in FS, Home & Garden

My Family Financial History (As Told by My Mother)

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.

Harvest Mills
Little HarveySteve 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
Tony gluing a boxIn 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!

Write a Comment



  1. J.D.,

    Thanks to you and your mom for sharing this story. I like how your parents never gave up, no matter what challenge was thrown their way.

  2. That’s some great family history you have there. It’s quite interesting to know these things and as adults, sometimes we forget to ask our parents how it all worked out in the past, before we were here.

    Next time I speak to my Mum, I’m going to ask her to give me a history lesson of her life.

  3. Wow, thanks to your mom for that history. One thing you KNOW you have is resilience built right into those genes of yours!

  4. What a story! Thanks for sharing. Special thanks to your mom for describing everything in such detail. … I am wondering if you will be able to post a video clip of today’s presentation. Good luck.
    A Dawn Journal

  5. J.D. thank you and your mother for sharing this story. Personal testemonies are always powerful and your family story speaks to the importance of developing good saving habits. It is also demonstrates how challenges can be overcome.

    Thanks for sharing, Neil

  6. Thanks much for sharing! I didn’t know your Dad was into aviation. I have my private ticket and restoring an old airplane (an 8 year project so far!). Things were a bit different back then, but most people can tell you the best way to make a small fortune in aviation is to start with a large fortune.

    I also thought it was cute that your Mom said he soloed and then got his instructor’s license. Makes it sound so simple. For anyone thinking about becoming a flight instructor – there are a few steps between:-) JD – have you ever been bitten by the flying bug?

    I appreciate sharing your family’s story. So many people lead really fascinating lives, but all you ever hear is junk about people like Spears and Lohan.

  7. That was so courageous being able to share your story to inspire others. I was also able to share my life story courtesy of an interview by a fellow blogger, that’s why I really admire you and your mom for doing such.

    Anyway, I learned a lot and I hope I can apply the good ones to my family.


  8. Fascinating story J.D. I love your parents’ never say die spirit and the capacity to take risks and reinvent themselves every few years. What makes for a great country like USA are people like your parents.

    As an Indian, educated in the US and currently residing in India, I am deeply influenced by the American never-say-die spirit and I am confident that the American economy will recover very soon. All the best!

  9. My grandpa and grandma owned a fish and chips restaurant in the 70s and 80s. They were in their 60s when they decided to sell the place. The man who bought the place made one payment and never made any others. My grandparents never did anything about getting the restaurant back from him, and never pursued any payments. My grandma was very frugal and she counted every penny. My mom doesn’t handle money very well, spends everything coming in, and has bad credit. I don’t think she’s EVER been able to qualify for a credit card. I love hearing about how entrepreneurial your father was!! It gives me hope with the business Mr. A is trying to build.

  10. Thanks for sharing that story. It’s interesting how many pursuits and interests your dad had throughout his life. You have a resilient family, it sounds like your parents were on the verge of sucess several times only to suffer setbacks.

  11. How very interesting to read your family history from the very beginning. It’s a great lesson in moving your way up in life…from humble beginnings to success. And although the economy is struggling, things will turn back around.

  12. Your dad had quite diverse interests and skills.

    One interesting thing to me is that in comparing this story with my own grandmother’s, when I asked her to tell about her life, there is a major similarity: the story is about her husband’s career, mainly.

    When you ask your mom about “her story”, her story is not about taking care of kids at home, how she had to face challenges to make your meals and buy your clothes on limited money, whatever her real personal story was. It is about your dad and the jobs he had. Your mom is a background player in the story, having the occasional child, until she gets a typing job and gets a paragraph to herself. She doesn’t consider the story of most of what she went through to be interesting. It was the same with my grandmother – “her story” was about my grandfather’s experience in the military and in his jobs after the military (even though she too had some secretarial jobs like your mom).

    I find this to be a kind of fascinating reflection on women’s stories over time. For example, if someone asked me about my life story, I’d tell them about medical school, my career as a physician, my volunteer work. My actual story. It would never occur to me to describe my husband’s life further than how we met and getting married and those relevant points. We’ve come a long way…

    I know this was not the point of your story, and it is an interesting story regardless, this was just what I reflected on while reading it. Thanks for sharing it.

  13. JD,

    As usual another great post – Thanks! I love learning about each other’s stories. Your Mom has shared of your family’s strong, persistent spirit and willingness to “do the work.” What was particularly moving in reading this is that she does not blame anyone or anything for her personal economy. This post is empowering to me.

    Thanks again, JD, for sharing this story. Please also thank your Mom for me.


  14. Sounds like your parents were real hard working salt of the Earth type people. In my experience kids with parents like yours turn out to be responsible hard working adults that appreciate the value of a dollar. I know several people my age (early 30’s) that constantly received handouts from their parents. They are so dumb about money and finances because their parents gave them everything. Thanks for sharing your parent’s work history. It gives me a little insight into why you write some of the articles that you write. Good Stuff!

  15. I had such an emotional reaction when I read your mother’s story, as did quinsy (above comment). I was married to a hard working man just like your father JD and just like your father there were times when he spent the money on things he always wanted. It took me a long time to realize that we would never get out of debt unless something changed. Unfortunately we divorced. In my case my opinions on finances were not welcome in our marriage so the relationship suffered. It was just a symptom of not being valued as an equal partner I now know. I am so grateful to live in a time when women have so much more ability to be of independant means. I will be out of debt in one week!!!! and I am on the getrichslowly track finally. It feels so good. I will never have my finances in anyone else’s hands again. I have worked very hard to get where I am today.
    Incidentally, my ex married a rich woman who values the same ‘stuff’, they have lots of ‘stuff’ and are very happy together. I am with a man who, like me, likes a simple life and no debt. We are very happy too. Different strokes for different folks I guess. It’s all about what you are comfortable with and what your values are.
    Sorry JD for digressing to my own issues but your mom’s story really stuck a chord with me.
    Thanks for sharing your story and I really appreciate your own reflections on your spending habits being similar to your fathers. It is so important to figure out what our basic values are about money and where they came from. I could go on forever, but I’ve come to realize myself that it wasn’t about who is right or wrong but about what you want in life and what is most important to you.

  16. Sounds like your parents just kept trying til something stuck. Their “pluckiness” has rubbed off on you. My parents were the same way. Dad always had a steady job as a teacher, and mom as a teacher aide, but the summers were rough (one summer in a machine shop, one summer in a liquor store…). Dad always was looking for seasonal work (mom stayed home with us). I can also remember dad having a second job of some variety (officiating high school football in the fall for many years among other things). Although my financial situation is quite different from theirs it hasn’t always been. I scrambled early on, too, to make ends meet. Now things are easier, but I know that no matter what life serves me I will be able to survive and make a living – my parents taught me this.

  17. Wow. So cool reading this again after seeing you today at the Central Library. You did a GREAT job. I am glad you did it. I really loved meeting your wife (I avoided talking to you directly as you seemed really overwhelmed with folks needing to talk with you).

    I look forward to any other demonstrations you might do.

    I have one last point of advice:

    Do not let the idea that there was “someone else” who wrote your book. You have all the advice and the feedback this site has given you. You are no longer just JD, you are the accumulated knowledge of all the folks you’ve read and talked with and gotten feedback from. Folks need that sort of WISDOM.

    Thank you.

  18. you are very brave for sharing such personal details of your history

    and i do think that in some ways we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of our parents

  19. Wow! What a tough, hard-working couple! They really accomplished something in their lives: building a good life for their kids.

  20. Thanks for sharing! Family is very important, and knowing your heritage is a key part of that. A great write-up.

    I found it interresting that your family had a business selling grain mills and food deydrators. My family owned a small flour mill in the late 90s, and we also sold a variety of kitchen appliances (grain mills, dehydrators, bread machines, etc) for extra income.

  21. It’s great to hear the background behind your story and your posts. We all have years and years of history that shape our opinions and thought processes. Background like this helps up put things into better perspective. I’ve only been reading for a few months, but whenever you discuss leaving the box factory, it didn’t seem like a big stretch for you to leave a “blue collar” career to blog. Knowing now that your family owns and operates the company, I give you tons more credit to be willing to walk away and pursue a writing career! Keep it up!

  22. Family/upbringing help form our attitudes toward finances, but they don’t tell the whole story. My husband and I, compared to our siblings, are case in point. Hubby and I, mid-40’s, hubby has been at same good job for 20+ years, we have paid off house, paid off cars, live OK and save a lot. My sister (raised by my same parents) lived pretty well, until she declared bankruptcy. Hubby’s brother (again, raised by same parents as he was) could not settle on a career, spent a lot, and also declared bankruptcy.

    (I’ve not been a regular reader, jumped to this post from a different site, so I apologize if my post is not in the spirit and tenor of this blog and comments.)


  23. Hi, I found a Harvest Mills dehydrator at our goodwill and was looking for information about it when I came across your story. It’s just like the one in your picture:). I was thrilled to find it and it looks like a very good one. I plan to dry apricots this summer if they don’t get frozen out again, and of course, apples and many other great fruits & vegs. I love that it has a thermostat and is so big! I’ll be able to do so much more, much faster this year with it. It’s neat to know the history of my dehydrator, knowing it was made with care and quality. I will treasure it. Thanks so much for sharing your interesting story. Patty

  24. Does anyone here know how to get a copy of the user manual for the Harvest Mills LH100 “Little Harvey” Food Dryer? I am willing to pay for all the time, trouble, and fees to get me a copy. PLEASE email me at will7370 (at) yahoo (dot) com

  25. I own one of the Harvets Mills LH100 machines. Unfortunately it no longer heats…how can I get parts for it….I love it and don’t want a newer model…Thanks,

  26. I was given a Harvest Mills LH100 machine. It has never been used and the previous owner lost the manual. Does anyone know where I can get a manual or can send me a copy.

    Thank you

  27. I have an ancient “Harvest Food Preserver” dehydrator made of pressed board but with the same type of screens as shown in your photograph. Could this be one of yours or is it a competitors? It dates to the late 70s or early 80s. Thanks for any info you can provide. I loved reading your story.