Country Editor's Boy, p.8Hal Borland
That’s hail. That’s what hail does to a man. That’s what it did to a good many of the farmers up in the North Country. Not all of them. Some would salvage half a crop, a few hadn’t been hurt at all, and some of those who were wiped out had hail insurance, maybe ten or fifteen dollars an acre, enough to pay for seed and a few sacks of flour and beans to eat. But at most there wouldn’t be more than half the total crop everyone had been counting on, even counting the scattered fields of wheat west of town that hadn’t even been touched by the storm.
Harvest was begun the next week, but even when it was in full swing there was no steady stream of trucks to town with wheat for the elevators. It came, truckload after truckload, but with plenty of room between trucks for the dust to settle.
At first people didn’t want to talk about it, as though it were a bad dream from which they would wake up to a golden tomorrow. But by the time most of the new wheat had been harvested, the worst of the shock had been absorbed. A few could even joke about it. W. E. Hall, who owned the big general store, said he had to send back a whole order of men’s trousers for alterations. “I had them made up special, with outsize buckskin pockets for all those silver dollars. Now I’ve sent them back to have the pockets changed to plain muslin and half size, for nickels and dimes.”
There was some money, of course, but even those who had good harvests weren’t spending it lavishly. A few weeks earlier the farmers had been buying canned goods by the case, peaches, corn, beans, tomatoes. Now even those with money bought things a few cans at a time, and the bulk of their buying was of dry beans, flour, cornmeal and salt pork.
Several storekeepers stopped advertising in the News. They had stocked up for a boom that went bust and now, they said, they had to pull in their belts. They couldn’t afford to advertise. Father tried to tell them they couldn’t afford not to advertise at a time like this. “Cut prices, sell your overstock, at cost if necessary, and get your money back. Be ready for next year.”
“I’ve got my stock for next year,” one storekeeper said with a wry smile. “I’ll just keep it till I can sell at a profit. No use to advertise when nobody’s buying.”
“But people will buy,” Father insisted, “if you make it look like a bargain and advertise, tell them about it.”
“Buy with what?”
“Money,” Father said. “There’s money around. I saw quite a few truckloads of wheat coming in to town, and nobody gave it away. There isn’t as much money as we expected, but there’s money around. Those who have it, though, are going to hold onto it unless they see a bargain.”
The storekeeper shook his head. “I can’t afford to cut prices. And advertising’s just a waste of money now.”
“That’s up to you,” Father said. “But if I had ten or twenty thousand dollars tied up in stock I couldn’t sell at a profit, I’d sacrifice the profit and get my money out, maybe put some of it out on loan at ten or twelve percent.”
It was no use. The man cancelled his advertising and left.
The only merchant who listened was W. E. Hall, who owned the biggest store in town, the one upstairs over the News office. He listened to Father a few minutes, then said, “You don’t have to persuade me, Will. All I want to know is whether you’re ready yet to let me have that front-page ad.”
Father didn’t know quite what to say.
“I agree with you, right down the line,” Mr. Hall went on. “I’m going to cut prices and move merchandise, and I want to tell folks about it in big type on the front page.”
Father still hesitated. Like a good many of the wheat farmers, he had a mortgage coming due. And he didn’t even have hail insurance to provide eatin’ money, as they called it. “I’ll have to think about that, Bill,” he said. “My front page is for news.”
“Look,” Mr. Hall said, “my ad will be news. Folks will want to get the paper just to see what Bill Hall is going to do next. Everybody will want to subscribe.”
“Not if you run the same ad in the Progress,” Father said.
“I’m talking about an ad in the News,” Mr. Hall said. “If we can get together I may decide I don’t need to advertise anywhere else. What are you going to charge me for the bottom half of your front page?”
“For how long?”
“Every week for six months, to start. Till after Christmas. Then we’ll take another look and see if it’s worth going on.”
Father was making quick mental calculations. “All right, I’ll let you have that front-page position for just twice what the half page on the back is costing you.”
Mr. Hall shook his head. “Too much, Will. I can’t pay that and cut prices the way I want to. I’ve got to break even to stay in business. Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll pay half again what I’m paying for that ad on the back page now.”
Father considered for a long moment, then said, “All right, it’s a deal.” He held out his hand and they shook hands on it.
Later, discussing it with Mother, Father said, “It will just about make up for the ads I’ve lost. Not quite, but almost. And unless I miss my guess, the ones who quit will be back before long. They can’t hold out with Bill Hall making a big noise on the front page of the News every week.”
But Father was wrong. The advertisers who quit didn’t come back soon. Some of them didn’t advertise again until just before Christmas; even then they took only token space, six-inch, two-column ads. But the circulation of the News did go up, as Mr. Hall had predicted. In his ads he listed a few specials every week, in big, bold type that nobody could miss. People came to town on Saturdays, to watch the crowds at the store if not to buy. In those days there were few automobiles, and it didn’t cost a penny to come to town in a horse-drawn wagon or buggy.
Every week some of those people came down to the News office and said they would subscribe to the paper if Father would take eggs or butter or maybe a chicken or two in trade. Father was willing; but after the first couple of weeks Mother made a point of being at the office Saturday afternoons and handling all such trades. She seemed to know instinctively who made good butter, who would have fresh eggs; and she always did know a young, tender hen from a tough old biddy. She dealt and dickered, came to know most of the farmers and farm wives from up in the North Country. She kept the young hens, Father and I built a coop out of old packing cases and got a roll of chicken wire for a pen, and she soon had more chickens and eggs than we could use. So she began dealing off the tough old hens and the excess butter and eggs to Mr. Hall. He had an eye for attractive women, and he may have started taking that excess off her hands just to humor her, but he soon found that he had met his match as a bargainer. Father wouldn’t haggle with anybody over nickels and dimes. “Waste a dollar’s worth of time arguing over ten cents!” he snorted. But Mother would haggle over nickels and pennies, and so would Bill Hall. Sometimes their arguments seemed more important than the money, but Mother usually won.
Bill Hall had a kind of genius. It is hard to say whether the wheat crop failure brought it out in him or whether he was ready to bloom by then in any case. The advertising got results, but only because he had that touch of genius as a merchant, a combination of showmanship and business instinct.
He was a small, wiry, blond man who wore nose-glasses and looked more like a clerk in a business office than a merchant. But he was full of energy and bubbling with ideas. He had been in business in Flagler only a few years when we arrived and had just built up his store from a little dry-goods shop with a grocery counter into one of the best-stocked general stores in that end of Colorado. Like Father, he had borrowed from the bank to stock up for the expected boom. He couldn’t sit back and wait for a good crop next year. He wasn’t a man to sit back and wait, anyway.
The front of his store was stocked with women’s wear, everything from silk stockings to hats, petticoats, and readymade dresses, from yard goods to shoes and notions. A big alcove was given over to men’s clothing, work clothes mostly, shirts, socks, shoes, overalls, jackets, underwear.
The whole back of the store was the grocery department, shelved to the ceiling and with counters clear across the store, a good sixty feet. Coffee came in hundred-pound bags and was ground in the big mill with twin red flywheels while you watched and sniffed. Dried beef came by the shank and was sliced, paper-thin, while you waited. Cheese came by the two-foot wheel and was wedged out with the big cheese knife, right there on the counter. There was a glassed case of candies, sold by the pound, and another glass case for cigars and chewing tobacco. Star and Horseshoe chewing tobacco came in slabs a foot long, half an inch thick, and was cut into plugs on a gummy miniature guillotine. Canned fruits and vegetables lined the shelves and were stacked in the basement storage room in cases, wooden cases stacked seven feet high. Dried prunes, apricots and raisins came in wooden boxes and were sold in bulk. Soda crackers came by the barrel and by the ten-pound box. Flour, sugar, dried beans, both the spotted Mexican beans and the white navies, were stored in huge piles of bags in the store room just back of the grocery shelves. And at the end of that back room was the big icebox, for meat and butter. It had to be iced every day, and ice had to be brought in by rail and was expensive. I doubt that more than five or six houses in town had their own iceboxes, and in the country there was no refrigeration at all since there were no ponds from which to cut winter ice and store it. Farmers, and townsmen who had come in from the farms and kept to country ways, ate fresh meat only in the winter. After hard frost in the fall they butchered a hog or two and maybe a young steer and had red meat until the spring thaw. The remainder of the year they ate cured meats, salt pork, bacon, ham, dried beef, bologna, or barnyard poultry, usually chicken. The Hall store dealt mostly in cured meat, but there always was a hind quarter of beef for affluent townsmen who wanted an occasional round steak even in summer. Pork was strictly winter meat. The old cattleman’s prejudice against sheep in any form carried over, even among newcomers; it would be another fifteen or twenty years before you could buy lamb chops in Flagler.
But otherwise you could get almost anything in Bill Hall’s store except heavy hardware and hard liquor. If there was something you wanted and he didn’t have, Bill Hall would get it for you, or do his best. And when he got it he was so triumphant you had to be triumphant too. Instinctive showman that he was, he shouted it from the housetops—and the front page of the News. He did everything in those ads, as Mother once said, except tell dirty stories. The most outlandish one was the perfume ad he ran that fall. He must have bought a case lot of perfume at a bargain, and he came to Father with a fantastic idea. He wanted his front-page ad to be perfumed with that scent.
At first Father wanted none of it. “No, Bill, no! You know what folks’ll say, don’t you?”
Mr. Hall laughed. “All right, so some men will say it smells like a cat house. If they say that, their wives’ll ask, ‘How do you know?’ We’ll start a lot of talk, believe me! And I’ll sell a lot of perfume. Some of the men who talk big will have to buy it for their wives to square themselves. And some of the women will buy it just out of spite. Either way, nobody will ignore the paper next week, I’ll bet on that!”
Father finally agreed, but for extra money to pay for the extra work involved. In the middle of the Hall ad he printed a circle about an inch in diameter and the words, “Smell Here.” Mr. Hall brought down several bottles of the perfume, and when the papers were all ready to take to the post office we went through and dabbed perfume on every front page with a wad of absorbent cotton. The papers reeked, the News office reeked, the post office reeked. Father and I reeked—Mother would have nothing to do with it. And there was street-corner laughter and back-room laughter for weeks. But Bill Hall sold all of that perfume he had, and probably a good many other women’s items, too.
Mr. Hall probably didn’t invent the idea, but he was the first merchant I ever knew who welcomed people in his store whether they bought anything or not, deliberately lured them and entertained them, usually with music. The week after he started the front-page ads he somehow revived a town brass band that hadn’t given a concert in months, persuaded the members to practice, and the next week started Saturday evening band concerts on the street in front of the store. He advertised the concerts and put chairs in the women’s department for old folk and nursing mothers. Farm families came to town and stayed for the concerts, and townsfolk went downtown after supper to listen and gather in and around the store.
When the nights became too chilly for open-air concerts he tried moving the band inside the store. But the blast of sound in there was deafening. He gave up on the band and encouraged a group of the town’s younger folk to hold Saturday evening “sings” at the store. There was always at least a quartet of good voices to lead the singing, and all fall the store was crowded on Saturday nights.
Later in the winter Mr. Hall brought in a man and his wife who played piano and drums, friends of friends of his who were trying to make a living playing for dances up near Denver. He brought them to Flagler, gave them living money to play at the store on Saturday evenings, and helped them find dance engagements in the area, for less critical dancers than those near Denver. Their music in the store was a drawing card for a time, but it never had the attraction of either the home-town band or the volunteer singing. The pianist and her drummer husband were not home folks; maybe that was it. Participation was still important to people, in those days. Radio and television hadn’t come along to make most of us listeners and spectators. The old tradition of making your own amusement, creating your own entertainment, was still in force. On the frontier you made it or you did without, whether it was music or a batch of bread; and Flagler was still very close to the old frontier.
One day in early October when Mr. Hall brought down the copy for his ad that week, Father glanced at it and said, “Either you had a lot bigger inventory than it looked like you had or you’ve been reordering pretty heavy.”
Mr. Hall smiled. “Does it matter,” he asked, “as long as I’m moving merchandise?”
“Not one bit. I’m just curious. I let you have half of my front page for just about half what it’s worth, and without that ad—” He hesitated.
Mr. Hall finished the sentence. “Without that ad you’d be scraping bottom, if you were still in business. And I would be fighting to make a dime. All right, it’s been a bargain for me, and a life-saver for you. Yes, I’ve moved a lot of merchandise, about a third more than I did last year. Considering everything, the wheat failure and all, that’s pretty good. I haven’t made as much money, quite, because I cut my margin to the bone. But I’m still in business and still solvent. I met my notes the first of this month, and I take it you did yours.”
“Yes, I did. Not much to spare, but I made it.”
“Then we’re both winners, aren’t we? For a while there it looked like we might both get folded up…. Yes, you guessed it. I unloaded all my overstock and now it’s just turnover, the way it should be.” He started to leave, then hesitated. “You said something about that front-page ad being worth more than I’m paying for it. What are you trying to do? Jump the price on me now?”
“No. No, Bill. We made an agreement, for six months. But when that agreement runs out it’s going to cost you more. That’s all I’m saying.”
“How much more, so I can start figuring?”
“I’ll tell you later, Bill.”
“All right, we’ll haggle it out when the time comes.”
“No, we won’t haggle it. Not you and me. If you want to haggle I think I’ll turn it over to my wife, let her fight it out with you. Seems to me you two have had plenty of practice, over butter and eggs.”
“No you don’t! Butter and eggs is one thing, but that ad’s something else. Before I got through dickering with her she’d have my shirt. When the time comes, you just tell me what you’ve got in mind and we’ll work something out, you and me.”
THE WEEK AFTER THE hailstorm Little Doc said, “We’d better go out and inspect things at Verhoff’s Dam. The flood on the river and all, can’t tell what’s happened to the dam.”
“When shall we go?” I asked.
“Can you get off tomorrow?”
“I think so.”
“See you in the morning, then. I’ll see if Spider wants to go along.”
The next day was Friday and I was supposed to have most of the day free, but I asked Father at supper that evening. Before he could answer, Mother asked, “What do you want to do now?” I said Little Doc and Spider and I were going out south, that they wanted to show me the country out that way. Father said, “I don’t see why not. Out to Verhoff’s Dam, probably, and the breaks along the river. How are you going? On your bikes?”
“What,” Mother asked, “is Verhoff’s Dam?”
“It’s a big earthen dam,” Father said, “that a rancher out there put across a draw to catch water to irrigate his alfalfa. He expected to have a lake, but it hasn’t worked out that way. All he’s ever had, I understand, is a good-sized pond. The only time he has enough water to irrigate is right after a good rain, when he doesn’t need to irrigate…. After the storm last week it may be a pretty good-sized pond. I’d like to see it myself, if I had time.”
“Just remember,” Mother said to me, “you can’t swim. And you’re not to try until some day when your father is with you.
Father was a good swimmer. He and his brothers had learned as children. The family home was close beside the mill pond Grandfather Borland had built to power his mill and blacksmith shop, and the boys swam as naturally as young otters. Both the dam and the mill pond were gone by the time I was a boy there in Nebraska, and the Nemaha had shrunken to a flood-prone, muddy creek with only an occasional hole deep enough for swimming. A few times, when we went fishing for mud cats, Father tried to teach me to dog-paddle, at least.
Little Doc and Spider came past for me the next morning. Little Doc’s black Nig was with them, so I let Fritz go along too. We went down past the elevator and crossed the railroad tracks on the road south. It was a graded gravel road with fences on both sides for a couple of miles, then no fences, just the open country, and the road like a sandy-yellow ribbon that dwindled to a string and ran straight south as far as we could see. Just as on my trip to Crystal Springs and Kit Carson Hill, the morning was cool and bright and alive with meadow larks and horned larks and sluggish grasshoppers and sweet with the fragrance of sand verbena. But this time I wasn’t a part of it. I was one of an invading army that whooped and hollered and yipped and yapped. We were peaceful invaders, but we had to assert our presence. We didn’t want to kill a thing, but we wanted the world to know we were there. Even the dogs didn’t really want to catch a rabbit. They merely wanted the world to know they were chasing one. We weren’t half a mile out of town when they jumped the first jack rabbit and went yelping madly after it. The jack sprinted a couple hundred yards, then leaped high, looked back, saw that the dogs were giving only token chase, then loped away, almost loafing. The dogs kept going maybe half a mile, using most of their breath yelping, then came back and joined us, panting and thoroughly pleased with themselves. I never knew a more self-satisfied loser than a dog that has been outdistanced by a jack rabbit in the first five minutes. He acts as though the very act of chasing a rabbit was a major accomplishment.
Country Editor's Boy by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes