Barter Theater, Guitar Trade, and Other Barter Agreements

This installment of an ongoing feature about barter agreements includes a short history of the Barter Theater in Abingdon, VA and a guitar trade a Pennsylvania man negotiated for a saxophone.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
November/December 1978
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Rather than buy a guitar, Jim Jordan of Glenmoore, PA arranged a saxophone-for-guitar trade at a local music store.
PHOTO: ILYA AKINSHIN/FOTOLIA


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Bill Wodraska shared some of his thoughts regarding one of mankind's better ideas — barter — and offered up an interesting suggestion: "I'd like to see a continuing feature on barter agreements and skill-and-labor exchanges," said Bill. "You're on!" MOTHER EARTH NEWS replied.


Barter Theater

Here's a really unique successful swap—one which began during the Great Depression and remains in operation today.

Robert Porterfield was a struggling, out-of-work actor who, apparently prompted by memories of his prosperous old Virginia homestead, created a barter-based market for his own talents and those of his fellow artists. How? By putting on quality plays with those other artists and allowing local farmers to attend the performances in exchange for fresh produce. The idea was simple and worked extremely well: The actors were able to feed themselves and practice their art, and the neighboring countryfolk were provided with good entertainment for their bartered farm produce (the only thing they had an excess of in those hard times).

The Barter Theatre exists today in Abingdon, Virginia and Old Dominion State farmers are still enjoying quality drama—at Barter's Playhouse and the Children's Theatre—in exchange for fresh farm produce.

Thank you, Robert Porterfield! You've proven that barter is a viable way to exchange our goods and services and avoid the clutches of the established economic system.



Guitar Trade

No matter how simple you try to keep your lifestyle, you end up accumulating lots of "excess baggage" throughout the years. My back room, for instance, recently housed a collection of musical instruments, none of which any longer held any interest for me. On the other hand, I did long to learn to play the acoustic guitar, but couldn't scrape up the 200-plus dollars I found I would need to buy one.

After trying to sell the instruments I had outright and realizing how little cash they'd bring in, I figured it was time to try MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ advice: If you can't buy, barter!

So I began my tour of every local music store I could find. One manager was looking for a sax in good condition to sell to a young student, and I walked in at the perfect moment. He offered me a good guitar for the sax, and a case in exchange for my banjo. On top of that, the bass amp I used to have went for an Appalachian dulcimer that my wife is currently learning to play.

We now spend our time "making beautiful music together," and it all happened without a penny exchanging hands.



Trading Clothes

Despite the high cost of clothing these days, some acquaintances of mine and I have found a simple way to swap old clothes for "new," beat rising prices, and get together with friends at the same time!

At every change of season, we each simply sort through our clothing and set aside the things we no longer wear. All the discarded clothes are then tossed together at a "clothes exchange party" where we paw through the pickin's and everyone takes turns choosing an appealing piece. We have a great time trying things on, and when we're done everyone goes home pleased with her new “free” clothing.



Stained Glass Baby

My husband and I have tried, whenever possible, to swap goods and services on the barter system. I've traded child care for a refrigerator and stove, and Bob has done handyman jobs around the house for reductions in our monthly rent. By far the best swaps, though, have been for midwifery services for our second and third children.

I love to sew, was delighted when our first midwife asked if I'd do some sewing for her in exchange for half her fee, and busily stitched up a down comforter and two covers to pay for her assistance at Jesse's home birth.

Then, as we were eagerly awaiting the arrival of our third child, we found we could again trade goods for a portion of the fee: After hearing that Bob works with stained glass, our midwife asked if he would make her a window ... something which will mean much more to her than anything she could possibly buy with our cash payment.

Thus, through the barter system, Bob and I have been able to swap our labors of love in "exchange" for two of our dearest treasures.



Pet Care Bargain

We recently completed our first trade and it was a blessing! In fact, if we hadn't seen all the successful swaps in MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we'd presently be in a real financial bind.

Cooper (our German shepherd), you see, was recently hit by a school bus and had to have a hind leg partially amputated. And when he came home after the surgery, a whopping $100 veterinary bill came with him. However, when we explained to the Doe that we were rich in organic farm products but, unfortunately, rather poor in cash, we soon struck up a bargain.

Instead of dollars, we could use some of our yearly pig harvest—pork chops, roasts, and bacon (no nitrites!)—plus some of the 140 pounds of honey we had just extracted to pay off our debt. The Docs wife also thought our braided red onions and garlic were beauties. And by the time we had traded her some of them—in addition to a few dried flowers, pumpkins, and gourds—we had managed to work our "cash money" bill down to less than $10.

We thank the heavens that Cooper now feels fine, and we say "bless the barter system!" 



Homemade Soap Business

My friend and I decided to start a homemade soap business not long ago. Unfortunately we, as housewives, had little money available with which to finance our venture. My partner—an ex-beautician—saved the day, though, by exchanging her talents in the form of free haircuts for the services that we needed to launch our enterprise.

We now have a commercial artist to design our labels and business cards, a printer who will print them, a wholesale supply of olive oil, and a stack of drying racks for our soap, all in exchange for haircuts.

Everyone is happy, and our new business is booming!

My friend has been bartering for a long, long time and the idea is nothing new to her. But you—and she—have shown me the light!



Bike Repair, Home Cooking

During my college days swapping was a necessary way of life. My only transportation then was a ten-speed bicycle badly in need of repair, and I had neither the finances to have the work done nor the knowhow to do it myself. So I struck up a bargain with a fellow student who had the tools and ability that I lacked: My bargaining classmate, who was tired of the usual dining hall fare, agreed to make the necessary repairs on my bike in exchange for some good, home cooked meals.

Today the bicycle is still working great, and the friendship which developed over those meals is going strong! I've continued to swap whenever possible since those college days, and I frequently enjoy the special pride that a good barter brings. It's a quality too often lacking in today's commercialized world.

So spread the word, folks, and happy swapping!



Waste Exchange

I raise Arabian horses on my small acreage near town, a very enjoyable business but one which does have its problems.

For instance: I have a good-sized garden, but fresh manure (one of the problems!) has a very distinctive odor which some neighbors find as objectionable as the flies which our built-in fertilizer machines seem to attract. On top of that, the wood shavings we bed our horses in are becoming increasingly expensive and hard to find ... so, with a little ingenuity, I worked out a three-way swap which benefits me, my livestock, and my two other "partners."

I found a worm farm nearby that uses prodigious amounts of manure, particularly manure/sawdust mixtures. The owner agreed to pick up my horses' droppings at regular intervals, and in return bring me an equal amount of worm castings. (The castings make an ideal, odor-free mulch that's greatly increased my garden yield.) I then, in turn, trade the fresh vegetables from my now prolific garden for wood shavings from a furniture manufacturing plant in town (whose workers otherwise have trouble getting rid of the stuff).

Result: We've eliminated a disposal chore for me, the worm farmer, and the furniture manufacturer. In addition, my horses are comfortable, the worms are multiplying like crazy, my neighbors have stopped complaining, and my vegetable patch will never (I hope!) be the same.



Chimney Sweep Swap

As a part-time chimney sweep I'm always looking for pictures and articles about my trade, and I read with great relish your article on sweeping in a recent issue.

Then—inspired by the Swaps section of that same issue—while applying my talents to a friend's chimney and fireplace, I spied four tires half buried in the snow next to his stock of wood. After I'd swept the last bit of soot from his chimney, I pounced on my friend and we immediately agreed on an even swap: my labor for his tires.

My friend's chimney is now back In business and my old faithful truck has some much needed rubber. Thanks, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, for a great idea.



Woodworking Exchanges

I'm a woodworker with a young family to support, and my personal supply of wood always used to be pretty close to nil. Then, while talking with a neighbor one day, I learned she had some "old, half rotten" barn siding lying out in her woods. Recalling that only days before she had admired a picture frame I'd made, I naturally offered to swap her the four frames that she'd decided she needed for that old pile of siding. My neighbor accepted, of course, and the wood (as I'd suspected) turned out to be chestnut—a rare and expensive variety of hardwood when you can find it at all. My "customer," in short, received my work and talent (applied to some of that chestnut), and I got to use all the wood that was left over on other projects.

More trades: Our year's supply of honey was "bought" from the local beekeeper for some handmade wooden honey dippers, and I've traded other woodenware for natural foods, wicker, and leather goods. Then too, Lynn's homemade bread has been swapped for vegetables, home canned goods, and plant and child care ... and we've exchanged our combined labor for rent, paint, and auto repairs.

Barter? You bet! We've done plenty of swapping in the past and look forward to more in the future.



Artwork Exchanges

My husband Lon and I support ourselves and run our ten-acre Alaskan bush homestead by selling our artwork at various shows and outlets in town. While on one of these local money-making ventures we set out a "we like to trade" sign just to see what would happen. Before we knew what was going on, we had happily traded off a sculpture and several paintings for an old-timey, four-wheel-drive vehicle. It's now our homesteader's "mud buggy" and was well worth the few pieces we swapped for it!

In the one short year since that successful swap we've traded our artwork for a wheel barrow, lumber for the smokehouse, a snow machine, plywood, groceries, garden supplies, propane tanks, tools, hardware, auto repair work, welding, furniture, and moose and caribou antlers (which we use to make jewelry) ... and all of that's in addition to the enjoyment and new friends our swaps have brought us.

Through bartering we've been able to acquire a lot of the things (as you can see!) we normally couldn't afford to buy. We're currently working on a trade for a small boat and motor so we can fish some of the beautiful lakes here in Alaska. You can see why we now put up a "we love to trade" sign at every show we attend!



Chestnuts for Lemons

Several years ago our walnut tree bore so many nuts that I couldn't use them all. And I hadn't really thought of swapping the excess for anything until the day my neighbor came over and asked to buy some. "I won't sell 'em," I said, "but I will trade you some of the nuts for a few lemons from that tree in your yard." Since that day we've both had all the walnuts and fresh lemons we've been able to consume, and neither of us could be happier with the deal.

We've gone on to trade fresh eggs and live chickens with the same neighbor in exchange for his assistance in putting up a low fence (made of his wood!) between our two properties. I also regularly trade babysitting services with the mothers in my neighborhood, and one friend prefers to be "paid" with homebaked goodies for watching my little one. We both end up winners.

My daughter and I, furthermore, have worked out a swap that really makes us both happy: 1n trade for a new skirt, she has agreed not to fight with her sister for a month. For a whole month's peace around here, I'd gladly chain myself to the sewing machine!



Organic Ranch Hands

Marie and I haven't been able to buy our own homestead yet (land in Texas is expensive) but we have been able to barter our way into (almost) the same situation.

An organically oriented rancher agreed to let us garden two acres of good bottom land in return for a fourth of what we produced. We next fixed up a small cottage on the property in exchange for two months of rent-free living, and since then have traded off odd jobs on the ranch for additional rent.

We have a sprout business and distribute about 85 pounds of alfalfa and mung bean shoots each week. We trade the sprouts for gallon jars at one restaurant and for bulk grains, nut butters, and fruit at two different natural food stores.

A friend who deals in antiques recently swapped us a push plow with attachments for $23 worth of produce. And the local newspaper gives us free classified advertising in exchange for my weekly column on organic gardening.

Even the local town doctor will barter but, thanks to "organic" living, we hardly ever see him!



Gardens, Wood, and Auto Parts

Our new neighbors have 13 acres of woods next to the all-cleared land that we recently purchased. And it was a pleasant surprise, when I offered them garden space on our property, to discover that gardening is one of the wife's loves (even though—thanks to their heavily wooded land —she hadn't had a garden for three years).

1n return we've received homebaked bread, the use of a ladder to prune my apple trees, storm windows to build my cold frame, and an "instant" friendship which probably would've otherwise taken years to develop.

We've also swapped a wood cookstove for two ponies and two cords of wood for a furnace. A telephone pole left by the utility company is going to a farmer in exchange for some garden tilling. We've traded an electric cooking surface for fence posts, and tomato plants for the use of a sump pump when we developed a swimming pool in the basement!

Barter comes in handy in my business, too. I make two products used by auto mechanics and maintenance people and, by going to the boss or owner of just about any kind of business, I've traded my goods for some way out items: lawyer's and accountant's fees, liability insurance, an electrician's time, moving expenses from a worldwide moving company, a new dishwasher, and work on my car.

If you've got something you can swap, do it now! Barter will bring you enjoyment, prosperity, and personal relationships that cash transactions simply can't provide.



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