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Rise of Industrial America
Rural Life in the Late 19th Century

People Were Frugal

W. T. Ellis was born in 1866. By the early 1880s, he wanted to leave his home in the small northern California town of Marysville to go to college. The following excerpts from Chapter 25 of his autobiography, which can be found in California As I Saw It, 1849-1900, tell what happened when he told his father of his wishes. What do the recollections of the 1880s and 1890s by Mr. Ellis tell you about rural and small town life? What values seem to have been important to people of that time?

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WHEN I graduated from the High School, I informed my father of my desire to go to college and take up an engineering course of study; he listened attentively to my plans and then told me to come down to the store next morning; this gave me hopes that I had made a favorable impression. When I reached the store next morning he gave me a nice new bucket, a nice new sponge and a nice new chamois skin and said, "Now Bill, you are on the payroll and let's see what kind of a window washer you are." There were many glass windows and partitions in that large store; I felt rather depressed and disappointed but concluded that he was just "trying me out" and if I worked hard, during the next two summer months, he might conclude to let me go to college, so for the next two months, I was very industrious but I never got to that college. . . .

When my first two months were up, Father informed me that I had apparently mastered the job of janitor and I was to be promoted to the position of "roustabout" which position consisted of helping load and unload wagons and drays and trucking grain, etc., which latter was pretty hard work for awhile until I became accomplished in loading five sacks of wheat, etc., on a hand truck and moving them about without prematurely dumping the load, which I did quite often at first, to the evident enjoyment of the other employees. From this position, I was advanced to an assistant behind the sales counter, learning prices, how to wait on customers and take orders, and gradually worked up to head salesman in the retail department. From there, I was advanced to the wholesale department and after I had become proficient in that department, I was sent out on my first trip with a buckboard and span of horses to visit some of our customers who had stores in the mountain area, as a "drummer," and from whom we enjoyed a good business. . . .

A few years afterwards, I "connived" with other clerks in other stores in town and we put on pressure to close at 6:00 P.M. which met with strong opposition from the store-keeper but we "put it over." Still later, we used similar "persuasion" and got stores to cease keeping open on Sunday mornings; this clerks' association I rather imagine was the first "labor union" in town so possibly I am entitled to the distinction of having not only formed the first Labor Union, but was the first "President" of a Labor Union in Marysville.

. . . There was great deal of credit given in those early days and still losses were comparatively small. Most farmers those days, and they were mostly grain farmers, usually paid their bills once a year; when they had harvested and sold their grain, then they would come in and "settle up." For their information and record of purchases on credit, we had small "pass books" in which was recorded an itemized statement of their purchases and prices and they would always bring these pass books in with them. Roads were bad and horses were slow traveling those days, so Saturdays were the big days for the farmers' trade and after making their purchases, the men would largely congregate on the south side of 3rd and D Streets and "visit" while the women would congregate on the north side of 3rd and D Streets and do their "visiting" there. How very different is business conducted now, with chain stores, cash stores, good roads and automobiles and coming to town most every day and buying many things, which in those earlier days, were produced on the ranch. Many a pound of "sow belly" have I purchased from farmers who had produced an excess. When butter was purchased, it generally was in 15 or 25 pound kits, packed solid with brine; fish, such as salt mackerel and salmon bellies, were handled in wooden kits; purchases were usually in liberal quantities so as to save coming to town too often. People were frugal in those days, they had all the real necessities of life, they were content and happy; their weekly "event" was coming to town on Saturdays, and the big event, was when the circus came to town once a year.

As an example of their frugality, there was one farmer who lived south of town; when he came to Yuba County, he was first a school teacher at Wheatland; he purchased a small tract of land in the red dirt district and used to walk back and forth from his ranch to the school, a distance of about six miles each way; he saved his money and purchased some more land and gave up teaching; he raised grain, made money and kept purchasing until eventually he owned several thousand acres. He did all his trading with our firm; he came in every Saturday for supplies and almost always had something which he had raised on the ranch to "trade" with. At our office we always took the local and a San Francisco newspaper and I always placed them to one side and when he came in Saturdays, he would ask, "Well Billie, have you some newspapers for me?" When he died he left an estate over $200,000. Another large farmer lived in the Cordua District; he also had accumulated until he had a very large grain ranch; he had two grown sons who did hard work on the ranch; he also made it his custom to come in and get his supplies on Saturdays, the two boys rarely coming in with him. One Saturday, I sold him his supplies and one of the things he said "the boys" had told him to be sure and get, was a 25 pound tub of butter as they were all out; he asked the price and I told him and he said "Oh my, oh my, but butter is awfully high," and then said, with a twinkle in his eye, "I won't take any butter this week Billie and I will tell the boys I forgot the butter." He also had a very large estate when he died. There were really few farmers, however, who bought butter, most of them had the family cows and the "old woman" made the butter with the old fashioned churn.
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View the Book Navigator for Mr. Ellis's autobiography from California As I Saw It, 1849-1900. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.

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