Thistledown: the Tiny House Lifestyle of a Family

David Carleton, eco-epicurean and raconteur bon vivant, is poised with his family on the verge of a new chapter in their lifestyle adventure as their home comes full circle on the road from tiny house to eco-tavern.

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Cooking is way more fun when you only have to step outside for fresh greens.

On the corner of Main Street and Holler Away in the downtown district of Dancing Rabbit Eco-village is Thistledown, the long-time home of the convivial Carleton clan: David, (better known as Cob,) and his ex-wife Meadoe, along with their precocious children, Morgan, Duncan and Ewan the evil Ewie-monster. The home is a pastiche of the Carleton family rendered in wood and glass, its form and function ever changing in time with the lives of its inhabitants as the years pass by. It stands as a testament to the growing pains a family must endure in order to adapt the tiny house lifestyle to the needs of a family.

I recently spent an afternoon with Cob in his living room to hear his account of the journey he and his family have undergone since they left their 2000 square foot home in the suburbs of Rochester, New York. As he sat with his eyes closed and a mason jar of red wine in hand, he related his experiences in the scholarly style of a literature lover, fleshing out each anecdote in suspenseful tones vibrating with emotion and clever hyperbole.

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Cob, Meadoe and the Ewie-monster pretending to have a halo.

Cob and Meadoe visited Dancing Rabbit with a friend in 2007, in search of a deeper sense of community. “Culture shock took hold right away,” Cob told me. “At that time, half of the village had not yet been constructed, and Main Street was still just a mulched path that turned to mud whenever it rained – which it did, of course, the first week we were here. The village seemed like a bunch of hillbillies partying in the middle of nowhere, and we had second thoughts about our decision to visit. Our friend lost heart and decided to leave early; we felt bad about that, so we stuck around. Now I am so glad that we did. The sun came out, the flowers bloomed and we realized how stunningly beautiful this place is. We were humbled by how welcoming everyone was, as they took turns hosting us for meals in their houses. We gradually came to understand that the deep care they felt for the Earth, and their customs seemed less uncouth. We noticed budding friendships as we joined the others for Wednesday song circle, or a float in the swimming pond. By the end of our visitor session, we knew this was home.”

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As you might have guessed, solar panels don’t work so well under a blanket of snow.

“We were one of the first established families to move into the community,” Cob went on to tell me, “and Thistledown was the only place available with enough room for us. At that time, it was just a 570 square foot cottage, and that floor space included an L-shaped covered porch on the south and east sides. When we moved in, the three boys were triple-bunked into the middle bedroom, and my office was in the battery room next to the pantry. I had to do all of my work with a noisy inverter,” an apparatus that receives electricity from a solar panel array and prepares it for battery storage, “buzzing twelve inches from ear!” (Cob vocalized a likeness of the inverter’s characteristic buzz – I do not possess a sufficient command of onomatopoeia to render it in written form, but rest assured it would make you cringe.)

“It was challenging to downsize by nearly 1500 square feet. Meadoe and I each have a close connection with our family heritage, and we brought with us many artifacts with deep histories that we could not leave behind. There were scores of articles of furniture, some of which were family heirlooms, along with my enormous book collection and all of the paraphernalia that goes along with a family of five. The diaspora of our furniture is now spread all over the village, and we have embraced the spirit of sharing the possessions we love but could no longer use. My grandmother’s linen closet ended up in the great room of the village common house along with Meadoe’s piano. The village library is stacked on shelves that we brought with us, my old filing cabinets are now used by our community’s non-profit, and a precious cherry wood heirloom was even purchased by the owners of the local eco-bed and breakfast, the Milkweed Mercantile.” Particularly cherished pieces are his great-grandfather’s antique cello and bow with mother of pearl inlay and its horsehair bound in silver, as well as a special table his grandfather handcrafted using scraps of marble scavenged in Italy from the decayed mosaics of ancient Rome.

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What father isn’t flagellated by his children once in a while?

“Our boys used to argue and squabble quite a lot, and they rarely played together well despite having a whole basement playroom to themselves. Forcing them to live together in close quarters worked wonders for their relationships with each other. They began to cooperate, instead of seeing each other as obstacles to what they wanted. They spent much more time outdoors getting exercise and using their imaginations. It was great for Meadoe and I as well; it was so easy to have a conversation while I was cooking in the kitchen and she worked in the bedroom. Meadoe learned how to sew in her lap with a small kit, rather than take over the dining table and leave her project out until it was finished. Living in a smaller space forced us to get organized.”

“We also got a crash course in navigating the rigors of living in community. We had been here for about an hour on the day that our family relocated to Dancing Rabbit, and Meadoe and I were strategizing how we wanted to move everything out of the truck and into the house. We noticed a staccato of banging and assumed it was someone hammering somewhere in the distance, as there was a lot of construction underway at that time. As we moved our couch inside, we realized that the banging was coming from the master bedroom. We rushed there to find a four-year-old Ewan and one of the neighbor kids laughing diabolically as they eagerly stabbed holes in the drywall with pencils. We were dumbfounded, and terrified, because we were renting the house from someone who had a reputation for being unforgiving, and who specifically bought Thistledown as a favor to us, since the prior owner was unwilling to rent the house to a family with children. She came around the next day offering to give us a tour of the house and I was mortified. I told her we were too exhausted from moving. This bought me a few days to drive into town and buy supplies to patch the holes, which I filled and painted over. On the day that she gave us a tour, she was none the wiser. I carried that secret for years, until she announced her decision to leave the community. We laughed and laughed when I finally let the cat out of the bag, and she admitted that she would not have told herself about it at the time either, if she were I.”

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Hiking in Colorado.

“When we lived in Rochester, I used to complain that we did not have enough space to host dinner parties,” Cob told me when I asked him to describe the impact that downsizing had on the social life of the family. “When we bought Thistledown,” they paid $55,000, “we hosted a celebration for Meadoe’s naming ceremony,” whereby villagers adopt a new name to represent their identity in the community, “and everyone in the village attended, some three-dozen people. Somehow, we managed to cram everyone in; we had eight or ten people on our couch alone! Everyone relished the food and we all had a wonderful time together, because of the close proximity and not in spite of it. It dawned on me that our friends valued us because of who we are, and not because the size of our house or some other status symbol. In fact, we have gotten far more flack for expanding the home than we ever got for that close-quarters dinner party.”

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Connecting with friends and neighbors.

Cob has not left Rochester entirely behind him – he still tunes in regularly to his hometown’s famous WXXI.org radio station, and checks in periodically on the old family home. He was shocked to learn that the current owners have replaced mature vegetable and flower gardens with lawn, and that they chose to cut down a perfectly symmetrical sugar maple tree once tapped by the Carletons to make maple syrup and where the kids had a sandbox and tire swing. “I miss having access to city culture, especially the theater and singing in our church choir. I would not trade my community to have it all back, though – Dancing Rabbit has gotten into my blood. Here we have gardens, not lawns,” Cob told me with pride. “I get to surround my house with flowers and watch the hummingbirds come to feed. I love sitting in my bench-swing on the porch and saying hello to my friends as they pass by. The joys I have here are hard to come by in Rochester.”

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Living in a tiny house community is loads of fun.

As time passed and the boys grew older, and larger, triple-bunking became impractical and the Carletons made plans to expand their tiny house by another 600 square feet at a cost of about $150 per square foot, which included the fees for design consultation and hiring laborers to do the work of construction. They expanded the living room and dining area by enclosing the eastern wing of the covered porch, and constructed a second floor bedroom/office that can be accessed via an indoor pinewood staircase, or from outside by virtue of a two story deck. The deck has become a favored place for Cob to do work in the cool evening air, or administer free back massages using his grandmother’s antique vibrator, (yes, you read the correctly). A breezeway was built to bridge the north end of the house with a large storage area designed to accommodate enough wood to supply their ATMOS boiler for a year. The boiler feeds several circuits of subfloor radiant tubing, which maintains a comfortable temperature in the home throughout winter with minimal energy inputs once the home’s concrete slab foundation has been brought up to temperature. The chimney flue of the furnace rises inside the house for several feet, allowing the ambient air of the living space to be heated before gasses are exhausted outside. I can testify that this system is highly effective; I rented a room in Thistledown over the winter of 2014 and often had to open my windows to temper the heat radiating upwards through my floor.

The Carletons took pains to ensure that their expansion would not result in a net negative ecological impact. All wood used in the new construction was either reclaimed or up-cycled, and they insulated the additions with blown cellulose. They installed numerous windows to allow for passive solar gain in the winter, and they built the new roof in two layers so that a living roof could someday be planted atop the structure. There is also room for a large array of solar panels, which feed clean electrical energy onto the grid for our neighbors in the nearby town of Rutledge to share. Thistledown has a metal roof for now, which allows Cob to harvest rainwater for his numerous fruit trees and gardens. He has plans to connect the western wall of the building with his neighbor’s house via a shared root cellar. This shared space strategy avoids any needless expenditure of materials and ensure that land zoned in the village for residential purposes is used efficiently. The expansions did not go without a hitch, however. One of Thistledown’s lingering flaws is a misplaced light fixture that overhangs the dining room table, on which I have bumped my head more times than I care to admit.

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Miss Moneypenny also wishes there was a handrail…

“Living with our community has benefited our family in so many ways,” Cob told me as he struggled to contain a surge of emotion that welled up from deep within him. “When Meadoe and I separated, the village held us so closely through the hard times. Our neighbors helped us form an agreement between ourselves, without involving lawyers and hostile litigation. We have come through that experience with many of the positive dimensions of our relationship intact. We co-parent our children, and they see us both every day. We eat meals as a family at least once a week, and Meadoe and I often check in with each other as friends.”

When their eldest, Morgan, turned sixteen, he moved out of Thistledown and lived for a while in Aubergine, a house in the village made from a renovated school bus. (He later graduated valedictorian from his high school and went on to university in Rolla, Missouri, where he is studying mechanical engineering.) This change meant that more room become available in Thistledown, allowing Duncan to have his own room and practice his skills as an artist until he too ventures out on his own. Ewan now shares the upstairs bedroom with his dad, affording the pair a valuable opportunity to connect before Ewan follows his brothers.

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The view from Cob’s deck.

The extra space in Thistledown has allowed Cob to turn the dwelling into a hub of social activity in the village. He regularly plays host to visitors groups who come to learn about ecology and living in community from the members of Dancing Rabbit. The dining table is a frequent setting for board games, and movies are shown on Friday nights in the living room; (lately we have been working our way through the History Channel’s historical drama, ‘Vikings’). Cob has plans to convert the home into a tavern, once all the boys are grown, and he has already taken the first step by offering the former master bedroom to renters, which has become a valuable source of income in economically depressed northeast Missouri. “I am going to brew my own specialty beers,” Cob told me of his plans, “and turn the kitchen into a bar area.” Cob’s latest experiment is a recipe called ‘chocolate covered beaver nuts’, brewed with peanuts and cocoa powder.

We celebrated Cob’s 50th birthday with a fabled dish handed down by his German grandmother: königsberger klopse, which are savory melt-in-your mouth meatballs made with several kinds of meat and smothered in sardelin gravy. For dessert, Cob made chocolate cake filled with sour cherries and topped with whipped cream and black raspberries. A village friend constructed an oaken barrier and set it aflame, inviting Cob to burst through it in his birthday suit to welcome the second half of his life in style. Cob is no fool; he let someone else play daredevil and take all the splinters. You will find Cob’s recipes for his special birthday meal below.

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The grocery store, while under construction.

“My main project right now is our community grocery store,” Cob told me with excitement when I asked about his plans for the future. The grocery store at Dancing Rabbit is made from an old shipping container and serves as an outlet for eco-eats and other necessities. “I am working to make it a place where local farmers can access cold storage and our village craftsmen can have shelf space to market their wares. With the help of a government grant or private investment, we may be able to travel as far as Saint Louis to participate in farmers markets in the region.” Until then, Cob is content to fly his flower-filled flag on the family homestead and enlarge upon his Quantum Rabbit Hypothesis, which postulates that rabbits are both a particle and a wave, as exemplified by their ability to pass through fences without being diffracted. His research assistant is the beloved family dog, Miss Moneypenny, whose hobbies are yoga, chasing quantum rabbits and learning to talk.

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Maybe she’s trying to tell us she’s a person turned into a dog by a witch…

If you would like to learn more about Dancing Rabbit Eco-village and the Carleton family, check out Nickelodeon’s production ‘A Kid Off the Grid’, available via iTunes. The program features Cob and his children, who will explain how we handle our solid waste in an ecological fashion, without wasting water. Or, if you want to see Thistledown in person and learn more about the details of its construction, consider signing up for a spot in our community visitor program.

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An aerial photo of our community. Rights owned by DRE.

Königsberger Klopse (originally from Luchow’s of NYC):

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– Mix finely ground meat (1.5 lb raw veal, 1/4 lb. fat pork) I use a mix of pork and lamb
– Mix with 2T butter and 1.5 hard rolls softened with water and squeezed out
– Cook 2T grated onion in 1T butter until browned, add to meat
Mix in:
– ½ t grated lemon peel or zest
– 3 eggs, beaten
– ½ t pepper
– 1 t salt
– 1 T lemon juice
– 1 t Worcestershire sauce
– chopped parsley (it’s up to you how much)
– mix and shape into balls (golf ball size)

Heat 1.5 qtrs. stock or bouillon (I use home-make chicken, duck, or vegetable broth., or any combination thereof)

Drop meatballs in and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside. Depending on the size of your pot, this may take several rounds.

Now to make the gravy. Measure the remaining stock after cooking the meatballs. For every 1C of stock, mix 1T of butter with 1T of flour. Stir into hot stock, cook and stir until smooth and boiling.

Mash 1-2 sardines with 1T butter and mix into the gravy with 1T capers and 2T chopped parsley (fresh is best, but dried will do).

Reheat meatballs in gravy. Serve with wide noodles. Frenched green beans are a good accompaniment.

Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte: (based on the Moosewood 6-minute vegan chocolate cake)

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Sift together:
– 1.5 C unbleached white flour
– 1/3 C unsweetened cocoa powder
– 1 t baking soda
– 1/2 t salt
– 1 C sugar

Add & Stir
– 1/2 C vegetable oil
– 1 C cold coffee or water

Whisk in 2 T apple cider vinegar. There will be pale swirls in the batter as the vinegar reacts with the baking soda – just stir until evenly distributed and pour into the prepared pan.

Bake for 25-30 minutes and set aside to cool

(This recipe doubles OK, but does not extend well beyond that. Make multiple batches for best results…works well in paper muffin cups also)

Make three cakes. When completely cool, place the bottom layer on the serving platter and cover with red or black raspberry preserves. Add the next layer and top with sour cherries (after draining excess liquid…try for those preserved in water rather than syrup as the cake is already very sweet).

Whip 1 pint of heavy cream (maybe add some confectioner’s sugar if you like) to spread over the whole. Top with fresh berries in season.

Come for a visit very soon, OK? Photo rights owned by DRE.

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