To most of us, prosperity is measured by little arrows on the TV screen showing if the stock market is up or down. It's hard to realize some people are rich and care about that. Several related narratives come to mind that I set down for didactic purposes only.
There was Lester Hunnewell at Cape Split, Maine, for instance, who had a fish-packing plant that made money with herring but lost some of it with clams. When FDR got elected, "gumment" forms proliferated. Lester found he couldn't cope, so he hired a bookkeeper. He found a young man just out of Bentley College, bought him a desk and an adding machine, and that problem was solved.
But shortly the bookkeeper came to Lester to say, "Look, Mr. Hunnewell, it's none of my business, and I don't care, but when you go to the cash register and take some money for yourself, it gums me up wicked bad on my accounts. It's your money, and it's your cash register. But if you'd just put in a slip of paper saying how much you took it would be a big favor to me." This made sense, and Lester agreed. A couple of weeks later, the bookkeeper came to work and found a note in the cash register.
It said, "Took it all."
There was another man down that way named Avery Guptil who also operated a packing plant. He went into the Bar Harbor bank one day to see Herbie Gifford, who owned the bank. He said, "Herb, things is mighty tight this season, and if I keep my crew together through clammin' into the blueberry crop, I'm going to run out of money and I'll need to borrow."
Herb said, "Well, Avery, you're good here for as much paper as you need, you know that. But instead of borrying, why don't you use the money in Florie's old housekeepin' account?"
Avery said, "What's that you say?"
When Avery was a young man, he'd married Florie Nugent from over to Spruce Cove, and they had 30 happy years and fetched up three children. When they were married, Avery started her off in housekeeping with a joint bank account, so she didn't need to ask him for money.
Every week, the factory clerk made a deposit, and Florie drew out what she needed. This went along, and then Avery was widowed, and then 17 more years went by. The factory clerk had never missed a deposit, and Avery had forgotten.
Now that he was reminded, Avery said to Herb, "Oh, that! How much is it good for?"
"I don't know without looking it up," Herb said, "but it seems to me at the June audit last year it was $156,000, give or take."
Theo and Clevie Bickford, brothers, had the Ford Motor agency in our town and did well. But one year a shipment of Fords included one Fordson farm tractor, which was a real lemon.
It was early in the farm-machinery game, and a Fordson had so much torque that it often lifted the front end, to the dismay of the driver. Farmers were afraid of it, and it was hard to sell.
The Bickford boys had Phil Sugg selling for them, and he did his best to work off the Fordson, but found no taker. Then one afternoon Phil came in jubilant and said, "I sold the tractor!"
Clevie said, "You didn't!"
Theo said, "Who to?"
Phil said, "Wait'll you hear what I got for it! He took a sheet of paper from his pocket and began to read:
"Cash, $1.07. Item: one wheelbarrow. Item: 35 pounds yellow-eye beans. Item: one crowbar. Item: Seven pullets, Black Minorca. Item: three used beehives. Item: 30 screw-top quart Mason jars. Item: six bales oat straw. Item: two canoe paddles. Item: dressmaking form. Item: lace curtain stretcher. Item: Moodie's sermons, bound. Item: bamboo eel spear. Item:..."
Theo interrupted. "So far, you done real good!"
Clevie said, "So what be I going to get?"
Philip said, "How about a lot in the West Bowdoin cemetery?"
Clevie said, "I got one of them; scarcely need two."
All of which teaches us that we don't need little arrows on the TV screen to tell us the state of financial affairs. The Bickford boys contracted with seven towns to plow snow, and one winter a late storm dumped so much they suddenly needed a new heavy-duty truck and plow.
Clevie took the train to Boston and found a dealer on Commonwealth Avenue that had just what he wanted.
He told the salesman, "I'll take it if you can get it on the afternoon freight train to Maine."
The salesman said, "We can, and have you seen our Mr. Smith?"
Clevie said, "Who's Mr. Smith?"
"Our credit manager. This comes to a substantial sum."
Clevie said, "And how much is a 'substantial sum,' here in Boston?"
The salesman jotted on a pad of paper and said, "Well, net, it's a matter of just over $27,000." So Clevie took off his mackinaw, let down the front flap on his overalls, and took his wallet from his shirt pocket.
"That's for everything?" he asked.
Told that it was, Clevie said, "I already took my two cents on the dollar for cash." The fiscal conclusion I point out is that not everybody goes to Boston in overalls.