Ever Try Swapping Your Cattle for Tuition? One Girl Did.

By Joe Darby

What do you think would happen if you gathered a sack of cabbages from your garden, took them to Walmart and offered them in exchange for a couple of new shirts?

Or what if you got several dozen eggs from your laying hens and brought them to your neighborhood service station and gave them to the cashier in exchange for 10 gallons of gas?

Sounds pretty crazy, huh? But during the Great Depression of the 1930s many folks, particularly from rural areas, used the barter system to get by. They didn’t have the money to buy what they needed to, so they’d take what they had, farm produce or whatever, and swap it for, say, a new pair of jeans.

I recently read about a young lady, a Louisiana ranch girl, who paid for an entire semester’s tuition at LSU in what to us was a most unusual way.

The year was 1932, one of the worst years of the Depression. The economy was so bad that Franklin Roosevelt won a landslide victory against incumbent President Herbert Hoover that year. Whether Hoover was responsible for the economic situation or not, the voters put the blame on him.

Anyway, our heroine, Elena Carter Percy wanted to go to LSU but her family did not have the money for tuition. So Elena decided to have a one-woman cattle drive from her home near St. Francisville to the LSU campus south of Baton Rouge, a 40-mile trek. Sher herded nine of the family’s prize cattle to the college.

She was met by LSU President James Monroe Smith, who personally accepted the animals and said that the stock would take care of all of her room and board. Pictures exist showing the transaction, with the famed LSU Memorial Tower in the background. My sources don’t say what LSU did with the cattle, whether it used them in its agricultural college, slaughtered them and sold the steaks in the cafeteria, or what.

But the bottom line was, Elena was now an LSU student. Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to the intrepid young lady. Hopefully she went on to get her degree and lived a happy, productive life.

But I wanted to share this with you because I love quirky little stories. And it’s also interesting to ponder about what our economic conditions were in the past and how we coped.

My grandfather Darby was a country doctor from Lafayette who set up his practice in Morehouse Parish. Family stories tell that he often accepted farm produce for his services. That was not uncommon with rural doctors at the time, I understand. Better to have a couple of dozen of nice fresh eggs or a big slab of tender pork than not to be paid at all.

But, I chuckle when I imagine my doctors of today taking in a bushel of corn for an office visit.

Dr. Darby died in 1926 when Daddy was just 17. His mother had died when he was 4, so he was unable to go to college. He’d had plans to attend Spring Hill in Mobile, but that was no longer possible.

So in the midst of the Depression a few years later, when he was a young husband and father, he ended up digging ditches for a time, just to put bread on the table. That would have been just about the time Elena was driving her cattle to LSU. Things got better after a while and Mama and Daddy raised two daughters and a son, yours truly.

I hope we would have it in us, but I don’t know if we could cope the way our ancestors did during the Depression. We get upset if we can’t afford a 50-inch HD TV set or a big SUV costing $50,000. How would we have reacted if we had to dig potatoes to buy a new pair of shoes? Sometimes the Good Ole Days weren’t so Good. With all the turmoil of our politics and race relations today, I think we’re lucky in many ways.