Family Economic Autobiography

Helen Ann with concrete blocks–probably in 1947, when the new house was being built.

This is a paper written by Helen Ann Turck Henrie in the early 1960s, probably while she was getting her M.A. in home economics at the University of Minnesota. The paper focuses on the entire economic life of her family of origin. The ending seems rather incomplete, so the typewritten copy that I have could be incomplete or a draft version. It is a fascinating (to me) look at early history of our family.


by Helen Ann Turck

(circa 1962?)

            The eight stage family life cycle described by Duvall will be used as a tool In the description of my family’s economic history. My parents were married in 1921. My mother was 23 and had completed a year of teacher training and taught for a period of 4 years in rural grade schools. My father was 29 and had completed approximately 6 years of school. He had been working on the family farm up until the time of their marriage. The educational level of my parents, source of income and other general characteristics would place my family in the lower middle class. 

            My parents began their married life with a $250.00 debt which my father incurred to over immediate costs involved in getting married and establishing a home. Prior to my parents’ marriage my father, his brother and sister purchased the family farm from my grandfather for $8,000.  In 1920 they bought another 160 acres adjoining the original homestead at $200.00 an acre for a total of $32,000. As a result of these various purchases my parents began their married life with an approximate debt of $20,000. The farms were purchased on the basis of the good prices at that time and the prospect that they would continue.

            As assets they had a farm house approximately forty years old. It consisted of five rooms, no bath or plumbing and was heated with wood or coal. Cooking was done on a wood range. They had a new kitchen table, rocking chair and davenport plus some other household equipment. Livestock, machinery and farm buildings constituted other assets.

            Sources of income during this establishment phase of the family were from farm crops and livestock. Personal property taxes were paid by hauling gravel for the county roads. My parents’ goals at this time were to pay debts and save to buy a car. 

            In 1923 my family moved into the child bearing stage when my brother was born. The delivery was a t home and so the total cost was approximately $75.00. This was considered a fairly large expense, but my parents paid cash for it. No other financially significant events occurred during this period.

            During the pre-school stage, medical expenses in connection with a glandular condition of my brother’s was a recurring drain on the meager resources. In describing the level of living at this time, my mother recalls:

“We weren’t really poor, but not far from it. We were never hungry and one could be assured of a new dress as part of the celebration of July 4th. Christmas always found some little thing for everyone.” 

Recreation consisted of neighborhood house parties and an occasional church party.

            The main sources of income were from the farm and livestock. These were supplemented by the sale of wood which my father cut and by the sale of fur from animals which he trapped. My mother contributed her labor to the enterprises through the usual household tasks and in addition helped with milking, care of chickens and some field work.

            Some time during this period, probably near its close, my folks bought their first car, a Model T Ford. To pay for it, they traded a horse and paid the remainder of the $433.00 in cash.

            As my family moved into the school age cycle in 1929-30, my father was made completely inactive for a 9-month period by rheumatism. During this time, my aunt and uncle mentioned previously in the purchase of the farm helped with some of the work. Hired help was procured and the farm was kept on a paying basis. At this time, only interest payments were made on the debt. Some expense resulted from this illness but were not recalled by my mother as major. 

            The years of the Depression fall into this stage and were described as “very rough.” To clarify this statement, one need only recall that some 12 years prior to that time my parents had begun their married life with a $20,000 debt. The outlook for the farmer was auspicious. Wheat then sold at $3.00 a bushel, but during the Depression, it dropped to .59 per bushel. Corn prices fell from near $2.00 a bushel to .20 a bushel. In good times, hogs brought .32 a pound, later only .03 a lb. When prices dropped sharply it was a real struggle to make interest payments. Needless to say, nothing was paid on the principal. Although times were tight moneywise, food, clothing and shelter were adequate. 

            Also during this period, the drought came to plague the farmer. My parents were forced to reduce the livestock inventory in order to provide fodder for a smaller number. This would necessarily reduce the money income.

            Near the middle of this period, I was born. No debt resulted from my birth and although I was a small baby, some 4+ pounds, and caused my mother worry, I didn’t need any special medical attention. 

            My father continued to farm during this period and again supplemented the income by doing road work. In the winter he used the horse-drawn snow plough to open the county roads near our farm and in the spring and summer, would grade these same roads. He continued to trap muskrats, mink, fox, and skunk, and sell their hides.

            The beginning of the teenage stage was uneventful. My brother began high school and I grew and in the fall of 1939 entered first grade. One October, about midnight, my parents and I, while sleeping downstairs, were awakened by the sound of glass shattering. My Dad investigated and found the upstairs filled with smoke and my brother nearly unconscious. That night, the house burned to the ground.

            No lives were lost in the fire and my brother did not suffer any ill effects from his exposure to the smoke. The table and rocking chair which had been wedding gifts were saved along with my brother’s schoolbooks. I saved my Dick and Jane reader: other than that the entire inventory of furnishings and clothing were destroyed. Insurance of about $500.00 was collected. Neighbors contributed food, clothing, and some cash in a community shower. 

            My parents considered rebuilding the house at this time. There were still debts to be paid on the land and undoubtedly the recent Depression and drought were still vivid memories in my parents’ minds. My parents decided together not to invest in a larger new house at this time. The insurance money was used to build a one-room house, 14×20 feet. This house was divided by a cloth curtain into two rooms. One included a kitchen, dining area and living room. A small area was devoted to a wash stand and water pail. The woodbox occupied another corner. The other part of the house included a dresser, closet, single bed and rollway (sp?), and double bed. Undoubtedly this housing would be classified as poverty housing. As a child and growing teenager, I didn’t realize it nor did I feel deprived.

            During this teenage stage, prices began to improve and my parents began to build the livestock inventory. Machinery and tractors were purchased as farming moved toward mechanization. The Model T of the pre-school stage had been replaced by a Model A and in 1940 we bought a V-8 Ford. My brother finished high school and began college. This latter decision was made jointly by my parents. It may have put them a little into debt, but not a great deal. My brother of course worked for part of the money he needed and had a small scholarship. He completed one year of college. The outbreak of the war in 1941 interrupted his schooling. 

            Some time during this cycle, the debt on the farm was cleared up. I should have been old enough to remember any celebration of this fact: however, I have no such memory and so conclude that my parents were quietly happy and relieved.

            With the farm paid for, my mother said the level of living was raised a little and they were “not so afraid to spend.” They began saving in war bonds toward the eventual building of the house. During this time, an adjacent forty acres of land became available and my father purchased this land. This undoubtedly put the building of the house off for a few more years.

            The launching stage saw my brother leave for the army in 1946. No major debts were incurred nor was there any general change in financial status. This was a time of work for my folks as my brother’s labor was no longer available. I helped by driving tractor and doing other kinds of outdoor work. In 1947, plans were made for building the house. The basement was completed and we moved into this basement house. No debts were accumulated at this time. 

            In 1949, my brother was married and he and my sister-in-law moved into the basement. My parents and I moved into a farm house about 5 miles away, which we rented. There was no major change in financial status. In 1952, my brother and parents jointly financed the building of the top part of the house. My parents still owe $1,000 to my brother for part of this construction. 

            Following my brother’s marriage, my parents moved 4 times. Each time to a rented farm house. Their goal was to find a house in the general neighborhood with a minimum of land. Since none was available, it was necessary to move rather frequently.. My family was fairly mobile during these years. Basic orientation, however, was not toward mobility as a valued pattern.

            My father was hospitalized for a time with a mild heart attack. These costs were covered by hospitalization insurance. At this time, my father and brother worked the farm jointly and shared in the income. 

            The launching stage for my family came to a close when I completed my college education. Again, the earlier decision to send me to college had been jointly made. My education cost about $1000 per year plus the small sum I earned myself. This was not a great burden on my parents as they were out of debt and prices were fairly good. 

            My family is now in a combination of empty nest years and retirement. My father has no regular responsibilities, at the farm yet he is there helping my brother almost every day. My parents have recently bought the land which belonged to my aunt in the original purchase in 1915. This cost $6,250 and for a short period of time they borrowed a small sum of money from the local bank.

            At present my parents are living in a house which they recently bought. There is no debt on the house. Their sources of income are rent from the farm in total $4,700 per year and 155.50 per month from social security. The following is an itemized account of expenditures for one month for my parents. Some foodstuffs are grown and canned or frozen during the year. My mother does almost all of her own baking. Clothing expenditures for additions and maintenance would probably not be more than $6 to $8 per month. 

Taxes                                                 3.00

Electricity                                          9.50

Gas and wood                                 20.00

Insurance                                          8.00

Health insurance                             18.00

Car and Pickup Truck (ins.)               8.00

Church                                            12.00

Phone                                                4.24

Gas, oil, repair (car)                        15.00

Meat                                               30.00

Eggs                                                   3.00

Butter                                                4.00

Milk                                                   4.50

Coffee                                               3.00

Sugar                                                 1.50

Flour                                                  1.75

Cheese                                              2.00

Fish                                                    1.50

Veg. and frujit                                   4.00

Yeast, crackers, spices, etc.              1.00


TOTAL                                           163.99

Assets which my parents now have are a 200 acre farm and farm buildings which might bring $250.00 to $300.00 an acre, a house valued at $50,000, savings of about $6,000, a 1959 Ford, and a 1952 pickup truck, life insurance of $2,000. 

            My mother describes the level of living as better than in the early years and I would say it is probably as good as it has been any time during their marriage when all things are considered. Their major goals are to improve the house and grounds. My mother would like to travel. I believe my father would be satisfied to stay at home and enjoy his present status. This brings to a close the description of my family’s economic history, I will now focus attention on some of the factors which are relevant and deserving of special attention.

            The decision making process evident throughout the history of my family is one in which the wishes of my father have predominated in areas of major expenditure No decision to spend any sizeable sum of money or invest in a particular manner has bene made without thinking it through with my mother. However in areas such as machinery, automobile, livestock and other major decisions related to the operation of the farm business, my father would exert 95% of the decision making power. In matters of major expense pertaining to the house, the decision would be made on a 50-50 basis. My mother makes 98% of the decisions regarding the expenditures for food and clothing. Although my father makes the decisions regarding expenditures, it is mother who is the bookkeeper. Her level of education undoubtedly is the factor responsible for this. My father is completely aware of the financial status at all times. The division of responsibility in both decision making and bookkeeping seem to illustrate the principle of complementary roles. 

            Some major value orientations seem evident in the developmental history of my family. There has always been a strong commitment of family. The purchase of the farm with my aunt and uncle in 1920 was motivated by the desire to keep my uncle from being drafted. The purchase in 1960 of my aunt’s share of the farm was motivated in part at least in an attempt to provide for her medical and hospital expenses. The welfare and happiness of the family has been a major focus. Perhaps my parents’ perception of what constituted welfare and happiness may be somewhat different than my own perception or my brother’s. Indeed, their perceptions probably differed.

            A joint value commitment seems to have been made to work and effort and to security., I believe that work and effort are seen as goods in themselves as well as a good because it is a means to an end.

            I also believe there is a commitment to honesty and debt freeness. Only in cases of absolute necessity and after careful consideration are things bought on time or debts incurred. The motto seems to be “pay cash or go without.” 

            There is little concern or commitment to convenience or comfort in relation to goods and services connected with the house or personal living. the motivation to keep up with the Jones or to attain a better standard of living is not high for my father. My mother does desire these things to some degree. The “make do ethic” is strong.

            I would hypothesize that the specter of early indebtedness and the hardship experienced then still looms large in my father’s decision making mechanism although there is never any outward evidence of this.

            I believe it is rather clear that my father was a major force in the development of a life style which may be characterized as stable, honest, adequate in provision of food and clothing, barely adequate in provision of housing. Emphasis of savings and security. 

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  1. Pingback: Reflections on Home Economics | Fragments

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