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Personal Property Tax Once Onerous on the Hill

by Carl Vest

In order to scrape out a living the early farmers on South Hill had to survive not only the natural elements of a hostile environment but also had to do well enough to pay a variety of taxes.  There was, of course, a tax on each real estate holding.  Such levies are still with us so we all know about them.  But during the 1920s and 1930s, when South Hill was mostly populated by small farmers there was an additional cost that we don’t hear much about today --- it was called the Personal Property Tax.  While that duty is still on the books, most residents of South Hill are exempt from it.

In 1930 the personal property tax form listed 48 line items, the last one being a catch-all  -- “all other items of personal property.”  Each taxpayer was expected to declare all personal property.  Automobiles headed the list, followed by other lines enumerating household items such as sewing machines, radios and furniture (e.g., clocks, rugs, gold and silver plate, paintings, etc.).  A typical South Hill farmer, Gabe Gabrielson, who owned a 40-acre farm in Section 21 in 1930 declared, for example, that he owned a 1925 Chevrolet valued at $75.  In 1931 he still had the car but lowered its worth to $35.  Mr. Gabrielson also declared his household furnishing had a value of $50 --- it was increased to $75 in 1931.  He apparently didn’t own any books, scientific instruments, watches, jewelry, or firearms, as these items were left blank on his declaration. 

Farmers were expected to list all their livestock.  There were specifications for horses (under various categories), mules and cows, bulls kept for breeding purposes, sheep, goats, hogs, and poultry.  In 1930 Mr. Gabrielson declared that he owned two work horses valued at $100, one stock cow assessed at $20, and two milk cows estimated at $100.  It is interesting to note that on line 26, on both the 1930 and 1931 forms, milk cows were spelled “Milch Cows,” apparently catering to the German speaking population of South Hill.  By 1933 this item had been shortened to just “Cows.”

Agricultural implements were taxed.  Wagons, sleighs, carriages, threshing machines, farm machinery and harnesses were listed.  Mr. Gabrielson, the typical small South Hill farmer, declared his devices to have a value of $50.  The value of stored hay, grain, and other farm products was included on the list.  Records show, however, that very little tax was collected from this classification.

What did the Personal Property Tax add to the tax bill of a typical South Hill farmer?  During the period around the 1930s Mr. Gabrielson paid, on average, $9.96 per year in personal property taxes.  During the same years, the average real estate tax on his 40-acre farm was $27.82.  This shows that the personal property taxes amounted to 36% of his real estate levy.  It was a significant part of his total tax liability and at a level we would really cry about if imposed today.

Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.