Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Friday, May 22, 2015


Ready to ride
I had been Dad's herdsman for two months. I knew everything about cattle. Their needs. Their peculiarities. Not.
But I loved the job.
Every morning, I would drag out whatever goofball horse I was currently riding, tack up, and be off to check the herd.
This is a bit more complex than the statement suggests.
Yes, I would ride around the field. (I'd like to point out here that the aforementioned 'field' was roughly the size of a small town.) And yes, riding around it was pure joy to anyone as horse-crazy as I. But I also had to be on the look-out for any cows getting ready to calve.
Having trouble calving.
Already calved.
And anything else remotely resembling cows, calves and all their antecedent and potentially fatal problems.
Thus, the most important of my duties was watching alertly for signs of a cow having trouble.
This wasn't always easy to spot. For one thing, a cow preparing to give birth will hide herself so completely that she cannot be found.
Even with GPS.
Cows are funny that way.
Any other bodily function, they are happy to share with anyone and everyone. If they can do it, you are welcome to watch.
But when they are in labor (yes, they do experience labor) they head for nearest secret spot. Very, very secret. So secret that . . . well, let me put it this way: Jimmy Hoffa was probably hidden by a calving cow.
I must confess, I missed some of them in my travels.
Most of them were fine and I would ride out the next day and spot yet another little red and white baby 'hidden' in the tall grass.
Some weren't, and those either required immediate help.
Or burial.
Ranching can be a brutal business.
On this particular bright and sunny spring day, I had just started my sweep. I was feeling particularly cheerful because the days were getting noticeably warmer and most of the snow was gone.
I directed my horse along the north side of the pasture, heading east. There were less trees there and movement was easy. Then I swung back, just inside the tree line.
There! A suspicious patch of red! I slid off my horse and investigated. Sure enough, a cow. An almost completely exhausted cow.
I circled her quietly, trying to see the business end of things.
Yes, definitely calving. As I watched, she strained.
But something was wrong. She had obviously been at this a while, but was making no visible progress.
I finally got a clear view of her back end. I could see a pink calf's nose.
And one little white hoof.
I must point out here that a calf normally presents with a little pink nose and two little white hooves. It's two front feet and head enter the world together, followed immediately by the rest of the body, a stubby white-tipped tail and two little rear hooves.
The appearance of one hoof means that the little guy is trying to come through with one foot and leg tucked behind him, forcing the shoulder to bulge.
Making him entirely the wrong shape to come via the normal entrance.
There are only two solutions: Push the calf back inside and quickly, very quickly, get your hand around that recalcitrant hoof and pull it forward.
Or find a vet for an immediate caesarian.
My dad was a vet and could easily have performed the needed surgery. But there was over a mile between him and my patient.
I considered my options for a very brief time, then decided on option two.
I jumped on my horse and proceeded to herd my uncomfortable mother-to-be towards the ranch buildings.
We made it halfway across the field.
She wasn't making any detours and the straightest route to the gate was over the last remaining snow bank. She tried to push through. She didn't get very far.
She sank into the drift with a groan and . . . stayed there.
I immediately slid off my horse again and approached.
By this point, the poor thing was oblivious to my presence. I had a very short time to do something and very few tools at my disposal to do it with.
I looked down at my shirt, a long-sleeved, button-up variety. It would have to do.
Placing a gentle hand on that little nose, I shoved the calf back inside it's mother.
Then I slid my hand in beside it and felt for that wayward hoof.
There it was! I cupped it in my hand and pulled it forward.
It slid easily.
I released my hold on the wet nose and it slid towards light and life once more. But this time, it was accompanied by two hooves.
I stripped off my shirt, tied the sleeves around each of those little feet and, bracing a boot against the mamma's backside, heaved.
The little, shivering, wet calf slid out.
Into my lap.
But any disgust or outright repugnance was immediately dispelled when the little guy (yes, it was a boy) shook his head and I heard those wet ears slap weakly against his head.
He was alive!
Belying the manner in which she had entered the snow bank, the mother immediately struggled to her feet and turned around to see her new baby.
Ignoring me completely, she started licking him.
He bleated softly and she 'mmmmm-ed' at him.
I was no longer needed. I took myself off for home.
And a bath.

There is a codicil.
My father raised only purebred Polled Hereford cattle. And each animal was required to have its own registration papers. I can still picture him seated at his desk, trying to come up with imaginative names that not only identified the animal, but also connected it in some way to its parents and to the Stringam Ranch.
The last part was easy. All names began with SSS.
The naming of my little calf posed no additional difficulty, either.
Daddy named him SSS Shirttail.
No explanations needed.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Making History

A whole new meaning to 'roasted grains'.
May 9, 1969. 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 aforementioned ‘unfettered enthusiasm’.
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 Sheriff tried his best to keep us away.
Keep us safe.
He even went so far as to order all of the kids back to school.
We scampered to obey.
I'll let you believe that for a moment . . .
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.
Meanwhile, the Stringams were back to hearing, “Spring!” every morning.
Once or twice, 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.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Bread Mouse

My Mom. World's Best Bread Maker
I love bread.
Freshly baked or cooled. Whole wheat. White. Multi-grain. Potato. Sourdough. Soda. Banana. Rye. Leavened. Unleavened.
Have I mentioned that I love bread?
I could have lived on it.
Fortunately, my Mom made the best bread on the planet. And I knew this how . . .?
Okay, the best bread in my four-year-old world.
Twice a week, Mom would drag out her large, white ceramic bowl and start assembling the magical ingredients. She would add, then stir. Add, then stir. I especially loved it when she would make potato bread because it was so much fun watching her force the cooked, cooled potatoes through the colander.
Finally, the best part, when the mixture had turned into a ball of dough.
Then, Mom would punch and turn. Punch and turn.
And she would always give me a little piece to play with.
Dutifully, I would wash my hands, then reach, with eager fingers, for my piece.
I probably should mention that my little white ball of dough usually changed quite quickly to a little grey ball of dough. Obviously, four-year-old hand washing left much to be desired. And Mom must have noticed, because my tiny, little loaf never went into the oven . . .
In no time, six huge, beautifully golden-brown, perfectly shaped loaves emerged magically from the oven. And took their place of honour on the cupboard to cool.
And they smelled like Heaven. And I knew that how . . .?
Alright. Alright. They smelled like my four-year-old version of Heaven.
And they were just asking to be sliced and eaten with some freshly-churned butter.
Impatiently, I would follow my Mom around the kitchen, begging for a piece.
Now. While it was still warm.
And always, she would say, patiently, “In a minute, Diane. They have to cool a bit so they don't make you sick.”
Mom had told me many times about the little boy who had eaten a whole loaf of hot bread and who had to go to the hospital because the bread turned to a hard lump in his stomach.
And I believed her.
I did.
My stomach didn't, though, and it had to be re-convinced every time. “But Mom . . .”
Finally, she would sigh and relent, grabbing the big bread knife and carefully cutting through the crusty outside and into the wondrous middle.
Soon, I was sitting at the big kitchen table, happily munching my way through a large slice of fresh bread and butter.
This had to be done right.
I had tried on numerous occasions, to convince my Mom that crusts were simply to keep the yummy centre from drying out. But she had a thing about 'wasting food'. So, the crust was removed and quickly eaten, to get it out of the way. Then I could eagerly dive into the best part. The wonderfully soft centre.
It isn't possible to be happier.
I would lick my fingers carefully and then stab at any crumbs that might have fallen, collecting them on one fingertip. More licking.
When I had eaten everything possible, I would get to my feet and start following my Mom around the kitchen again. “Mo-om . . .”
The most I ever conned her out of were two pieces. Even if I didn't believe the 'little boy' story, Mom did.
But I outsmarted her. Sort of.
One afternoon, Mom had given my siblings and I our quota of fresh bread.
Then she, and they, all headed for the garden.
I was alone in the kitchen. With half a loaf of fresh bread.
My day had come.
I should probably point out, here, that I had tried, on numerous occasions, to slice fresh bread properly. Each attempt was a dismal failure.
I would start out all right, then the knife would turn one way or the other and I would end up, not with a slice, but a wedge. Which still tasted fine, just looked funny.
And made my Mom mad . . .
So, slicing was out.
I glanced around. The coast was still clear. How could I get that yummy bread from the cupboard into me?
I reached up and touched the soft, white centre. Pressed it, slightly. Watched it spring back so invitingly.
I pinched at it and managed to pull off a small piece.
I stuck it into my mouth.
I pinched off another piece. Bigger this time.
I dug at the loaf.
A really big piece.
And, quite suddenly, I realized that all I needed to get at the wonderful, soft, white interior, was two little hands.
And ten handy little fingers which I just happened to bring along with me.
In the next few minutes, I scooped out every crumb of soft, white goodness, leaving just the crusty, outside shell.
Okay. Now. How to hide the evidence.
I stared at the shell of a loaf. Huh. Maybe if I just turn it.
I flipped it over on its face.
Perfect! Mom will never know!
Have I mentioned that Mom always . . .
Okay, I'll move on . . .
The first thing Mom did when she came into the kitchen was tip the loaf back up.
Rats. Moms do those things. What's with that?
“What happened here?”
I stared at her mutely. How could I get out of this one . . .?
“It looks like we have a little mouse.”
Genius! Why didn't I think of that? I smiled and nodded. Yep. Mouse. Moms are so smart.
“Diane. Don't eat all the bread.”
I stared at her. What about the mouse?
She put her hand on my head. “It's not good for you to eat so much bread, Honey.”
Oh, yeah. The hospital thing.
“Promise me you won't do it again.”
I nodded, my eyes on the bread-shell on the cupboard.
“Good girl.”
I didn't get sick, like the little boy. But I also didn't ever dig at a loaf of bread again. I learned to eat the whole thing a slice at a time. By cutting it with a knife.
Like civilized people.
But there is a codicil . . .
Years later, after I married, I discovered that my husby came from a family of bread-lovers, just like me. Except that his family had fought, not for the soft, yummy centre, but for the crusty outside of his Mother's delicious bread.
Often, if one end crust had been taken, the other was cut off. If both ends were gone, the next logical choice was the top. Then the bottom.. Then the sides.
It wasn't unusual for my Mother-in-law to find a bread centre, lying naked on the cutting board.
Why couldn't I have been raised in that family?
Everyone would have been happy.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Getting 'Dress'ed

And yes, that's me. Far right. Second row. Dressed in my best.
A Dress?!
Mom wanted me to wear a dress? To school?
I had somehow slipped into an alternate universe.

Mom and Dad were planning a trip. A long trip.
I was five. Anything more than an hour was a long trip.
I was being farmed out at my cousin Jody's place for the duration.
And during that time, my grade one class was to have its first, ever school pictures taken.
Way, way beyond exciting.
Then, the bad news. Mom expected me to dress up for this photo op. And I do mean 'dress'.
My life was over.
She dropped me and my little suitcase off at Uncle Jay and Aunt Jesse's and waved happily as she drove out of the yard.
A little too happily.
Jody grabbed my hand and dragged me to her room. From then until bedtime, we were a blur of activity.
In the morning, as per instructions, I dragged out the hated dress and laid it on the bed.
We regarded each other.
Then I glanced down at the small bag where I had stuffed my play clothes the night before. My little 'snap' shirt and jeans. So much more comfortable.
And really not that dirty.
And, best of all, my Mom would never know.
I smiled. My decision was made.
Have I mentioned that a great many of my decisions really weren't what you would call thought through? And that, somehow, Mom always found out?
She was magic.
I wadded up my dress and shoved it back into my suitcase. Then I happily pulled on my shirt and jeans and snapped them up.
I was ready.
Aunt Jesse smiled at us when we presented ourselves for breakfast. Jody in her pretty little dress.
And me.
"Didn't your Mom send any clothes for picture day?"
I shook my head and mutely indicated what I was wearing.
Aunt Jesse frowned at me doubtfully, then finally shrugged and put another pancake on my plate.
Soon we were on the bus and all thought of itchy, restricting dresses was driven from my mind.
Grade One, with Miss Woronoski, was always wonderful, but this day was especially exciting as we anticipated our first, ever, class photos.
Okay, I know it sounds mundane. But we were five.
Everything's exciting when you're five . . .
The time came. Miss Woronoski lined us up for the parade down the hall to the 'photo' room. She arranged us neatly on chairs. The photographer told us to smile. The flash went.
Then, one by one, each of us sat in the lone chair to one side, to have our individual pictures taken. It was more excitement than my five year old self could handle.
And then, it was over. Our little faces had been captured. Immortalized for all time.
Along with what we had chosen to wear.
Some weeks later, our teacher handed out our pictures. I pulled mine out and stared at it. Look! It's me! And there we all were! My whole class.
Pictures were definitely things of beauty!
I tossed it to my Mom as I climbed into the car. "Pictures, Mom!"
She set it aside till we reached home.
By then I had forgotten all about it.
Later, my Mom called me into the kitchen. She was holding my small, brown envelope in one hand, and my pictures in the other.
"Diane, what happened here?"
I glanced down at the pictures and smiled. "Pictures, Mom." Okay, so quick, I wasn't.
"Yes, but what happened to the dress I sent for you to wear?"
I froze. My mind shuttling around frantically for an answer to her question. "Ummm . . ."
"Did you wear your play clothes to school on picture day?"
"Well . . ."
"Diane, I told you to wear your pretty dress!"
I stared at her, my eyes narrowed. How did you know?! Aunt Jesse told you, didn't she?!
Mom waved the picture. "Look at all of your friends in their nice clothes."
I glanced down. Then up at her again.
"Didn't you want to look nice?"
But I did look nice! My favorite shirt. My favorite jeans. I frowned. What was the problem?
Mom sighed. "Never mind."
I smiled and went off happily to play.

It's nearly 55 years since that day. A short time ago, my husband took me to see Tosca, performed by the Metropolitan Opera.
It was an exciting evening. One we had been anticipating for a very long time.
Grant was standing at the door, dressed in his finest. He looked at me. "Ready to go?"
I nodded.
He looked down. "Maybe you will want to wear something other than jeans and a shirt?"
Some things never change . . .

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Snow Boots

The Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta for the electoral district of Cardston needed to make sure he received his mail. Daily.
My Uncle Bryce, Dad’s next older brother like to play tricks on Dad.
And my Dad couldn’t get his boots off.
These statements go together. I know; it doesn’t appear to make sense to me either.
Maybe I should explain . . .
For three terms, my grandfather, George L. Stringam served as the MLA for Cardston, living, at the time, in the village of Glenwood – a small, sleepy little town about 34 Km (21 Mi) away. In the year 1930, Glenwood was a fairly progressive place, with many modern conveniences. One of which was the daily delivery of the mail.
As the MLA, Grandpa needed that mail.
His son, Bryce was assigned the task of retrieval.
Now a bit of background: Although motor vehicles were quite common in Glenwood in 1930, the heavy winter snows usually curtailed their use except under certain circumstances. The retrieval of the mail was important. Let’s just say it wasn’t important enough to drag out the car.
Thus the seven or eight blocks to the Post Office had to be covered either on foot, or by some horse-drawn conveyance.
Eschewing the former in favour of the latter, Bryce hitched up a single horse to the small stone boat and prepared to drive across town. Then he invited his youngest brother to join him on the adventure. Seven-year-old Mark happily climbed aboard.
Now, remember where I said that Bryce like to play tricks on his small brother? That would come into play here . . .
Bryce instructed Dad to sit at the very rear of the sled, facing backwards, to avoid getting a faceful of snow. Dad did as he was told and discovered, as Bryce got the rig underway, that it was true. The snow blew past him without any of it getting into unwanted places. Bryce appeared to have his little brother’s comfort in mind.
Appearances can be misleading.
After they had proceeded a few blocks, Bryce steered the horse off the packed main part of the street and into the drifts at the side.
The resulting cloud of snow came over the sides of the boat and straight down onto the small boy happily swinging his rubber-booted feet at the back.
Filling those boots instantly with snow.
Now it wasn’t a very cold day, and the trip was short, so Dad really wasn’t that uncomfortable.
Until they got home.
It was then he discovered that, not only were his boots as full of snow as they could possibly get, but said snow was jammed so hard that the small boy was quite unable to remove them without larger, stronger help.
Dad shuffled into the house and sat there on the floor while a rather shame-faced Bryce quite literally pried the boots off his little brother’s feet.
The good news?
Bryce was right. Dad didn’t get snow in his face.

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