A Common Place Business Career
The Men Who Have Come Back Home to Finish the Fight for a Competency for Themselves and Their Families are as Solid a Class as One Can Generally Find in Any Business Community.
IF you shoot at a rabbit and miss it, just wait where you are and it will swing around and give you another shot. So with folks. The ordinary man is fairly certain to bring up again at the place from which he made his start, especially if he gets a cold deal out in the world which he goes out to conquer. The country towns of the United States are well sprinkled with this kind of men— solid men, in middle life, who have “come back to stay.”
I guess there are at least a million men who belong to the Back Home Club. Most of them have failed to set the world on fire, while a lot of them have made good in a quiet sort of way and there is something solid and settled about ther as a whole.
But there is generally a real story behind these back-home folks. For years this didn’t occur to me; perhaps I never would have thought of it if a writer— who once worked on the local newspaper and finally came back and bought a country home in Strawberry Point—hadn’t once remarked to me that the place had more good stories in it than yöu could find in year’s file of the best magazine published. That opened my eyes, and I made up my mind to put in my leisure evenings this winter setting down on paper 'my own experiences. Some day that boy of mine may like to look them over.
Now a good starting point will be to ask the question: About where do I find myself to-day? In years I think of myself as a young man—but my oldest daughter is sixteen and I am a little past forty. My house is pointed at as one of the big old places of the town ; it occupies nearly half a block and I have fixed it up
with the idea that it is to be my home for time to come. I told the carpenter that I wanted the front door to be a good one and a wide one, because I expected that some day a few of my friends would carry me out of that door, when I was all through.
My little red leather private account book shows that I am worth about $40,000; but the real estate which I own will be worth more than that by the time it passes into the hands of my children— if they don’t get it before it’s good for them to have it. I am one of the directors of the' local bank and some of th townsfolk accuse me of running the politics of the place. Well, I’ve had to, for business reasons, to a certain extent. I guess I employ about as much labor as any man in the community.
What has it taken to get to this point? How has the journey been made? Well, I started by working my way through the town school by taking care of horses and cows. My folks were too poor to do anything for me after I was thirteen, except in the matter of board. It was harder for a boy to earn a quarter then than to pick up a dollar now. I never received above fifty cents a week for any one job of choring, and most of the stables which I tended brought me twenty-five, thirty and thirty-five cents. But, by getting up early and working late, I managed to make my chores bring me about $3 a week on the average. The whole point of it is that when I finished high school and got my diploma I had saved up about $300. Then I was ready to go into business !
It seemed to me that a high-school graduate ought to be able to go inte something that wasn’t dirty and common,
su I got the agency for an insurance company. That was genteel and the right sor of thing for an educated man ! It took about eight months of soliciting insurance to separate me from all but $150 of my savings. Then 1 began to look for something common and dirty enough to pay. 1 was then eighteen.
The best chance 1 could see was in the livery business with a bus line as a "feeder.” With my $150, and credit with the* men who had known me fron childhood, I scraped together a few old rigs and rented a big stone barn. Then I hustled. There wasn’t a train which I failed to make, early or late. And traveling men who wanted to be driven to the smaller towns of the country never found me afraid of any weather which they were willing to go out in.
Livery stable help is not generally of an ambitious kind; but I simply had to get the work out of men and boys I hired —and I got it ! The lessons I learned in that old stone stable in the art of handling men have been worth thousands of dollars to me.
Well, at the end of ten years I sold out that business for $7,500 and saw my way clear to making a comfortable fortune in short order. The World’s Fair was just opening in Chicago and I rented a stable in the most fashionable quarter of the South Side. When I had started into the livery business at Strawberry Point I said to myself, "If I can ever own this old stone building, a half a dozen good rigs —buggies which show their varnish, and horses a young man likes to drive when taking his girl out for a ride—I’ll be perfectly satisfied; I’ll never ask for anything more.” But when that had bee.n realized I only laughed at my boyish dream and said: "I’ll be satisfied when I own, clear from debt, the best livery establishment on Chicago’s South Side !”
My Chicago location was all right and so was my outfit; but there was no money! The panic of the nineties was at hand and it took me only a year or two to lose every cent I had saved in the previous ten years. I was broke, but Strawberry Point folks didn’t know it. I had made good there and so I figured that there was the place for me to
start over in. I was sure of finding some friends and some credit there, so I determined to join the Back Home Club.
There was no opening in the livery business there, so I started a little lumber and coal yard. Once more I said to myself: "If I can do a one-team business and clear the stock from debt I’ll be satisfied.” My ambition had dropped a peg or two by my World’s Fair experience. I hired a boy to run the little ten-by-twelve office while I hustled the business and did the work. In six months, however, I had things going and had to put on another team and another man.
About that time my competitor sold out to a company of city men. Suddenly I woke up to the fact that the carpenters who had been buying of me right along were going to the other place for their lumber. Old friends who had always done business with me would get my figures on a bill for a new barn or house and would not return. Contractors who had been my steady customers dropped me like a hot cake and bought all their materials at the other place.
Of course it didn’t take me long to discover what was the trouble: I was up against the trust. Of course it was in a small way, but the methods and the result were the same. The company against which I was competing was simply a retail outlet of a big wholesale lumber business in the city. The idea was to put me out of business and then control the field They had pulled the carpenters and masons away from me by giving them commissions on all materials used by them and bought at that yard; the contractors were cinched by a heavy cut of prices, and so were the farmers and other independent buyers.
This company had all the capital it needed, and more, while I had pràctically none and was doing business on my credit. Night after night I studied over the situation and could see nothing but ruin ahead, unless I could think of some way out of the ordinary course of business by which to dispose of my stock at a profit. Just as I was about in despair, the idea came to me: Why not meet the situation from the other end? Why not make your own trade by going into the
contracting business yourself? Times had become fairly prosperous again and there was considerable building going on in the town and the surrounding country. There was also a good demand for inexpensive cottages for working people.
Idere I asked myself whether I had any training which would serve me as a basis for beginning this new venture. At the time I started in the lumber and coal business a little thing had happened which opened my eyes to the necessity of being able to size things up at a glance. One summer evening a threshing-machine man drove into my yard and said he wanted a little jag of soft coal—about five hundred pounds—with which to finish up a job. He had a combination water tank and coal wagon which is commonly used in connection with the threshing engine. I weighed his wagon and told him to go to the shed and throw on his coal. He was gone so long that I stepped out to the shed to see what was the trouble. On the way I noticed a little pool of water, but thought nothing of it at the moment.
“Til be there in a minute,” he called out as he saw me coming. When he drove on the scales I was astonished to see the scale-beam indicate a lighter load than when he weighed the wagon alone. Peering out of the window, I could see the top of the load of coal. Then the truth of the situation flashed upon me in a moment.
“Have I got about five hundred?”
“You’ve got a ton,”I answered. “The only trouble with you is that you let a lot more water run out of that tank after weighing in than you intended. You overdid the matter by about a ton. Now go and unload that coal and never come into this yard again.”
That taught me that I must learn to size up things in the rough and right on the jump or I would be cheated continually. So, from that time, I made a practice of guessing every load that came to the scales or passed the office evindow. By keeping continually at this practice I acquired the ability to estimate the weight of a load of coal or grain and the number of feet of lumber in a load and do it very closely.
Many farmers came to the scales to weigh their loads and I soon learned that the tricky ones had a knack of adding about three hundred pounds to the weight of a load of grain even when the man at the scales Avas trying, to get the correct figures. After driving upon the scale platform with the load they would settle their horses back as hard as possible, thus depressing the load. Then, when they later weighed the empty wagon, they would reverse the process and have their horses pulling ahead until the tugs were tight. This, of course, had a tendency to lift and make the wagon weigh lighter. By repeatedly guessing wagonloads of brick and lath I finally became expert in arriving at the number in the load.
Well; as I looked back at all this practical training, I concluded that it would certainly help me in going into the contracting work, and that I could learn the contracting business in the same way I had learned the lumber and coal trade.
The first contract I secured was for the building of a five-roomed schoolhouse. I kept tab on how many brick each mason laid in a day, and on how many feet of flooring each man put down. The building of that schoolhouse was a school to me, and no mistake! Of course I might have left these details to a foreman, but when 'the job Avas through, what Avould I have known about what was a fair day’s work for a carpenter, a lather, a plasterei and a brickmason? Nothing!
Then, on credit, I bought some vacant residence property in a new part of tOAvn, and began building some inexpensive houses. This was a different problem, and I studied every detail of labor and material cost. At night, Avhen not engaged on the specifications of some cottage under actual construction, I put in my time on books of plans, until I became a sort of architect-in-the-rough. I was in the fight to Avin, and I spared myself nothing that promised to help out in the long run.
Soon I Avas able to estimate the cost of a house with very satisfactory accuracy, and could plan a house of good appearance and of convenient arrangement, on Avhich the actual cost of construction Avas low. Generally, I was able to sell these
houses outright at a fair profit, sometimes before they were completed. When a home was finished and I could not find a customer for it, I rented it to a hardworking and progressive tenant. Later,
I would say to the tenant : “Why not buy this house, put a small mortgage on it for funds to make a limited cash payment arid then pay on the house each month just what you would hand me for the rent ?”
This pían worked well, and as I multiplied the number of cottages, I found less and less difficulty in getting what money I needed from the local bank. The banker saw that I was doing business, that I had a knack for trade and that a powerful opposition had not been able to close up my yard. This made me a “good moral risk” in his eyes, for I had, to a certain extent, turned defeat into victory.
Lumber is a good thing to trade, and I soon found that I could trade lumber for building lots. Sometimes the men I traded the lumber to would give me a contract for the labor used in putting the material into buildings. Again, when I built cheap cottages on my own lots I could use up odd sizes of lumber, sash and doors which I had found unsalable. All this helped to make the yard, as a whole, pay a good profit. In other words, the very thing which had promised to put me out of business had driven me into a new line, or rather side line, in which I had done^well. At the end of my second year in the lumber yard, after I had been up against trust competition for about ten months, I was as good as whipped; one year later I had turned the corner and was in fairly good shape again.
But quite as important as this, I had learned a whole lot about the building trade. I had put up several small brick . buildings, and had learned to look at a brick wall and tell closely how many bricks it contained and how much it cost to lay it. To be able to put a time book against a mass of material and know, offhand, what the average result should be was more to me than I realized at the time, for the big test of it was to come later.
In fact, it came with the location of a
big state institution a few miles away in the country. The contract was a large one, and I determined to get it, and get it on the square, without a cent of graft.
I secured the contract and started in on the job in January, when everything was frozen tight. The railroad was under promise to run a spur out to the place for the transportation of materials. But the spur did not materialize. I saw that the materials would have to be hauled by team if the two “cottages” were finished on time.
The first days of that hauling were awful. The best and strongest teams could get through all right, but the poorer ones were continually getting’stuck. The other teamsters would let the one with the stuck load shift for himself, with the result that there was a “cripple” somewhere r^ong the road most of the time. Then I organized a system, putting the poorest teams at the head; then those behind had to come to the rescue in order to get the road cleared. I rode in a light buggy and was right on the ground to take personal charge of matters when trouble showed up.
Owing to the great expense of hauling the materials, I not only made nothing on the $50,000 contract for the first wo buildings, but actually had a loss of $3,500, which looked decidedly depressing to me. But I took good care that no one should know or suspect this.
There was only one way out of the situation for me, and that was to get the contract for the other and larger buildings, and get the railroad spur put in. As I had made good on the first contract, under great difficulties, I had an advantake in asking for the others. Finally I secured them ; they amounted to $158,000, and covered three more buildings.
This time there was no default on the building of the railroad spur, for I realized that all my hope of profit was seeing the rails down and the materials going over them.
But even the track didn’t leave me without plenty of troubles. That winter a hard freeze came November first and stayed until next April without a break of open weather. Only a contractor can understand what that means. Every
workman had to have a salamander going at top heat in order to do his work and all the water used had to be artificially heated. This made construction slower and also more expensive in every way.
But every night I knew just how many bricks and stone had been laid that day and what the work had cost. Each mason averaged 1,500 bricks a day, and those who couldn’t or wouldn’t keep the pace had to give way to those who could. The care of the actual construction work was light in comparison with the financial end of the deal. When work shut down, December 18, there was $38,000 worth of material on hand and $23,000 due and unpaid from the state, with every last man to whom I owed a dollar for either labor or material howling loudly for his money.
That December was a hot-house culture in finance for me. After I had made a few attempts to get the money due me, I could fairly taste graft in the atmosphere. When you find an official hunting for strips of red tape to stand on in order to keep your money away from you a little longer, there’s only one conclusion to come to, and that is that he is holding his hand behind his back for you to drop a little hurry-up coin into it.
I needed that money worse than I’d ever needed anything before. I had started out on the plan that I’d run the deal straight and clean from start to finish and so I simply set my teeth together and determined anew to fight the thing through on that line. It seemed to me that a grafter must naturally be a coward, and I took my cue from this conclusion. Once more I demanded my money and coupled with it the statement that the money was going to be paid and without any rake-off to anybody. This was put
up to the man who was blocking the payment, both by word of mouth and by letter, and a copy of the letter I wrote him was also sent to the surety company which was on my bond for the fulfillment of the contract. The play was a bold one, and in the open. Perhaps for that reason it worked well. I got my money— all of it. Do not think that all state boards are on the order of the one with which I had my fight, for they are not. Since then I have handled another big contract for another state board without any delays or difficulties whatever. And the man at the head of that business was a woman !
In looking back over the years since I started in the livery stable business, at the age of eighteen, I can see a few things clearly: that if you have made a good rcord as to honesty and hard work, the old home town is about as good a place to do business in as any you are likely 10 find; that if you are willing to become the absolute master of the details of your business, so that no one can fool you or pull the wool over your eyes, you can go to the head of the class, because few are willing to pay the cost; that a crisis or an emergency is often another name for a larger opportunity; that one need not be afraid to tackle a new and a bigger job, if willing to go at it from the bottom instead of the top, and put into it all the hard work and downright grubbing that he put into his first business venture^ as a young man. If I were to add anything to this, I would say: Don’t despise being a Back-Homer. The men who have come back home to finish the fight for a competency for themselves and their families are about as solid a class as you are likely to find in any community—and you will find them in every town in the whole land.