Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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



Friday, June 10, 2011

Lady and Other Horses I Have Known


My littlest sibling, Anita (she's so cute!)
With another of our horses, King Prancer . . . and a friend


Age or inexperience were no barriers when it was time for roundup on the Stringam ranch.
The newest Stringam was merely perched up on Lady and told to "Hang on!"
A little background . . .
Lady was a tall, black mare of indeterminate years, who knew more than most of the humans in the vicinity. She would be put on tail (the position in the . . . er . . . rear . . . of the herd.) and could keep the entire herd going.
With or without human guidance.
So it just made sense to put the most inexperienced rider with the wisest teacher.
All one had to do was be ready for any sudden shifts and turns.
If a cow suddenly took it into her head to take off for . . . elsewhere, Lady was on them in a heartbeat. Less, if your heartbeat is slow.
Over the years, we had a few mishaps. Lady would suddenly spot a member of the criminal element sneaking away and she would charge, heedless of whomever was, more or less, sitting in her saddle. Many times, if her rider was particularly inattentive, she turned right out from under. Her hapless human would suddenly discover just what it was like to hang, suspended, in the air.
For a moment.
Then he, or she, would end up finding out just how hard the prairie can be. Usually on their backs. Staring up at the sky, and completely devoid of breath.
Lady would complete her transaction and return peacefully to the scene of the crime. She would nose her rider gently and look down at them with soft, 'Now what are you doing down there?' eyes.
She was too sweet and too gentle to really make any of us angry, regardless of how long it took to regain our breath. Plus she was a darn good worker.
The funny thing is, we never tried bringing her out without a rider. As I look back, that would have been a logical experiment. (And certainly one that my brother George, he of the strange aversion to horses, would have loved to try.)
But the fact of the matter was that there were simply too many Stringams clamoring for a chance to help with roundup.
To send out an empty horse would have been criminal, however entertaining the rest of us might find it.
Lady was definitely one of a kind.
Oh we had other horses. Lots of other horses.
Slim. Tall and rangy, and with a terrible loathing for men. But a sweetheart when ridden by a woman or child. Coco. Another gentle mare, quiet, unassuming, but lazy. Far happier with her nose in a manger than breathing the soft prairie winds. Steamboat. An enormous and unholy mix of thoroughbred and percheron. He could cover the ground quickly and efficiently, but with a gate that could rattle the fillings out of anyone's teeth. The ponies, Pinto, Star and Shammy, who would submit to anything their young riders could inflict, except leaving the ranch buildings. Luke. Nipper. Topper. Eagle. Peanuts. Gypsy. The list goes on and on.
These, and others like them were our partners and friends during the long hours that define ranching.
Each had their own distinct personality. Likes and dislikes.
And all were graded according to ability, size, and disposition.
As us kids grew, we were graduated from one to the next.
But we all started with the same mount.
To say that we could ride before we could walk was, literally, true. We had Lady. She of the very, very apt name.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

My Summer of '64

The summer I turned nine was supposed to be the most exciting of my life. And it was.
For all of the wrong reasons.

First, the bridge.
Just a few yards down the road from our ranch gates, across the south fork of the Milk River, stood an aged iron bridge, painted black.
It had great metal arches over it and many intricate bends and joints that invited exploration and/or concealment. On a hot summer afternoon, one could climb under the bridge, swing on the rope which dangled temptingly and drop down into the cool water below.
We kids on the ranch thought it was our playground.
Very early in the spring of 1964, great machines and earth-movers began to assemble next to our beloved bridge.
And a large crew of men accompanied them.
For days, we watched from what dad deemed a 'safe distance'. (Actually, to him, a safe distance was the top of the machinery hill, but who could see anything from there? And who was listening?)
Of course, if I'd realized then that this crew was actually there to replace our great and marvelous playground, I probably wouldn't have been quite so enthusiastic.
As it was, this was almost more excitement than my nine-year-old self could handle.
Life just didn't get any better.
They toiled away on it for several months.

Then, the movie crew.
Dad announced that he had some really exciting news.
A movie crew was coming to the ranch to film.
Movie crew?
Suddenly everyone began to act strangely.
The hired men actually polished their boots. And availed themselves of the showers and laundry services.
My older sister spent hours in front of the mirror, trying new 'looks' and fashions.
My brothers practiced lines from westerns.
Mom, ever practical, began bringing in truckloads of food.
I got in everyone's way. Okay, this was normal, but I didn't want you to think I wasn't proactive. The ranch was suddenly antiseptically clean. (Well, not quite, but you get the picture . . .)
The expected day grew closer. And closer.
I stopped sleeping. Well, actually, Mom stopped sleeping, but I did feel sorry for her.
The anticipation was palpable.
The day arrived. The movie crew didn't.

Rising water

And finally . . .
But everyone's stretched nerves and feelings of anticipation were not wasted. The movie crew might not have shown up.
But the flood did.
Oh, Dad had been keeping an eye on our river as it . . . grew.
Finally, it became clear that our quiet little trickle had officially turned into . . . something much bigger. Something huge and brown and scary that threatened everything in its path.
Including us.
And several of the bridge-building machines that had been sitting placidly in the shallow river beneath the bridge, but I didn't think about them.
My motto has always been 'panic first, think afterwards'. And it has served me well.
Banished to the balcony overlooking our back yard, I alternately cried or moaned as Dad, my two brothers and assorted hired men struggled with shovels and mud.
The normally milky, now chocolate-brown river crept nearer and nearer.
Yes, that's our yard -
there's usually a road, (and a cliff)
between us and the river.
It topped its banks. It started flowing across the lower pasture. Higher. Higher. Finally, it reached our yard and began lapping at the tiny bulwark of sand bags. The barricade that had seemed so huge only moments before.
Dad and his crew worked frantically, trying to reinforce what now looked like a pathetic little mud pie, against all that water.
All day, they worked.
And finally, the waters peaked. Then slowly began to recede.
We lost part of our yard. A small part.
The bridge crew had some equipment damaged, but nothing that couldn't be repaired or replaced.
Unfortunately, the same wasn't true for the rest of Alberta and Montana, wherever the Milk River flowed. Communities suffered millions of dollars in damages and at least 30 people lost their lives. In fact, the June, 1964 flood remains in the history books as one of the greatest disasters ever to hit Montana.
But the waters receded.
Back on the ranch, everything wasn't as pristine as it had once been, but was soon put to rights.
Our new bridge was finished and the old one demolished and hauled away. The crew left.
We kids scampered around on the cement marvel for a short while, but soon discovered that its smooth surfaces provided few hiding places and absolutely nowhere to hang a rope.
It was abandoned.

Old bridge, new bridge
and very, very wet equipment
Often, our family would stand on the balcony and watch the river as it curved gently around the ranch.
Once more, it was the calm, quiet flow that watered our stock and our crops, cooled us on hot days, and supported us in our floundering efforts to swim. Once more, it was the color of the sediment that gave it its milky hue and its name.
Eventually, I even lost my fear of it.
Yes, for me, the summer of 1964 was an exciting, memorable time.
Sometimes, I wish I could forget it.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

My George


Then

My big brother, George and I are two years and four days apart.
When I was born, he wasn't quite ready to have a younger sibling. But, eventually, he accepted me.
It only took fourteen years for us to become best friends.
In our early days, George and I mostly avoided one another. Whenever we tried to play together, we inevitably ended up fighting. Usually the fights were over who started the fights, but why quibble over details?
Fortunately, living on the ranch, there were numerous other opportunities for mischief than playing with siblings.
George had his things mechanical, I had horses.
It was a perfect world.
* * *
When I turned twelve, the magical world of 4-H opened up before me. Finally, I, too, could belong to that tantalizingly exclusive club that my older sister and brothers all enjoyed. I, too could choose a calf and raise it for a year. And go on tours. And calf-club meetings.
Life just didn't get any better.
Dad brought in a group of weanling calves for us to choose from. I instantly decided on the little red-and white-one. No, that little red-and-white one. There. The one next to the other little red-and-white one.
Okay, so they were all red-and-white.
I finally made my choice and my calf, along with my siblings' calves, was shut into a special pen.
For the first day, I was ecstatic. I couldn't stop looking at my calf. He was perfect! He was going to be a champion.
He was mine!
I watched as George hauled feed into the pen, both morning and evening.
This was exciting! This was fun!
He offered to let me carry the pail.
This was work!
And I think that was the last time, ever, that I fed my own calf.
If it weren't for steady, reliable George, all of my 4-H calves would have starved to death.
And, oddly enough, he never complained.
* * *
Fourteen and I was able to attend my first dance!
George drove us there.
I think I danced twice. (One was 'Hey Jude', the customary and interminable last song, which one would inevitably end up dancing with someone who smelled.)
After the dance, George and I stayed in the kitchen and talked until four am.
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
After that, we spent hours every day, just talking. Movies, books, friends, dates, music. The topics were endless and interesting.
And fun.
We never seemed to run out of things to discuss.
Which of my girlfriends had a crush on him this week.
School. (Miss Mueller, my English teacher loved my brother, but hated me. Go figure . . .)
Dating. When I turned 16, this was a new and wondrous world for me. George guided me through some of the pitfalls and heartbreaks. Once, when my date abandoned me for another girl at a dance, George provided a ride home. And a shoulder.
He got me through.
* * *
In his twenties, George decided to travel down another road. In black leather, long hair and a beard. And on a Harley.

Still then
 He was still my beloved brother. Just a bit . . . scarier to look at.
Once when he was coming for a promised visit, my second son Erik, then six, waited up to greet him. When this long-haired man appeared, Erik took one look and fled down the stairs to his bed.
It was very shortly afterwards that George asked me to give him a haircut.
And not long after that when he decided that he needed to settle down.
For many years, he struggled with relationships and church attendance/standards. Then, just before he turned 50, he decided that he needed to make some serious changes.
Which he did.
And then he met Mikenzie.
She, too had experienced hardships in her life. But, like George, she was ready for something . . . eternal.
I was a witness as the two of them, dressed in white, knelt at the altar and gave their vows to each other. And to God.
I couldn't help but think of my former long-haired, black-leather-clad brother as he took his new wife into his arms and kissed her.
And accepted her daughter as his own.
Forever.
Today, as always, George is busy, organized, and frightfully clean.
But perhaps for the first time in his life, he is happy.
And that makes me happy.


Now, with Mikenzie

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My First Drive


My first stylin' ride

The grocery store in Milk River in the 50's was on main street.
Parking was on the street. Angle only.
I know this doesn't seem to have much to do with my story, but wait for it . . .

Mom usually came into town once a week to do the grocery shopping.
For me, it was a magical time. Mind you, I was born with unfettered enthusiasm.
For me, everything was magical. But I digress . . .
On this particular occasion, my brother George was with us.
The two of us had been separated because he was causing fights.
Not me.
Never me.
So George was in the back seat and I was in the front.
Mom parked the car in front of the AGT building and got out.
When we made to follow her, she put out her hand and told us to stay where we were.
As punishment for being so disruptive on the trip into town, both of us were forbidden from going into the store.
Mom was only going in for a moment. We could sit in the car quietly and think about what we had done.
George pouted. Arms crossed, face fixed in a frown of displeasure.
I did gymnastics.
I should probably point out here that the seats of our late-model Pontiac could easily have doubled as twin beds. They were wide. And long. And bouncy.
I started out small. Bouncing up and down in a sitting position.

Then I discovered that I could get more height if I got up on my knees.
Finally, I was standing, hands on the back of the seat, jumping up and down. I think I hit my head numerous times on the roof, but no brain, no pain. I continued to bounce.
I should point out here that, in the 50's, crime hadn't been invented yet. It wasn't unusual for people to leave their kids in a car. With the keys in the ignition.
And the car running.
Don't condemn my Mom. She was a product of her time.
I bounced closer and closer to the steering wheel and wondrous, automatic gearshift attached to it.
Closer. Closer.
And then . . . one bounce too many. I came down on the gearshift.
The car lurched into action, bouncing over the curb and across the sidewalk on fat, whitewall tires.
I think I screamed, but I can't be sure. It all happened so fast.
There was a distinct 'crunch' and the car came to a sudden stop.
I don't remember George's reaction. I think he remained stoically silent in the back seat.
I picked myself up off the floor and began to cry.
And suddenly, my Mom was there. Holding me in her arms and telling me that everything was all right.
Mom was really, really good at that.
After she had calmed me down, she set me back on the seat and put the car into reverse and edged back off the sidewalk. Then she put it into park and, this time, shut it off.

We all got out and gathered around to survey the damage.
The bumper had pierced the stucco, leaving a half-moon crescent in the wall of the building, just below the front windows. Where the entire office staff had assembled.
They waved, cheerfully.
Mom sighed and towed us into the office to explain.
The office workers were remarkably forgiving of the whole incident. Even laughing about it.
Red-faced, Mom was soon able to drag George and I back to the car.

I think I received a lecture on using the inside of the car as a playground, but it wasn't very forceful. Probably because Mom realized that the whole thing wouldn't have happened if she hadn't left the car running.
The mark I had made in the wall remained there for many, many years. Until the building was renovated and re-faced, in fact.
Some time after my escapade, a second crescent appeared in that same wall, just a few feet from mine, obviously from a similar source.
I examined it carefully. It was a good attempt.
But mine was better.

2011 AD (After Diane) Note the damage . . . or not



Monday, June 6, 2011

Mark and Enes Stringam

Mom and Dad.
Yes, they always dressed like that.


Today is dedicated to Mark and Enes Stringam, my parents.
Mom and Dad were married 63 years ago today at the United Church in Brooks Alberta.
Reverend Dixon performed the ceremony, which was attended by family and friends.
But that was only the beginning.

The young couple immediately moved to the Stringam Ranch on the Alberta/Montana border.
Mom knew she was marrying the youngest son of a notable Southern Alberta ranching family. But what she didn't know, but quickly discovered, was that she had also married a clown. A joker. Tease. And all around goof.
The adventure had begun . . .

On their honeymoon, they chose to camp. Rustic. Earthy. Isolated.
All the perfect ingredients for a newly-married couple.
Then it rained.
And got cold.
Whatever clothing dad took off, mom put on.
Then they moved their tent into a nearby shelter, along with all of the other campers in the area.
Okay, so intimate, it wasn't.
Just at dawn, Dad, always an early riser, got up and made a beeline for the showers.
Mom awoke some time later to the loudly-belted strains of "'Cause some dirty dog put glue on the saddle!" (Still a family favorite.) Shaking her head, she turned over to complain to Dad about the rude person singing in the showers.
But Dad wasn't there.
It was about then that Mom realized just who was making all the noise.
And still she stayed married to him.
* * *
Once she was settled on the vast Stringam ranch, Mom quickly discovered that life wasn't so different from what she had known on the Berg Ranch near Brooks. There, she and her mother had the care and feeding of Mom's father and eight brothers.
Now, she had the similar responsibility for Dad (this new goofball husband), and six hired men.
It was a toss-up as to which group could eat more.
Fortunately, Mom soon proved that she was more than capable of satisfying any hungry person, or persons, who strayed into her kitchen.
She spent a lot of time in that kitchen.
And in her vast gardens, which supplied food for that kitchen.
* * *
There was a bell on the ranch.
A large bell, rung only at meal times and in case of dire emergency. A bell that could be heard, on clear days, at a distance of five miles.
Only authorized people were allowed to ring this bell.
And Mom wasn't, yet, authorized.
But she wanted to be.
The bell's cord draped temptingly through her kitchen window and over her sink. Teasing her with its proximity and, at the same time, its inaccessibility.
She glanced at it. Right there. Just a little pull. Only a tiny ring. No one would even notice . . .
Sigh.
Sometime later, while maneuvering a stack of dirty dishes towards the sink, she inadvertently caught the forbidden cord.
A loud 'clang' made her freeze instantly.
Oh-oh.
Moments later, the kitchen door burst open, revealing a very concerned Dad. "What is it? What's the matter?"
Mom looked at him, red-faced. "Nothing, dear. I just happened to catch the cord . . ."
"What's happened?" One of the hired men had come in just behind Dad.
"Is there a problem?" Someone hollered from the front door.
"Everyone okay in there?" Mom didn't even know where that voice came from.
Two more men bumped into those already assembled in the kitchen. "Someone need help?"
Mom could now hear the pounding of hoofs coming up the driveway.
Could she possibly just sink into the floor?
"False alarm, boys," Dad said, grinning at Mom's red face. "Let's get back to work."
The kitchen emptied out and Mom could hear Dad making explanations out in the yard.
Soon she was alone again.
Well, at least she knew that the bell worked. Sometimes a little excitement was a good thing.
She stared at the cord.
* * *
Dad spent a lot of time out riding. And when he wasn't riding, he was working somewhere in the barns or corrals. Or moving irrigation pipe. Or hauling hay or feed. Or doing one of the million or so things that went into ranching. And when he wasn't doing that, he was, as the area's only veterinarian, making vet calls.
To say that he was busy is a distinct understatement.
We kids saw him at mealtimes, or when we went out to the barnyard to get in his way . . . help, I mean.
Often, his duties would call him from the supper table and he wouldn't return until long after we were tucked in for the night.
He would quietly enter the house and tip-toe to his bedroom.
Then he would empty his pockets onto the carved-leather organizer on his dresser, before getting ready for bed. Coins, his jackknife, keys, instruments. Everything contained in those pockets would be dropped into the various different compartments.
They made a 'thumping' sound as they hit the leather. A soft but very distinct sound.
And it vibrated into every corner of the house.
Inevitably, I would wake to the sound of the creaking floor as Dad crept down the hall.
Then I would hear the tell-tale thump of his pockets' contents, hitting the organizer.
I would sigh happily and turn over.
Dad was home. All was well.
* * *
I don't know how they did it.
Mom and Dad had six children and numerous hired hands. Together, they still managed to organize and direct the various operations that went into running a ranch and household. Feeding, milking, planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, cleaning, sewing, repairing, overhauling, riding, fencing, driving, having babies, parenting, reading, cooking, canning, church responsibilities, veterinarian calls, Hereford club duties, neighborly visits and on and on and on. The only way they could have accomplished it all was to never sleep.
To say that I'm proud of them would be a vast understatement.
To say that I'm grateful, even more so.
Today is their day.
I love them.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Me, the Mud and the Spanking


Daddy and Me



Spring had finally arrived at the ranch.
Let me describe it to you . . .
The snow has melted away. Even the drifts which filled the ditches have finally succumbed to the encroaching sun.
Everywhere on the prairie one can see the signs of spring. New green in the prairie grasses and in the occasional and solitary trees. An infrequent blossom. The smells, in the prairie wind, of things growing . Scurrying animals. Birdsong.
And knee-deep mud in the barnyard.
But I am getting ahead of myself.

It is a wonderful time. A time of anticipation. Of wonder.
For a four-year-old who had been cooped up in the house since time immemorial, it is a wondrous opportunity for freedom.
And I took it.
Anxious to put a new accomplishment (that Mom and I had been labouring over) into practice, I disdained my ugly, black gumboots and stuck my feet into my brand new running shoes and triumphantly tied the laces.
I was free!
I dashed out of the house and into the spring sunshine.
The day was filled with endless possibilities for exploring. There was the ice-house. The riverbank. The blacksmith shop. The feed sheds. Hayloft. Pig sty. Chicken coop.
Okay, maybe not the chicken coop.
All my usual haunts.
But today, my first day of freedom, I chose . . . where else would a horse nut go? . . . the horse barn.
Where I would find the . . . ummm . . . horses.
It started out all right. I walked down the hard-packed driveway to the grass of the foreman's house.
So far, so good.
From there, I crossed to the fence. Still fine. I climbed the fence and looked across the barnyard to the tempting building just over there . . .
I jumped down.
And that is where everything fell apart. I watched my feet disappear into the morass that the barnyard had become.
For a stunned moment, I stared down. What had happened?
I tried to lift one foot. It didn't move.
I tried again. Same result.
Panic threatened. Was I going to be stuck here for the rest of my life? I was perilously close to tears.
Then I saw my dad. He of the strong arms and wisely gum booted feet.
He worked his way over to me. I can still remember the sucking sound of his boots as he pulled them from the mud.
Ssss-thook. Ssss-thook.
My saviour.
He plucked me from the mud and set me back on the fence.
Then he frowned and looked at my feet.
“Where are your boots?”
I, too, looked down.
Muddy socks and pants, but no shoes. Huh. Maybe my lace-tying wasn't as good as I thought.
I looked at the mud.
Dad sighed and felt down into the mud that had so recently held me, and found, first one, then the other shoe.
He stood up and held them out.
“Are these your new shoes?”
I nodded silently.
“Where are your boots?” Boots that would have been vastly easier to clean, by the way.
I looked towards the house.
Dad sighed. “You take these and head to the house. I'm going to come later and give you a spanking.”
My eyes got big. I stared at him. A spanking?!
I should point out here that I had never had a spanking from my dad.
But I could imagine it. Unspeakable pain and torment.
I grabbed my shoes, jumped down from the fence and lit out for the house at my best 'four-year-old-I'm-in-trouble' pace.
I threw the shoes down in the front entry and headed for the closet in my room.
Dad never gave me my spanking.
I guess he thought that I'd been punished enough when I spent the entire morning in my closet, hiding from him.
And I never again tried to wear anything but my gumboots into the barnyard.
I may be a slow learner, but I do learn.

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