Bartering for better butter

By Daris Howard

Frank owned the local community general store in the little western frontier town.Published June 28, 2013

The Herald

Frank owned the local community general store in the little western frontier town. Hard cash was a scarce commodity, and most purchases were formulated through a barter system. For example, if a person had chickens, he might bring in a dozen eggs to trade for five pounds of flour. Likewise, if someone brought in flour, he could trade ten pounds for a dozen eggs. It was the difference in what Frank paid and what he sold it for that was his profit.

One of the most important commodities that Frank sold, bought, and traded for was butter. No self-respecting person would think of having a meal without setting a plate of rich, creamy butter on the table. The wives of farmers, who owned dairy cows, churned their own cream to make the butter. Some families were especially proud of their traditional butter recipes. Most families only produced enough for themselves, but a few produced enough that they sold or traded the extra. Those who used it for trading might wrap their butter in a special paper that marked it as coming from their farm. Others would just bring theirs to Frank in a container, and he would wrap it in the generic store paper.

When it came time to sell or trade the butter, some customers would request butter specifically from certain farms, but others were fine with the generic kind. Frank always tried to be accommodating when he could, but when a certain butter became popular, he might increase what he paid or traded for it, and in turn charge a little higher margin in order to balance supply and demand.

Frank had an ice house where he stored the things that needed to be kept cold. It was on the back of the store, and he had a sign telling what he offered that he couldn’t keep out front. When someone requested an item, he would step to the back to get it, and his young teenage son, who worked as his assistant, would watch over things until he returned.

That day, when Ellen came into the store, Frank was busy stocking shelves, and his son was sweeping. Ellen’s family only owned one milk cow, and what butter their cow had produced they had always used for themselves. Ellen had never brought any in to trade before, and thus, Frank was surprised when she handed him the package of butter. But he was even more surprised when she asked to trade her butter and receive butter in exchange. No one had ever traded a commodity for the same item, and it made no sense to do so, because they would have to pay the cost difference. When Frank queried about her purpose in doing so, Ellen was very blunt.

“Well, if you must know, a mouse fell into our pitcher of cream and drowned. We fished him out, of course, and I was not about to let it go to waste, so I churned it into butter. My family, obviously, doesn’t want to eat it, so I figured I’d trade it, and you can sell it to someone else. What a person doesn’t know won’t hurt them.”

Frank stood there for a moment, then nodded and took the butter back into the ice house. His young son stopped sweeping the floor and stood dumbfounded that his father, who was known for honesty and integrity, would agree to such a trade. But he started his chores again when Ellen’s glare told him to mind his own business. Frank was gone for only a short time, and when he came back, he carried a package of butter wrapped in the store’s generic paper. He handed it to Ellen. “The charge will only be a half dozen eggs instead of the normal dozen, since it is just butter in exchange for butter.”

“That is downright neighborly of you,” Ellen said, with her usual air of importance. “Just put it on my account.”

She turned and walked briskly from the store, leaving Frank’s son staring wide-eyed at his father, still disbelieving his father could agree to such a transaction. “But, Father, how can you sell that butter to anyone else?”

Frank smiled at his young son. “Oh, I won’t. She just left the store with her own butter, because, as she said, ‘What a person doesn’t know won’t hurt them.’”

 

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