Financial History Issue 131 (Fall 2019) - Page 17

AN ENTREPRENEUR’S BEGINNING The Value of Free Enterprise By Joe Ricketts I grew up with awareness of both the mis- ery and the possibility of life. My mother was raised in the 1920s and ’30s on a farm in Manley, Nebraska, in a family that was not only one of the most successful farm families, but also one of the prominent families of the community. They were Catholic, and in those days in their church the people who gave the most money got the first pew, and the second biggest donors got the next pew, and so on. My grandfather’s family had the first pew in their church. They bought a new car every few years. Their house was big for its time, with a pillar on each side of the front door, as compared to my father’s family, who lived at that time in a log cabin. They covered it with siding so it looked like a regular house, but it was still a log cabin. Growing up in the 1920s, my mother’s family was not wealthy, but they lived well as proud and prominent members of the community. One day my grandfather bought a new bull, a major purchase for a cattle farmer, and the family threw a big party. The kitchen tables were brought out into the Joe Ricketts’ home town of Nebraska City, Nebraska, circa 1940s. yard and laden with all kinds of food. There was a lot of competition among the farmers over who could produce the most from an acre of land, display the best animals, grow their crops in the straight- est lines and other tests of agricultural achievement. People were invited to come to this party to admire the new prize bull. It was like their own private county fair. There were games—my aunt used to tell me how guests would place bets on the number of eggs they could balance on a bull’s back before the eggs started falling off—and other kinds of fun that we don’t think about anymore. Sometime after the party, it was discovered that the new bull was diseased. It might have had tuberculosis or hoof-and-mouth, a deadly infection that could spread through a community and ruin all the farmers around. This was before science understood the transmis- sion of the disease, so to make sure it would not pass beyond my grandfather’s farm, his entire herd had to be destroyed. Once the vet made his diagnosis, my grandfather had no more say in the mat- ter. The state sent men to dig an enormous hole, drive the animals in, slaughter them all and fill the hole with dirt. Because his entire herd had been destroyed, my grandfather did not have enough income to make the payment on his farm loan, and over time, as he missed more payments, the extended fam- ily defaulted on all the loans that had supported the family’s farms. By now, the Depression had begun. This was before welfare or social security was established, and so my grandparents became paupers. They lost it all. My grandfather heard there were jobs at the packinghouse in Nebraska City, so he moved his family there. They left without any assets, and when they arrived, they rented the cheapest home they could find, one with dirt floors. My aunt was so embarrassed to have her boyfriend see where she lived that when he picked her up, she asked him to meet her at the corner. My grandfather’s plan was to get a factory job because that was the work available to a man with no skills except farming. The packinghouse was tough, dirty work. Today those places are clean, somewhat like hospitals, but back then there was blood and guts and feces lying all over. He tried, but he couldn’t bring himself to go to work in the packinghouse like a boy. His life’s goal had been to become a big cattleman, and before he’d lost his farm, he’d had a big sign on the side of his barn with his name and the phrase “and sons.” That cattle herd had been the worldly representation of all his success and his legacy. Losing it destroyed him. He suffered a breakdown and never  |  Fall 2019  |  FINANCIAL HISTORY  15