Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

From the 50s and 60s to today . . .



Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Been Scammed?

Ever been scammed?
I have.
It's a terrible feeling when you realize what has happened.
But it's nothing new.
Allow me to illustrate:
Gramma and Grampa Berg on their wedding day
My Maternal grandparents emigrated from Sweden.
Grampa came first and started farming/ranching in Idaho.
Gramma followed later and they were married.
A short time afterward, they headed north, enticed by offers of beautiful farm land in Alberta. They settled on a half-section they acquired in the Brooks area.
Soon afterward, they met another couple who had been farming unsuccessfully in the area for some time and were ready for a change.
The man had a scheme.
A sure-fire, can’t-miss scheme.
“Trapping is the answer,” he said knowledgeably  “I’ve done it before. Get yourself a trap line and, in one winter, you can make enough to pay cash for the equipment you will need to farm.”
Grampa was intrigued by the idea.
No stranger to hard work, he was excited by the idea of trading long winter hours for the chance to start his farming operation with such a leg-up. He and Gramma decided they’d do it.
They studied the maps and decided on a tract of land further north of their new home place. A spot near Lac La Biche. They staked out their claim and moved into a small cabin near the train tracks.
Originally, the cabin had been erected for the use of the crew when they were laying said tracks. Their new friends (Remember the guy with the idea? Him.) had used it before.
It was . . . cozy, but it had every amenity. Walls and a roof. And a window and door. It also had a little stone oven that Grampa built. Outside. Gramma would build up a fire, let it burn down, then bake bread by the heat that remained in the stones. Beautiful bread. It was the one perk of living in a tiny cabin at the back of beyond.
Gramma Berg and her bread
For many long winter months, they and their friends/partners lived there and ran the trap line. Gramma’s first son, my uncle Glen, was born there.
They had a measure of success. In fact, by March, they had an abundant supply of furs.
The winter drew to a close. Even in northern Alberta, it does happen . . .
Plans were discussed to take the winter’s catch to the city to trade.
The decision was made that Grampa would stay at the cabin for one more week to take whatever animals he could in those last few days.
His partner would haul their furs to the city to trade.
The partner left.
Grampa caught up with him a week later in the city.
And that’s when things fell apart.
The partner claimed that he had lost their entire catch in the river when his boat swamped.
Their entire catch.
There was nothing Grampa could do.
He loaded up his wife and new son and their few belongings and headed back to his land near Brooks. One wasted, useless winter behind him. And a new farming operation ahead to be started without the leg-up he had counted on.
He did make a success of it and he and Gramma raised eight sons and my mom.
I’m sure the pain of that first set-back was completely overcome in the ensuing years.
That’s what we all count on when the scammers hit.
Sigh.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

'PG' Playgrounds

The small, green roof?
Blacksmith Shop aka Playground
To one side of the barnyard, squatting amid neatly-stacked barrels and other ranch paraphernalia, stood our blacksmith shop.
Constructed of timbers and rough-sawn boards, it consisted of one large room with small windows on two sides and large double doors on the third.
Benches lined the walls, littered with the tools and detritus of thousands of past projects.
In one corner, silently dominating the scene, stood the solid stone forge. I had no idea what it was for. I had never seen it in action, though the mounds of ashes and the soot of countless fires which still marked it, and the old horseshoes and other iron hung about the rafters surrounding it, should have borne mute testimony to its purpose.
I was four.
No explanation needed . . . or understood.
The rest of the room was dotted with more modern behemoth machines. Machines with incomprehensible names like: drill press, belt-sander, and air compressor, and which stood about, mutely awaiting the command to perform.
The blacksmith shop was an icon representing bygone days. A testament to the permanence of man's creativity and ingenuity.
And a great place to play though it was, we were informed, dangerous, and not to be entered unless accompanied by Dad or some other adult..
Case in point - my little brother, Blair, then two, was with my dad, who was using the air compressor. Blair was watching the wheel of the compressor go around. He tried to touch it and nipped the very end off his tiny finger. It healed. The lesson remained.
But I digress . . .
One could crawl around the dirt floor beneath the drill press and find the little curlicues that had been shaved off some piece of metal and use them like little springs.
But carefully. They're sharp.
Or, if one were truly adventurous, one could actually turn on the huge drill, put a plate of metal under the bit, turn the gear, forcing the bit down through the plate . . .
And, voila! Create your own little curlicues!
But a bit of a warning - if Dad turned around while you were thus engaged, heaven help you.
There were also the little bits and shavings of wood strewn about. Those were especially fun for building little corrals - with equally tiny stick horses inside. Quite often, though, that particular brand of play would induce one to head out to the 'actual' corral, to play with the 'actual' horses . . .
Against he fourth side of the shop was a lean-to, or small, doorless shed. It was full of barrels of grease and oil, so necessary to the proper function of the various ranch vehicles and machines.
It also held smaller containers of the same, which were vastly easier to work with, or in my case, to play with.
Little side note here - those small squirt-cans of oil could shoot an amazing distance. Something I especially noticed when my brother, George was there with me. Our accuracy left much to be desired, however, which was probably a good thing.
You should know that oil can play was inevitably brought to a halt when Dad would holler, "You kids stop wasting the oil!"
Sigh.
The larger barrels of grease were every bit as entertaining. One could push down on the handle and a long, skinny 'worm' of grease would be pressed out.
Which one could then play with. Rolling it in the dirt. Squishing it with your fingers . . .
"You kids stop wasting the grease!"
Geeze. That man was everywhere!
Around the back of the shop was another little shed. This one with it's own door. It smelled quite different. More like salt.
And it contained - guess what! - salt. Large blocks of the stuff in blues, reds and whites.
Cattle grazing in the arid pastures of Southern Alberta need salt, and quite a few extra nutrients for continued good health. Thus, in addition to their prime ingredient, the blue salt blocks also contain cobalt. The reds - minerals.
The white blocks are just salt. Boring.
It was great fun to chip a small piece off one of the large blocks and suck on it for a while.
And Dad never got after us for getting into the salt.
I know. Weird.
The blacksmith shop was one of our favorite playgrounds. It was old - one of the oldest buildings on the ranch. Originally built by Colonel A.T. Mackie sometime before 1900, it had survived through countless decades and several owners.
It burned to the ground some years after our family sold the ranch.
Its loss must surely be felt by the kids who live there now.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

We'll Sing As We Go

Dad. He of the wondrous voice.
My Dad loved to sing.
Fortunately, for the rest of us, he had a very nice voice.
And great rhythm.
It's just his timing that needed work.
Let me explain . . .
When one lived as far from civilization as we did, 'going somewhere' inevitably involved . . . well . . . travelling.
For extended periods of time.
I'd like to point out here, that wonderful inventions like DS's, cell phones , IPads and the all-important DVD players existed only in science fiction. Our entertainment consisted of visiting, looking out the window, and books.
Or, in my case, just visiting or looking out the window. Reading in a car, though perhaps my favourite diversion, unavoidably made me carsick.
Ugh.
Whenever we travelled, there was always that stretch of road (I know you've been there), usually somewhere in the middle, where we ran out of conversation and the scenery got boring.
And everyone in the car, driver included, got sleepy.
That's when Dad would start to sing.
At full volume.
He really only had one.
See what I mean about timing . . .?
His family was treated to such classics as, "Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy's Chowder". Or, "My Diane" (my personal favorite), "Two Little Boys" (which always made me cry), "Daisy", or the ever popular, "The Doors Swing In and the Doors Swing Out".
Usually, Mom would also join in.
Suffice it to say that, before us kids could carry on a lucid conversation, we could sing. We didn't always know what we were singing, and our school teachers sometimes questioned the suitability of a song that took place almost entirely within a saloon ("The Doors Swing In . . ." - see above.)
But that's beside the point . . .
We were in tune and definitely had the words right.
Or at least as right as Dad did.
It wasn't until some years later that I realized my Dad used . . . poetic license.
One day, I was singing "Two Little Boys" while I cleaned out a pen in the barn. Unbeknownst (real word!) to me, Dad was leaning on the fence in the far corner, listening.
I got to one line and just did what he had always done. "Da Da Da Da Da Da Dum Dee."
He burst out laughing.
When I spun around and glared at him accusingly, he told me that he'd been waiting for me to get to that line so he could finally hear what the real words were. He had never been able to remember and had just put in 'placer' lyrics.
I had memorized them accordingly.
Scary, isn't it that we pick up what we are taught . . . mistakes and all?
I've wandered from the point.
Again.
Now, whenever I drive along a road that Dad took us down, or even a road that resembles a road that . . .
I remember. Feeling happily sleepy. And that beautiful baritone voice, suddenly belting out the lyrics to some song that probably only Dad remembered.
Or possibly that Dad made up.
But so soothing to us denizens of the back seat.
I think I can hear him still . . .


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Going Home


On our way to the ranch. Five siblings, three nephews and one niece.
During our travels earlier this summer, my Husby, siblings and I took the opportunity of visiting the 'Old Ranch'.
The ranch, nestled in a crook of the south fork of the Milk River that is the basis and background to so many of my memories.
Most of what was there before is gone - lost in a terrible grass fire that swept much of the area three years ago.
The barn, scene of so many adventures has been reduced to a cracked sheet of cement.
The only reminder of the extensive corrals are the slabs that held waterers and feed troughs.
Outbuildings - feed storage, small barns, tool sheds - all have disappeared.
We wandered about - even climbing to the top of the 'old machinery hill' - so named because that's where we parked the old machinery.
Okay, so creative, we weren't.
Someone else's machinery was parked there.
We did find a great old gate - a friend that we had all swung on whenever Dad couldn't see us . . .
We paced around, remembering stories and experiences that were generated by what had once stood there.
Then we walked over to the ranch house. The lone survivor of the conflagration.
And received a true shock. The house is sound. Sturdy.
And in most respects, exactly as it was when I last set foot in it over forty years ago.
The fixtures, walls, ceilings, even the arborite in the bathrooms were the same.
The very same.
When my parents built the house, they had installed fine mahogany panelling in the front room and Dad's office.
Light switches were modern, gold coloured, wedge-shaped marvels.
And the bathroom was equipped with green fixtures. Not the olive green of the seventies, but a mint green of the early sixties.
Progressive.
And still there.
We wandered through, exclaiming over new discoveries in every room.
The words, "Oh, I remember this!" echoed continually.
One could almost picture Mom taking something out of the oven and Dad sitting in his easy chair, boots off, waiting for dinner. Or the family gathered in the front room, eagerly anticipating the Sunday night lineup of TV programs. Or the sound of the milk separator signalling that outside chores had been finished for the day.
Oh, there were some changes. The floor coverings had gone to laminate from carpet and lino and the great mantel and fireplace that had dominated that front room had vanished.
But, after witnessing the devastation in the barn yard, seeing the sameness indoors was a great joy.
And a relief.
Some things still do exist.
Reminders of that childhood from which my siblings and I sprang.
It really happened.

The river today.
Nephew, Josh on the fence that surrounds the house and yard. Needs paint, but still the same.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Paradise

Paradise flowed right around the main Stringam Ranch buildings.
Siblings with cousins.
To the adult residents of the ranch, it was the South Fork of the Milk River.
To us, it was a muddy, murky playground. Our entertainment. Our recreation. Our playmate.
It provided a solid skating surface in the winter and a wonderful swimming pool in summer.
In spring through fall, it was an endless source of educational fun as we hunted snakes and frogs. Tried to trap unwary fish. And generally made life miserable for any denizen so unfortunate as to capture our attention.
I learned to skate there. What is that little dictum that states that the hardest part about learning to skate is the ice?
That would apply to me.
But I digress . . .
I learned to swim there.
And I wish I could swim there, still.
On a hot summer afternoon, my siblings and I would invariably be found in the milky depths of our river.
I can remember exactly how the water looked - billions of grains of fine sand hanging suspended as the rays of sunlight shone through it.
I can remember how it smelled. Wet mud and fresh water and things growing.
And I can remember how it felt. Cool and soft as it slid across one's nearly naked little body.
The current was slow and sluggish, but still strong enough to prove a challenge when swimming against it. In fact, only my eldest brother, Jerry could make any headway. The rest of us tried manfully, or girlfully (is that a word?) to keep up.
We couldn't.
But we did flail with purpose and finally, I was able to at least hold my position.
It was a time of peace. When one's siblings were truly one's best friends. We watched over each other, fishing the smaller siblings out if they got in over their heads and keeping our St. Bernard, Mike from drowning anyone as he tried desperately to save them.
From time to time, the chief lifeguard, Mom, would appear at the top of the cliff beside the house and survey the area, counting heads and noting the general state of her six offspring. Then she would wave and disappear.
And we would go back to whatever she had interrupted.
It was a blissful way to spend the summer.
Sure, there were chores that had to be done. Acres of garden to hoe. Cattle to drive. Calves to brand. Feeding. Milking. Haying. Fencing. Mowing. Harvesting.
But for those few hours every afternoon, we had no duties. No pressures.
Just Chris' radio blaring out whatever was considered the day's top hits. The soft sand. The sunlight on the milky water.
And each other.
We were right.
It was paradise.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Breakfast Forts

Breakfast.
The most – interesting – meal of the day.
Mom believed in beginning the day with a good, hot, hearty meal.
Bacon. Sausage. Eggs. Pancakes. Waffles. Ham. Fruit. Muffins. Fresh bread. Cinnamon buns. French toast.
A breakfast milkshake that included eggs and fruit. And occasionally, chocolate.
She mixed and matched.
And pure deliciousness emerged.
But sometimes, she allowed us kids to graze.
Okay, her version of grazing was to set out a plethora of cold cereal boxes and let us take our pick.
Funny how kids accustomed to ‘home-cooked’ can think ‘store-bought’ is a real treat.
But we did.
We happily selected and poured and sugared and crunched.
Except for big brother George.
He did all of that . . . and built a fort.
His breakfast fort.
And, because he did it, and made it look like fun, I had to do it too.
Did you know it’s possible to sit at the same table with someone and never even catch a glimpse of them?
Well it is.
With a little ingenuity.
And a lot of cereal boxes.
George would set a large cereal box on either side of his bowl. Then add a third to connect the first two.
Voila!
Cereal box fort.
Private and exclusive.
One could eat one’s bowl of awesomeness and never even know that one had breakfast companions.
Well, until Mom came, demolished one’s fort with her genius for quick and effective relocation and a, “Stop doing that, you two. We need to see each other’s bright and smiling faces in the morning!”
To which George would inevitably reply, "My face isn't bright and smiling!"
Yeah. Cereal boxes. They can hide so much.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Guardian Angels

By little brother and fellow cattleman, Blair Stringam.

So many adventures...
If it wasn’t for guardian angels I don’t know if I would have survived my youth . . .
When I was about 18, we had a very nice saddle horse. I had been told that the horse had a tender mouth but I didn’t understand what that meant. I just thought that I could use a bridle that had a straight bar for a bit.
In the spring, Dad and I needed to drive some yearling heifers across the bridge to a pasture on our ranch.
Now said bridge and my family had “history”. For some reason the heifers or bulls on the ranch did not like to cross it.
Also: This is the same bridge off which our herd bull pushed my sister to almost certain doom. Just before she used his tail as a rope to save herself.
Where was I? Oh, right, heifers and bridge.
So Dad and I needed to chase these heifers over the bridge.
Both of us were mounted – me on the tender-mouthed horse.
The heifers, in true ‘cow’ fashion, were trying to explore everywhere but the direction in which we were trying to chase them. I had to maneuver the horse repeatedly to intercept the numerous attempts at escape. This required making the horse perform some tight turns.
I noticed that the horse would spin on a dime. I remember thinking that whoever trained the animal had done a very good job.
Finally, we had the heifers down at the bridge.
We were trying to get them to cross, but they were milling around, looking for any other places to escape to.
Any other places.
I was having to use all of my experience to work the horse and try to keep the heifers moving where I wanted.
At one point I needed to pull back on the reins to get the horse to reverse a few feet.
As I did so, the animal started to rear up on its back legs. I reacted by pulling a little harder on the reins.
Which caused the horse to rear higher and start backing up, as I had wanted, but on its hind legs.
Yikes.
Then it lost its balance and started to fall directly backward.
I was in a very dangerous position. If the horse continued to fall as it was, it would have landed directly on top of me.
The saddle horn would have been planted in my chest and I would have been seriously hurt. Even killed.
I had heard many stories where riders had been killed in this same situation.
However, lucky (or unlucky) for me, the horse turned at the last second and fell on its side. My leg and foot were smashed and I experienced pain like I’ve never felt before. I believe I expressed said pain by uttering a nasty word or two.
(I might have even said darn it!)
The horse rolled back onto its feet and went running to the comparative safety of the barn. I remained on the ground for a few minutes.
At that point we gave up the bridge idea and I drug myself to the pickup truck and Dad and I took the heifers to their destination the long (ie. safe) way.
Dad on horseback and me in the truck.
I have thought many times since about that incident and why the horse may have turned at the last second and landed on its side.
I like to think that my guardian angel may have had something to do with it. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Water for Chocolate

How do you get your motor running?
I had slept in. Again.
It was summer. I was seven. It was acceptable.
Everyone else was working outside.
Well, except for mom who was busy with my little brother and baby sister.
Somewhere else.
I had the kitchen to myself.
My day had come. I could get my own breakfast!
I got down the bran flakes and poured a generous helping into my bowl. I grabbed the sugar, the Nestle Quick and a spoon and assembled them next to my cereal, together with the tallest glass I could find.
Then I went to the fridge for the all-important ingredient to tie the whole meal together. That white miracle heavily flecked with cream that, when poured over cereal or mixed with chocolate powder, produced gustatory bliss.
Fresh milk.
The door opened.
I know I must have let out a solid gasp. Because there, on the shelf that normally held the big, frosty-cold jug was . . . nothing.
Nothing?
How could that be?
Never had there been nothing!
Had Old Bossy passed on to greener pastures?
Had all of the cow milk-ers passed on with her?
I closed the door, then whipped it open again.
Still gone.
I tried a few more times, but with the same result.
My life was over!
I looked at the bowl and glass sitting together on the cupboard.
At the box of Nestle Quick beside them.
Then I looked at the tap.
The tap that was always full of fresh, healthy, sulphur water.
Hmm . . . could work.
I grabbed my glass and filled it nearly full of water. Then I carried it carefully back to my place and set it down.
So far so good.
Prying the lid off the chocolate powder, I scooped out a heaping spoonful and tipped it into the glass of water.
Then I mixed happily and put my spoon down.
My taste buds gleefully anticipating the first chocolatey contact, I took a sip.
I probably don’t need to tell you that my little experiment didn’t . . . work out. That the liquid refreshment I had hoped to create wasn’t refreshing.
Or even palatable.
Even after the addition of several more spoonfuls of chocolatey deliciousness.
Yes. My first attempt at culinary creativity didn’t get a passing grade.
Unfortunately, it didn’t stop me.
P.S. Sulphur water on cereal. Also horrifying. Even with extra sugar. Just FYI.

And a little bonus today:
A picture of Husby, camping in the rain. Any resemblance to any garden figurines you may know is entirely unintentional.
Maybe . . .

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Home Again

I'm home!
And what a month!
Funerals. Travel. Dodging forest fires.
Collecting fruit.
Camping with wonderful friends and family.
Visiting.
Publishing yet another book.
But I've missed all of you!
Missed our daily visits.
Missed your insights and experiences.
I've realized that you make me a better writer.
And person.
Thank you!
Tomorrow, I will begin posting again.
But for now, know that you are always in my thoughts.

And because I simply can't resist, a little story:

Husby is known for his hoard of treats. Maybe I should capitalize the word 'Hoard'. Because that would be more accurate.
Some time ago, when our chicks and chicklets were visiting, Grandpa brought out something he hadn't produced for a while. Dino-sours.
And no, that isn't a typo . . .
They proved to be a great favourite. Again.
Littlest man (LM) was quite captivated and proved the he could shove quite a number in his mouth before he was caught and emptied by his mother.
He hovered around that bowl of gummy, sweet and sour deliciousness until it was well and truly empty.
Then they went home.
A few days later, that little family was shopping at Costco.
(Our favourite place on earth.)
While walking slowly  up the fairly extensive candy aisle, a display of those delicious dinosaur treats appeared.
LM toddled over and pointed excitedly. "Grampa!" he said clearly.
How would you like to be remembered?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Happy Birthday, My Canada!

First, a little background: Canada Day is the national day of Canada, a federal statutory holiday celebrating the anniversary of the July 1, 1867, enactment of the British North America Act, 1867 (today called the Constitution Act, 1867), which united three colonies into a single country called Canada within the British Empire. Originally called Dominion Day , the holiday was renamed in 1982, the year the Canada Act was passed. Canada Day observances take place throughout Canada as well as among Canadians internationally.
Now, on with my story . . .

Saturday, July 1, 1967.
My Grade seven teacher had been harping on endlessly about this important date.
Something about it being Canada’s Centennial.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Canada.
And had celebrated her July 1 birthday with great enthusiasm for each of my 12 years.
I just didn’t see what made this particular birthday so important. Centennial? What did that mean?
Okay, maybe I was just a bit stuck inside my own world . . .
But I was more than willing to go to choir practice to perfect our renditions of ‘Oh Canada!’ and ‘God Save the Queen’.
And excitedly discuss the day’s planned activities with my friends.
And anticipate a holiday.
The day dawned, clear and bright.
And my family wandered over to the newly-erected ‘cairn’ down by the Milk River.
Flags were flying. Eight of them, to denote the eight flags under which our town had lived.
And grinning, happy people were beginning to gather.
Lots of people.
I excitedly greeted my friends as they arrived.
Finally came the time for us to assemble on some risers set up near the cairn.
There was clapping and excitement.
We sang. 
To further applause.
And not a few tears.
And then, the speeches.
And, suddenly, I realized what it was that everyone was emotional about.
My country, this country that I loved, was 100 years old.
100.
Wow.
That was significant.
And I was a part of it.
It was 48 years ago.
Today, my country is 148 years old.
Happy Birthday, my beloved Canada!

To my beloved readers and blog-followers and friends: I will be away from the computer for the next two weeks. Heading to the wilds of Canada for a much-needed break. I will desperately miss you, but will be back soon! I love you all!

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