My life, up to the age of forty, had been spent in my native city of Philadelphia…
by Edmund Morris
THE MAN WHO FEEDS his cattle on a thousand hills may possibly see the title of this little volume paraded through the newspapers; but the chances are that he will never think it worthwhile to look into the volume itself. The owner of a hundred acres will scarcely step out of his way to purchase or to borrow it, while the lord of every smaller farm will be sure it is not intended for him.
Few persons belonging to these various classes have been educated to believe that ten acres are enough. Born to greater ambition, they have aimed higher and grasped at more, sometimes wisely, sometimes not. Many of these are now owning or cultivating more land than their heads or purses enable them to manage properly. Had their ambition been moderate and their ideas more practical, their labor would be better rewarded, and this book, without doubt, would have found more readers.
The mistaken ambition for owning twice as much land as one can thoroughly manure or profitably cultivate is the great agricultural sin of this country. Those who commit it, by beginning wrongly, too frequently continue just as wrongly. Owning many acres is the sole idea. High cultivation of a small tract, is one of which they have little knowledge. Too many people think they know enough. They measure a man’s knowledge by the number of acres he owns. Hence, in their eyes, the owner of a plot so humble as mine must know so little as to be unable to teach them anything new.
Happily, it is not for these that I write, and hence it would be unreasonable to expect them to become readers. I write more particularly for those who have not been brought up as farmers — for that numerous body of patient toilers in city, town, and village, who, like myself, have struggled on from year to year, anxious to break away from the bondage of the desk, the counter, or the workshop, to realize in the country even a moderate income, so that it be a sure one. Many such people are constantly looking for something which, with less mental toil and anxiety, will provide for a growing family, and afford a refuge for advancing age — some safe and quiet harbor, sheltered from the constantly recurring monetary and political convulsions which in this country so suddenly reduce men to poverty. But these inquirers find no experienced pioneers to lead the way, and they turn back upon themselves, too fearful to go forward alone.
Books of personal experience such as this one are rare. This is written for the information of those not only willing, but anxious to learn. Once in the same predicament myself, I know their longings, their deficiencies, and the steps they ought to take to achieve success.
Hence, in seeking to make myself fully understood, some may think that I have been unnecessarily particular in my retelling of minute details. But in setting forth my own crudities and mistakes, I seek only to prevent others from repeating them. Yet even with all this information, this small volume will cause no crowding, even on a bookshelf which may be already filled.
I am too new a farmer to be the originator of all the ideas which are here set forth. Some, which seemed to be appropriate to the topic in hand, have been incorporated with the argument as it progressed; while in some instances, even the language of writers, whose names were unknown to me, has also been adopted.
– The Author
1. City Experiences and Moderate Expectations
MY LIFE, up to the age of forty, had been spent in my native city of Philadelphia. Like thousands of others before me, I began the world without a dollar, and with a very few friends in a condition to assist me. Having saved a few hundred dollars through close application to business, and avoiding taverns, oyster-houses, theatres, and fashionable tailors, I married and went into business the same year.
These two contemporaneous drafts upon my little capital proving heavier than I expected, they soon used it up, leaving me thereafter struggling for means. It is true my business kept me, but as it was constantly expanding — and was of such a nature that a large proportion of my annual income was necessarily invested in tools, fixtures, and machinery — I was nearly always short of ready cash to carry on my operations with comfort. At certain times, also, it ceased to be profitable.
The crisis of 1837 nearly ruined me, and I was kept struggling along during the five succeeding years of hard times, until the revival of 1842 came round. Previous to this crisis, necessity had driven me to the banks for loans, one of the sore evils of doing business with insufficient capital. As is always the case with these institutions, they compelled me to return the borrowed money at the very time it was least convenient for me to do so — they needed it as urgently as myself. To repay them I was compelled to borrow elsewhere, and that too at excessive rates of interest, thus increasing the burden while laboring to shake it off.
Thousands have gone through the same unhappy experience, and been crushed by the load. Such people can appreciate my trials and privations.
Yet I was not insolvent. My property had cost me far more than what I owed, yet if offered for sale at a time when the whole community seemed to want money only, no one could have been found to pay the price. I could not use it as the basis of a loan, neither could I part with it without abandoning my business. Hence I struggled on through that exhausting crisis, haunted by perpetual fears of being dishonored at the bank — lying down at night, not to peaceful slumber, but to dream of fresh expedients to preserve my credit for tomorrow. I have sometimes thought that the financial cares of that struggle were severe enough to have shortened my life, had they been much longer protracted.
Besides the mental anxieties they caused, they compelled a pinching economy in my family. But in this latter effort I discovered my wife to be a jewel of priceless value, coming up heroically to the task, and relieving me of a world of care. Without her aid, her skill, her management, her uncomplaining cheerfulness, her sympathy for struggles so inadequately rewarded as mine were, I would have sunk into utter bankruptcy.
Her economy was not the mean, penny-wise, pound-foolish approach which many mistake for true economy. It was the art of calculation joined to the habit of order, and the power of proportioning our wishes to the means of gratifying them. The little and pilfering temper of a wife is despicable and odious to every man of sense; but there is a judicious, graceful economy, which has no connection with an avaricious temper, and which, as it depends upon the understanding, can be expected only from cultivated minds. Women who have been well educated, far from despising domestic duties, will hold them in high respect, because they will see that the whole happiness of life is made up of the happiness of each particular day and hour, and that much of the enjoyment of these depends on the punctual practice of virtues which are more valuable than splendid.
If I survived that crisis, it was owing to my wife’s admirable management of my household expenses. She saw that our embarrassment was due to no imprudence or neglect of mine. She thus consented to severe privations, uttering no complaint, hinting no reproach, never disheartened, and was so rarely out of humor that she never failed to welcome my return with a smile.
But in this country one convulsion follows another with disheartening frequency. I lived through that of 1837, paid my debts, and had even managed to save some money.
My wife’s system of economy had been so long adhered to that in the end it became to some extent habitual to her, and she still continued to practice great frugality. I became insensibly accustomed to it myself. Children were multiplying around us, and we thought the skies had brightened for all future time.
When in difficulty, we had often debated the propriety of quitting the city and its terrible business trials, and settling on a few acres in the country, where we could raise our own food, and spend the remainder of our days in cultivating ground which would be sure to yield us at least a respectable subsistence. We had no longing for excessive wealth: a mere competency, though earned by daily toil, so that it was reasonably sure, and free from the drag of continued indebtedness to others, was all we coveted.
I had always loved the country, but my wife preferred the city. I could take no step that would not promote her happiness. So long as times continued to be fair, we ceased to consider a move to the country. We had children to educate, and to her the city seemed the best and most convenient place for this. Then also, most of our relations lived near us. Our habits were eminently social. We had made numerous friends, and among our neighbors there were many good families.
We felt the thought of breaking away from all this to be a trying one. But even so, the prospect of a move to the country had taken strong hold of my mind.
Indeed, it may be said that I was born with a passion for living on a farm. It was fixed and strengthened by my long experience of the business vicissitudes of city life.
For many years I had been a constant subscriber of several agricultural journals, whose contents I read as carefully as I did those of the daily papers. My wife also, being a great reader, in time began to study them almost as attentively. Everything I saw in them only confirmed my longing for the country, while they gave definite indications of what kind of farming I was fit for. In fact, the journals educated me for the position before I assumed it. And I am sure they played a role in removing most of my wife’s objections to living in the country.
I studied their contents as carefully as did the writers who prepared them. I watched the reports of crops, of experiments, and of profits. The leading idea in my mind was this — that a man of ordinary industry and intelligence, by choosing a proper location within hourly reach of a great city market, could so cultivate a few acres as to support his family, free from the ruinous vibrations of trade or commerce in the metropolis.
All my reading served to convince me of the soundness of this idea. I did not assume that we could get rich on the few acres which I ever expected to own; but I felt assured that we could place ourselves above want. I knew that our peace of mind would be sure. With me, this was dearer than all. My reading had satisfied me that we would find ten acres to be enough.
As I did not contemplate undertaking the management of a large grain farm, my studies did not run in that direction. Yet I read everything that came before me in relation to grain farming, and not without profit. But I graduated my views to my means, and so noted with the utmost care the experiences of the small cultivators who farmed five to ten acres thoroughly.
I noted their failures as carefully as I did their successes, knowing that the former were to be avoided, as the latter were to be imitated. As opportunity offered, I made repeated excursions, year after year, in every direction around Philadelphia, visiting the small farmers or truckers who supplied the city market with fruit and vegetables, examining, inquiring, and remembering all that I saw and heard. The fund of knowledge thus acquired was not only prodigious, but it has been of lasting value to me in my subsequent operations. I found multitudes of truckers who were raising large families on five acres of ground, while others, owning only thirty acres, had become rich.
On most of these numerous excursions I was careful to have my wife with me. I wanted her to see and hear for herself, and by showing her the evidence, to overcome her diminishing reluctance to leaving the city. My uniform consideration for her comfort at last secured the object I had in view. She saw so many homes in which a quiet abundance was found, so many contented men and women, so many robust and bouncing children, that long before I was ready to leave the city, she was quite impatient to be gone.
2. Practical Views. Safety of Investments in Land
THERE WAS NOT a particle of romance in my aspirations for a farm, neither had I formed a visionary theory which was there to be tested. My notions were all sober and prosaic.
I had struggled all my life for dollars, because abundance of them produces comfort: and the change to country life was to be, in reality, a mere continuation of the struggle, but lightened by the assurance that if the dollars thus to be acquired were fewer in number, the certainty of earning enough of them was likely to be greater. Crops might fail under skies at one time too watery, at another too dry, but no such disaster could equal those to which commercial pursuits are continually exposed. For nearly twenty years, I had been hampered with having debts of my own or of other parties to pay; but of all the farmers I had visited only one had ever given a note, and he had made a vow never to give another. My wife was shrewd enough to observe and remark on this fact at the time, it was so different from my own experience.
She admitted there must be some satisfaction in carrying on a business which did not require the giving of notes.
Looking at the matter of removal to the country in a practical light, I found that in the city I was paying three hundred dollars a year rent for a house. It was the interest of five thousand dollars; yet it afforded nothing but a shelter for my family. I might continue to pay that rent for fifty years, without, at the end of that time, having acquired the ownership of either a single stone in the chimney, or a shingle on the roof. If the house rose in value, the rise would be to the owner’s benefit, not mine. It would really be injurious to me, as the rise would lead him to demand an increase of his rent.
But put the value of the house into a farm — or even the half of it — the farm would have a house on it, in which my family would find as good a shelter, while the land, if cultivated as industriously as I had always cultivated business, would belie the flood of evidence I had been studying for many years if it failed to provide the returns which it was manifestly returning to others.
We could live contentedly on a thousand dollars a year, and here we would have no landlord to pay. My wife, in hard times, has budgeted us through the year on several hundred less. I confess to having lived as well on the diminished rations as I wanted to. Indeed, until one tries it for himself, it is incredible what dignity there is in an old hat, what virtue in a time-worn coat, and how savory the dinner table can be made without sirloin steaks or cranberry tarts.
Thus, let it be remembered, my views and aspirations had no tinge of extravagance. My rule was moderation. The tortures of struggling in the city with little capital had sobered me down to being contented with a bare competency. I might fail in some particulars at the outset, from ignorance, but I was in the prime of life, strong, active, industrious, and tractable, and what I did not know I could soon learn from others, for farmers have no secrets.
Also, I had seen too much of the uncertainty of banks and stocks, ledger accounts, and promissory notes, to be willing to invest in them. At best they are fluctuating and uncertain, up today and down tomorrow. My great preference had always been for land.
In looking around among my wide circle of city acquaintances, especially among the older families, I could not fail to notice that most of them had grown rich by the ownership of land. More than once had I seen the values of all city property, improved and unimproved, disappear — lots without purchasers, and houses without tenants, the community so poor and panic stricken that real estate became the merest drug. Yesterday the collapse was caused by the destruction of the National Bank; today it is the Tariff. Sheriffs played havoc with houses and lands encumbered by mortgages, and lawyers fattened on the rich harvest of fees inaugurated by a Bankrupt Law. But those who, undismayed by the wreck around them, courageously held on to land, came through in safety. The storm, having run its course and exhausted its wrath, gave place to calmer commercial skies, and real estate swung back with an irrepressible momentum to its former value, only to keep on advancing to one even greater.
I became convinced that safety lay in the ownership of land. In all my inquiries both before leaving the city, as well as since, I rarely heard of a farmer becoming insolvent. When I did, and was careful to ascertain the cause, it turned out that he had either begun in debt, and was thus hampered at the beginning, or had made bad bargains in speculations outside of his calling, or wasted his means in riotous living, or had in some way utterly neglected his business. If not made rich by heavy crops, I could find none who had been made poor by bad ones.
The reader may look back over every monetary convulsion he may be able to remember, and he will find that in all of them, the agricultural community came through with less disaster than any other sector. Wheat grows and corn ripens though all the banks in the world may break, for seed germination and harvest is one of the divine promises to man, never to be broken. Crops grew and ripened before banks were invented, and will continue to do so when banks and railroad bonds have become obsolete.
Moreover, the asset for whose acquisition we are striving, we naturally desire to hold permanently. As we have worked for it, so we trust that it will work for us and our children. Its value, whatever that may be, depends on its perpetuity — the continuance of its existence. A man seeks to earn what will support and serve not only himself, but his posterity. He would naturally desire to have the estate pass on to his children and grandchildren. This is one great object of his toil.
What, then, is the safest fund in which to invest? What is the only fund which the experience of the last fifty years has shown, with very few exceptions, would be absolutely safe as a provision for heirs? How many men, within that period, acting as trustees for estates, have kept the trust fund invested in stocks, and when distributing the principal among the heirs, have found that most of it had vanished! Thanks to corporate insolvency it had melted into air. No prudent man, accepting such a trust, and seeking to guarantee its integrity, would invest the fund in stocks.
Our country is filled with financial wrecks from causes like this. Thousands trust themselves to manage this description of property, confident of their caution and sagacity. With close watching and good luck, they may be equal to the task; but the question still occurs as to the likely duration of such a fund in families. What is its safety when invested in the current stocks of the country? And next, what is its safety in the hands of heirs? There are no statistics showing the probable continuance of estates of land in families, compared to estates composed of personal property, such as stocks. But every bank cashier will testify to one remarkable fact: that an heir no sooner inherits stock in the bank than the first thing he generally does is to sell and transfer it, and that such sale is most frequently the first notice given of the holder’s death.
This preference for investment in real estate will doubtless be objected to by the young and dashing businessman. But lands, or a fund secured by real estate, is unquestionably not only the highest security, but in the hands of heirs it is the only one likely to survive a single generation. Hence the wisdom of the common law, which neither permits the guardian to sell the lands of his ward, nor even the court, in its discretion, to grant authority for their sale, except upon sufficient grounds shown — as a necessity for raising a fund for the support and education of the ward. Even a lord chancellor can only touch so sacred a fund for this or similar reasons. The common law is wise on this subject, as on most others.
Those, therefore, who acquire personal property acquire only what will last about a generation, longer or shorter. Such property is quickly converted into money — it perishes and is gone. But land possesses a few characteristics which protect it from such destruction. It is not so easily transferred; it is not so secretly transferred; the law requires deliberate formalities before it can be alienated, and often the consent of various parties is necessary. When all other guards give way, early memories of parental attachment to these ancestral acres, or tender reminiscences of childhood, will come in to stay the spoliation of the homestead, and make anyone pause before giving up this portion of his inheritance.
Throughout Europe a passion to become the owner of land is universal, while the difficulty of gratifying it is infinitely greater than with us. There is there enormously expensive; here it is absurdly cheap. It is from this universal passion that the vast annual immigration to this country derives its mighty impulse. As it reaches our shores it spreads itself over the country in search of cheap land. Many of the most flourishing Western states have been built up by the astonishing influx of immigrants. In England, every landowner is quick to secure any property near him, be it large or small, as it comes into market. Hence the number of freeholders in that country is annually diminishing by this process of absorption. This European passion for acquiring land is strangely contrasted with the American passion for parting with it.
Originally published at A Distant Mirror.