small postal office in general store from 1870s Tom J. Bechman
FROM ANOTHER ERA: This is a post office of sorts, originally located inside a general store in Miller, a small town in northwest Iowa. It’s now in the Hancock County Agricultural Museum near Britt, Iowa. It speaks to the history of farming and business.

History teaches lessons about agriculture, business

There are striking parallels in ag business between nearly 150 years ago and today.

E-commerce has already proved it’s more than a fad. Amazon is a dominant force in the consumer goods industry. Small-business owners are improvising to survive. This is not an urban or suburban phenomenon — it’s happening in rural Indiana, too.

Where will it lead? Is there a downside? Is it unique in history?

A recent trip to Iowa to help prepare for the Farm Progress Virtual Experience answered the last question. If you haven’t checked out FPVX, visit FPVExp.com.

My wife, Carla, and I visited Living History Farms just outside Des Moines. We walked back to 1876 and visited Walnut Hill, Iowa. It never existed. But volunteers assured us it was authentic. Some buildings were vintage, moved from other small towns.

I visited the General Store and struck up a conversation with the shopkeeper, who moved back and forth between 1876 and 2020. The more I listened, the more I realized history repeats itself.

Society shifts

“Think of my store as the modern-day Walmart,” the shopkeeper said. “Or maybe Sam’s Club would be closer. At the time, 90% of all people in Iowa farmed. They came to town rarely, and only to get essential goods.

“They bought flour 100 pounds at a time. We carried things they couldn’t grow or make. We dealt heavily on credit. They would buy what they needed, then pay it off after harvest. I kept my ledger in a fireproof safe. A robber wouldn’t find much cash.”

General stores often also served as the post office. There was a wooden piece of furniture in one corner, with tiny post office boxes. When folks came to town, they received mail and sent letters.

“A young man named Aaron Montgomery Ward began focusing on farmers whom he felt were underserved, and offered items through a mail-order catalog,” the shopkeeper explained. “His business started in 1872, and by 1876, it was competition for storekeepers like me.

“The irony was that since the post office was in my store, customers would pick up goods ordered from Montgomery Ward and sent through the mail. They were often sheepish, because I let them know I wasn’t happy. They were buying things from mail order they once bought from me.”

Sears, Roebuck and Co. soon joined Montgomery Ward, and the catalog delivery system became an important part of ag commerce for over a century. That’s true, even though when Ward launched his new business, many people thought he was crazy.

Modern parallels

Sound familiar? Many thought ordering things over the internet would never threaten brick-and-mortar stores. Today, we know different. The current trend isn’t unique in history, and there can be a downside: Local businesses must adapt by offering new services — or disappear.

There’s also an upside through more selection and more competitive pricing. It’s the same advantages mail-order firms first delivered nearly 150 years ago.

Will Amazon and other players in the new fast-order, fast-delivery economy be the permanent wave of the future? History says this new trend will likely continue as long as they serve customers efficiently. Or until the next Aaron Montgomery Ward or Sam Walton comes up with a better idea for serving both rural and city folks, whenever and whatever that might be.

Comments? Email tom.bechman@farmprogress.com.

TAGS: Farm Life
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