Maybe it’s just me — it usually is — but I’ve long noticed a disturbing trend in our society. This trend is taking us away from independence and creativity and toward living “in the box,” dependent on something called the “economy” which must be maintained at any cost.
Fortunately, there are still many of us around familiar with a time when windmills pumped the water (for free — is that even legal?) and a winter’s walk to the outhouse may have brought forth a little grumbling but was survivable. Wood provided the heat and cars and trucks cost $50 and you fixed them with a pocket knife. Gasoline was cheap and opportunities abounded for the small-time entrepreneur.
Indeed, one way that this trend is being imposed on us is through the “sophistication” of trucks and automobiles and the current cost of motor fuel.
I recall when Uncle Tony acquired a bunch of concrete molds in a card game. In his backyard, amidst beer and polka music from the local radio station, he cast cement flower pots and garden gnomes. Tony would then take a pickup load of these creations to sell at the local farmer’s market. I don’t have the sales figures but I do recall stubbing my toes on the confounded things for the subsequent 20 years.
Tony was able to do this because the gas for his 1949 Studebaker pickup was affordable as were the home repairs to the truck. If, as is the case now, gasoline was over $4 a gallon and every little problem the truck developed needed to be scanned with a computer, this little enterprise would never have left the ground and I wouldn’t have a lifelong fear of wearing sandals.
Likewise, my dad would not have been able to afford the commute to his shop in Rahway, N.J. Though distant from home, this was the only affordable rental that he could find with three phase electric service. These were the critical formative years of his manufacturing business and had it been 2012 instead of 1963, this enterprise would likely have died on the vine.
Not so very long ago, a pickup, some gravel and a shovel could put one in the business of fixing mud holes. Some poplar trees pushed out for a road (nobody wants poplar for firewood) an old flatbed truck, a chainsaw and a couple of cant hooks put one into logging. Fifty bushels of locally grown apples and peaches and an old truck put one into the produce business in the mountains to the west where freezing winters and fickle frosts cause fruit not to grow.
One thing common to all of these grassroots businesses is that their profit margin is narrow enough to be consumed by high priced fuel, truck parts and repairs. The period in history when a profitable small business need only consist of an idea, a few tools and an old truck may be over. It is not the effect that this has on commerce that I’m lamenting but the passing of an age of color and character almost unimaginable in today’s relatively stark and practical business world.
A Native American woman would regularly visit our place in the Jersey countryside of the late ‘50s. She drove a 1930s International truck piled high with handmade lawn furniture. This furniture was made of cedar which is especially easy to come by in that region. Typically, these cedar trees never grew to sufficient size to become saw logs and were not desirable as firewood. These trees, then, were usually considered to be trash.
Taking these “trash” trees, this woman used a band saw to rip the trunks into slats and used sections of the trunks as legs, rounds and armrests. The result was a very attractive and durable product — again, just an idea and an old truck. I related the story of the Indian lawn furniture lady to a fellow from the Philadelphia suburbs. To my surprise, he told me that the woman with the ancient International truck was a regular visitor at his childhood home as well. From Princeton to Philly is a lot of ground to cover with a top speed of 35 miles per hour.
Edgar was our junk car and scrap metal removal guy, a fellow working out of Trenton. Edgar was a World War II veteran and it was said that he carried a piece of shrapnel that caused him to be able to detect metal. I’m not all that sure that this was entirely true but he could reach into a pile of rotting leaves and pull out a piece of farm junk that had been forgotten for generations.
Edgar would arrive at the site of a junked automobile in his late ‘40s Chevrolet “Advanced Design” single axle dump truck.
He would raise the bed and a dented old refrigerator would tumble out onto the ground. He would then back up to the car in question, chain the front bumper to the dump bed then lower the bed causing the front of the car to rise, he would then place the refrigerator under the car, raise the bed and back under it.
He would chain the car to a point further ahead and again lower the bed, thus the car would be halfway loaded. The process would be completed by backing into a tree. Edgar’s name even worked it’s way into our vocabulary.
My cousins, often critical of my somewhat shabby automotive acquisitions, would declare; “Looks like an Edgar to me” in prophecy of the car’s looming destiny.
Locally, there are the many historic apple and peach truckers, small time coal and firewood dealers and even light truck pulp wood haulers. One real visionary though was the late Clete Whitacre.
Well water around Capon Bridge isn’t all that tasty due to the high iron content and many folks depended largely on rain water cisterns for water before town water went in. Mr. Whitacre used an old Chevrolet truck equipped with a water tank and went about the community filling cisterns. A dry spell without rain was anything but lean for ol’Clete.
I can see that there is no end to the stories of these old-time entrepreneurs. Even today, there are still some of the older trucks around which are particularly suitable to this activity. There are folks who, even with the high operating costs, have a better than average chance of succeeding in such a venture. Then there’s the rest of us. Perhaps it was when we of mere average entrepreneurial talent made our ventures that the most colorful tales evolved. Unlike in years past, we must now carefully count the cost before doing anything that involves fuel. Indeed, we even must count the cost before mowing the lawn — because beer is expensive, too, you know.