If you’re obsessed with cats, you might not find what follows very funny – but I thought it was pretty amusing, and I’ve been owned by cats before. It has to do with a very efficient business plan offered periodically to folks around the country, including the readers of several North Country newspapers. Entrepreneurs sought financing for a slam-dunk proposal, the 1918 version of which targeted northern New York investors for a company based in Ontario.
The plan was to establish a Cat Ranch to supply furs for market. Clothing made from cat pelts?! Decidedly insensitive in modern times, but not so unusual when a single advertisement of the day in the Ogdensburg Republican-Journal offered coats using skins from beaver, seal, raccoon, muskrat, opossum, marmot (woodchuck), caracul (sheep), viscasha (chinchilla), fox, mink, skunk, panther, calf, and gray squirrel.
More readily available than any animal listed were cats. Using simple mathematics, the entrepreneurs detailed the business plan: “To start with, we will have about one million cats. Each cat will average twelve kittens a year. The skins run from ten cents each for the white ones to seventy-five cents for the pure blacks. This will give us twelve million skins a year to sell at the average of 30 cents apiece, making our revenue about $10,000 a day gross.
“A man can skin fifty cats a day, at two dollars, and as it will take 100 men to operate the ranch, therefore, the net profit will be about nine thousand eight hundred dollars a day.”
Already you’re thinking, “Net profit? Don’t you have to feed 12 million cats?” Questions like that are what separate amateurs from innovative thinkers capable of creative solutions. The plan was to start a Rat Ranch next door.
“We will feed the cats on rats. The rats multiply four times as fast as the cats. If we start with one million rats, we will have, therefore, four per day for each cat.”
Again, your amateurish question is how to feed the rats. It’s just too obvious, but if you haven’t figured it out yet: “The rats will feed on the carcasses of the dead cats that have been skinned, giving each rat one-fourth of a cat to eat per day.”
The final pitch took the form of a summary: “The business will be self-supporting and automatic all the way through. The cats will eat the rats, and the rats will eat the cats, and we get the skins. Awaiting your prompt reply, and trusting that you will appreciate this opportunity to get rich very quickly.”
A failed scam won’t be repeated, but this one made the rounds in northern New York at least five times in a span of twenty-three years. If today’s “phone call from a grandchild or friend in immediate need of funds” still works after all the publicity it has received, it’s not so surprising that the Cat Ranch scheme was tried repeatedly.
But not everyone was taken in. The offer appeared as a letter of proposal in several newspapers, some of which tossed in a sarcastic addendum: “P.S. – Eventually we will cross the cats with snakes, and they will skin themselves once a week, thus saving the cost of the men’s wages for skinning them.”
Safe to say – those taking the plunge didn’t land on their feet.