Story Time

Reading a few recent articles on the supposed “demise of retail” and or the “end of bricks and mortar business as we know it” several thoughts occurred to me as well as a few fond memories.

These articles reveal several things about modern culture not the least of which is how uneducated and divorced from our past our “journalists”are.The basic story these articles tell is that online retail is taking over from “traditional” modes of retail or in common speak bricks and mortar walk in stores.There are several reasons why this is happening,increasing taxes and regulations forcing mom and pop retailers out,greater variety of offerings online,corporate consolidation etc.However this is a perfect example of the old saying “the more things change,the more they stay the same”

Going back to my youth and one of the men that I had immediate respect for,once I realized there was such a thing,my grandfather on my mother’s side.When I first laid eyes on a Sears & Roebuck catalog,it was the first year of school for me and the first year that my formal reading education was taking place.My reading material consisted of various school books,but also the Sears catalog as it was full of pictures with accompanying descriptions of what those pictures were.It was a wonderful thing for a child of six to look through,even though by then it had shrunk a bit from it’s full heyday.

There were in those pages any and all manner of durable goods,clothes,car parts,tires,farm equipment,sporting goods,woodworking equipment,even guns and ammo all available for purchase by phone or mail order.In the older catalogs you could buy stationary steam engines and boilers,mining equipment,sawmill equipment,you name it,if it would fit on a train car,they carried it up to and including complete houses as illustrated in the above picture.They were the very definition and shining example of the invisible hand of capitalism at work in the free market.

Years later as I became increasingly curious about where we came from and where we were heading as a family,I began to ask grandpa questions about where he was from.One story I never will forget,was how he became a mechanic.Growing up on a farm near Meridian,Mississippi he left home at the age of 16 to attend a trade school where he learned the mechanical basics in practice and theory.Cars were still the new kid on the block and there was still plenty of theory about how they should behave in practice,but that is another story.

Once he had settled into his new employment and had gotten established in a upscale boarding house just down the street from the Ford dealer he worked for,he began sending some money home every month.In addition to that he also inquired of the local REA as to the possibility of them running electricity to the farm.Back then few people outside of town proper had electricity and most farms were still ran during daylight or by light of a kerosene lamp.The REA man had told him that if grandfather provided the wire and insulators,they would provide the poles and installation.He got a short list of what was needed and proceeded to hit the Sears catalog to order it up.

Two weeks or so later a large spool of wire,insulators and of course a few switches,light sockets and bulbs arrived at the train depot just a few miles from the farm.Another week later all was installed and working to his father’s amazement.The kerosene lamps were relegated to the high shelf in the kitchen for use in an emergency.No more buying Kero,less of a fire hazard and generally much less time wasted trimming wicks and striking matches and as grandma said no one missed the smell or the soot from the lanterns.

Later on a water well pump replaced the pump jack and bucket and rope the farm used for water supply,and later when my great grandmother was up in years a new electric motor and gear reducer was added to the Westinghouse ringer washing machine,all of it ordered through Sears.

The business model of the time allowed tens of thousands of people operating in voluntary concert to provide needed goods to people in order to drive industry and make daily life a little bit better than the day before.All of this was started by one man,with an idea to do things better,before the turn of the last century.

Today the wheel has turned yet again,the paper catalog has been replaced by one’s and zero’s and an ever increasing variety of items are being supplied and ordered to make peoples lives a little bit better than the day before.The wheel has rolled around back to where it started and there truly is nothing new under the Sun.

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17 Responses to Story Time

  1. Pascal says:

    Great story Darin. Here’s something to parallel your segment of adding electricity to the farm.

    I live in a house built in early 19 aughts. In the 2nd floor it still contains ceiling fixtures that are half electric, half gas jets. City folk back then dint trust the newfangled electricity yet.

    • Darin says:

      Some of the cows in the milk barn didn’t like it either.Back then REA was running 25 cycle power.Some of the cows could see the flicker. :lol:

  2. Victor says:

    I like stories like this.

    The adobe house my grandfather built in Mexico when he was a young man over a hundred years ago still stands today. I remember when I lived there as a boy the candles and the lanterns burning at night and early in the morning, the smell of the mesquit and corn husks burning in the brick oven outside – there was an iron wood burning stove inside but that was used mostly in the cold months. There is electricity now on the old ranch… but oh how much I long for a simple life by candle light.

    I have recently helped out on a ranch in Mexico making an adobe house – so that I can learn how it is done for the one’s I will build on my own farm – we’ll have some solar but life will be a bit more rustic and rugged than here in the city – I don’t mind chopping wood and striking a match, for me there is something very spiritual in the rituals of manual labor for survival… my grandfather’s did it and they were manly men – the generation that followed and my own got too soft… and I wish to reclaim the heritage they meant to leave behind. My mother’s father (the Mexican) once said that he hoped his grandchildren will not have to work as hard as he did… but I wish that I had… only to be a little bit more of the man he was.

    • KG says:

      Amen, Victor.
      I’d use an old Lister diesel or something similar to generate electricity and run it on methane from chicken and pig waste.

      • Darin says:

        Yep,me too.I would like to have an Earth berm house,solar panels and a genset.
        I would also like to have the most important survival tool for old age-kids.

        • KG says:

          How practical would a steam engine be to power the generator, Darin?

          • Darin says:

            It’s a catch 22,it works great if you have a source of waste fuel,but the down side is it’s maintenance intensive due to the boiler.
            For small scale power generation it would be better to use a wood gas generator(which can use any dry biomass as fuel) and burn the resulting monoxide/methane mixture in an old one lung gasoline engine to spin an alternator.
            There are now plenty of people with wood burning trucks and cars on the road and building a stationary woodgas plant is even more practical.
            I do already have one of these,waiting on me to rebuild it-

            Wire a couple Delco truck alternators in parallel to generate electricity and the belt pulley means all manner of machinery can be driven off the same engine.The Amish love those old motors,they run basically forever on very little maintenance

            • KG says:

              Wow! beautiful!
              I saw something similar at Andamooka opal field a lifetime ago and the guy ran the exhaust into a 44 gallon drum buried in the ground.

            • Victor says:

              that was the most helpful piece of information I’ve come across this year!!!! dude, you’re awesome.

              I have been looking at different sources of energy to make me as self reliant as possible and also have looked at plans for earth berm houses like you… now about the solar energy. I put solar panels on my mothers house to bring her expenses down, she is in El Paso Tx. but you cannot go completely off the grid, it did bring the cost down (to $1 – $5 and sometimes $0) and the panels were producing extra energy that was being sent into the grid and we were getting money back from the electric company for a while there (the panels are leased from Solar City for $80 per month) but then the city decided they would be charging all solar power users extra – they argue that non solar users have to pick up the tab for the power that solar users take in when the sun is not out – we argue that the electric company charges people for what they use – so why charge us extra for power we don’t use… does that make sense –

              anyhow – on the farm I only plan on using solar to power the fridge and the computer – but looking for a good back up plan (generator) for the cold months… I still have my eyes on Patagonia… and this bit of info is very interesting, thanks.

            • Jamie says:



              The hibernation months are nearly over. If the output drops over the summer season it’s because am busy building the triple garage.


              • KG says:

                I loved that movie, Jamie. Hope the garage (workshop?) goes well.

                • Darin says:

                  “I still have my eyes on Patagonia”

                  Patagonia is *stunning* one of the worlds most beautiful gems.

                  The last shoe has yet to drop on all the subsidized PV Solar schemes,some on the eastern seaboard have already turned sour leaving some of the customers high and dry.

                  If I do solar it will off grid with no strings attached.I am still kicking myself on a deal I missed shortly after a couple US panel manufacturers went tits up.Ther was a deal for 80 -200watt panels for $3500 shipped.I missed it by two hours.I could have had enough panels on the roof to run the whole house even on a rainy day.

                • Pascal says:

                  Stunning memory: Daybreak at Torres del Paine Patagonia
                  Daybreak at Torres del Paine Patagonia

                  Right-click, view image to embiggenate.

  3. Jamie says:

    Thinking along the lines of a three in one set up


  4. Gregoryno6 says:

    Great story, Darin. I’d heard of the Sears catalogue, but I had no idea it was so broad in its offerings.

    Crusaders of a constructive bent might appreciate this piece at Morning Mail about Captain James Cook and the Endeavour.