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TALES OF RURAL THRIFT
THERE are probably few better schools for the development of thrift than the small New England farm, which although necessarily limited in its capacity to produce an income, still requires a considerable investment in necessary equipment. Those courageous, hard working couples who bring up a family upon one of these small homesteads, find it exceedingly hard to make ends meet and may quite likely often find themselves at the end of the year in the state of mind shown by the humble tiller of a Vermont farm who when asked what kind of a season he had had, replied:
"I cannot say that we have made any money this year, but we have got considerable growth on the young ones."
Old Friend and the Load of Hay
For many years a family had subsisted upon a small farm which was a source of profit chiefly to a money lender some fifteen miles distant and made secure by means of a very energetic mortgage. It mattered not what the family necessities might be, provision must always be made on the first day of April for the payment of the interest.
One April first, when "Uncle Aaron" had traveled the fifteen miles laboriously through the mud to make his annual payment, he seemed to the holder of the mortgage to be somewhat depressed. As he was normally a very cheerful man, the money lender asked him how things were going. He was informed that "Uncle Aaron" was exceedingly short of hay with which to feed his stock until the grass in his pasture had made sufficient start to justify his turning his cattle out to seek their own living.
"Well! well! Uncle Aaron," was the reply. "I have a whole barn full of hay at my farm up the Branch and you can take your horse and wagon, go up there and get a load for your cattle and it won't cost you a cent."
Uncle Aaron made his way homeward with a light heart. To be sure the roads were in a fearful state, but his old mare was faithful and reliable and he felt sure she could make the journey and take home a pretty fair load of hay for his lean and always expectant cows.
A couple of days later with his horse and hay wagon he made the journey, securing as much hay as he thought his horse could get home with over the muddy roads. Apparently Uncle Aaron overestimated the old mare's capacity, as when he was yet six or eight miles from home she seemed to have lost all courage. He could hardly get her along the road. Finally he remembered that at a farm a short distance ahead, there lived an acquaintance of his who would probably be glad to put him up for the night. He succeeded in persuading his reluctant horse to cover the remaining distance and turning into the farm road observed his old friend looking at him curiously, but who quickly approached and welcomed him gladly.
"Just drive into the barnyard," said he, "and put your horse in a stall, give her some supper and then we will go in the house. My wife will be glad to make your acquaintance."
This was indeed a haven of rest for Uncle Aaron. With the old mare well fed and furnished with a comfortable bed of straw to sleep on, as his friend had plenty of straw, although he admitted being very short of hay, Uncle Aaron accepted gladly the hospitality of his friend's wife who served an excellent supper. Such cordiality was really delightful after so weary a day.
The evening passed in reminiscences of boyhood days, and the occasion was enlivened by several pitchers of cider which in turn recalled jolly old songs in which "Uncle Aaron" and his host joined with zest. It was a late hour before the old friends retired to rest.
Uncle Aaron slept soundly and late. He was awakened to hear with horror the clock striking nine. Breakfast must have been over at least two hours, if not more. Leaping from the bed, Uncle Aaron hastily proceeded to dress, but his attention was called to a chamber window by the bellowing of cattle. Looking out he saw his host halfway across the field engaged in some farming task, while a large herd of cattle were in the barnyard eagerly consuming what seemed to be about the last of his load of hay. Hastening from the house and chasing the cattle back into the meadow, where they had evidently been eagerly searching for an occasional bite of dead grass, Uncle Aaron accepted a late breakfast with numerous apologies to his hostess, harnessed his horse and dejectedly turned his way homeward. The load which the old mare had occasion to haul over the still sticky roads, did not seem to be much of an embarrassment the rest of the way home.
The sad feature of this melancholy tale, to Uncle Aaron, was the ever present doubt as to the real good intentions of his old friend in turning his hungry cows into the meadow that morning and leaving the gateway insecurely fastened.
The ambitious proprietor of a small farm is naturally somewhat perturbed when winter finds him with insufficient forage for his stock. It means that he must go to the expense of buying supplies from his more fortunate neighbors, or that he must sell some of his cattle at a sacrifice.
Man Who Worked a Confidence Game on His Cows
The owner of a little mountain farm found himself as winter approached with a shortage of hay, but more dry straw than usual. The question therefore was how to enthuse his cattle with the idea of making One good, substantial meal per day of the straw. It should be understood incidentally that the grain had been threshed out of this straw, leaving just the residue, which from the standpoint of the average experienced bovine citizen was exceedingly unpalatable.
The experiment was tried Of feeding straw to the cattle in the manger in the way hay was fed, but with very unsatisfactory results. The cows nosed over the straw with badly concealed disgust. When it became necessary to feed hay, practically all the straw had to be removed. It was a discouraging situation but Yankee ingenuity, which has so often stood the test, did not fail in this instance.
Taking into careful consideration the exceedingly complex psychology (?) of the average cow, the owner had a very bright idea. He hastily pitched a large quantity of straw out into the barnyard where the cattle went out to drink, making as high a pile of it as possible; this he surrounded with a rickety fence.
The next day, at the normal time for the straw ration, the cattle were turned into the yard, and gazed curiously at the straw pile. Watching at some distance, the farmer saw one or two cows approach the stack and thrusting their heads through the ramshackle fence, nibble cautiously at the straw. The owner promptly rushed into the yard and chased the cattle away.
Again the farmer watchfully waited, noting with gleeful enthusiasm the marked change in the attitude of his cattle toward the straw. That which had been scorned by them when fed as a legitimate ration, now seemed to assume new and seductive attractions.
He again drove them away and went to his house for the noonday meal. When he returned an hour or. two later the temporary fence was completely demolished, while the unusual abdominal distention of his flock of cows gave abundant evidence of the success of his experiment.
There are few legends of unusual thrift which come down out of the past involving the medical profession. The country doctor has usually worked hard, gone without sleep, trusted patients to whom no one else would think of giving credit, and died poor.
There were exceptions, however. A doctor who had for many years enjoyed a fairly lucrative practice and who had shown unusual efficiency in holding his expenses at a low figure, gradually found himself handicapped by the infirmities of age with a naturally diminishing professional income.
Although the old doctor was in affluent circumstances for that period, it was very depressing to him not to be able to lay aside the usual amount each year. He accordingly resorted to the extremes of economy. The doctor lived alone except for a housekeeper, and having had a misunderstanding with her, found himself left entirely to his own devices. He accordingly engaged a half-grown boy to come and stay with him and "do chores for his board."
The boy did not find the environment especially exhilarating. The old man was very irascible and hard to please. Furthermore his menu was rather too simple to meet the requirements of a growing boy.
One evening returning from school, the young man hustled to do his outdoor tasks in order to prepare for an early supper. He had even more than his normally excellent appetite. In fact he was practically famished. He hoped therefore that the old doctor would give instructions for a tolerably elaborate meal.
But he was greatly disappointed. Seating himself near the kitchen range, the old doctor who commonly held his cane in his hand, even when sitting in his easy chair, testily gave instructions to the boy to make a hasty pudding, prepared of course by sifting fine cornmeal into a kettle of boiling hot water until the right admixture is made, and then allowing it to cook for a short time.
According to the instructions, the youngster soon had the kettle boiling and brought forward an ample supply of the cornmeal, the old man watching every movement. Taking spoonfuls of the meal in one hand, he stirred vigorously with the other, meantime sifting in the meal. In his eagerness to prepare a sufficient quantity of the food to satisfy his youthful craving, the boy had put an unusual amount of water in the kettle. But when he had sifted in about half enough meal to produce the requisite combination with the water, he was abruptly brought to a halt by the old doctor.
"Hold on there, boy!" said he. "You have enough meal in there. Stew 'er down."
The old man's word was law and there was nothing for the youngster to do but to speed up the fire and stir the contents of the kettle until the evaporation of the superfluous water had brought the food mixture to the right consistency.
The boy decided that in the interest of self-preservation he had better hunt for a new job.
Mind, I Can Cut It"
Probably no more elaborate form of thrift has ever been carried out than that of the old-time widow of small fortune and the determination to live on her income. One of this type of widows succeeded in making herself a social leader among a considerable circle of women who were in much more comfortable circumstances financially. The airs and graces of this old lady were not looked upon with special admiration by the men of the community, but when an exceedingly amiable married woman of the neighborhood was invited with her husband to have supper with the widow, she prevailed upon her reluctant husband to go with her.
They were received cordially by the hostess who gave most gracious attention to the husband. He was not especially responsive and his wife looked on with considerable anxiety lest he should somehow allow his approval of the widow to show out in the conversation.
Everything went smoothly, however, and the amiable wife began to feel quite at ease. Called to the dining room, the table was found to be set out in very attractive style and lavishly supplied with everything except things to eat. The food exhibit was exceedingly meager.
They took their seats and the old gentleman gruffly replied to the prattle of the widow and seemed to be making a pretense of enjoying his meal.
Finally, however, that occurred which the wife had feared, and she felt disgraced for life.
As the final artistic touch of the meal, the widow turned to the pie which was apparently destined for dessert, cut it with great precision exactly through the center, next dividing one of the halves into three exactly equal parts. She then passed the pie to the amiable wife aforesaid, who removed one of the geometrical portions with the grace and ease customary on such occasions. The widow then passed the pie to the husband.
Perhaps the old man was actually in that state of undernourishment which produces such dissatisfaction in the masculine mind; perhaps he was inspired by a sardonic sense of humor. What he did was to reach out and take the half pie yet uncut and remove it to his plate. His wife looked on with horror.
"Why, papa," said she, "that part of the pie is not cut."
The old man smiled at her grimly.
"Never mind," said he. "I can cut it."
The impression should not be acquired that New England thrift and stinginess are synonymous. A person can be very economical and still be generous and considerate.
Empty Flour Barrel
A young married woman, whose husband was not regarded as a very good "provider" and who had been housekeeping a year or two, was quite flattered one afternoon at receiving calls by two estimable old ladies of the neighborhood. It may be taken for granted that they knew pretty nearly all the facts regarding the young couple in question. And their disapproval of the husband was about equally balanced by their sympathy for the wife.
After devoting an hour or two to conversation with her guests, the young housekeeper excused herself in order that she might prepare the five o'clock supper. Styles of entertainment naturally change according to the times, but at that period no farm supper table with guests present would be considered as properly spread without an abundant supply of hot soda biscuits which would be made more palatable by serving some kind of fruit sauce.
Shortly after the young hostess had set about her task of preparing supper, a pounding was heard in the kitchen. The two old ladies looked at each other significantly. The pounding continued. The hollow sound could suggest but one thing. The housewife was making a desperate effort to gather up enough flour from a nearly empty barrel to make the biscuits de rigeur for supper.
The old ladies became more and more uneasy and the conversation died away. Finally one of them arose.
"Do you know, I'm going home! It doesn't seem to me as though I could swallow a mouthful of one of those biscuits. That poor thing doesn't have half enough to eat!"
While the other lady was hesitating, the hostess re-entered the room. She of the uneasy conscience had already put on her wrap. The hostess protested but with no results. Her decision being unalterable, the other guest decided that it would be more diplomatic for her to make an excuse also. And the ladies departed to their homes, each of them more disgusted with Jake's improvidence than before they had apparently encountered the direct evidence that his poor wife must be going hungry.
This was many years ago and probably not even millionaires now buy their flour in barrels. But just because poor "Jake" had been a little slow about finding the wherewithal to lay in perhaps a year's stock of flour for himself and wife, in one package, his wife's social status received a serious jolt.
Under the strictly home rule township system of the New England states, only the large towns have their own resorts for the "down-and-outs" known as "poor farms."
Town Pauper Who Made an Epigram
The small towns have from the most remote days generally arranged to have the chronic town pauper boarded out in some family. Naturally people in comfortable circumstances are not likely to furnish entertainment for these unfortunates, who are generally farmed out by the year in homes where the very moderate compensation for board would be of financial assistance in meeting the year's expenses.
"Uncle Hiram" had recently been transferred to the care of a family which was not noted as given to a luxurious menu. There was no doubt sufficient food, but it was very plain and "Uncle Hiram" was naturally somewhat of an epicure.
One day he appeared at the residence of the poor master and seemed to be more dejected than usual. Suspecting that something was wrong, the official began to ask questions.
"Well, Uncle Hiram, how are you getting along at your new home?"
Uncle Hiram was rather non-committal in his reply, seemingly reluctant to make complaints, but after some urging he proceeded to make his ideas clear in the following long remembered statement.
"Mr. Thomas's folks are very good folks; but they have everything ter buyee; and nothin' ter buy it with."
As there was no evidence that Uncle Hiram did not fare as well in the menu as the rest of the family, it was not considered necessary to try and hunt him up a new boarding place.
Conscientious Neighbor Who Ran An Account
It is a common belief that excessive thrift is a continual temptation to dishonesty, but such is not necessarily the case. Perhaps there is no more marked example of that exactitude in business transactions which so frequently leads to the charge of stinginess than the instance recorded of the obliging man who was asked by his neighbor to kindly extend a little helpful supervision over the efforts of his young boys to carry on the farm during his own necessary absence for a few weeks. He offered to pay liberally for all the time required in carrying out this plan.
The man cheerfully consented to do all he could for the youngsters while their father was away.
The boys being carefully instructed as to their duties in his absence, the father started on his journey well content that everything would be all right. On his return he found that all had worked out as he had expected. The farm business had gone smoothly and when the obliging neighbor presented his bill, carefully itemized, it was promptly paid and with much pleasure.
The bill was carefully preserved as a souvenir for many years. It comprised a considerable number of items, each representing some small service for which the charge was accordingly trivial. Of course it is impossible, and neither is it desirable, to go into details regarding this bill, but one item may give a clue as to the conscientious, methodical and business-like habits of the man who presented it.
October 21st: — To helping roll log over.
That which has appeared heretofore in this chapter illustrates the various phases of the habitual economy which has made the Scotch, the New Englanders and other nationalities take so leading a place in modern civilization. But there is another instance of the economical instinct which stands out in very unpleasant contrast with the foregoing.
Thrifty Man Who "Swore Off" Using Tobacco
A well-to-do farmer had reached quite an advanced age and had been recently left alone by the death of his wife. He had no children and no obvious reason for denying himself anything within reason that would help to allay his natural loneliness. But such a hold had frugal habits taken upon him that one December he resolved that on January first he would discontinue for all time his one indulgence, viz., "fine cut" tobacco, utilized in the manner made famous and conspicuous by many eminent Americans during the preceding century.
Accordingly, having reached this decision, this model citizen began to plan ahead. He found that his supply of "fine cut" was in considerable excess of his normal requirements. He therefore speeded up the matter somewhat by increasing his daily allowance. But when the thirty-first day of December arrived, he found himself with several days' supply on hand.
There were acquaintances who would on request have cheerfully obliged him by taking over his reserve stock. But this plan made no appeal. He resolved to sit up until midnight, if necessary, and consume the last of that "fine cut" himself.
He carried out his plans according to program. But even his thoroughly seasoned physique rebelled. The next day he was seriously ill. And his funeral took place a week or two later.