In my last appearance on these pages, I introduced Country Today readers to my great-grandad, Dave Wood (1840-1927) and his 63 years of daily diaries in which he recounted the diphtheria epidemic of 1877, during which time the family lost two daughters and a hired girl. Two years later Dave and his wife Mary produced another son, Ralph Winthrop Wood, my grandad, who briefly kept a diary beginning in 1892, when he turned 13.
Several entries give a clue to why my grandad had eluded success, at least by any conventional definition. Too bad, some said, because he had all the proper credentials. Son of a prosperous Baptist merchant-farmer, nephew of a Newton Theological Seminary president, Grandpa had a mother who traced her family back to William Bradford and the Mayflower.
Grandpa graduated from Whitehall schools in 1897 and went off to business college in St. Paul. Upon his return to Whitehall, he took over the family farm, married and raised a family. By the time he reached his majority, he stopped attending church. Impatient with the ups and downs of agricultural life, he sold the farm before he was 50, moved to the comfortable family home in town and spent the rest of his life keeping up the big house, pitching in on his own son’s farm, gardening, fishing, and waiting on the love of his life, wife Martha.
Thus I frequently asked myself why grandpa became a living, breathing contradiction to Max Weber’s theory that Protestants (whether religious or not) make excellent capitalists (because their success is an indication they are of The Elect.) Once discovered, his diaries offer a whimsical hint, especially the section in 1892, after Ralph’s father Dave presented the kid with a flock of hens and the prospect of selling eggs in town for 15 cents a dozen.
“JANUARY 1, 1892—Cold. One of the cows came in and Martin killed the (bull) calf. I milked 4 cows. Had oysters for dinner. 4 eggs.
JANUARY 2—Windy. I staid in the house most of the day. 6 eggs.
JANUARY 3—Cold. I went to church. I milked 4 cows, Uncle Frank Farrington staid overnight. 4 eggs.
JANUARY 4—Cold. Uncle Frank left. Father went to Galesville to insurance meeting. I studied. I milked 4 cows. I killed roosters and dressed them for mother. 2 eggs.
JANUARY 5—I studied. One of the hogs got 5 pigs. One of the heafers came in. I milked 6 cows tonight. 1 egg.
JANUARY 6 –Cold. I studied. I milked 1 cow. 10 eggs.
JANUARY 7—Snowed some. I studied. I milked 6 cows. 2 eggs.”
And so it went: Grandpa discovered that if he “went to church in the morning...prayer meeting in the evening...milked 6 cows...helped mother with wash...and bought 11 bushels of buckwheat for the chickens, $1.30” it was still possible on that day to end up with only “2 eggs.”
Conversely, he could go up to his older brother’s farm on Jan. 27, and take his “gun to have Archie make a new firing pin. We went hunting. I shot a squirrel. Bought some candy, 5 cents. Did not go to prayer meeting tonight. 24 eggs.”
By mid-year, Grandpa was still keeping records, which incontrovertibly demonstrated that no matter how hard he worked and prayed or how assiduously he loafed and backslid, the chickens laid as many eggs as they felt like and no more or less. June 9 must have come to him as the penultimate revelation: “I set the dog on one of father’s cows and she jumped a fence and cut her tit. 27 eggs.” His 1893 diary makes no mention of chickens or eggs, just milking cows, currying horses, helping Martin, the hired man.
That’s the way it was for Grandpa back in the Gay ‘Nineties. And that’s the way it went until, on a pleasant June day in 1963 his elegant tin of Piper Heidsieck plug tobacco ever at the ready he died, happy in his ignorance of Max Weber’s highfalutin’ theory about Protestants and capitalists. Or was he so ignorant? Maybe success didn’t elude Grandpa Wood. Maybe Grandpa Wood successfully eluded success.