I’m giving a presentation at 1 p.m. this afternoon at the main downtown branch of Portland’s Multnomah County Library. I plan to cover a bit of my personal history, share some of the things I learned along the way, and offer some book recommendations before taking questions.
As part of my preparation, I asked my mother for a brief family financial history from her perspective. (I never trust my own memories — are the “facts” I recall from when I was six really reliable?) This is my mother’s story.
Steve and I met at a youth group meeting for our church, in Woodburn, Oregon, and then ran into each other at church dances in the Portland area, where we both lived. We started dating in the fall of 1967 and were married on June 18, 1968.
We lived in a small apartment in Southeast Portland for about a year, and moved into a house in the same area just before J.D. was born, in March of 1969. Steve worked as the gardener at Good Samaritan Hospital for a short time, but he had gotten a job cleaning trucks and then as a tire man at Freightliner. When J.D. was born, he decided to go to aircraft mechanic’s school at the same time.
About seven months after J.D.’s birth, I became pregnant with Jeff. At about the time of Jeff’s birth in August 1970, Steve graduated from aircraft mechanic’s school. He started work as an aircraft mechanic but after a couple of months he lost his job — he never did know why.
He had been taking flying lessons and he soloed and then got his flight instructor’s license and gave flight lessons himself. We weren’t able to make ends meet and we wanted to move to the country before the boys got very old, so he started working for a landscaper in the Canby area, where he had grown up and where his parents lived.
He didn’t enjoy the work very much but his parents had given us permission to put a mobile home on the south end of their property and so we picked one out and had it moved out there. It was just up on bricks and we used a well Steve hand-dug, which was muddy in the winter and dry in the summer. We went to a friend’s house for much of the time until we were able to dig a deep enough well.
Steve had various jobs and I was a stay-at-home mom. We had our third son, Tony, in 1972. We managed to make ends meet, but barely, until Steve started his home wheat grinder and food dryer manufacturing business in 1974. It still was difficult and we were very behind in our payments. Fortunately, we used our products to produce the food that we ate and our creditors worked with us until the time came that we were able to start really selling the grain grinders and food dehydrators under the banner of Harvest Mills.
Our company grew by leaps and bounds as we advertised in the newspaper and I gave classes and demonstrations, plus people came out to our shop that we had built and bought the wheat grinders and food dryers almost as quickly as Steve manufactured them. The competition became quite fierce, though, and we became ready to sell the business when we got an offer from a bankruptcy attorney from Utah in 1977.
The attorney was to pay us $5,000 every three months for fifteen years, for a total of $300,000. [J.D.'s note: The sale price of the business is actually a bit of a mystery. This is a best guess.] Back in those days, a couple of hundred dollars a week was enough to make ends meet, and this was a lot of money. Things looked good for a while, and Steve spent money to buy some things he’d always wanted, like a sailboat and an airplane.
Unfortunately, though, the buyer made only a few payments and then forfeited on the loan. We had to repossess the equipment and Steve once again was looking for work. This time, I took some business (10-key and accounting) courses and also looked for work part time, as Tony was in preschool and the other two were in school. We managed to get jobs and pay our bills all right then. We weren’t by any stretch of the imagination well off, however.
Custom Box Service
In 1985, Steve started his business making custom corrugated boxes, Custom Box Service. He was able to build his box-making equipment thanks to his aircraft mechanic’s training and experience and he knew of the custom niche in the market thanks to working for a couple of box manufacturers.
The business grew slowly while J.D. was in college, and I went to work full time at Farmer’s Insurance Regional Office as a text processor. I worked there for a couple of years and then developed early carpal tunnel syndrome and was able to go on to another job that didn’t require much typing. I lost that job after a couple of years and went home to work for the business.
The business continued to grow and Steve hired his nephew, and other employees followed — most particularly our sons, J.D., Jeff and Tony, at various times.
Steve had been suffering from chronic lymphocytic leukemia since the late 1980s and he passed away on 21 July 1995, ten days shy of his 50th birthday. The business was left to me and to the boys. They ran it until Tony left it to pursue other interests, and then J.D. did too. Now Jeff and his cousin are the only family members left at the box company. It’s doing alright — about breaking even for the year. The economy in our nation is in terrible shape so we can be grateful for how we are doing.
I’ve written before that our parents’ experiences with money shape our own attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Reading Mom’s descriptions of trying to make ends meet reminded me of my own “adventures” during the mid-1990s. Just as my father spent the money he had instead of saving it, so did I — until recently. Thanks, Mom, for sharing your story!