The Economy and Corbin Morse’s Cows

With a little luck and a lot of hard work, Corbin Morse became successful as a rancher in western South Dakota in the early days. The story is told that he was waiting out a snowstorm in the lobby of the Harney Hotel in Rapid City one bitter cold night. A half-frozen cowboy stumbled through the door with the bad news. Morse’s entire herd of 10,000 purebred Hereford cattle—over half a million dollars’ worth of livestock—had perished in the blizzard. The loss meant financial ruin.

Morse looked at the cowboy. “Well,” he said, “Easy come, easy go.”

I thought about Corbin Morse this week when I opened the statements from my retirement accounts. I looked at them, stuffed them into the file drawer, took a deep breath, and told myself, “Easy come, easy go.”

I didn’t really mean it, of course. Neither, I suspect, did Corbin Morse that long-ago winter night. But remembering his response to bad news helped me put my own losses into perspective.

Admittedly, it’s relatively easy for me to be optimistic. Unlike Corbin Morse—and many others before and since—I’m not facing financial ruin. I’m fortunate in that I don’t have any debt and I can easily live within my means. I can afford to leave my retirement savings alone until they recover.

And I do believe they will recover. Rick, my friend and financial planner, lives, breathes, and preaches “invest for the long term.” That means holding on through bad times as well as good. I trust him and believe him, so that’s what I’m doing.

Even so, the recent upheavals (or maybe a better word would be “downheavals”) in the economy are frightening. I have friends who are talking about whether they should keep cash under their mattresses and whether we’ll all end up raising chickens in our back yards. They wonder if it’s going to be the Great Depression all over again.

I don’t mean to minimize the Great Depression. It was a terribly hard time, with losses and suffering that were all too real. My parents grew up during those tough years, which here in South Dakota meant drought and dust storms. I've heard their stories about living as a family of 11 in a three-room house, wearing patched hand-me-down clothes, and sometimes going to school with nothing in their lunch pails but cold pancakes.

But all of them got by. They managed, one day at a time, and eventually, times got better. Those hard times helped shape their lives, certainly, but didn't define them. They went on to build successful, productive, and happy lives.

I visited my parents last weekend. It was my sister’s birthday, and we celebrated with a four-generation family party. The gathering reminded me again about what constitutes real wealth. My parents haven’t accumulated any financial fortunes. But they have children and grandchildren who care deeply about them, who enjoy their company, and who would gladly help them out of love rather than obligation. The legacy of integrity and competence and humor that they will leave to all of us who love them is beyond price.

Will we have to scrimp and patch and make do through economic hard times like the Dirty Thirties again? Who knows? My own belief is, probably not.

But I also believe that, if things truly do get that bad, most of us will do what we have to do. We’ll work together and help one another out. We'll get by, one day at a time. We’re a lot tougher than we think.

For me, knowing it’s possible to survive hard times and come out the other side helps keep today’s fears in perspective. It reminds me that there’s no point in fretting over things—like ups and downs in the stock market—that are beyond my control. It helps me remember all the ways in which my family and I are truly rich.

And when all else fails, I remember Corbin Morse’s cows and his “grace under fire” response to disaster. “Easy come, easy go.”

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