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By Staff | Oct 22, 2010

Almost every little boy dreams of digging up buried treasure. Finding gold doubloons and muttering “Yar!” are the chief benefits, along with uncovering bits of forgotten history.

I recently voyaged out to where the rotting hulk has rested for the past half-century. It was shocking to see how much she had deteriorated. The unsightly sags were even saggier; the overall impression was one of accelerating decline.

Yep, Charlie’s old house isn’t much longer for this world.

My great-grandfather Charlie built the house that now molders out in my grove. Grandpa Nelson bought this place from his father-in-law, so that house is where Dad and his siblings grew up.

It’s hard to believe that nine people lived in such a tiny space. Nowadays, that same number of square feet wouldn’t qualify as a decent-sized rec room.

Entering Charlie’s old house feels rather risky. The elements have ravaged her; what was once a kitchen is now a heap of decayed lumber.

Braving the obvious dangers, I clambered upstairs. Squatters have left their calling cards in the form of coon doots.

I sifted through the detritus Grandpa and Grandma left behind. I find this activity endlessly fascinating, as if I’m an archeologist reconstructing long-ago lives. Lives that eventually gave rise to me.

A cancelled check from May of 1952 establishes that Grandpa and Grandma’s electric bill was $4.08. The fact that this same sum was paid month after month indicates that their electrical usage was below the minimum.

A yellowed envelope held a First National Bank promissory note signed by Grandpa. Dated March of 1925, it’s a loan for $150 – quite a wad at that time. It took a while, but I was finally able to discern the “paid in full” stamp. I hate to think how much interest I would owe after 8 decades.

A tattered newsletter from a feed company called Batcheller’s is dated June 1950. The front page gives advice about controlling corn borers with DDT and gushes about Niatox, a new and more-powerful formulation of that particular pesticide. The flipside of the newsletter features recipes for homemade goodies from area farm wives.

Another envelope yielded evidence that the “good ol’ days” weren’t all that good. The document is from 1943 and is titled “Instructions For Form 1040, United States Individual Income And Victory Tax Return.” Its language is dense as anything excreted by any modern bureaucrat.

The tax tables are quite educational. If you made $2,000 or less, you were taxed at the rate of 13 percent. Tax rates increased rapidly up the income scale, using a formula similar to that for calculating terminal velocity.

Should you land in the top tax bracket – $200,000 or more of annual income – you would owe $139,140 in taxes – plus 82 percent of everything in excess of $200,000!

I guess they figured we had a war going on and that no one should profit unduly during such a dire national emergency. Wonder how that would wash with the modern Wall Streeters who habitually award themselves multimillion dollar bonuses?

It seems that Grandpa had little to fear from the uppermost tax brackets. A 1950 farm record book – compliments of Sioux Falls Rendering Co. – contains such staggering earnings as “black mare, $25” and “sold eggs, $166.94.”

Other income streams include hogs and cattle and grain. Some quick mental math comes up with a total of about $3,000. Much of this was offset by expenses, the biggest of which was a mysteriously large entry for $109 listed under the “trucking, freight, welding, blacksmithing” column. Making lots of money was never among Grandpa and Grandma’s top priorities. But this was before “farming” came to be known as “agribusiness.”

A small envelope held a “just thinking of you” card that Grandma bought, but never sent. In a corner was one of her Sunday hats, tattered from raccoon roughhousing. A lone high heel shoe sits atop a jumble of Christmas cards that Grandma had received over the years.

An uncle’s fifth-grade geography test was interesting in that he was able to correctly identify which countries the Danube and Rhone rivers traversed. I don’t think I ever knew that.

Grandma had listed some names on the back of a 1959 church bulletin. Each is as “Mr. and Mrs. – and family” and constitutes a virtual roll call of my aunts and uncles. She probably made this list so she could quickly recall who their Sunday visitors were when our local “news lady” called to ask if Grandma had anything to report.

Going strictly by the numbers, a reconstruction would paint a picture that was spare and harsh. But dig beneath the surface – and have access to insider information – and you’ll uncover lives that contained a treasure trove of family and friends.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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