Now, you must admit, whether or not you truly enjoy or agree with my periodic ramblings on our Farm Website, I do manage to think up some strange, but intriguing titles for my posts. I’ll bet dollars to donuts this one takes the cake. However, this is a very special post. It dates back at least 45 years to my childhood on my adoptive family’s North Charlestown, NH dairy farm. Yes, they did have hydraulic log splitters back then, but they were a very new rural labor-saving device. One year (sometime around 1973), my father borrowed one to split our winter supply of firewood. I don’t recall how we obtained it, but I know it was borrowed because we only used it that one year. We probably received it in exchange for something my father did for or gave to the owner.
You have heard me preach the values and virtues of self-reliant living in numerous posts and in several of the books I’ve written, but what I’m about to recount in this post is a story my father used to tell in the years after we borrowed the log splitter. I honestly don’t know if it was his original idea or he was repeating a story that was told to him, but I’m quite confident (without being certain) that you won’t find it written anywhere else. It was created (I believe) as an ironic “shaggy dog” story to make people laugh, but it has an element of practical sense about it that makes it a good lesson to learn about the way a traditional rural barter economy truly works.
I was reminded of this story recently when discussing wood splitting work with a friend. Somehow, after remaining locked away in my mind through my entire adult life, I suddenly remembered it. I don’t recall every detail of the story, but I do clearly remember the point of it and how it began and ended. I just don’t remember how many total “transactions” it detailed, and—if it was my father’s original story (as I truly believe it was) it probably varied with the telling. That may be why it’s so hard for me to remember that level of detail clearly today. However, for your sake and his legacy, I will do my best to make up the parts I can’t remember and resurrect for you the story of “Life in a Log-Splitter Economy.” This may be a lengthy post, but I hope you will find it every bit as entertaining and educational as my father’s audiences once did.
A local dairy farmer had just finished planting his spring crops of alfalfa and feed corn, when an auger on his feed wagon (which he used to feed corn silage to his cows) cracked and had to be welded. Not being skilled at welding, the farmer took the wagon up the road to one of his neighboring farmers who had a small welding shop in his garage and routinely did welding jobs on the side for the local farm community. He showed his friend the cracked auger to see if it was a job he could handle. “Well,” the neighbor said after a few moments of careful study, “it’ll be a bear of a job, but I think I can do it. I’ll have to disassemble the power drive to get the auger out and then make a difficult weld along the angle of the shaft. Of course, I’ll give you a good discount on the work, but given the time and work involved, I’ll have to charge you $200 to make it worth my time and effort.”
The farmer initially winced at the cost, because he had just spent most of his available savings left over from last year to buy the seeds he needed to plant for the spring, but he knew his friend well and realized that his price was as affordable as he could make it. He thought about if for a moment in his mind before replying, “Okay, I appreciate all you’re willing to do to help me. However, I’m a little tight on cash right now, what with all the spring planting I had to do, but I’ll tell you what. I inherited this new-fangled hydraulic log splitter from my uncle who passed away over the winter. It’s only a year old, and I just used it to split all my winter firewood for this year. It saved me a lot of time and effort, but I could give it to you in exchange for your welding assistance. I don’t recall how much my uncle paid for it, but I know it was over $200.”
The welder thought for a minute and realized he still had to split all of his firewood for the winter, and that log splitter would save him a lot of time that he could use to do extra welding work for cash income. He decided to accept the famer’s offer and fixed the auger on his feed wagon.
About a month later, the welder got a terrible toothache. He tried all the home remedies he knew for the pain, but it was no use. The pain gradually got worse and worse to the point that even breathing cold air in the morning would cause intense pain. He decided he had to go visit his brother-in-law, who was a dentist. His brother-in-law examined his tooth and determined that he needed to have two teeth pulled and a partial installed. While the dentist was willing to give him the traditional “family discount” for the work, he told the welder it would cost him $200 for the work. The welder knew it would cost him more to go to any other dentist but, being a farmer himself, he had no dental insurance to cover the cost for the work. “Well, John,” he said, “I don’t have the cash I need right now because I did a job for a friend and took a log splitter in trade. It’s only a little over a year old and it works really well. I managed to finish splitting all my winter firewood early this year, so it’ll have a chance to cure well before I need to use it. I could give you that log splitter in exchange for fixing my teeth.”
The dentist had been looking to buy a log splitter for himself because it was always such a difficult and time-consuming job for him to do with all his dental work. He knew the most affordable log splitter he could find at the farm supply store cost $350. If he took the welder’s log-splitter in exchange for the dental work he had to do, it would save him what would have been the full cost of the work absent the “family discount,” and he would end up getting the log splitter he was seeking to buy. The dentist generously agreed and used the newly acquired log splitter to split all his winter firewood in two weeks, which was less than half the time it would have taken for him to split it himself.
However, about a month later, the dentist was driving to town when he drove over a deep pot hole that cracked the axle on his car. He had the car towed to a nearby friend who operated a small car repair shop out of his garage. The mechanic determined that he would have to replace the front axle of the car, which would cost his friend $350 with labor.
The dentist became a little concerned, because business had been slow lately, and he had just recently fixed his brother-in-law’s teeth, but received no money for the job. However, he desperately needed the car to get from his home in the country to his dental office in town. Fortunately, he noticed the mechanic had a big pile of firewood sitting beside his garage just waiting to be split, and it was getting late in the summer for him to get it all split and cured in time for the coming winter season. Since the dentist had already split all of his winter firewood, he decided to offer the log splitter to the mechanic in exchange for replacing his axle. The mechanic decided he would accept the trade, if the dentist would agree to allow him to use a salvaged axle rather than having to buy a new one. Since the dentist knew his friend would give him a good used axle, they agreed to the deal.
The mechanic split all of his firewood in record time using the new log splitter he had acquired. However, shortly after it was done, his family’s milk cow suddenly died, leaving the mechanic without a source of fresh, affordable milk at a time when his wife had just given birth to twin baby boys. He was depending upon the cow to keep his grocery bills affordable over the winter. So, the mechanic went down the road to visit his friend who operated a dairy farm. He asked if he could buy one of his milk cows to replace the one that died. The farmer was a good friend of the mechanic, and instantly agreed to help him out. However, the farmer would have to charge $200 for the cow to cover the loss of milk production that he would have to bear. Since the mechanic was struggling with the same slow economy that his dentist friend was suffering through, he decided to offer the farmer to accept the log splitter he had recently acquired and used in exchange for the cow. The farmer was pleased to be offered a replacement log splitter for the one he had traded away months ago. Now he would again be able enjoy the time saving benefits when it came time to split firewood for next season. He was even more surprised to realize when the mechanic delivered the log splitter to him that it was the very one had traded away months ago.
If you think carefully about this little story and do the math, you will realize that a total of $950 worth of essential services and business was transacted between four people in this small community at no actual cost to each person. In addition, all four people managed to split all of their firewood using the very same log splitter, which was returned to its original owner in the end. They all got what they needed without spending a single penny. The money that would have been spent for each of these services not only stayed within the local community, it actually remained with the original residents. Although the likelihood of these instances actually occurring in real life are extremely low, the story provides a good, simple explanation of how bartering and making-do can make life more affordable and sustain a rural economy. Although these events are fictional, this kind of activity was common in the small farming community that raised me—and I’m alive to tell you about it because it works. After all the trips my father made to “see a man about a horse,” we always managed to get what we really needed at little or no expense, even though we never came home with a horse.
After reading this little tale, you may scoff at my insistence that it can work. In fact, I contend that it can be a useful way to strengthen the bonds between people living in more urban settings. As a case in point, let me refer you to the Appendix of the Neighborhood Element (Volume I) of the 2013 Cumberland, MD Comprehensive Plan. You can actually access the document on the city’s web site. You will find a link to the plan on the Planning Department page (under the “Government” link) of the website.
At the end of the plan document in Appendix C, you will find a listing of recommend potential neighborhood action strategies for the city’s various volunteer Neighborhood Associations to consider as ways to strengthen neighborhood cohesion among their residents. The list contains 15 strategies, the first of which is called, “Barter Boards.” The suggestion is for each Neighborhood Association to place a bulletin board in a strategic location where residents often gather. The board would be used for residents to post items or services for TRADE rather than sale. For instance, an artist might want to offer his/her artwork in exchange for tax preparation services or haircuts. A tax-preparer might want to offer accounting services in exchange for some dental work. Someone might want to trade a used car for someone to repaint a house or repair a leaky roof. Not only would these services and goods support and preserve the traditional Appalachian barter economy, they would bring residents of the community closer together in a society where residents rarely know their neighbors—thereby strengthening the sense of community in the city.
I offer this example from the City of Cumberland, MD as evidence that the traditional rural practice of bartering can provide a useful benefit to city residents who tend to have distinct work specialties. How is it that I know about this obscure provision of the Cumberland Comprehensive Plan? Because I wrote it during the 11-year period that I served as the Cumberland City Planner before I retired. It remains one of the simple planning recommendations that you probably won’t find anywhere else that illustrates how I made use of my knowledge of traditional rural lifestyles and folkways in my professional planning career. It also illustrates how my approach to planning was vastly different from the urban design approach that so many planning professionals insist on applying to every community today. Now you know the rest of the story. I hope it is a story you can appreciate and promote. For that is the only way we can preserve our traditions and make them relevant in today’s hopelessly confused modern society.