Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

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Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Hot Time in the Old Town

A whole new meaning to 'roasted grains'.

6:45 am.
When most of the world still sleeps, or is just beginning to stir, the ranching families of Southern Alberta are already up and out.
Stock to feed, cows to milk.
Diving into the day’s first chores with unfettered enthusiasm. A smile - brought by the pure joy of work most satisfying - firmly fixed on weather-beaten faces.
“Spring!” Dad’s first words of the day, spoken with that ‘unfettered enthusiasm’ previously mentioned.
There he would be, the light from the hall behind him making him into the shadowy cut-out of some avenging God of Mischief, dressed in a white terry-cloth bathrobe and sent to ruin the final minutes of a good night’s sleep.
“Spring!” he would say again, in case we didn’t hear it the first time.
Then, in a puff of smoke, he would disappear. Evil summons completed.
Actually, I just made up that ‘puff of smoke bit’.
The evil summons?
This morning began like any other.
A new spring sun just peeping over the horizon filling the clear, blue sky with breathtaking slices of pink and orange.
We humans blissfully ignorant.
Dad’s unfailingly cheerful, completely irritating voice calling happily down the stairs.
The summoned moaning and complaining and beginning to twitch in their beds.
The call came again.
The summoned were throwing off the heavy bonds of sleep by degrees.
Some were actually finding their voices. “Yeah, yeah.”
And yet a third time.
The responses growing equally louder and more understandable, “Yeah, yeah!”
And then the final call. The one sure to either freeze the faithful in their beds, or galvanize them into movement.
“The elevators are on fire!”
I should mention here that the town of Milk River’s elevators stood directly behind us, across our pasture. A short few hundred yards away.
Within toasting distance.
The mere thought of them engulfed in flames struck terror into the hearts of every member of the Stringam family.
Certainly it did that day.
“Yeah, Dad, good one!” A pause. Then, “Dad’ll say anything to get us up!” Laughter.
Perhaps I was a bit more trusting than my brothers.
Perhaps the idea of something exciting happening in our sleepy little town was enough to draw me from my bed.
I scurried into my parent’s room, bounded across their bed and joined my mother at the window.
The entire horizon was a blaze of light.
Two of the six elevators were already burning and, as we watched, a third began to smoke.
Dad was out on the deck, his face a mixture of disbelief, excitement and dismay.
It was an interesting face.
By this time, our cries of . . . disbelief, excitement and dismay . . . had finally drawn my brothers to their window.
“Holy Smoke!”
Truer words were never spoken.
For a moment, fear washed over me.
Were we in any danger from the flames? Those elevators were awfully close.
Dad was quick to reassure.
The wind was favourable for us, pushing the fire, and its attendant sparks to the South, away from the Stringams.
Towards the Garbers, actually. And their barn.
But that is another story.
Chores were given a lick and a promise.
School was . . . poorly attended.
The time was spent watching the fire.
And the fire-fighters.
The entire population of town stood across the street, eyes locked on the incredible sight.
I found my Mom there and went to stand beside her.
“Good thing it’s spring,” I told her. “Harvest hasn’t started.”
My ignorance of the whole ‘grain storage’ thing was woeful.
“They’re right full of grain!” my Mom exclaimed.
As though to prove her statement, a long split appeared in one corner of the elevator nearest us. Followed immediately by a golden stream.
Then pieces of flaming elevator began to rain down.
The crowd gasped and stepped backwards.
Our Sherriff tried his best to keep us away.
To keep us safe.
Even going so far as to order all of the kids back to school.
We scampered to obey.
He couldn’t have driven us away with a stick. Maybe if he had pulled his gun . . . no not even then.
The elevators burned for days.
When the glow was finally out, the ruined grain was raked into piles and sold for a pittance, for cattle feed or whatever.
But to those of us who witnessed it, the fire would never be extinguished.
Even after the smell of roasting wood and grain finally washed away.
Even after new, modern elevators were built.
All one would have to say was, “Remember the elevator fire?”.
It was the most excitement our town has ever had. Before or since.
Okay, so ‘Thrill Central’ wasn't our town’s middle name.
And the Stringams were back to hearing, “Spring!” every morning.
Once in a while, Dad would try to inject a little excitement by shouting, “The elevators are on fire!”
But he was never believed.
Kind of like that first time.


  1. I sure do remember that one. I also remember the Cat and Mouse game with the high school principal as he tried to get all of us truents to school where we belonged.

    1. Amazing, isn't it, that we students were expected to go back to the school to learn about history from stuffy old text books, when HISTORY was happening two blocks away.

  2. All that grain...all that hard work....gone in the blink of an eye. I think a fire is THE most horrific thing I can imagine.

    1. Totally agree, Delores! I've been a close witness to four devastating fires in my life. Definitely enough!

  3. First floods, now fire - what do you mean, no excitement in your town?!

    You've recovered a memory for me ... Dad used to burn a strip of high grass on one side of our property. One year it got away from him for a bit - he and my brother, with the help of hastily called neighbours, frantically tried to stomp, shovel, garden-hose and water-bucket it out, and eventually succeeded, but in the meantime it was a scary thing.

    Which brings me to another memory! (you've done good work here today!) On the old party line, if there was an emergency, you could just crank one looonnnnng ring on the phone and everyone would pick up to see how they could help. Or to have some good gossip to spread. Not sure which was more common :)

    1. Hmm . . . you're right!
      I wonder if we had that emergency measure on our party line? What an effective way to get the word out! Faster, even than Facebook or any of the other electronic communications we have now!

    2. Hah - true!

      I was reminiscing with my father about the emergency phone ring and I stand corrected - it was three long rings. One long ring was to connect you to the operator. If there was an emergency and you called the operator, she could plug in all the lines at once and send the three emergency rings. Or you could just signal an emergency to those on your own line with three rings.

      Probably way more than you needed to know :)

    3. Absolutely fascinating! Amazing, isn't it, how we get the technology of the day to work for us?!

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  5. A bit of excitement to start your spring with, but a real shame to lose all that grain. Elevators are called silos here in Australia.

    1. More excitement than I ever want to see again! :)
      We call the tall individual round graineries on the farms 'silos' here. So fascinating to see the similarities and the differences between our two countries . . .


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