Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Thursday, July 30, 2015

'PG' Playgrounds

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 two sides and large double doors on the third.
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. Machines with incomprehensible names like: drill press, belt-sander, and air compressor, and 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. 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 he fourth 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. Our accuracy left much to be desired, however, which was probably a good thing.
You should know that oil can 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.
I know. 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.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

We'll Sing As We Go

Dad. He of the wondrous voice.
My Dad loved to sing.
Fortunately, for the rest of us, he had a very nice voice.
And great rhythm.
It's just his timing that needed 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 favourite diversion, unavoidably made me carsick.
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.
I think I can hear him still . . .

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Going Home

On our way to the ranch. Five siblings, three nephews and one niece.
During our travels earlier this summer, my Husby, siblings and I took the opportunity of visiting the 'Old Ranch'.
The ranch, nestled in a crook of the south fork of the Milk River that is the basis and background to so many of my memories.
Most of what was there before is gone - lost in a terrible grass fire that swept much of the area three years ago.
The barn, scene of so many adventures has been reduced to a cracked sheet of cement.
The only reminder of the extensive corrals are the slabs that held waterers and feed troughs.
Outbuildings - feed storage, small barns, tool sheds - all have disappeared.
We wandered about - even climbing to the top of the 'old machinery hill' - so named because that's where we parked the old machinery.
Okay, so creative, we weren't.
Someone else's machinery was parked there.
We did find a great old gate - a friend that we had all swung on whenever Dad couldn't see us . . .
We paced around, remembering stories and experiences that were generated by what had once stood there.
Then we walked over to the ranch house. The lone survivor of the conflagration.
And received a true shock. The house is sound. Sturdy.
And in most respects, exactly as it was when I last set foot in it over forty years ago.
The fixtures, walls, ceilings, even the arborite in the bathrooms were the same.
The very same.
When my parents built the house, they had installed fine mahogany panelling in the front room and Dad's office.
Light switches were modern, gold coloured, wedge-shaped marvels.
And the bathroom was equipped with green fixtures. Not the olive green of the seventies, but a mint green of the early sixties.
And still there.
We wandered through, exclaiming over new discoveries in every room.
The words, "Oh, I remember this!" echoed continually.
One could almost picture Mom taking something out of the oven and Dad sitting in his easy chair, boots off, waiting for dinner. Or the family gathered in the front room, eagerly anticipating the Sunday night lineup of TV programs. Or the sound of the milk separator signalling that outside chores had been finished for the day.
Oh, there were some changes. The floor coverings had gone to laminate from carpet and lino and the great mantel and fireplace that had dominated that front room had vanished.
But, after witnessing the devastation in the barn yard, seeing the sameness indoors was a great joy.
And a relief.
Some things still do exist.
Reminders of that childhood from which my siblings and I sprang.
It really happened.

The river today.
Nephew, Josh on the fence that surrounds the house and yard. Needs paint, but still the same.

Monday, July 27, 2015


Paradise flowed right around the main Stringam Ranch buildings.
Siblings with cousins.
To the adult residents of the ranch, it was the South Fork of the Milk River.
To us, it was a muddy, murky playground. 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 to 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?) 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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