Mother, in addition to her many other duties, was also responsible for bookkeeping. Livestock sales, grain transactions and expenses were loosely organized in shoeboxes.
Closet shelves, which in non-tax deadline times also contained Dad’s favorite candy and gifts from her children that Mother considered too good to be used, were searched for paper receipts.
Dad’s memory and Mother’s patience were tested in the effort to document an entire year of financial information. As the paperwork droned on, father rued the day when the tax system was created in far-off and out-of-touch Washington, D.C.
My parents were born before the federal income tax formally became the law of the land. The first U.S. income tax was established during the Civil War to support the Union but did not become enshrined in law until 1913. The basic tax rate (before lawmakers were egged on by lobbyists to carve out deductions) at the time was 1% on income up to $20,000 and 2% on income up to $50,000. Rates went up 1% for each higher income bracket.
Few farmers even after the World War I boom in commodity prices reached above the 1% income tax bracket.
Non-wartime federal income taxes were not implemented until 1894 and the law met stiff resistance. In a ruling that is mostly forgotten, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1895 on a 5-4 vote that the tax was unconstitutional.
Congress proceeded to rewrite the law to make it pass Supreme Court muster. States soon followed the federal lead.
North Dakota collected state income taxes for the first time in 1919 while Minnesota waited until 1933 to refill its coffers during the Great Depression. Iowa followed suit a year later, while South Dakota never got around to creating a state income tax.
Minnesota took taxation a step further than many other states by creating a personal property tax. The tax authorized assessors to visit each farm to determine the value of machinery, cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry. Although it was tried, farmers and other payers found it difficult to hide those assets from assessors. For that reason, assessors were only slightly more welcome than a bad cold.
Fortunately, the Minnesota personal property tax ended in the early 1960s when successful Republican gubernatorial candidate Harold LeVander vowed to replace it with a statewide sales tax.
Mother worked late into the night to get the numbers in order. Her son — although he was good at adding and subtracting — was rarely asked to help. He could handle figuring how much soybean meal needed to be added to bring protein up to the right percentage but fell hopelessly behind in school when algebra and what was called new math was added to the equation.
When asked why it was necessary to master new math when the old was all that was needed, the instructor insisted that we must. A few of us resisted and refused to turn in homework.
The punishment — 500 written lines that stated “I will turn in my math homework on time — seemed less burdensome than being hopelessly lost in the algebra swamp. Later, a price was paid for my stubborn denial. A college math course was required. Seeing that I was hopelessly lost in it, the professor said I should take the Army math course. Almost anyone should be able to pass it. I did, but barely.
To avoid paying a professional preparer I once attempted to do my own taxes. Despite assurances that it was easy to do, the effort failed. Mother would not have been shocked. What’s amazing is she accomplished what I could not despite using a shoebox system.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.