Numbers Tell Stories

Reader Contribution by Leslie C. Mcmanus
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In this issue of Farm Collector, Delbert Trew reflects on the stories told by a ranch ledger book covering 1947-57. Through little more than numbers, the ledger quietly reports a life-changing event on the ranch – but no spoiler here! You can read about it here.

Other numbers in the ledger tell the story of good years and bad. But it takes a bit of reading between the lines: The reader is left to imagine how bad, how good, how hot, how dry.

Among my dearest family heirlooms are two ledger books maintained by my grandfather from 1913-1923. The ledgers account for what appears to be almost every purchase, with tallies for daily totals, for “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” and each of two children (the firstborn’s account opens with an entry for “hospital and doctor”; apparently the second was born at home). 

The ledgers contained monthly and annual summaries, summaries by category and – even though this family of four lived in town – summaries for poultry accounts, including egg production, chickens and eggs consumed, feed and straw accounts, egg sale revenues and equipment expenditures.

Numbers tell stories. The deadly Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19, which caused 15-30 million deaths worldwide, is traced to Ft. Riley, Kansas, situated near the town of Junction City – where my grandparents then lived. That first outbreak, in March 1918, was fairly short-lived and contained to the fort. But with World War I troop movements all over the globe, the virus returned to Kansas that fall with a vengeance and spread rapidly, resulting in hundreds of deaths.

As an educator, my grandfather spent his workdays surrounded by students, teachers and staff, and exposure to the rapidly spreading contagion was inevitable. I grew up hearing stories about how he nearly died from influenza. His ledgers tell the story. In October 1918, during the worst of the epidemic in Kansas, after a period of three weeks without a single entry in my grandfather’s column, comes this: “$10, doctor.”

At the time when a doctor’s visit cost $10, toothpaste sold for 30 cents. The telephone bill was $1.20. Some quantity of steak was bought for 40 cents; liver for 20 cents. During my grandfather’s illness, there were several purchases of broth. Following payment of the doctor’s bill, my grandfather splurged on a 55-cent haircut, his first in a month. Numbers tell stories – in this case, a story of survival. FC

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
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