The Myth of the Five Dollar Lawn

The myth of the five dollar lawn, the Countess, and Vaughn J. Featherstone’s Aldin Porter story.

When I was in Young Men’s, they read us the story of the five dollar lawn. Every time I’d mow the lawn, the story would haunt me. I hated the story with a passion. As an economist, I had so many issues with it, it’s hard to list them all.

Ever since I discovered the church wasn’t true, I’ve wanted to debunk this story, and I finally found it today (The story begins about 30 paragraphs from the bottom.).

Now the story, according to Vaughn, was originally related by Aldin Porter.

Aldin Porter

Aldin Porter was born in Salt Lake, but raised in Idaho Falls, Idaho. According to the story, his teenage days were in some Utah town of no name. In this town there lived a “Countess.”  She had a giant house, with house staff, and it was close enough she could identify Aldin Porter’s house as a “green house with the willow trees in the next block.”  This happened “one day when I was about thirteen.”

Aldin Porter was born in June 30, 1931. That means this story should have occurred in 1944.  We’re going to give him credit that he was probably mowing lawns in summer time after his birthday, which would put World War II in swing.  The Normandy landing would have happened a few weeks before his 13th birthday.

“When the Countess gave an order, it was carried out.”

The next section reads.  Clearly this was a figure of some import.  I wonder why I can’t find any instances of a countess in Utah…

He then works for a full day for ‘I don’t know. Fifty cents, maybe.’ –  about $6.39 in today’s currency.  She pays him an extra $1.50, totaling about $2.00 which is worth about $25 in today’s currency.  Decent pay for a lawn job.

The story continues:

There are as many ways of mowing a lawn as there are people, and they may be worth anywhere from a penny to five dollars. Let’s say that a three-dollar job would be just what you have done today, except that you’d have to be something of a fool to spend that much time on a lawn.

This is a fascinating evaluation of individuals. The idea that any person is only worth a penny, and that the boy she is having work for her is about $3.00. She also instantly includes the time-value of money, that one can spend foolish amounts of time on a lawn.

A five-dollar lawn is—well, it’s impossible, so we’ll forget about that. Now then, each week I’m going to pay you according to your own evaluation of your work.

What fascinates me here is that she first Shanghai’s him into the job, and then tells him she’ll determine what he’ll be paid. I have to wonder if the boy’s parents knew even where he was and what he was doing. As a father, I’m usually there to help broker and negotiate payment of services for my kids, but here, the discussion of money and time effort is completely devoid of parental oversight.

He then goes on to do increasingly better lawn jobs each week, wearing himself out at the $3.00 level.

‘You look like a good consistent $3.50 man,’ she would say as she handed me the money…‘Well, don’t feel too bad,’ she would comfort me. ‘After all, there are only a handful of people in the world who could do a four-dollar job.’

She sounds like a manipulative, controlling, piece of aristocracy to me by this point. This is a thirteen-year-old, who is on summer vacation and is earning side cash. I guess she was hoping for a professional gardener at teenage prices.

 but I knew that a five-dollar lawn demanded that I line up each edge exactly with a yard stick and then trim it precisely with the edger.

This is the bit that stuck with me. For that extra $1 ($6 in today’s currency) he was going to hold a yard stick to every corner of the lawn? Seriously? And trim it all to precision? He was already cutting the lawn with SHEARS for crying out loud.

He then accomplishes the “impossible” five dollar job.

‘I think I know,’ she continued, ‘how you felt when this idea first came to you of caring for a lawn that I told you was impossible. It made you very happy when it first came, then a little frightened. Am I right?’

And the lady then instantly reveals that she was manipulating him all along. He’s lucky she didn’t invite him into a van for a piece of candy.

‘I know how you felt, because the same thing happens to almost everyone. They feel this sudden burst in them of wanting to do some great thing. They feel a wonderful happiness, but then it passes because they have said, “No, I can’t do that. It’s impossible.” Whenever something in you says, “It’s impossible,” remember to take a careful look and see if it isn’t really God asking you to grow an inch, or a foot, or a mile, that you may come to a fuller life.’ …

Ah… right.  And now we get it, right. She thinks of herself as God pushing the boy to do something impossible. Pushing him beyond that first round of tiredness and the idea of doing a lawn.

Now let’s see that source: Richard Thurman, “The Countess and the Impossible,”Reader’s Digest, June, 1958.

Wait, what?  Reader’s Digest?

That’s right. This story didn’t happen in 1944, and it didn’t happen to Elder Featherstone, nor to Aldin Porter. It didn’t happen to ANY General Authority. Richard Turner wrote an essay in 1958 to Reader’s Digest about a boy in Utah doing lawn care. I have found no records of a “Countess” in any small city in Utah. I can’t find who this Richard Turner is and, as one might know, a story does not have to be true to be submitted to Reader’s Digest.

No, the story, by all indications, is a fabrication. A lie. A fable to teach a purpose. But you see, the Ensign article cites Richard Turner’s Reader’s Digest as the ultimate source, but Mr. Featherstone… in Conference, he quoted it as being from “Aldin Porter,” effectively crediting it as a story that happened in Utah, as an actual story that happened to a General Authority, to all who were listening that day.

It’s plagiarism not to cite the original source, and to co-opt a fictional story written by someone in the world and transform it to push people to accomplish the impossible because “god can make them do so…” well, it borders on straight out lying.

It’s like using Pinnochio as a science manual to illustrate that Harry Potter transmogrifications (boys into donkeys) is possible.

Even worse, it’s published in the Young Men’s manual. At least it does cite Reader’s Digest in the online manual, but I was taught, as a boy, that it was a General Authority it happened to. I don’t know if my teacher was lazy and skipped the actual citation, or whether they quoted Brother Featherstone in the original manual.

Regardless, fictional “feel good” stories that can cause guilt for ages in young men, encouraging them in setting up impossible life goals, should be frowned upon by adults everywhere– particularly if one co-opts the nice story and makes it sound like it’s from God.

This entry was posted in GA Bullsh*t. Bookmark the permalink. Last edited by EmmaHS on May 17, 2013 at 3:55 am

24 Responses to The Myth of the Five Dollar Lawn

  1. Cara says:

    I have a feeling I read a variation of this story in a David Sedaris book.

  2. Mike says:

    I would like to point out that Vaughn J. Featherstone never said it was a story ABOUT Aldin Porter but that simply he is “…indebted to a good friend of [his], Aldin Porter, for a story…”. From this we can assume many things, and although being anti-mormon you would like to try and twist the truth to your advantage, the most reasonable assumption is that Aldin Porter was probably the one that pointed the story out.

    The reason this assumption is best is because the story was actually found to be written in 1958 by a Richard Thurman. (“The Countess and the Impossible,” Reader’s Digest, June 1958, pp. 107–10).

    Nice try though! Your analysis was wonderful, just off the mark by a long way.

    • Mithryn says:

      >I would like to point out that Vaughn J. Featherstone never said it was a story ABOUT Aldin Porter but that simply he is “…indebted to a good friend of [his], Aldin Porter, for a story…”.

      Absolutely. However my mission president didn’t catch this. Nor did anyone of my youth leaders. And if I hadn’t pointed it out, I doubt you would have either. It was taught to me as Doctrine.

      > being anti-mormon you would like to try and twist the truth to your advantage,

      Hey pot, this is the kettle, you’re kinda black here. Him being an apostle, he kinda tried to twist the story to his advantage, teaching a made up story from the pulpit. That’s a lot more twist than I put on it. But being a pro-mormon like yourself, you’ll try to twist anything to make the profit look good.

      >he reason this assumption is best is because the story was actually found to be written in 1958 by a Richard Thurman. (“The Countess and the Impossible,” Reader’s Digest, June 1958, pp. 107–10).

      Which I cite. I don’t think you actually read my analysis (Typical) because I cite it, and even suggest that Vaughn may have just read the story while at Aldin’s house. But Vaughn doesn’t cite the Reader’s Digest, he cites Aldin. I wonder why he doesn’t give credit where it belongs?

  3. Rick says:

    Mike was 100% correct. First, Vaughn J. Featherstone started the story with the words: “I am indebted to a good friend of mine, Aldin Porter, for a story and I would like to share it with you.” Note that he claims he received the story from Aldin Porter and not that is about either Featherstone or Porter. Also note the he uses the term “story” and does not claim it is a factual account.

    Second, the original published conference talk (Ensign, January 1974) contains the reference at the end of the story as “(Richard Thurman, “The Countess and the Impossible,” Reader’s Digest, June, 1958.)” This properly gives reference for the story and it was not plagiarized. There was clearly no intent by the church to deceive or they would not have included the Reader’s Digest reference.

    Finally, there was the inference that Featherstone was trying to indicate that the story was about a “real Mormon” by doctoring the story to take place in Utah. The original 1958 Reader’s Digest story (as quoted in several non-Mormon websites) begins with the phrase: “No one in our Utah town knew where the Countess had come from…”

    The LDS Church has used the story in lesson manuals and references it as a “short story,” not as a true life account of Featherstone or Porter. Larry Miller, in his book “Driven” discusses the impact this “short story” had on his life. I would agree with Mike that this criticism is another example of an anti-Mormon bending the truth in a ridiculous fashion in an attempt to throw mud on the LDS Church.

    • Mithryn says:

      I point out all of your points in my discussion. Yes, it is credited in the original at the bottom, but not in the lesson manuals (Which you pointed out) that I was taught from.

      Again, my leaders were deceived, and hence deceived me, in believing this to be a true story.

      “Anti-mormon bending” – Put that next to earth bending and air bending, I guess. Look, you don’t see what he did as “bending” at all, but you see what I did as “anti-mormon bending”. Can you try to be equal at least and call it “pro-mormon bending” where he took a reader’s digest story and told it over the pulpit without verbal citation of source at the time it was taught (only after the correlation committee “helped” him by adding the citation in the ensign was it correctly attributed). No?

      Hmm, yes clearly the world is full of anti-mormon bias out to get you and you have the perfectly biased free view here.

  4. Ron Lundstrom says:

    If you want to find the countess, try searching the Federal Heights neighborhood in Salt Lake. According to the story, Richard Thurman was about age 38 in 1958, and putting 1930 census data with his father’s death certificate indicates he lived there at age 13. I don’t know Richard and I have no idea if the story is factual, but after an hour on the internet I suspect this Richard is the one who wrote the article. He is still alive at age 92 in Salt Lake- you should give him a call and ask him if the story is true.

    • Mithryn says:

      I have searched, but found nothing about a “countess” anywhere. I have not contacted Richard Thruman myself. I may need to do so.

  5. William Brackeen says:

    I have been seeking this story for more than 20 years. Today, I found it again. I am now 44. I am not sure where I originally read it, but it left a lasting impression on me and helped me realize the value of hard work and perseverance as well as the value of following through until the completion of a task.

    • Mithryn says:

      That’s nice. It’s a decent story without the “God expects this of you” context that results from the GA’s saying it over the pulpit, and it being retaught as though it came from God.

  6. Dan Taylor says:

    I have loved this story for many years. It never made me feel guilty – guilty for what? It pointed out to me that there will be times in your life when you can accomplish “the impossible” – and that has served me well. More than once I have been able to dig deeper to accomplish the Five Dollar Job.

    p.s. – Neither Elder Featherstone nor Elder Porter were apostles. Using the term loosely lends a false sense of heirarchical dishonesty to an uninformed reader/listener. Attributing the story to an Apostle lends more weight to the criticism, and is sloppy “scholarship”, about the same as the “plagiarism” which is so condemned here.

    • Mithryn says:

      >Neither Elder Featherstone nor Elder Porter were apostles.

      I do not call them such. They were both General Authorities, that is why it is listed under GA Bullsh*t. But a quick “find on this page” will set your mind at ease that my scholarship still surpasses the billion dollar organizations.

      >I have loved this story for many years. It never made me feel guilty – guilty for what?

      That’s fine for you. However, making use of such a story of accomplishing the impossible without proper citation and then pushing the “impossible” as though it were expected on youth is not cool. I hope you can recognize the difference between “inspiring” and “demanding”.

  7. bfwebster says:

    Got here because I was looking up info about this story.

    I, too, hear this in Young Men’s. But that was nearly 50 years ago (late 60s), and it was very clear at the time that it was a story out of Reader’s Digest. So your interpretation that either Featherstone or Porter claimed the story was personal (or even true) is your own projection and is very after-the-fact.

    • Mithryn says:

      Hmmm I know I was taught it as though it happened to a GA. I see the recordings and the quotes and the citations are at the bottom in footnotes. Vaughn is never quoted as citing a source.

      Are you sure you are not experiencing the “Knew it all along phenomenum”?

      Do you have any evidence beyond personal testimony to support your claim.

      If so, an apology will appear in place of this article. If not, your complaint is noted.

  8. Andy Hale says:

    I read this story when I was in high school in the late 1950’s. I still remember it and the story that it related to me. I have been a Boy Scout leader for over fifty years and often I have related the story to my Scouts. The fact that it is or is not a true story is not really the point. Like many stories, it teaches one of the very specific valuable truth that are part of our tribal knowledge; specifically, we often do not reach our full potential because we limit our achievements because we set our sights lower than we are capable of reaching. I also recite to them “In the Arena” by Teddy Roosevelt. Fables are not true, but they teach ideals that we consider to be important.

    • Mithryn says:

      Fables have their place, no doubt. But they should be labelled as such.

      When taught from the pulpit by men who claim to have god’s direct word fables can be misconstrued.

      Can you understand the dangers of teaching fables as truth?

      Do you see the danger of religious authorities mixing fable and fact?

  9. Ignatz says:

    I read this story in the 1970s in my Junior High School literature textbook. It assignment questions at the end were illustrated with photos of Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute mile and Edmund Hillary on Mt. Everest. It really annoyed me, but I found it somehow compelling – I read it several times. I was glad to find it again, but I had no idea it had any connection to the Mormons.

    You’re right – the countess is obviously supposed to be a “good” character, and she’s horrid. I think that’s why I hated the story so much. Reading it again, I noticed that the Countess apparently refused all visitors, and would often smack kids with her cane. Some piece of work.

  10. Kory Godfrey says:

    First of all, thank you for providing a place where people can discuss this story. It seems to have had an effect on many of its readers/hearers including myself.

    As I’ve reread the story and all of the comments on this page, I have a couple of questions and comments that have come to mind that I’d like to add to the discussion.

    1) I’m still curious to know more about the Countess — Who was she? What was her real name? What more is there to know about her back story? In lieu of meeting her in this life, I’d like to learn at least a little more about her.

    2) Who is Richard Thurman? I’d like to meet him to try to learn a little more about him and about this experience directly from him.

    3) Like any issue that brings controversy, it seems to me that “it’s an awfully thin pancake that only has one side” or in other words there seems to be at least two ways of looking at any experience, story, fable, etc. It seems to me that the interpretations tell us more about the person doing the interpreting than the experience, story, fable, etc. itself. I know I (and most of us) often render judgement on just about anything or anyone without taking the time to hear or understand more of the story and then we spend the bulk of our energy trying to justify or convince ourselves and others that our judgements from incomplete information are the “right answer”. I know I’m just as guilty of this as the next person, but I’m trying to become more aware of it in myself.

    4) For those who have had concerns with or a hard time with this story or how it was presented or interpreted by others, what has helped you become a better person in a more healthy way? I’m a teacher and have considered using this story to help teach principles of motivation, goal setting, and quality management for projects. Any advice on how to help both me and my students get better with this?

    5) For those that have been inspired by this story, how have you used it as a building block? What has it helped you to do that you would not have considered or put as much energy into?

    Again, thanks for putting this up in a place where it could inspire further discussion. It’s really given my day some inspiration and purpose!

    • Mithryn says:

      >I’m still curious to know more about the Countess

      As was I. I can find no such person or I would have included more

      > Who is Richard Thurman

      Here is the other article he submitted to the Reader’s Digest. I know nothing more:

      http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1957/05/25/not-another-word

      4) For those who have had concerns with or a hard time with this story or how it was presented or interpreted by others, what has helped you become a better person in a more healthy way?

      I think, for me, simply removing the “Diety-aspect” to the story and seeing it for the fable it was. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be excellent at one’s work, and I’ve tried to hone my analytics and data-reading abilities to be the $5-lawn level. But I’ve still left shitty employers and wouldn’t continue working for the countess.

      But you have to understand, within the Mormon context, this story was moved from “Good fable” to “God has inspired this story as truth”. And that is the harmful aspect I’m approaching.

      > it seems to me that “it’s an awfully thin pancake that only has one side”

      I love the expression. I suspect this story is a fable and thus has only one side. It’s a moral lesson created whole cloth so there is no reason to believe that the Countess had a different perspective. I’d love to find the actual people if a true story, but I’ve found nothing.

      > For those that have been inspired by this story, how have you used it as a building block? What has it helped you to do that you would not have considered or put as much energy into?

      See my previous comment… I think I give that quality; it’s mostly about removing the “Divine-lawn” aspects.

  11. roger helder says:

    What fun, stumbling across this gem of the 1950’s. As those above have pointed-out, it encapsulates much of that era, good and bad.

    I remember my mom recommending this Reader’s Digest story to me when I was eleven or twelve. We were a Christian Reformed family [not so different from Mormons I have known] and, being an avid reader, followed mom’s suggestion. As cutting lawns was the source of my allowance, it is not surprising that the story struck me as particularly apt, reinforcing many of the values in my close-knit church community.

    But the story stuck with me, a parable to guide me in the world of work. [I use the “parable” advisedly. Those familiar with the New Testament are aware that a majority of the parables ascribed to Jesus use the workplace as the canvas upon which the teaching is applied.] At odd times in my life the story, or the story as I remembered it, came back to me. It was often easy to cast greedy employers as The Countess. It took me longer to understand the profound joy in achieving an excellent piece of work that I knew to be my best.

    I am now retired from a life of practicing law and teaching high school. I have evolved far from that Reader’s Digest/ Christian Reformed world. Yet it is most pleasant to suddenly come across one of the fables that salted my character as a youth and intermittently inspired me at odd moments in my life. It is very much like meeting an old friend I have not seen in 57 years.

  12. Dan says:

    I think this author totally missed the point of the story. To see only the “bad” in a story that has inspired many I guess is a reflection of his character. It has been well said that the wisdom of their wise men shall perish and also that when they are learned they think they are wise.

    • Mithryn says:

      Damn, man; straight up ad-hominum attacking me, personally while contributing nothing to the conversation yourself. I’m sure that makes you think you are wise.

      My character is doing fine, thank you. He’s a level twelve Paladin with a talking sword who hunts dragons. I have no idea why my understanding of a five dollar lawn would reflect on my Character.

  13. Steve B. says:

    I first read this story 58 years ago in my grandmother’s Reader’s Digest. It impacted me, although I never considered it as anything other than a ‘story’. Over time, I forgot where I’d seen it but not the message. But its impact on my life still remains: anything to which we set our hand deserves to be done well, and ‘well’ comes in gradients. It changed my view of the world and work. In high school, it made me the second-best bag boy in history. My ‘bagging mentor’ was the best, with 20 years of experience. I could’ve gotten there but college got in my way. Later, as a 22 year old post-college adventurer, I made my way to San Diego, 2000 miles from my hometown, only to have my $300 Olds 88 break down in the office parking lot of my first job. No money, no car. What to do? The impossible. Without an ounce of mechanical or engineering experience, I checked out a Chilton’s Auto Manual and borrowed tools from a neighbor. I followed the instructions, dismantling the engine (based on the noises I heard just before the breakdown, I was told to take the heads and valves to be ‘reground’). Like an experienced cook, I followed the ‘recipe’ precisely, laying the parts out in the trunk in order of their removal. Days later, I put it all back together, filled it with oil and fluids, primed it, and began turning the engine over. It caught! I highlight of my young life and permanent confirmation that the impossible is, indeed, achievable. I’m sorry it was force fed to you as a ‘lesson’ rather than having been a ‘discovery’ as it was for me. It appears to have colored your view in unfortunate ways.

  14. Ron Lundstrom says:

    I posted back in 2014 how to contact Richard Thurman. It turns out he died just over a month ago. His obituary is here:

    http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/saltlaketribune/obituary.aspx?page=lifestory&pid=186535822

    From his obituary, apparently the countess story was his best work and lead to an award:

    “Richard became an O. Henry Award winning author whose story, “The Countess and the Impossible,” has been anthologized countless times and utilized by individuals, church groups, and therapists as a guide to pushing one’s self beyond boundaries to try to achieve “impossible” goals. The story brought letters of thanks to Richard from around the world, arriving as recently as 2017 over sixty years after its initial publication.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *