Book In Common, The Long Winter: One selfless act leads to greed

While I love this rainy weather, I have found it hard to get outside to deal with the related storm clean-up. Did you notice – oak leaves seemed to be hanging in there this year, then they all came down in that last dumper – WHOOSH! What a mess. I’ll say, it is nice to get outside and sweep aside rotten leaves to find  the shoots of Spring flowers.  Just when Winter is getting on my nerves, I get a little boost.

In De Smet the Ingalls have little to be cheerful about. At last completely out of food, they and other townspeople pin their hopes on a rumor of a homesteader some 40 miles from town who might have a supply of wheat.

Two headstrong young men have made the impossible trip and found the grain, got it back to town against seemingly insurmountable odds.  Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland were too stubborn to watch their neighbors starve. Now that they have the grain enough to feed everyone,  there comes a sudden hitch in their plan – GREED!

Wilder and Garland knew the homesteader would have to be compensated for his grain. They knew they would have to offer him a very good price to convince him that it would be worth parting with seed he may not be able to replace in time for Spring planting. A man could easily be ruined over the span of one growing season, they knew they must be more than fair. So, before they undertook their venture, they looked for funding – which they got from Mr. Loftus, the storekeeper.

But next day, recuperating from near frost bite and exhaustion, Almanzo is surprised by a visit from Cap and some other men – apparently, Mr. Loftus is asking top dollar for the wheat, insinuating that he paid the boys to haul it.

They find a larger group has met at Mr. Fuller’s store, which, while largely empty, still serves as their daily meeting place.  As the men began to chatter excitedly, “Mr. Ingalls rose up thin and tall from the box by the stove…’let’s all go reason with Loftus…'” 

To this a man responds angrily, “Now you’re talking! Come on boys, let’s help ourselves to that wheat!”

Ingalls commands the room, they all respect him because he doesn’t talk so much. “Reason with him, I said…”  But the group is worked up, ready to fight. Now young Cap Garland finds his man voice, and tells the crowd, “Wilder and I have something to say about this, we brought in the wheat. We didn’t haul it to make trouble.” 

Almanzo agrees, but the others remind him that he and his brother have plenty to eat – easy for Wilder to be reasonable on a full belly.  Now Cap Garland turns to Mr. Ingalls again. “How much you got to eat at your house Mr. Ingalls?”

“Not a thing,” Pa says. “We ground up the last wheat we had yesterday, ate it up this morning.” 

Wow, just imagine – you don’t have any food for your family, and at least a month of storm weather left, no where to go, no way out. And this guy is sitting on a pile of food, charging as much as he can get for it. How reasonable do you think you would be?  Ingalls and the two younger men remind everyone that they are a town, a community – what kind of community would they have after such a fight? What would become of their town, out here, where people needed to depend on each other? 

Mr. Ingalls words sober the group, and they agree to troupe over and “reason” with Mr. Loftus. But Loftus is adamant, even in the face of threats – “that wheat is mine, and I’ve got the right to charge any price I want for it.”

This is an uncomfortable conversation in a capitalist economy. Yes, Mr. Ingalls agrees, “This is a free country, and every man has a right to do what he pleases with his own property.” Pa turns to the crowd and reminds them, everybody is free to do as they please, including, shop where they please when Winter is over. “You’ve got us down now,” he turns to Loftus, “that’s your business, as you say. But your business depends on our good will.”

Now Pa is reminding Loftus of what he told the group before – a community is only as strong as the relations between it’s members. A fight like this now would leave bad feelings long after the snow melted.

Standing behind Ingalls,  Garland reminds Loftus – “we didn’t make that trip to skin a profit off folks who are hungry.” Wilder, still standing on swollen feet, recalls the harshness of the trip and tells the store keeper, “there’s not enough money in the mint to pay for that trip.”

Reminded that he did not risk his life to get the grain, Loftus is beaten and ashamed, agreeing to sell the wheat for the same price he paid for it, a dollar and a quarter a bushel. This act guarantees that many people will make it til Spring that might have been very shortly starved to death, including the Ingalls.



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