What It Means to Be a Farmer Man

So how does little Almanzo Wilder get his precious colts, you ask? It may just be the most interesting thing in the book.

The last two chapters see Almanzo going to town with his father, just the two of them, to sell some hay. On the way there Almanzo notices something in the snow, which turns out to be a wallet with a ton of cash in it. Father is smart: he susses out whose it is and sends Almanzo to find the man, Mr. Thompson, while Father is waiting to trade with Mr. Case, the storekeeper. When Almanzo returns the wallet, Mr. Thompson is rude to him. A friend of the family comes to the boy’s defense and ends up bullying Mr. Thompson into giving Almanzo $200 as a reward—an amount so exorbitant I can only assume this bit is made up, but who knows. This friend, Mr. Paddock, is the wheelwright, and while explaining the situation to Father he makes an offer. Mr. Paddock wants to take Almanzo on as an apprentice.

Father is thoughtful, and when they return to the farm he tells Mother what has happened:

“Well!” Mother snapped. She was all ruffled, like an angry hen. “A pretty pass the word’s coming to, if any man thinks it’s a step up in the world to leave a good farm and go to town! How does Mr. Paddock make his money, if it isn’t catering to us? I guess if he didn’t make wagons to suit farmers, he wouldn’t last long!”

“That’s true enough,” said father. “But—.”

“There’s no ‘but’ about it!” Mother said. “Oh, it’s bad enough to see Royal come down to being nothing but a storekeeper! Maybe he’ll make money, but he’ll never be the man you are. Truckling to other people for his living, all his days— He’ll never be able to call his soul his own.”

For a minute Almanzo wondered if Mother was going to cry.

This is serious business; Mother does not cry for no reason. Father wants to leave the decision up to Almanzo, who

could not speak till he was spoken to, but he thought to himself that he was old enough to know he’d rather be like Father than like anybody else. He did not want to be like Mr. Paddock, even. Mr. Paddock had to please a mean man like Mr. Thompson, or lose the sale of a wagon. Father was free and independent; if he went out of his way to please anybody, it was because he wanted to.

Father wants to give Almanzo the truth, as he sees it of course, but it’s a pretty fair truth. He explains that with Mr. Paddock Almanzo will have it easy in many ways: no rising at dawn, no spending cold winter nights outdoors forcing the cattle to move about rather than freeze, no working in bad weather. But:

“You’d have to depend on other folks, son, in town. Everything you got, you’d get from other folks.

“A farmer depends on himself, and the land and the weather. If you’re a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber. You work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come. You’ll be free and independent, son, on a farm.”

The push for almost total self-sufficiency is interesting. The Wilders really are nearly independent: they raise their own food and clothes and heating and cooling materials. Shoes are just about the only thing that must be bought, and they also buy some cloth but only for special occasions; unlike Mrs. Ingalls, Mrs. Wilder does a lot of weaving, and the family raises sheep. Father does sell his hay, and potatoes, and colts, but it’s questionable how “dependent” he really is on the buyers. The sales lead to money in the bank, but to all appearances he would be fine without that money as well.

But self-sufficiency does not lead to (material) prosperity. I suppose you could say that Father and Mother reject gains from trade in favor of increased independence; they are not willing to trade off power over their own going and coming for greater wealth. But they are wealthy, much wealthier than the Ingalls family at least, and have the best farm for miles around. How did they get this way?

One thing I know, because I’ve been down this whole path before, is that Almanzo and Laura do not end up the same. Almanzo decides to become a farmer man, and he gets his colts by making that decision, but he never enjoys the prosperity of his father, and his going and coming will be hindered later on by mortgages and debt. Debt, the ultimate dependency, is something that Father never even addresses. We’re better off looking to Pa, who hates to be beholden to anyone for anything (including to his friend for a few nails), does get into debt, and while it’s not ruinous it’s not wonderful either. And his dependence on the weather and the land proves in some cases more precarious than his dependence on other people.

6 comments to What It Means to Be a Farmer Man

  • It always interested me how I think that Laura fell in love with Almanzo’s horses first, then him. Remember how she gets to ride them before Nellie does in Little Town on The Prairie? Myself, I’d be all over Almanzo’s incredible courage, as exhibited in The Long Winter when he goes after the grain. These stories are just incredible to me.

  • The BLS historical CPI calculator only goes back to 1913, but inflation between 1875 and 1913 was inconsequential, so it’s close enough.

    $200 in 1913 is the equivalent of $4,400 in 2010. I, like you, am skeptical of that enormous reward.

    “He’ll never be able to call his soul his own”! Holy cow, that’s strong language. I think you’re reading the signal correctly.

  • Bellezza—I had completely forgotten that! I feel like Little Town on the Prairie is the book I’ve forgotten most of. The Long Winter seems much more familiar, and you’re right about Almanzo in that one for sure.

    AR—Ah, some actual information! This would also mean that Mr. Thompson kept the contemporary equivalent of $33,000 in his wallet, which is, you know, not super-easy to believe. It is crazy if true.

  • I wonder what it means. An error? Or the way Almanzo told the story – his error or exaggeration? Maybe that’s how he actually remembered the event.

    I love that connection between the colts in the story without Laura and the later story.

  • Is there such a thing as an error? I mean, these are novels, right, not “real autobiography” (ha). It could still be an error in the sense that it seems so impossibly outrageous I didn’t believe it. But this novel, and this section of this novel in particular, are more fabulous than the others, I think. There is a certain sense throughout that, even though in the “main” books Laura is “Laura” and not “I,” here Laura really wasn’t there and there is an extra degree of removal.

    I think. It could all be in my head, of course. I know too much!

  • An error, as in: Wilder wants the effect to be “big” – wow, that’s a lot of money! But then goes too far, into implausibility.

    See Chapter 16 of Huckleberry Finn for a similar head-scratcher. Huck is given $40 as a combination bribe \ charitable contribution by a couple of strangers on the Mississippi shore. That would be somewhere around $1,000 today.