Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Ranch Zoo

Bambi and four of her pets
Baby antelope kisses

A ranch is a different place to grow up.
Miles from any other humans, one never worries about what the 'neighbours will think'.
Also because of the distance between homesteads, one has to become very self-reliant.
One doesn't drive half an hour to borrow a cup of sugar or a can of soup.
One makes do.
And learns to plan ahead.
Kids growing up on a ranch make their own entertainment.
Well, at least they did in the 50s and 60s.
Electronics hadn't been invented yet.
There was one channel on the TV.
And talking on the phone wasn't the private enterprise it is today. (It could be entertaining, though. But that is another story.)
Entertainment consisted of visiting with your family.
Playing games. Also with said family.
Swinging from ropes in the hay loft.
And, of course, playing with your pets.
On our ranch, there were all the usual pets one would expect.
An assortment of barn cats. The end result of years of 'spur of the moment' cat sex.
Dogs. All brought in from other ranches and, unlike the aforementioned cats, strictly controlled.
Some were a little harder to hide in your bedroom. (ie. Ponies. And yes, I tried.)
Assorted baby animals, found by me and subsequently (good word) turned out of the house by my unenlightened mother.
And then, at least on our ranch, the animals you wouldn't expect.
Wild animals who had been injured or orphaned.
And just needed some care and a place to stay.
A litter of coyote pups. Discovered by my father after finding a dead, female coyote.
A seagull. Found near the road, unable to fly.
Countless frogs.
A snake or two.
Several mice.
Did you know that a baby porcupine is really, really cute?
Well they are.
Moving on . . .
And several baby deer.
These wilder 'pets' didn't stay around long.
As they grew, they began to pose some problems.
Wild animals, no matter how cute, simply don't domesticate.
Regardless of how hard you try.
Or how much you talk to them.
One baby deer, given the surprising name of 'Bambi', got quite aggressive, especially with my toddling baby sister.
I don't know what she thought Baby Sister was.
But she didn't like it and tried to express herself with sharp hooves.
After a tearful good-bye she, like most of them, went to a zoo.
But, for a time, they all belonged to our family.
I still think befriending and spending time with them was better than any form of electronic entertainment.And you must know, I'm always right.

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Smell of Employment

Who would you hire?
To a cowboy looking for employment in the 50s, the Stringam spread proved enticing.
Many times, someone would ride in with everything he owned on his back and in his saddle bags.
Usually at mealtimes.
Invariably he would be invited to put up his horse and stay to eat.
The interview had begun.
During the meal, everyone seated around the table would ply the newcomer with questions:
Where are you from?
Where have you been?
Where are you going?
But the boss would be watching for answers to the unasked questions.
By the end of the meal, his decision would be made.
And the cowboy would be directed to the bunkhouse.
Or the highway.
We often wondered how Dad did it.
How could he tell what kind of a man/hand this stranger would be?
He finally let us in on his secret.
Or secrets.
By the way the man swung into the saddle and handled his horse, Dad could tell he'd had lots of experience.
The fact that he treated his horse with affection and respect told Dad he was trustworthy.
He carried very little tack, so Dad knew he wasn't a thief.
He'd worked at the Bar K/Night Ranch/Q Ranch for two years and Dad knew their standards and expectations, so the man had been well-trained.
And last, he wasn't flamboyant in his dress. No ten-gallon hat or silver, big-rowelled spurs. The man had his needs and wants under control.
He was hired.
My Dad was seldom wrong.
Although once, some . . . refining was needed.
Let me explain . . .
Luke rode into the ranch yard, looking for work.
He was invited to loosen his girthstrap and join the boys for dinner.
He complied.
Talk was general as the boys got to know him.
There seemed to be a broad consensus that Luke was okay.
Everyone looked at Dad.
Who nodded.
Luke was directed to the bunkhouse and given a bunk.
The door closed.
And that's when everyone got the first whiff of Luke's one . . . drawback.
Luke didn't like water.
More particularly, washing in it.
At first, the boys were subtle.
Opening the windows.
And then the doors.
Then they started making comments.
“Whew! It sure smells in here!”
“I think someone needs a bath!”
Which got more pointed.
“Yak! I'm choking to death!”
With looks directed at the offending party.
Luke remained stubbornly oblivious.
Finally, the rest of the boys grabbed their bedrolls and toted them to the big ranch house.
“Morning, Ma'am,” the first one said. “We're moving into your attic!”
“Yep. There's poison gas in the bunk house,” the second one said.
“We're choking to death!” said a third.
And they did.
Move in, I mean. Not die.
Mom turned to Dad, eyebrows raised.
Dad shrugged his shoulders. “I'll talk to them,” he said.
He must have.
Because that evening, the boys moved back into their bunk house.
Then roped Luke, hauled him down to the river and scrubbed him down themselves.
All was quiet for a week.
Till glances and remarks indicated that the next 'bathing' was being contemplated.
This time, Luke hauled himself to the river and scrubbed off.
From then on, all one of the boys had to do was take down his rope.
And Luke would scurry for the shower.
Oh, he complained. “Too much water is bad for the health!”
His words, not mine.
But he did it.
And the sweet, clean air of the Alberta prairies once more wafted through the bunkhouse.
Hiring is a tricky business.
But with discernment, skill . . .
And soap . . .
It can be done.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Not Completely Clean

Okay, there are only six here. But you get the picture . . .
Mom is third from the left.
Bath time has changed over the past century.
The concept of indoor plumbing is actually very recent.
In my mother's day, running water in the house meant that some enterprising and resourceful person had built the house over the well.
And designed the kitchen so that the sink was situated perfectly to accommodate the pump.
Right where the water was needed.
Clear and cold.
Directly from the ground.
Heating it to a decent temperature for such things as cooking and cleaning was a whole other process.
So . . . bath time.
I should mention, here, that I wasn't present for any of this.
I'm telling it as my mom told me.
Every Saturday night, Gramma Berg would pull out the large tub and set it in the middle of the kitchen floor.
Then painstakingly fill it bucket by bucket.
She had nine children, eight boys and my mom, to scrub.
And one tub to do it in.
The youngest went in first.
Then the second youngest.
All went well to this point.
Though the water was getting a bit . . . soapy.
But that is where her system inevitably broke down.
The fifth youngest son always exhibited the same reaction to stepping into warm water.
He peed.
In the water.
Every time.
And my Mom, who stood next in line would get a little . . . perturbed.
Gramma always tried to soothe her only daughter by pointing out that the water was mostly clean and soapy. And that Mom would get a good rinse with clean water.
But Mom was only slightly mollified (real word.)
I often wondered why, in my time, my mother so enjoyed her baths.
I didn't have to go back very far to find out.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Sibling Summer

The crew. With one small addition.
When I was 10, my dad had the opportunity to buy a second small ranch just over an hour from the home spread. Near the town of Coaldale, Alberta.
It would have been a logistical nightmare for one man to run both places, so he had two choices.
A - put a foreman and workers on the second place, or B - park some of his children and one cousin there.
Because Dad was a frugal man, he went with plan B and, at the beginning of the summer, myself and my three older siblings and our cousin, Michael, found ourselves in a tidy little ranch house nestled in a fold of the prairie.
My eldest sister, age 17 served as chief cook and bottle-washer.
My two older brother, ages 15 and 12, as general cow hands.
My cousin, wherever he was needed.
And me, as ballast.
Our jobs were properly delineated and we went to them with a will.
Chris cooked.
Jerry and George brought in the hay crop and tended the cattle.
Michael moved between them.
And I read and showed up for meals.
Oh, and rode my horse.
It was a learning, growing experience for all of us.
Simply managing such an operation would have been challenge, but this ranch was unique.
It was also infested with rattlesnakes.
One day, while stacking hay, my oldest brother sat down on a bale to rest. There was a sudden buzz at his feet. Without even thinking, he simply pitched sideways off the stack, neatly avoiding being bitten. Then he and his younger brother hunted down the culprit and disposed of it.
Can’t have rattlesnakes in the hay . . .
Then they coiled up the remains on the front step of the house and rang the doorbell.
Okay, I served two purposes on the ranch. Ballast and victim.
After that experience, I mostly remained inside the house. Only going outside to ride. Walking slowly and carefully and observantly.
The technique must have worked because my only other experience with anything slithery was during a ride to check the cows, when my mount leaped suddenly and nimbly into the air and I saw, beneath us in the grass, something long and skinny and very, very mobile.
Another memory from that summer was of my sister, busy in the kitchen.
Chris was making stew for supper. For a few minutes, she hunted around in the cupboards. Finally, she sighed. I asked her what was wrong.
“I don’t have any more flour,” she said. “Well, I’ll try . . .”
By this time I had lost interest and gone back to my reading.
I’ll never forget the stew she served that evening.
It was absolutely delicious.
Absolutely. Delicious.
Better than anything I had ever eaten.
I overheard her conversation with Jerry as I worked my way through a third helping.
Chris: I couldn’t find any flour for thickener.
Jerry: This is great. What did you do?
Chris: I used pancake mix.
Resourceful. And maybe a secret ingredient for delicious-ness?
It was a wonderful summer. Days of being cared for by older siblings. And cousin. (Sometime, I’ll tell you about my brother chasing off a mischievous bull using a bucket and a shovel.) Evenings spent playing five-handed solitaire. (It can be done.)
Learning that, if left on our own, we could succeed.
Our Coaldale summer.
I’ll never forget it.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Hay in the Teeth

If you look closely...
Recently we would have celebrated Daddy's 91st birthday.
That’s significant.
What else could I do but tell a story about him . . .
It was haying season.
In my day, that meant teams of two, one driving the tractor, one stooking.
In Dad’s day, it involved numerous men, horses, and hours and hours of back-breaking work.
This story is about Dad’s day.
The horse-pulled mower had been over the hayfield, cutting the long grasses.
They had been allowed to dry where they lay.
Another horse-powered machine, a rake, had been pulled over the area to turn and fluff and gather the still-drying grasses.
I should mention here that grasses have to be totally dried before they can be gathered and stored. Wet grass heaped into a pile will rot and stink and generally be disparaged by discerning cows.
Think of kids and broccoli.
Yeah. Like that.
But I digress . . .
Teams of men and horses were gathering the well-dried grasses, heaping them into wagons and hauling them to the main stack, where the hay sling (exactly what it sounds like) would be manoeuvred into position, pick up the hay, and swing it atop the big stack.
It was heavy, exacting work. The hay had to be stacked just right so it would stay in place and cure properly.
Dad’s brother, Bryce, had been the man atop the stack, directing the big sling.
He had other duties, so turned over the pivotal job to his baby brother.
My dad.
For the first three minutes, all went well.
Then the hay sling brought up a load.
It zigged.
Dad zagged.
And the long pole smacked him right in the mouth. Knocking his heretofore (Ooh! Good word!) buck teeth backwards into his mouth.
Don’t you hate it when that happens?
I’m sure there was pain and a lot of blood.
I know there was an attempt to press said teeth back into a proper position. An even better position than before. With partial results. Three tooth 'took'. Straight and perfect. The fourth didn't.
Finally, Dad was hauled to the family dentist and a new tooth, on an intricate framework, was installed.
As good as the old one. Almost.
At least it looked right.
From that day forward, Dad had a conversation starter.
Or stopper.
He would hide his tooth and grin his gap-toothed smile.
Or hang it out over a lip.
Okay, well, we kids thought it was hilarious.
And isn’t that what being a dad is all about?
Happy Birthday, Daddy! We miss you!
Slinging. See the guy on top?
Brings a whole new meaning to 'Watch your mouth'.



Monday, May 30, 2016


The quilt presented to my parents when they moved away...
In 1974, My parents sold their long-time holdings in Milk River, Alberta and bought a ranch in the Spring Point community nestled in the beautiful Porcupine Hills west of Fort Macleod, Alberta.
It was a difficult time for the entire family, leaving the home we had known for generations and putting down fresh roots in a place eighty miles away.
Okay, yes, our family members came with us.
As did our cattle and horses and daily chores.
But the scenery – and the neighbours – were different.
Especially the neighbours.
No longer did we have anyone who could reminisce with us about our years without phones.
Navigating sketchy gravel roads.
Trips into town.
Barn dances.
School bus rides.
Everything that simply went into being ‘neighbours’.
For a short time, we felt bereft. (Ooh, good word!)
Then, slowly, the people who lived in nearby ranches introduced themselves.
They proved to be kind, wonderful people.
All of them.
And we were welcomed.
We attended new celebrations.
Mom introduced the Spring Point community to the concept of quilting and started their first, ever, quilting club.
I met and married my Husby.
They were warm, wonderful years.
Our family was loved.
As Mom’s health worsened, my father took a position in another town and retired from ranching.
The rest of the family followed within a couple of years.
We do tend to stick together.
And the name ‘Stringam’ disappeared from the town rosters.
Moving ahead . . .
I was back in the ‘old stomping grounds’ once more.
I walked the old streets, but recognized no one.
Then I toured Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a World Heritage site which almost directly overshadows the old ranch.
And visited Heritage Acres, ditto.
I was speaking to one of the employees.
I mentioned that our family had lived just below the site.
She immediately asked who I was.
I told her.
“The Stringams!” she exclaimed. “Of course we remember you! Your Mom started the quilting club! It still meets. Every week!”
It’s been over forty years.
In Fort Macleod, there are only a few people who remember the Stringams and their few short years there.
But those that do . . .

Details from the quilt.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Pies of the Prairie

On the prairies, pies come in two forms.
The edible.
And the inedible.
One kind is made from prairie fruit.
The other comes from cows.
One smells wonderful.
The other . . . doesn't.
Just FYI.
Sooo . . . prairie fruit.
This comes in the form of raspberries, strawberries, some apples, choke cherries and saskatoons.
The first three are grown mostly in gardens.
The latter two, in the creases and folds of the landscape near water.
The first three can be picked at any time during the summer, as they ripen.
The last two need planning.
Especially the saskatoons.
Their picking requires a family adventure.
And that's where the fun comes in.
Sometime in the summer, Mom's stack of pails would magically appear.
It was the signal for all of us kids to quickly get into our swimming suits because we were making a trip to the river to pick berries and go for a swim.
The best of times.
Mom had several favourite berry-picking spots.
All of them thick with bushes.
And none of them near our house.
She would load us, our pails and our towels, into the car.
And in a cloud of dust, we were off.
The saskatoon bushes started at the top of the cliff.
And grew downward.
Toward the river.
You had to move carefully.
And hang on.
Like little goats, we would scamper all over those bushes.
Or . . . well, let's just stick with picking.
Mom's plan was always to have each of us fill a bucket.
Simple enough.
If kids hadn't also come equipped with mouths.
One handful into the bucket.
One handful into the mouth.
And so it went.
After a while, each of us would have half a bucket of berries.
A blue mouth.
And full tummy.
With the hot, summer sun shining down, the smell of baking sage and grass in ones nostrils, and one's family gathered around, it was pure heaven.
Then we would swim.
And to top it off, fresh saskatoon pie when we got home.
Did I mention the best of days?

P.S. Picking chokecherries wasn't nearly as much fun.
For one thing, they are SOUR.
But they make the nicest syrup.
And that is another story.

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