Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Saturday, May 16, 2015

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 . . .
1. 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 Del Bonita, fifteen miles away.)
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.
2. 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.
The ranch was suddenly antiseptically clean. (Well, not quite, but you get the picture . . .)
I got in everyone's way. Okay, this was normal, but I didn't want you to think I wasn't proactive. 
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. We never did find out exactly why . . .
But everyone's stretched nerves and feelings of anticipation were not wasted. The movie crew might not have shown up. 
But something else did.
3. The flood.
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 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.
It topped the high cliff bank.
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.
Often, our family would stand on the house 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.
Our yard. And rubberneckers.

Closer view. Our yard.
Usually there is a road (and a cliff)
between us and the river.

Brooder House. It survived.
Old bridge, new bridge
and very, very wet equipment

Friday, May 15, 2015

Our Lady

Age and/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 . . .
Or multiple riders.
That worked as well . . .
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 . . . tail . . . 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 said 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 sitting in her saddle.
Many times, if her rider was particularly inattentive, she turned right out from under and 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 discover that the hardest thing about learning to ride was the prairie.
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 other 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 gait 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.
Feisty little Rebel

The Amazing Shammy.


Which of these things is not like the others . . .
My littlest sibling, Anita (she's so cute!)
With King Prancer. Another early ride.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Heavy Wishes

Let's see you squeeze out of that...
I found myself a genie.
Inside a bottle, too.
His master’d had a master Chef who’s rated ‘Cordon Bleu’.

Now, this may sound quite harmless,
In fact, it could be nice.
I know I’ve dreamed of such a cook in my life, once or twice.

But decades of indulgence,
And little of restraint,
And even genies can succumb to lures that’d try a saint.

It’s simple mathematics.
If it don’t come out, it stays.
And somehow settles on the hips and on the stomach, lays.

And so it was with Genie.
I guess he’s just like me.
I'd rather eat those past-e-ries and, Oh! Do you have brie?

So, now, I hold the bottle,
I’m ready for my wish,
But years of gross indulgence have made things rather squished.

Good thing the bottle’s pliable.
Good thing the walls are thin.
Bad thing that Mr. Genie weighed much less when he went in.

But I am so resourceful,
I won’t even need a fork,
I’ll simply squeeze the bottle – he will exit - like a cork.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Treasure. And Vegetables.

The Old Garage.
Look out below . . .
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.
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 . . .
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, of necessity, have to be brief.
And very, very 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.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The True Story

A guest post by Blair Stringam

Shammy. And humanoids.
Did you ever think about something that you did in the past and wonder “what was I thinking?”
If you have then we understand each other.
If you haven't then I guess you have your ducks all in a row.
I don’t.
My sister has told this story to you before, but I need to set the record straight . . .
When I was a wee lad of 5 years, summer on the ranch was a daily adventure. There were lots of places to explore, frogs to catch at the river, horses to ride, chickens to watch (they were very strange) and barns to explore. 
But one thing I was not allowed to do. Accompany my two older sisters on trail rides. 
The epitome of fun. The ultimate in summer adventures.
For everyone  but me.
And so I pestered.
I pestered until one day they finally relented and allowed me to follow them. And even more exciting? My sisters decided that we were not only going on a trail ride but we were going to have a picnic as well. I was beyond ecstatic.
I was to ride my horse Shammy, a very fat, very quiet, very gentle welsh pony that dad had given to me on my 3rd birthday.
We saddled our horses. Well, my sisters saddled the horses. I couldn't reach up high enough to pull the cinch tight.
We climbed aboard and headed out across the river with my sisters leading the way. Just after we crossed, we picked up a cattle trail that followed, first the river, then a fence line up a steep embankment. 
I should note here: When fences follow steep embankments there are often high and low spots. Now, placing fence posts in the high and low spots is not a problem in itself, but when you string tight wires between said posts, it tends to pull the lower ones out of the ground. There are clever things that ranchers do to try to stop this but sometimes the posts have minds of their own.
Illustration by Blair.

Back to my story . . .
One of the posts in the fence we were following had pulled out of the ground and was hanging over the trail.
Chris rode by and ducked under the post. I watched her do this. Then Diane rode by and ducked under the post. I watched her do that as well.
Then I rode up to the post.
And didn't.
I don't know why.
It hit me (or I hit it) square on my forehead and I was peeled off the back of my horse.  I landed in a heap and began to cry.
I was mad and I was not going to be consoled even though my sisters were being very kind and soothing. Then (I think in desperation) Chris finally said, “Look at Shammy.  She thinks you are being silly.” 
I looked up at Shammy, who was standing just a few feet ahead.
She was looking back at me with a very puzzled expression on her face.
I was suddenly embarrassed and stopped crying immediately. A cowboy has to tough when he is around his horse.
I climbed back up, hoping that Shammy wouldn’t remember my moment of weakness.
We resumed our trail ride, had our picnic and went home.
Another note: Maybe Shammy didn't remember, but my sisters obviously did. 
It was a long time before I was allowed to go on a trail ride again.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Company Manners

The dinner was exquisite.
Every preparation completed.
Pressed, linen tablecloth. Pristine, individual napkins. The finest china and crystal.
Polished silverware.
And that’s where everything came to grief.
But I am getting ahead of myself . . .
My Dad’s eldest sister, Emily was hostess-ing a dinner party.
For her good friend and fellow teacher, Miss Duff.
It was to be a fairly formal affair, designed to impress her friend with the fact that Emily belonged to an excellent family of good breeding and proper deportment.
For a woman who taught proper deportment every day in her Home Economics classes, this was of vital importance.
Unfortunately, she made one mistake.
She invited said family.
All was ready.
Everything laid out in faultless order.
Emily glowed with pride as she surveyed her impeccable arrangements.
The invited guest and the family members assembled.
Amidst quiet exclamations over the exquisite settings and appetizing platters of choice food, everyone took their places.
My Dad, then fifteen, glanced down.
In keeping with the impression she was trying to convey, Emily had given each person their own polished and shining butter knife.
Maybe I should mention here that this wasn’t the usual tradition. No. In the Stringam household, one communal butter plate and a single knife were the norm.
Back to my story . . .
Dad picked up the knife. Made a show of studying it carefully.
Then held it aloft. “Erm . . . Emily?”
She looked at him.
“What is this for?”
All of her meticulous preparation and her attempts to appear elegant and refined were gone in an instant.
She put everything she had into the glare she levelled at her youngest brother.
Who simply grinned.
Just a note: If you are planning on hosting a party. And hoping for a chance to show your guests how refined and decorous your family is . . .
Don’t invite your family.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

I Miss You, Mom

Daughter. Wife. Mother. Friend. Parent. Confident.
I have lots of stories about my Mom.
Favourite stories.
And in my mind, the woman at the center of each of them is still vibrantly alive and busy.
If I walk into the next room, I will hear her tell me, "I'm going to stop buying that peanut butter. You kids just eat it!"
Or if I open the fridge, "What's wrong with that milk?! There's nothing wrong with that milk! It tastes just fine!"
Or better yet, "Don't eat that! It's for Christmas!"
When I look out the window, she'll be out there in the garden, hoeing or harvesting. Hauling around her paint sprayer to put on just 'one more coat'. Sprinting to the top of a corral fence because some bull objected to her presence there.
Hauling feed to cattle, pigs, chickens and dogs.
Turning around, I'll see her seated at the kitchen table, writing a short story or poem. Or occasionally snatching a few minutes to read an article in the Reader's Digest.
Or studying the scriptures and preparing Sunday School lessons.
I can see her cooking and baking endlessly in her scrupulously clean kitchen as she prepares feasts for an endless stream of children and hired men.
Or straining the socially acceptable language barriers as she copes with a recalcitrant sewing machine while making yet another article of clothing for one of her six children.
'Accidentally' ringing the ranch bell.
Hitting a home run to the delight of some and the dismay of others.
I can see her skating across the ice, spinning and dipping and coming to a breathless halt.
Kissing countless booboos and rescuing heedless children from hair-raising escapades.
Taking smiles and meals to someone who needs exactly those things. In that order.
Knitting and crocheting for everyone except herself.
In fact, spending every moment of every day in service to others.
And happy to do it.
All I have to do is turn around - or pick up the phone - and she'll be there.

Then reality pays a short visit.

My brother, brushing.

Brother and Sister-in-Law, trimming and sweeping.


All dressed.

She's there.
In my mind.
Busy. Happy. Healthy.
Someday, I'll see her again. Someday.
I miss you, Mom.
Happy Mother's Day!

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