces of land around that are privately owned. It would be long shot, and this country is sparsely populated for sure, but prepare yourself for some of the hottest, buggyist weather that you’re likely to find this side of The Everglades. ~James

  1. We had a very similar pump in our house. When we had indoor plumbing and running water at age 12 I thought I had gone to heaven. Writing that sentence makes me feel very old. 🙂

    1. Sue, I too remember the day my Uncle installed indoor plumbing – the family was thrilled! Prior to that it was trips to the outhouse and baths in a big, metal washtub. Ahhh, those were the days. My grandmother did all of her cooking and baking in a wood stove – now there’s a (nearly) lost art! I was in awe. Great childhood memories, huh? ~Terri

      1. Hard to believe it was even like that Terri. Seems like a lifetime ago and I guess it was. I have a challenging enough time baking in my modern oven let along a wood one! 🙂

      2. Me too, Sue! When we moved from Viginia to Florida I could never get my cookies to rise. Weird. Someone said they thought it was the altitude – being at sea level. ~T

    1. Thanks Andrew. The shoo-fly was especially important because it was one of the kid’s chores to create it and keep it in good working order. You can imagine the number of flies in the swamp! ~Terri

    1. Thanks so much Tish. So glad that you stopped by. The homestead is a real piece of southern Americana – and the childhood memories it stirred were surprising. Have you run across places like this in your travels? ~Terri

      1. Yes, but in Canada. In fact I was just looking at some pix I took in London, Ontario – Fanshaw Pioneer Village, and in one of the preserved pioneer homes in the city. These places seem to reverberate with memories, far more than if you go into some grand, stately home which seems soul-less by contrast.

  2. What a life it must have been. Imagine what it took in 1929 to get all of those things out to the island. I could spend a week or so there, roughing it, but like you I really enjoy my creature comforts. A wonderful piece of history! I think it is so cool about the picture!!

    1. Laura, our minds run along similar paths because I wondered the same thing. Transporting all those materials must have been a challenge. And wouldn’t you love to have been there the day the bathtub was delivered. Sheer joy! I wonder how many of the 7 kids could fit in the tub together. 🙂 And the picture story just blew my mind! ~Terri

    1. Dina, it was one of those “suspended in time” experiences. The drone of the cicadas, scent of hot pine needles, and sweat rolling down my back transported me back to childhood. Ahh, summer in the South – always memorable. ~Terri

  3. great, nostalgic post! It’s amazing to me how difficult and time consuming life was (and still is for many people around the world). So I agree with you…I love the idea of the simple life , but not if it’s saddled with endless responsibilities and chores…doesn’t seem so simple after all.

    1. Glad that you enjoyed it. The whole experience was like walking into a time capsule. Even the shoo-fly newspaper was authentic to the time. I grew up on a modern day farm and remember that there were times it seemed the chores would never end, but then Mom and Dad made homemade ice cream and all was right with the world. 🙂 So glad that you stopped by. ~Terri

  4. One had to be pretty darn hardy back then. Gosh, living amongst gators, cooking for 7 kids, and no A/C now that’s roughing it. However, a tub with a view is living large. Interesting post 🙂

      1. LOL! Oh, I think in a family of 7 kids at the dinner table, the main threat would be getting a fork stuck in the back of your hand as you reached for the last piece of fried chicken. 🙂 ~T

    1. Hi Sue, so glad you stopped by. I’m with you on the pie safe! And I don’t want one of those with the pretty punched-tin designs. I want the wire mesh I can see (and smell) through. 🙂 What about you? ~Terri

  5. This looks like the home my grandmother described growing up in in Tennessee. She still has a picture in her living room that is similar to the one you show, but isn’t the same. I want it for myself someday because it reminds me so much of visiting her.

    1. Juliann, what wonderful memories you must have. I still remember my grandmother’s home in the country – she even had one of those old telephones with the crank, mouthpiece, and earphone on a wire. She would call the operator and ask to speak with a neighbor. All the lines were party lines so you could (supposedly) eavesdrop on other people’s conversations … but I wouldn’t know. 🙂 ~Terri

  6. This is an amazing post, found it from Jon Tripp’s blog. I’ve pinned several things from this post, as they fit the flavor and vision I have for my homestead in TN that I’m currently dream-crafting. Thank you!

    1. Thank you Sheket. So glad you stopped by. The farm is such a special place with all the touches of a homestead well-loved. The children’s toys and games definitely took me back to playing with my cousins on our summer vacation. My grandmother (the awesome pie baker) also made beautiful rag rugs that warmed the floor in winter. I can’t imagine a homestead setting more beautiful than Tennessee (we’re from Kentucky). Are you close to realizing your dream? ~Terri

      1. Hi Terri, I hope I am close to realizing it. I figured 18-24 months out from last March if all things hold as they are. Maybe sooner if I hit the lottery 🙂 Maybe longer if life twists and surprises like it often does! I’ve already started the dream once and lost it, so this is a re-start (long story).

        I’m really going to have to visit this place on one of my forays betwixt here and TN, as I’d like to touch and see it first hand, get more of a feel for it. Love the idea of things in place to ‘show’ the memories.

        One of my best friends lives in KY, which will be one of the joys of returning to TN. They are both beautiful states that I enjoy traveling.

        Nice ‘meeting’ you 🙂 I’ll have a gander around at more of your blog soon.

      2. I am currently doing penance in the Sunshine State 🙂 I really like the book ‘Cross Creek’, and I’d love to get there for a visit some time.

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