Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Saturday, January 17, 2015

And Then There Were Trees

Notice the trees. Please.
When I was fourteen, Dad decided to combine the best of all worlds.
He sold the old family ranch twenty miles from the town of Milk River and bought a new spread.
Somewhat closer.
Situated immediately adjacent to the town – and I do mean immediately – it retained all the charm of living in the country.
Within walking distance of everything ‘town’.
There was just one drawback.
The ranch grew from the ashes of the old town slaughter house.
Quite literally.
The slaughter house had burned to the ground and the town butcher had taken it as a sign that it was time to retire.
Dad was only too happy to help him out and bought the almost bare patch of ground.
Oh, there was pasture. Plenty of it.
But no buildings to speak of.
My parents had to start from scratch.
After several months of construction, corrals, barns, outbuildings, quonset and finally, home, appeared.
But that was just the first part.
Now, I should point out, here, that the town of Milk River lies nestled in a crook of the actual Milk River on the prairies.
The rolling, grassy, windswept, breathtakingly beautiful, treeless prairies.
Our recently vacated old ranch had been planted, sometime in the thirties, with acres of trees. Trees that stood tall and straight and looked like they had been there forever. Tress so lush and beautiful that is was rather difficult to see the ranch house.
Though this new place had many, many amenities, its treeless state was achingly obvious.
Mom set out to do something about it.
And roped us kids into helping.
We planted trees.
Acres of them.
And then, if that weren’t enough, we watered trees.
Acres of them.
Oh, we used the garden hose – for as far as it would reach. Then we used a little water tank on wheels.
It was aching, back-breaking work.
But who is going to sneak away to happier pursuits when one’s mother is out there, sweating beneath yet another bucket of water?
No one could be that heartless.
Okay, well, Dad would have had something to say about it if we disappeared . . .
We hand-fed those trees the entire time we lived there.
Then dad, he of the itchy feet, bought another ranch, this time near Fort MacLeod, Alberta.
One that was, mercifully, well treed.
Happily, we packed our buckets and moved.
But we often drive past the old place, whose trees are now nearly fifty years old.
Trees that stand tall and straight and look like they’ve been there forever. Tress so lush and beautiful that is was rather difficult to see the ranch house.
I guess we gave them a good start.
And, really, that’s all that matters.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Here Comes Trouble

A poem. Because it's been . . . you know . . . hours since my last one!

My Sister. She only looks tough.
In youth, I was a daring sort,
A heedless, reckless charge-right-in.
In games, activities and sports,
In all events, through thick or thin.

My sister, she of softer mien,
Would often follow where I led.
On dusty trails or tracks unseen,
The paths where ‘Angels fear to tread’ . . .

Upon Montana’s ski slopes there,
A smooth trail beckoned through the woods.
A path, the incandescent air,
Promised everything that’s good.

But I’m a cowgirl to my toes,
Even up upon the mountain side,
I had one speed and t’wasn’t slow.
My sister’s caution, I’d deride.

Spectacular and fast, my run,
I made a final, breathless stop.
Then waited for my Chris to come,
And happily scanned the mountain top.

She didn’t show, I’m sure you’ve guessed.
She’d fallen, twisted up her knee.
And now her holiday was messed
Cause she’d been trying to catch me.

One summer, as we headed home,
Bedecked in prairie dust and grime,
From checking through the herds that roam,
(And it was nearing supper time).

The lot fell to my sister there,
To man the gate so we’d get through.
She finished the small task with flair,
Re-mount was all she had to do.

But as she slipped her foot into
The stirrup, something went awry,
Impatient me had spurred my horse
And off t’ward home this goose did fly.

My sister’s horse did start to run
And spilled her owner in the dirt
A badly injured knee (not fun),
And for my Sis, a world of hurt.

The message that I’ve tried to frame
In my telescopic, silly way,
Is: We all know the one to blame
And who the piper is we pay.

If adventure’s what you crave,
If, into sports, you plow headfirst,
Remember: Though they may seem brave,
Avoid the cowgirls. They’re the worst!

Each week, Delores of Under the Porch Light issues instructions to her followers.
To Avoid Boredom and/or Writer's Block: Use Words.
You know what? It works!
This week's words?
Try it and see what I mean!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Sister Dishes

My older sister and me.
Oh, and George.
And part of Dad
And a little bit of Jerry and Blair.
The food had been, as per Mom’s usual standard, delicious.
The conversation had flowed, eddying around such topics as - the day. School. Ranch work. Friends. Town politics.
I was sitting in a contented stupor.
Well fed.
My favourite people in the world around me.
Life was better than fabulous.
“Chris and Diane,” Mom said, smiling at us. “You girls are on dishes tonight.”
And, just like that, my euphoric bubble burst. I could almost hear the ‘snap’ of its passing.
We looked at each other.
“Okay!” Chris said, bouncing to her feet.
Have I mentioned that my older sister is one of those people who is always willing and cheerful?
She is.
Most of the time, I liked it.
Just not tonight.
My reaction to Mom’s announcement was anything but enthusiastic. “Dishes?! Mooom!”
Okay, I admit that my reaction was purely for selfish reasons. I was in the middle of a good book and my plan had been to drop straight back into it after supper.
But Mom’s word was law and I dragged myself to my feet and helped my perky sister scrape and stack the mountain of dishes.
We did fine to that point.
Now here is where the differences between her way of accomplishing the task, and mine, met.
And clashed.
When she washed, Chris liked to leave the tap on just a tiny trickle. Then she could wash, rinse the item by passing it through the stream, and set the dish into the draining board.
I, on the other hand, preferred the ‘turn-the-tap-on’ method.
Wherein one would turn on the tap each time one was ready to rinse.
In my opinion, it wasted less water.
Here is where I admit that Mom simply put some rinse water into the second sink and . . . dipped.
But who wanted to do it Mom’s way?
I was washing. So I got to choose.
Tap on. Rinse. Tap off.
“Why don’t you just leave it on a trickle?” Chris asked. “It saves time.”
Already feeling disgruntled, I mumbled, “I prefer it this way!”
Big sigh from older sister.
Wash. Tap on. Rinse. Tap off.
“Diane, this is really starting to bug me! Just leave the tap on!”
“Fine!” I turned on the tap and let it trickle.
Chris smiled and continued to dry dishes.
I washed something. Then, out of habit, turned the tap, forgetting that it was already on.
“Diane! It’s already on!”
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
Another dish.
“Diane! It’s already on!”
Another dish.
This time, I turned the tap a little more forcefully than usual.
Not a problem if it wasn’t already on.
Which it was.
The water splashed out, soaking every available surface.
And my sister.
Oops. “Umm . . . sorry?”
“Ugh. Get out of here and just let me do it!” She reached for the wash cloth and, just like that, I was out of a job.
I stood there for a moment and watched her.
Then I shrugged and went to find my book.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Sweet and Spiky

C'mon. Give us a snuggle.
Porcupines. Not so cute and cuddly any more.
Or ever.
Maybe I should explain . . .
On a ranch, though I've heard that their meat - like pork - is quite sweet and tasty, porcupines serve no useful purpose.
Actually, anywhere, they really don’t accomplish much that could be considered ‘good’.
Herbivores, they nibble new trees to death. Devour plant life and generally make nuisances of themselves in a ‘shredding the garden’ way.
They also intimidate the livestock.
It is this last that is the most aggravating.
Because said livestock have to then be rescued.
My dad and a hired man, Dale, were checking the herd.
It was winter.
Now I should probably explain, because it will be pertinent later, that in Southern Alberta, in winter, snow falls.
It just doesn’t stay where it fell.
On average, parts of Southern Alberta have 13 to 14 windless days in the year.
13 to 14.
I probably don’t need to point out that that leaves 351 to 352 windy days.
Now you know why snow doesn’t stay where it’s put.
Back to my story . . .
On this particular day, Dad and Dale came across a cow with a face full of porcupine quills.
She had obviously allowed curiosity to overcome her sense. Wait. I’m talking about a cow here. She had obviously let her curiosity have free rein and discovered the folly of sniffing porcupines.
The quills had been embedded both in and outside her mouth, making grazing impossible. The poor animal was standing there. Sore. Hungry. And downright miserable.
Dad and Dale removed the quills, then decided to hunt down the culprit.
It’s a rancher thing.
They found him a short distance away, happily sunning himself in the branches of a chokecherry bush.
Breaking off branches of the bush, Dad and Dale closed in for the ‘kill’. Or at least the ‘drive the varmint to the nearest far-away place’.
Here’s where the blown snow comes in. The wind had deposited most of a recent snowfall into those same bushes. Dad found himself chest-deep in the stuff as he approached.
But thinking he’d simply knock the critter off its branch and scare it away, he really wasn’t concerned.
Big mistake.
Did you know that porcupines, far from being the shy, retiring animals they appear, are actually quite aggressive?
Make a note of it.
The porcupine hit the snow and, moving astonishingly easily over the great drifts, immediately turned and headed straight for dad’s face.
Which was, in baseball speak, right in the ‘strike zone’.
Unable to move in the chest-deep snow, Dad watched in horror as the angry little monster came right for him.
He closed his eyes.
Then heard the ‘whump’ of something striking a soft body. And the even more welcome sound of said soft body landing some distance away. Far out of the face prickling ‘oh-my-heck-this-is-going-to-hurt’ zone.
He opened his eyes.
Dale had swooped in at the last minute and hit the ball out of the park.
So to speak.
The disgruntled porcupine, realizing that it was no match for two branch-wielding opponents, tossed one last glare in their general direction and headed, quite literally, for the hills.
Mission accomplished.
Porcupine troubles?
Grab a branch and follow me!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Therapeutic Thwimming

Okay, it was scary.

But it turned out all right . . .
Our family have always been swimmers.
Our children are introduced to the water soon after they arrive.
And spend copious amounts of time there.
When we take a holiday, our choice of hotel is always based on whether or not it has a pool.
On to my story . . .
We were in Great Falls with my Husby's eldest brother and his family.
We had a favourite hotel there.
With *gasp* two pools.
The main pool was popular.
And usually busy.
We had decided to gather beside the smaller pool.
Adults, visiting.
Kids, playing.
Because we grown-ups hadn't planned on swimming, my Husby put on his suit under protest.
But I insisted.
At least one adult needed to be prepared.
We went down.
And spent a pleasant half-hour talking and laughing.
Now I should explain, here, that this smaller pool had one major draw-back.
It really wasn't made with children in mind.
It was roughly circular in shape.
And was shallow at the outer edges.
And deep in the middle.
I know. Weird.
Moving on . . .
Our oldest boy, aged four, was playing happily with his cousins in the shallows.
The kids were shouting and giggling and generally making 'happy' sounds and our oldest nephew, aged six, was keeping up a continuous dialogue of, “Mom! Dad! Look at this!”
His parents had tuned him out.
Something I simply couldn't do.
And for which I am eternally grateful.
“Mom!” he shouted.
I turned and looked at him.
“Mark's down there!” he said, pointing toward the centre of the pool.
My Husby looked at me.
“Get him!” I shouted.
He jumped in and an instant later, came up with our little boy.
For a few seconds, Mark coughed and gasped.
Then cried.
And just like that, our swim was over for the day.
We left the next morning, everyone well and happy, and completely unaware of the psychological damage that had been done.
A few days later, we took our family down to the river to our favourite swimming hole.
Though the water came no higher than his ankles, Mark refused to put one foot into the river.
Later, we went to the local swimming pool for what had always been our favourite Saturday evening activity.
Mark, our fish, clung to the ladder and screamed.
Okay, something was definitely wrong.
For the next few months, every time we tried to go swimming, it was the same.
People splashing around.
Mark sitting as far from the water as he could get.
A year passed.
Without much change.
Then our family moved to Edmonton.
Within hours of getting settled, my Husby discovered the local rec centre.
And their 'wave pool'.
Sounded intriguing.
What on earth was a wave pool?
We packed up the kids and went to investigate.
It turned out that a wave pool was just that.
A pool.
With waves.
For fifteen minutes, the water was calm.
Then a horn would blow and the waves would start.
Small, at first, then growing in size until they were . . . significant.
Mark had been paddling in the ankle-deep water at the shallow end.
A big step for him.
The horn sounded.
He looked up.
And stared at the wall of water coming toward him.
Okay, it wasn't a wall.
Maybe more of a . . . fence?
Well, maybe a median.
But it was definitely coming toward him.
We watched as he considered his options.
Then, to our surprise, he dropped to his knees and . . . let the wave roll over him.
And just like that, his fear was gone.
Our fish was back.

There is a codicil:
Mark is married now, and the father of four.
Several times a week, he takes his family swimming.
It is their favourite activity.
Every time they appear with wet hair and faces glowing with exercise and happiness, I give thanks for the disaster that wasn't.
And for the therapeutic properties of waves.

Aaahh! Therapy!

Monday, January 12, 2015

To Catch A Thief

Grandpa: George Lewis Stringam
Throughout his life, my Grandpa Stringam, a rancher, politician, husband, father and friend, was known for two things.
His business savvy.
And his kindness.
This is one of my favourite stories about him . . .
Grandpa used to rent harvested fields at the end of the season to feed out his cattle. Most of the crop had been removed. But there was always something left for an animal that was good at gleaning.
He usually tried to get fields that were close to water, so his animals would both be fed and watered, then every two or three days, he would ride out to check the herd and make sure they were cared for.
On one particular patch of ground, the owners had erected a small hut – not much more than a shack – for when they were in the fields during harvest. The rest of the year, the hut remained empty. But one day when Grandpa was riding, he discovered that a small family – father, mother, small son – had taken up residence.
Soon afterward, he noticed that one of his steers near the straw stack beside the hut had grown quite fat and was ready for slaughter. He determined to drive it home later that day.
But when he got back, the steer was gone.
He searched for a while, even checking the river to see if it may have slipped under the ice, but found nothing.
Finally, he called at the hut.
The man told him – in rather sharp tones – that he hadn’t seen the steer and hoped he’d never see it.
Grandpa was surprised at his answer and couldn’t imagine why the man would speak to him in such a manner.
As he returned to his horse near the straw stack, he noticed a leg of an animal in the straw. Kicking around, he discovered a second leg. Both were the same colour as the missing steer.
Mounting his horse, he immediately rode to the nearest RNWMP detachment at Standoff, Alberta.
Returning with the officer, the two of them searched through the straw stack until they found two more legs and a branded hide.
It was definitely the steer Grandpa had been missing.
They went to the hut but received no answer to their knock. Finally, the policeman announced loudly that he was entering.
After a short search, the meat from the slaughtered animal was found under the floorboards.
The officer took the man into custody and instructed Grandpa to meet them in Standoff.
When Grandpa arrived, the man, his wife and son and most of their worldly goods were there in the outer office. The police had laid charges and the man had been remanded until the next sitting of the court in Fort MacLeod.
Sometime in January.
This was a few days before Christmas.
It was at this time Grandpa discovered the desperate situation of the young family. Newly arrived from England, they had been unable to find work. Family living in the area had not been able to help and they were perilously near starvation.
Grandpa was shocked. Muttering that he never would have pressed charges if he’d known the circumstances, he stared at the little family, trying to decide what could be done.
Finally, he packed the woman, her son and belongings into his car and toted the entire entourage back to his house.
And there they stayed. The woman helped out wherever she could and the son played with my dad and uncles and aunts.
When the man came to trial, he pleaded guilty, but was – at my Grandpa’s suggestion – sentenced to time served and allowed to leave. The little family made their way to Toronto.
It was years before the rest of the family knew why the woman and her son had come to stay. Grandpa had told them only that they needed some help.
And he had provided it.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

No Ordinary Insurance Agent

Dad was making a trip into town to see Mr. Hovan.

His insurance agent.
My brother, George, and I fought over who would be the first in the car.
Now, I'm sure you're wondering what there could possibly be at an insurance agent's office that would interest two children, aged six and four, respectively.
It would be a legitimate question.
Maybe I should explain . . .
Mr. Hovan had an office in the old railroad station in Milk River.
It was an unremarkable place.
Slat-covered windows.
Certificate and picture-hung walls.
Creaky, wood floors.
Heavy, smooth oak chairs with arms.
Tall, wooden filing cabinets.
Stacks of folders and papers.
And in one corner, a very serviceable desk, piled high with paperwork.
It smelled of old building. Dust, books and paper.
On the surface, there really was nothing that would entrance and amaze anyone.
But Mr. Hovan's office held a secret.
A very special secret hidden deep in the very bottom drawer of that oh, so serviceable desk and accessible only upon reports/illustrations of exemplary behaviour.
A whole heap of magic.
In shiny, brown wrappers.
Hershey bars.
But we couldn't ask for them.
Oh, no.
We had to wait patiently and quietly, seated in those hard wooden chairs, while Dad conducted his business.
Trying hard to look anywhere but at that drawer.
Then, if we had been 'good', we would be invited over.
The much-anticipated drawer opened.
And the treasure revealed.
Only then could we avail ourselves of the treat.
Between you and I, Dad didn't visit his insurance agent nearly enough.

Well worth the wait.

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