Frugality To Prodigality In An Age by Perry Mann

Julian, Here is one I wrote a while back. I think you will relate to this one.  Perry


“Our profligate ways at home are mirrored in Washington and in the global marketplace, where as a society we spend $1.9 billion more a day on imported clothes and cars and gadgets than the entire world spends on its goods and services. …The average American puts away barely $1 of every $100 earned.”

To me,  who remember the Golden Age of the Twenties and its sudden collapse into the Lead Age, when everyone was caught in the trap of debt and mortgage without the wherewithal to pay and faced devastating deflation, which crucified debtors who had  to pay twenties’ debts with thirties’ dollars that were half the value of the dollars of the debt—I  read about this nation’s debts, public and private, and the profligacy of  government and  its citizens and remember how it was before and after and  wonder whether or not the current currency of cards will collapse and subject this age to the  hard lesson the Depression taught to the age of my parents and me.  It is a lesson few of any generation would forget. I remember as only a child can remember the slide from a life of affluence to a hardscrabble existence.

My parents were both born and reared on farms in Summers Co., West Virginia, a county that probably was as poor as any county from the bay of Chesapeake to San Francisco’s. With the exception of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway there was no other employment to speak of except public offices and farming.  And farming without serfs or slaves or gasoline powered machines on land that was not created for agriculture was a toilsome, sweaty employment and one that paid just enough for farmers to make it from fall to spring. But my father survived on rocky acres and my mother thrived on bottom land, along the Greenbrier River. My mother was exempt from sweat and want but my father was immersed in both. The difference in a life of enough and little and the issue of the allocation of their resources split them  when came the stress and want  of the Depression.

Hardscrabble defines the life of my father’s father and mother and their spinster daughter. My grandfather acquired a hillside farm embellished with rocks in 1893. He paid three dollars an acre. It would have been a rip off except for the forests. It was populated with an abundance of oaks of every variety and sugar maples, poplars, hickories, dogwoods and a heaven of chestnut trees, which were then Appalachian gold. If it had not been for the chestnut trees, those immigrants, who were fenced out of the fertile and level lands east of the Alleghanies, would have found themselves without a resource that provided them with numerous essential commodities. The fungus that killed the chestnuts arrived after they had had the benefit and help of rail fences, roof shingles, enduring posts, pyrotechnic fireplace logs, easy-split stove kindling and wood, and endless other uses, including the nuts that were food for people, wildlife and stock.

The people of my grandfather and grandmother’s generation and those previous generations are the true, rock foundation of this nation’s wealth and strength, a basis that was built by work, discipline, frugality and denial. Those were the traits that sustained life in these lands where the food was grown, the coal mined, the trees logged, the oil drilled and every other activity that a nation needed to survive and flourish. I remember the contributions of my father’s father and the conditions of their creation:  how hard, demanding, unpredictable, exacting, and marginally profitable the conditions were, yet how essential to their and a nation’s basic needs. The traits that sustained them have been undermined by plenty and its heedless and greedy consumption.

Water: Los Angeles drains the Colorado River so that everyone in that metropolis can have a shower a day. No one built a house in my grandfather’s day unless it was near an all-season spring. Water for everything was carried from a spring or collected from roofs in rain barrels. Hot water was acquired by burning wood in a stove to heat it in vessels, whether in August or January. A well was a luxury, especially one near at hand.  Spigots were unheard of. Bottled water unimaginable.

Food: There was no supermarket. Everything that was needed except sugar, salt, soda and lamp oil   was grown and produced manually  from broom corn for brooms to gooseberries for jam: also corn, wheat, buckwheat, rye, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, rutabagas, cucumbers, squash, melons, apples, peaches, pears, plums, cherries, berries, milk and honey. Stock was pastured and tended: cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, geese—and horses for pull power

Housing:  First  a stone fireplace and chimney and added thereto was a frame building that roofed basically  a kitchen, living room, bedroom, porches and a hole in the hill for a dairy, a place to keep cool that which would spoil. Also there were outhouses: a meat house, apple house, corncrib, woodshed, privy and barn. Livestock was prized, fed and mothered.

Heat: Except for the sun the only heat was from the burning of wood. The woodshed was full by the end of October, a filling that required laborious, hazardous work. Trees were felled by ax and crosscut saw, sawed into workable lengths, hauled to the wood yard, cut into stove lengths by a whirring and whining, primitive, power-driven circular saw, then stored and split as needed.

There was no insurance, medical or otherwise, except neighbors. There was no electricity, no radio, TV, telephone, daily paper. There were only marriages, births, deaths and Sundays. Life consisted of producing by back and hand and preserving the production. Life was work and save for another day and prayer that there would be another day. Waste was a sin. The weekday trinity was work, husbandry and frugality, the latter having equal status with the other two.

This nation ascended by the virtue of its frugality and the use of its savings to produce more; it is descending by the  vice of its prodigality and its profligate spending and getting for what it desires but doesn’t need. History teaches that nothing fails like success and America’s success is causing its failure just as Fate has hitherto decreed the same destiny for Egypt, Greece, Rome, and all nations that have succeeded and are buried in the pages of books that line the shelves of libraries.

No president in my lifetime or any one that I have read about has done more to rush this nation to failure than has George Bush. He has pampered the rich and scorned the poor. He has an obsession that this nation must act unilaterally in war, peace and natural disaster. He has a simplistic mind and a spirit wanting in empathy and void of moral gradations.   A strange man who is, as he avows, Christ centered, a self-characterization that is contradicted by his acts and policies.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (, and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation ( I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s