by Dennis Dalman
Heidi Everett of rural St. Joseph has been waking up every morning with countless do-lists staring her in the face.
She and her husband are so busy it’s as if they’re packing for a trip that will last for years; so busy it’s as if they’re trying to find good homes for umpteen orphans, so busy it’s as if they are tangled up in piles and piles of stuff. And all of those things are true, in a way.
Heidi and husband Emil Towner, with help from their children, are down-sizing to an extreme degree so they can move into their new home – a tiny house at the edge of Pine Lake, an environmentally protected lake in the rural Avon area.
Since 2004, they have lived in a large house on a 5-acre hobby farm dubbed the Out of Towner Ranch after Emil’s last name. He and Heidi were married in the front yard right after they moved in. By next October, they and youngest son Boothe will be living in an 8-foot-wide by 40-foot-long “mini house,” a total living space of 300 square feet.
Towner is a business communication professor at St. Cloud State University and Everett teaches communications and journalism at Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Many readers will recognize her name because she has been very active in education and communication issues at Kennedy Community School in St. Joseph and in the greater St. Cloud area. She also competed for the House District 13B seat in the last election, which incumbent Rep. Tim O’Driscoll (R-Sartell) won again.
Everett and Towner have four children: Branden, 24, of St. Paul, who graduated from Augsburg College with a degree in film and communication and who currently works for campus security at Augsburg; Brody, 21, of St. Cloud, who is majoring in community planning at St. Cloud State; Makaela, 20, who will graduate this spring with a degree in social work from Bemidji State University and who will start grad school at St. Cloud State this summer; and Boothe, 9, a fourth-grader at Kennedy Community School who lives at home.
The Out of Towner Ranch was always a happy, bustling place bulging with energy, social events, family fun and a steady stream of guests.
The family grew vegetables and raised some hobby animals, such as chickens and fainting goats, several of which they still have, along with a pony.
As the children moved out, one by one, the bustling house quieted down, leaving Emil and Heidi with signs of the empty-nest syndrome.
“This place was always bursting at the seams when the kids were all home,” Everett said. “It actually felt small then, but now it seems so big, and there are empty rooms we do not even go into anymore. It is just too much, too much room. There are parts of the house that never have any human beings in them for long stretches of time.”
The Everett-Towner family has always loved to go on camping trips. Heidi recalled all the fun they had during a 14-day road trip in an RV back in 2000. They traveled in 10 states four teenagers, a toddler and Heidi’s father. A friend of Makaela’s was the fourth teenager; Boothe had not been born yet.
“We loved that trip,” Heidi recalled. “We enjoyed such close, quality time outdoors, and it was so nice to be in a small space. Every summer, we have camped so much and enjoyed it so much that we were used to being with less stuff. And then we’d come back home from camping trips to so much stuff.”
Gradually, throughout the years, Towner and Everett began toying with the idea of moving into a tiny house. Then, last December, they made up their minds to do it, to down-size, to move into a tiny house. They contacted Midwest Tiny Living, a tiny-house company in St. Cloud. Then, with advice from that company, they set in motion the building of a custom-made little house.
The Tiny House Movement, as it’s known worldwide, is a current adaptive philosophy and way of living. Many people are preferring to simplify their lives and live in environmentally friendly ways, clearing their lives of clutter in order to distill and concentrate the human elements that matter most to them. Its focus is on people rather than the acquisition and maintenance of “stuff.”
Tug of war
And then the family began to sell some stuff and give lots of quality stuff away to places like Goodwill, the Salvation Army and Wacosa.
Although Everett and the entire family is excited about the new living adventure, she admits they all go through a kind of emotional tug of war during the rather ruthless process of down-sizing.
With every item they see or touch, memories pop up, and they struggle with what to keep, what to sell, what to toss. The space limitations of the new 300-square-foot home dictate there is very little “keeping” and lots of “parting,” even from precious heirlooms that ooze good memories.
“What should I do with the many jars one of the sons collected on our trips,” Everett pondered. “How many pieces of our two sets of china should we keep? Which items should we keep in the family, and how do we find the best homes for the quality stuff, many of them antiques?”
Photo albums especially tug at Everett’s heart. Years ago, she worked at Creative Memories in St. Cloud, a company specializing in quality scrapbooks. Not surprisingly, Everett began to create scrupulous, artistically designed scrapbooks of photos, photos and more photos. She now has 40 of them, not counting the ones she made for each of the kids.
Just the other day, son Branden came into the house and asked, “Hey, mom, where are the photo albums?”
They’re still there, among the heaps of stuff yet to be separated into “keep” and “get rid of” piles. Branden also early on laid claim to the miniature Christmas village the family would set up every holiday season.
“I’ve made miniature hope chests for each of the children,” she said.
Everett admitted she gets a bit teary-eyed when recalling a family Christmas tradition – baking eight to 10 dozen holiday cookies and placing them in stacks on the kitchen counter. The family has enjoyed that nostalgic tradition for 25 years.
“We will have to rethink that tradition,” she said. “There will be no counter space in the new home. I’m thinking we can still bake the cookies, but then put them in bags in a freezer.”
What stunned and sometimes amused Everett are all the “WTH” drawers she opened during the shedding process. WTH stands for What the heck?!” – the reaction she gets when opening a drawer and wondering what the heck is it? Or why in the heck did anybody save it? Items such as umpteen extension cords, for example, or old computer cables.
Some decisions stem from ruthlessly practical questions: How many rakes or brooms to keep? Where in the world can winter clothing be stored?
Down-sizing, Everett said, is a good way of getting to know new people, such as for example people she sells stuff to online.
She recently sold a sheet music stand to Carolyn Bertsch of Sartell, and in turn, she acquired the inspiration to downsize from a guitar to a ukulele. When the women met, to complete the sale, in a parking lot, they talked for nearly an hour, and they have since become friends. Everett has been learning to play the ukulele.
“I’m sure I can find a place in the new house for that ukulele,” she said, laughing. “It’s small, a lot smaller than a guitar.”
Recently, Towner and Everett met with the St. Cloud company that’s designing the tiny house. The house will, of course, be meticulously insulated and winterized.
Everett talked about what the new house won’t have. It won’t have a kitchen counter for appliances; it won’t have a full-fledged stove – just a two-burner induction cooking gizmo; it won’t have a limitless supply of water – far from it. Nondrinking water will be recycled via a purifying filter. The hot water supply will keep recirculating so the water doesn’t have to run until it warms up.
“There are all kinds of great little gadgets out there in the marketplace,” Everett said. “These are good resourceful things (such as water conservation) that all of us should have always been doing.”
The new tiny house will have plenty of advantages. For one thing, Everett figures she and Emil will be able to clean the entire house, top to bottom, in about 20 minutes. Yes, sometimes, less really is more.
Author: Dennis Dalman
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.