Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Warm Hearts

Romance lives here.

Winter is loosening its grip and slowly receding in Northern Alberta.
Maybe it’s being driven off by the people . . .
Mari and Lee met over twenty years ago and have been married for just past eighteen.
A good marriage.
A marriage that has withstood some hefty bumps and setbacks.
And thrived.
Once again, it's time for the annual Library Conference in beautiful Jasper, Alberta.
Mari’s presence is required.
Lee’s is not.
So, for the days of the conference, they have been apart.
But really only separated by distance.
Let me explain . . .
Last night, Mari received a phone call from her sweetheart.
They chatted.
Then he asked her if she was wearing her warm, comfy, red pajamas.
I should mention, here, that warm, flannel sleepwear is a necessity in the frozen north.
Just FYI.
Back to my story . . .
It was an odd question.
“No. I’m wearing my warm, new, black and white jammies,” she said.
“Well, I wanted you to wear the red ones,” he said.
“Umm . . . I don’t have any red ones.”
“Yes, you do. I saw them in your suitcase.”
Puzzled, Mari went to said case and sorted through. Could Lee have possibly meant the orange pajamas?
She took them out and allowed them to unfold.
A note dropped out.
An I-love-you-even-when-you’re-far-away sort of note.
Suddenly the separation and distance didn’t matter.
They would always be together.
How do people survive in this cold, rather forbidding six-months-of-winter-per-year climate?
Warm hearts.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Creating Worlds

You see food. I see . . . possibilities.

The headquarters/chief residence of the Stringam ranch, like most ranch houses then and now, was centred around a large, family kitchen.
Everything important happened in that room.
Eating, visiting, business, playing. More eating.
It was, quite literally, the soul of the house.
Mom reigned supreme over its scrubbed surfaces and gleaming appliances.
All traffic came through it, stopping either briefly, or of longer duration.
I lived there.
Whenever Mom was in residence (and Mom was always in residence), I could be found.
Dragging out stacks of plastic ware or pots and pans.
Or, even more exciting, the dozens of Jello packages that Mom kept in a corner cupboard.
Just for me.
It was amazing what one could construct out of those small, cardboard boxes.
Castles. Forts. Corrals. Houses. Barns. Apartment buildings. Stores.
Even schools.
Infinite possibilities.
Infinite hours of fun and creativity.
I should mention, here, that Lego hadn't reached my little world.
But it would.
Moving on . . .
And my Mom, moving about the kitchen, had to step carefully to avoid disaster.
To both of us.
How lightly she moved, dancing and weaving around the complicated constructs that, to me, were edifices of genius and creativity.
Occasionally, we came to grief. Something I had made would have meandered a little too far across the floor and Mom would trip over . . . it.
But not often.
Mom should have been a professional terpsichorean (real word – I looked it up).
Or Superman. She could certainly leap any building I made with a single bound.
Looking back, though, I have to wonder why Mom kept so many Jello packages in that cupboard.
Certainly, we ate a lot of it.
But that still didn't justify the number of boxes stored there.
Maybe, like Moms everywhere, she knew . . .
Just how much fun assembling castles out of sweet-smelling boxes could be.

There is a codicil . . .
My grandchildren were playing on the floor of the kitchen as their mother and I were preparing supper. They had a complicated construction of Tupperware, old yogurt containers, pots . . . and Jello packages.
I stepped over it.
“Careful, Gramma! You'll knock down the princess' castle!”
And suddenly, I was four years old again.
Creating worlds on the kitchen floor.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Swindled. Rats.

I just got scammed.
It’s true. I got taken for $160.00. I’m still mad about it. See (Web Site Scam)
But I take small comfort in the knowledge that I’m not the only person in the world who has been swindled by someone with no ethics.
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 I’m counting on now.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Epic Tales of a Misfit Hero: A Review

Great read for the young man in your life!

Have you ever started reading a book, expecting one thing and discovered something quite, quite different?
That is what happened to me when I opened the covers of The Epic Tales of a Misfit Hero. The blurb describes it briefly as a coming-of-age story. But it is so much more than that. I laughed. I cried. I glared at my daughter for interrupting me.
It was THAT good.
And it has been written specifically for pre-teen/young teen boys.
Andrew is a young man who has just turned twelve. And to add to the daily challenges associated with being a young man, coping with other young men, being a member of a large family, and forming a strange new attachment for the girl next door, he is going on his first, ever Scout camp.
With other twelve-year-olds.
Near-monsoons, a run-in with a porcupine, voracious mosquitoes, granola bars, a bear, a flaming pink poncho and at least one major accident later, he and his companions return to civilization, not only older, but far wiser.
And infinitely more faithful.
Told in an engaging and humorous vein, TETOAMH will tickle, entertain, surprise, frighten, challenge and enlighten you.
Read it!

Here is a brief description of the book:
From passing the sacrament with his fly down to failing miserably at capture the flag, Andrew knows he’ll never be able to fulfill his duties as a deacon. But when tragedy strikes on his Boy Scout backpacking trip, Andrew’s whole troop must become stronger than they ever imagined. This hilarious coming-of-age story is bound to have you rooting for a “misfit” hero!
Meet the Author:
Matt Peterson has been working with Scouts and young men for over ten years. He has lead adventures into deep canyons, up tall mountains, and through raging rivers. Search and Rescue has only been called once. Matt lives in Mesa, Arizona, with his wife and four kids. He served a mission in São Paulo, Brazil, where he learned Portuguese, how to love the people, and how to walk really fast. In his spare time, he runs a free neighborhood sports league for kids. To learn more about Matt and his book visit his website here:

Breakfast of Champion

Gross factor: 9
Me and my big sister. Travelling.

Dad loved to travel.
And he was so much fun to travel with.
Dad would drive us to amazing places and show us amazing things, and sing and entertain us on the way.
And he took breaks.
'Breaks' which, for my Dad, meant pulling into a gas station and buying everyone a bottle of pop and a chocolate bar.
Notice, I didn't say 'healthy'. I just said 'fun'.
And sugar highs hadn't been invented yet.
To Dad, holidays were always taken across the border. He drove us all over the western half of the continental United States, with stops in California, Texas, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico.
We have pictures taken beside the 'Welcome to . . .' signs for all of them.
Travelling also meant meals on the road.
There were a lot of family-owned restaurants in the United States. And Denny's.
We saw them all.
And they made good food.
I love meals that someone else cooks.
And, let's just admit it . . . breakfast in a diner says 'holiday', doesn't it?
Sooo . . . breakfast. The most important meal of the day.
And the hardest one for Diane to eat.
Oh, I was enthusiastic.
And hungry.
But sometimes, it simply took a while for my stomach to awaken.
At least that's what Mom told me. And Mom was always right.
Plus, I ate too fast.
A character flaw that haunts me to this day.
Our family was travelling.
We had stayed the night in a hotel somewhere.
I was, as always, a bit fuzzy on the details.
It was time for breakfast.
Dad took us to a nice restaurant at the edge of town.
We were handed large, colourful menus. With pictures.
I loved pictures.
And shiny things . . . but that is another story.
There was one photo, in particular, that caught my attention.
It showed waffles. A golden heap of them. Topped with, wonder of wonders, ice cream.
I think there was fruit atop the ice cream, as a sop to nutritional convention, but all I really had eyes for was the cold, sweet stuff.
Who ever heard of ice cream for breakfast?
And the final miracle? Mom let me order them.
All of my dreams had suddenly come true.
My waffles arrived, in all of their sweet, golden perfection. Ice cream just nicely melting on top.
Ecstacy on a plate.
I dove in.
And I do mean dove.
I shovelled fast and hard.
Before the rest of the family was half through, I was licking my plate.
Ice cream is not something that you can allow to get away.
And then . . . my wonderful waffles and ice cream hit . . . my stomach.
It wasn't awake.
It didn't like it.
And so, my beautiful breakfast, so briefly enjoyed, ended up back on the plate.
My horrified siblings fled.
My patient parents cleaned.
And lamented losing a breakfast they hadn't even paid for yet.
And a daughter who was suddenly hungry again.
Never again was I offered more than the usual at breakfast.
Good nourishing food.
That stuck to my ribs.
Well . . . stuck, anyways.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


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!"
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.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Singing as We Go

Dad. He of the wondrous voice.

My Dad loves to sing.
Fortunately, for the rest of us, he has a very nice voice.
And great rhythm.
It's just his timing that needs 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 favorite diversion, unavoidably made me carsick.
Ugh. Carsick. Wait . . . how did I get here . . .?
Oh, right. Dad . . . and singing.
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.
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.
Though in his 89th year, my Dad still drives.
And sings.
Wait, he's started, "Cause Some Dirty Dog Put Glue on the Saddle".
I have to go . . .

Sunday, April 21, 2013

My Place in the River

It snowed again yesterday.
I'm SO ready for spring.
A repost to remind me that, somewhere, it's spring . . .
Our River - almost ready for swimming . . .
Our playground flowed right around the main Stringam Ranch buildings.

To the adult residents of the ranch, it was the South Fork of the Milk River.
To us, it was a muddy, murky paradise. 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 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?) as the case may be, 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.

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