Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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



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Daughter of Ishmael by Diane Stringam Tolley

Daughter of Ishmael

by Diane Stringam Tolley

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Blacksmith Shop

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 three sides and large double doors on the fourth.
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 with undecipherable names like: drill press, belt-sander, and air compressor, 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, but 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 one 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. But our accuracy left much to be desired, which was probably a good thing for us. Thus, we never had our mother scolding us over oil-stained clothes.)
But our 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.
Huh. 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, June 15, 2011

My Slithery Best Friend

My Dad and older brother and sister at The River.
Circa 1952 BD (Before Diane)
I caught a snake. Garter variety.
The banks of the river abounded with such things, as well as frogs, tadpoles, minnows and other slithery, slimy denizens of the milky water.
It wasn't unheard-of for my mother to be the calm recipient of a bullfrog, salamander, and cup full of minnows . . . all on the same day.
Okay, so, squeamish, I wasn't.
And my mother was a saint.
But snakes, we usually had a harder time catching. Actually laying hands on one was a treat. An achievement.
I know. I know. We probably should have explored other hobbies . . .
I was understandably excited about my snake. I wanted to share.
I decided to take it to school.
I can't remember just how I managed this. Perhaps my Mom helped me by putting it in a shoe box. But it, and I, somehow made it safely on the long bus ride.
Then I was the center of attention as everyone on the playground crowded in for a peek. In fact, my snake was so popular that my teacher arranged for me to take it to every classroom to show the kids.
For the first time in my young life, I was the center of attention. I was popular. I was famous.
Yes, well, it rather went to my head . . .
To make my snake a bit more visible, the principal offered me his own glass fishbowl. Now it could be seen at all times.
I thought it was terrific.
I don't suppose the snake was very impressed.
I walked into each of the six classrooms, filled with importance. Then I would talk about my snake . . . ummm . . . knowledgeably.
"This is a garter snake. I caught it by the river. It's kind of cold and . . . smooth. It can swim. It eats frogs and other stuff."
Hey, I was six. That was as knowledgeable as it gets.
Then I would reach in, grab my snake by the end of its tail and lift it out for everyone to see. The snake would, obligingly, stretch up and flick its tongue.
Ooohs.
This went on for the lower five grades.
Then, the last class. My oldest brother Jerry's class. The grade sixes. The big guys.
I was more than a bit intimidated.
I carried my sideshow exhibit into the class and went into my spiel. Then I lifted my snake. And stared in horror as the last two inches of its tail . . . broke off.
The poor thing dropped to the floor and began a frantic slither towards somewhere else.
Several girls screamed.
I quickly pounced on it and scooped it up, dropping it back into the goldfish bowl.
Order was restored.
Then I realized that I was still holding the piece of the snake's tail. Flushing, I dropped it in with the snake, then quickly seized the bowl and scurried out of the room.
My 15 minutes of fame were over.
For the rest of the day, my snake sat on the shelf at the back of my grade one classroom.
After school, my Mom was waiting for me at the bus stop. She loaded my brothers, George and Jerry, my snake and I into the car.
On the way out of town, she pulled over into the campground beside the river.
"Okay, Diane," she said, "let the snake go."
I stared at her, horrified. Let him go? But he was mine! We'd been through so much together!
She nodded.
Heaving a sigh, I opened the car door and carried my prize to the riverbank.
I looked back at her.
She nodded again.
Now, I should point out here, that I could have simply taken my slithery friend out and laid him in the grass beside the river. Or even set the bowl down and let him crawl out there.
But no. Instead, I made my way down the very edge of the river and tipped up the fishbowl to drop my companion and friend into the milky water.
And unwittingly added an exciting postscript to the story.
Because I also dropped the fishbowl.
My principal's fishbowl.
I did try to make a grab for it, but it quickly slid out of my reach and disappeared. I stared at the place where it had last been seen.
I was in so much trouble.
I remember looking at my mom, horror written across my whole face. She just rolled her eyes and shook her head.
She was so accustomed to me.
She must have sorted things out with my principal, the first of many such exchanges, because I never heard anything of it and it was soon forgotten.
But I often think of my little garter snake friend and wonder just what happened to him. Dropped into a foreign world, miles from his home. Part of his tail snapped off.
Did he survive? Even prosper?
I like to think so.
But more thought provoking is the fact that I had absolutely no fear when catching and handling my snake.
If he had been a chicken?
Totally another story.
Go figure.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Root Cellar

Somehwere inside that red circle was . . . the stronghold
Under the floor of the old garage was a dark, mysterious, magical stronghold. A place of adventure. Of devious deeds and dead bodies long kept hidden. Where pirates, coming down the Milk River in ships, hid their treasures. And their secrets.
A place of adventure. Of wonder.
And vegetables.
Accessed only through a solid, well-camouflaged wooden door, this place was known only to the best and brightest . . . and bravest . . . that the ranch had to offer.
I was definitely one of those.
Okay, I admit that I had to wait until one of my larger, stronger minions actually grasped the great iron ring and pulled the door up on its protesting hinges to grant me entry, but from that point . . . I. Was. In. Charge.
Yes, okay, so they also had to reach up to the single hanging bulb and pull the string because it was too far up for me, but from then on . . .
Geeze.
I spent hours there.
Or at least as long as it took my mom to collect her baskets of vegetables and start back up the stairs.
At that point, I would abandon whatever scheme I had launched and scamper up behind her.
I could conquer worlds. Defeat any foe. Accept any challenge.
I just had a bit of a problem with being left in the dark.
The heavy door would be lowered into place with a theatrical thud, and the hideout's secrets would once more be hidden.
Entombed. Quietly, patiently waiting until the next time the sunlight briefly, piteously exposed them.

I loved the root cellar. I loved its mystery. Its possibilities.
But I should probably mention here that the south fork of the Milk River never, ever could have floated anything larger than a rowboat.
Well, except, maybe during the flood of '64. But a pirate raid, then, would have had to be brief. And fast.
So, my stone-walled, dirt-floored stronghold probably never concealed a treasure. Or a body.
I think a cat got mistakenly shut in once for a few hours, but as it emerged unconcerned and completely unscathed, I don't think that counts.
I don't know if that particular root cellar still exists. It had been years since I was back there. But my memories of it are still sharp and clear.
The damp, cool air. The 'heavy' feel of the stone walls and dirt floor. The . . . fuzzy-looking boards that formed the staircase.
But most especially the smells. Earth. Fresh vegetables. Wet, aged wood. Things growing. Things crumbling back into earth.
There is a addendum.
My husband and I have spent many hours travelling on the underground in London, England. It is a remarkably run, efficient system.
But in the deepest tunnels, we met with an unexpected bonus.
Stepping off the escalator, I took a deep breath.
Earth. Old timbers. The natural smells of molder and decay.
I smiled.
It smelled like memories.

Daughter of Ishmael

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Diane was born and raised on one of the last of the great old Southern Alberta ranches. A way of life that is fast disappearing now. Through her memories and stories, she keeps it alive. And even, at times, accurate . . .

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