Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Hay! ing

Yeah. That year.
The hay is being put up here in northern Alberta.
Great, fragrant swaths of it are lying in the field. Great round or square bales of it awaiting transportation to the stack.
Monster machines cutting or binding or hauling.
How different from the days of my Berg uncles in the 50’s.
One winter in the late 1950’s there was a large accumulation of snow. That spring, with the abnormally heavy runoff, the Berry Creek was running higher than normal. About six feet higher.
Now normally, this wouldn’t be a problem.
Except it was haying time.
And my uncles (consisting of eldest--Glen, second--Bern and youngest--Leif and a hired man--Zoltan) had to cross that creek six times a day to get to and from the home place.
Not having a boat or barge, they were left with themselves. Uncle Glen had broken a leg earlier, and with it in a cast, was the only one consigned to riding a horse, who did the swimming for him.
The rest had to rely on their individual ability. For Bern, no problem. For Leif and Zoltan—well, let’s just say that looking at the 40 feet or so of lazily-moving water appeared to those two as a raging torrent of a half-mile or so.
Now, none of them wanted to swim in their clothes, understandable because then they’d have to work in said wet clothes. Their solution? Strip off naked, stuff everything into a burlap sack. Have Bern throw the sack across the river.
And swim across in the buff.
It worked.
Most of the time.
Then . . . THAT day . . .
Bern was swinging the bag around, trying to get up momentum to toss it the forty feet to dry safety.
When he slipped.
The clothes, shoes and everything landed in the creek.
Zoltan was nearest.
Remember when I mentioned his swimming ability? Or lack thereof.
Well, that would matter here.
He decided to alter his course through the water to grab the bag.
And disappeared.
In a churning mass of arms and legs, he managed to resurface, but the currant pushed him along and entangled him in a tree.
In the meantime, the bag of clothes was floating merrily down the creek and was starting to sink.
Picture it.
Three naked men, one seated on a horse and wearing a cast, standing on the creek bank, staring in horror. A fourth man, also naked, caught in a tree in the creek.
A bag of much-needed clothing disappearing rapidly from both view and accessibility.
I just wanted you to catch a glimpse.
Before I told you that Bern, he of the better swimming ability dove into the murky water and managed to save both the man and the clothes.
And they were able to continue their haying, noticeably damp.
But alive.
The cleanest haying crew ever in the history.
And the luckiest.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Cleans Like A White Tornado

Uncle Bern and Aunt Eva Berg
As with many rural families in Southern Alberta in the 1950s, Uncle Bern and Aunt Eva Berg carried on without the benefits of indoor plumbing.
They made do with the little building out back also known as (but not limited to): John, backhouse, outhouse, privy, johnny, two-holer, little house, one-holer, crapper, biffy, can, garden house, outdoor library, reading room, toilet, shanty, white house, rest room, big John, half-moon, outdoor plumbing, dooley, half-moon house, jo, little house behind the big house, Roosevelt, stink house, baggy, bank, bass house, bath with a path, biffy, Big Bertha, boonie, bughouse, Casey Jones, comfort station, corner house, courthouse, cribby, depository, does and bucks, doll house, dollar house, first national bank, going out back, going out to mail a letter, going to see the president, going to take a walk, gooseberry grinders, gramma's house, head, hers and his, hooter, hoover, Jones house, jug, latrine, little brown shack, little house out back, little shack out back, opera house, path house, privy house, queen's throne, roost, sears-roebuck library, shanty house, sheriff, superintendent's office, Uncle john, Uncle Sam's roost, dunny.
And many more too numerous (or PG) to mention.
Back to my story . . .
Also, as with other rural families of . . . (see above) Uncle Bern and Aunt Eva built onto their house and added a (gasp) modern bathroom with (bigger gasp) indoor plumbing.
Their day had come.
No more quick dashes along a frozen path in the middle of the night in the middle of winter. No more Uncle Gordon warming up the car so he could drive as close as possible to the privy and then warm up as soon as possible when the ‘chores were done’.
But now, with installation off the ‘new and improved’, Aunt Eva was determined to get rid of the ‘old and outdated’. And the sooner the better. According to her, it was an eyesore.
Uncle Bern agreed in principle. But turning that agreement into something more proactive took time. After all there was a lot of nostalgic history attached to the little shack. To quote him: “Much important planning had been carried out in silent, undisturbed contemplation in that quiet, dark space over the years.”
But in case you're wondering, Aunt Eva won out.
Apparently her friends are a little more influential than his.
One day, a tornado touched down on their ranch.
Exactly on that little house.
It plucked the little building from the ground and carried it a quarter-mile away—finally dropping it near the canal.
When you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Horse's Assets

Stewart Cameron
Another valuable cow pony
Big Enough proved to be a good cow horse. A valuable asset in a large ranching operation. This story is almost about him.
One day, my Uncle Stein was riding Big Enough when he checked the herd. The two of them came upon a large, young bull in considerable pain. The bull had caught his navel on some rose bushes (Yes, they are pretty, but even beauty has it draw-backs) and it had become badly infected.
They were about three miles from the ranch buildings, but Uncle Stein decided his best choice was to bring the bull in.
Now you should probably know that he was dealing with an animal who weighed roughly a ton, was sick and sore, and who wasn’t happy about the 100 degree (F) heat.
They made it about a half mile before the bull protested.
He tried four times to get away, but that little reliable cow pony, Big Enough just wouldn’t allow it.
Finally, winded, and so furious he was foaming at the mouth, the bull turned.
And charged.
Big Enough froze. He’d never seen anything like this!
Closer and closer the bull came and still the horse didn’t move.
Finally, just as the bull made contact, Big Enough reared.
Fortunately, the bull had no horns, but the combination of one-bull-power and one-horse-power succeeded in tipping Big Enough and his rider right over backwards.
Uncle Stein jumped off just in time. And he hit the ground running.
Fortunately for the man in the picture, the bull still had his attention on the horse, who had rolled over and was back on his feet in a flash. Away across the pasture, the two went. The horse running flat out and the furious bull butting him in the hind quarters.
Finally, the horse pulled ahead. The last Uncle Stein saw of him was the flick of a dark tail as he disappeared over the furthest hill, well on his way to the barn and safety. Leaving Uncle Stein stranded in the middle of two miles of prairie with no mount, no trees, no fences and no cover.
And one mad bull.
The bull stopped.
Then turned.
And it was Uncle Stein’s turn to freeze. Not from fear, but because he knew if he moved a muscle, or made the tiniest flinch, it would be the signal for the steaming, pawing bull facing him to charge.
For a full ten minutes the two faced each other.
Finally, the bull lost interest and sauntered off.
Uncle Stein, sweat dripping from his face, began the long trek home.
Yep. A good cow pony. Such a valuable asset.
Except when they’re being butted in the assets.
Ahem . . .

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Breaking Name

Ever wonder how names are chosen for the average working stock (horses) on a Southern Alberta ranch?
I know it's kept me up a night or two . . .
Berg Family

In Southern Alberta, between the communities of Millicent and Duchess nestled the Berg family ranch. There, in the fertile, wide open acres, the family raised crops and cattle and horses.
And eight strapping sons and one daughter, my mom.
The family usually ran about 150 head of brood mares which were left to roam the open spaces with their colts. Each fall, the horses were rounded up, the colts weaned and the mares released. Those colts were kept till spring, then they, too, were ‘turned out’ and left to roam until they were three years old.
Then, the fun started.
The three-year-olds were brought in, carefully inspected for soundness of feet and legs, temperament and spirit.
And then broken to ride.
And now we get to my story . . .
A deep chestnut coloured horse appeared in one of the spring roundups. He wasn’t tall, but was chunky and muscular and though his looks weren’t spectacular, he demanded attention by running alongside or ahead of the herd, revealing rare character in his movements as he reached full flight.
When the cowboys were making their first inspection, this three-year-old was noticed and selected as one of the first to be broken.
Picture it: A noose snakes out and snares the young horse around the front legs, sweeping him off his feet. The instant he hits the ground, a cowboy pounces on his neck, twists his head back and clamps strong, white teeth into the horse’s ear, distracting him. A halter is installed by another cowboy and a gunny sack blind fitted snugly over his eyes. Then the rope is removed and the horse springs to his feet. Two men hold the halter shank as the saddle is buckled on. The bronc buster (hereinafter known as BB) mounts.
Now in this young horse’s case, one of the cowboys advised BB to get ready for a tough ride, but BB just laughed. “This little runt ain’t big enough to give me a bad ride.” With that, he set himself into the saddle, took the halter shank in one hand and gave the signal to turn the horse loose.
In the moment the blind was yanked off, the horse stood, startled, and blinked once.
Then he exploded in every direction. So complete was his frenzy to remove his unwanted load that even the muscles in his eyeballs worked! No one could have stood that punishment for long. BB’s long legs gradually lost their grip. Then space showed between he and the saddle. Then, in two or three more bucks, BB was airborne.
When he hit the ground, the cowboy who had warned him laughed and said, quietly, “Yeah. I guess he is ‘Big Enough’.
Ever wondered how ranch horses get their names?
Now you know.

Uncle Roy when he was just 'Roy'

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Irrigation for Dummy

Water, water, Every(No)where
Irrigation. So simple, a child could do it.
The Stringam Ranch sits in a bend of the south fork of the Milk River.
In the driest part of Southern Alberta.
The driest.
Now, I know that residents from Medicine Hat will try to argue the point but don't listen to them.
After all, they come from a place named 'Medicine Hat'.
Enough said.
Most of the land around the ranch is used as pasture.
Nothing else will grow there.
But the acres immediately beside the river, the 'hay flats', have much more potential.
They can be irrigated.
I'm sure you've seen the giant wheel-move irrigation systems capable of watering an entire quarter-section of land in one pivot. Enormous constructions that transport themselves in a wide arc from an end point and effectively bring the gift of life to whole crops at once.
All at the push of a button.
It's fascinating.
It's wondrous.
It wasn't what we Stringams had.
Our system was . . . erm . . . modest.
And connected, disconnected and moved by hand.
Twice a day.
Our favorite chore.
Morning and evening, the pump would be silenced. The 16 foot lengths of aluminum pipe disconnected and drained one-by-one. And then moved to the next position 40 feet away and reconnected.
It was Dad, Jerry and George's job, mainly.
But I helped.
And therein lies a tale . . .
Early one summer evening, because Dad and Jerry were busy doing other things, Dad asked me to go and help George move pipe.
I stared at him. Me? Do you know what you're asking? Are there horses involved?
Dad turned away, so I shrugged and followed my brother into the lower hay flat.
He shut off the pump.
I watched.
He walked over to the line.
I followed.
He unhooked the first pipe.
Again I watched.
He unhooked the second pipe.
He was really good at this.
He unhooked the third pipe.
I noticed that my light-blue pants looked white in the fading light.
He unhooked the fourth pipe.
We were having a beautiful sunset. Wonderful shades of red and orange against the clear blue of the sky.
He unhooked the fifth pipe.
I stopped looking at the sky and noticed a gopher nearby. Cheeky little guy was just sitting there. Watching us.
He unhooked the sixth pipe.
I chased the gopher into its burrow.
He unhooked the seventh pipe.
I tripped over the sixth pipe on my way back.
He unhooked the eighth pipe.
"George, is this going to take much longer? I'm tired."
He unhooked the ninth pipe.
And beat me with it.
He didn't, really, but I'm sure he wanted to.
By the time 'we' were done moving pipe and had the pump going again, one of us was sweating profusely.
I'll give you a hint.
It wasn't me.
After that, George never allowed me to come with him to move pipe.
Something about me being worse than useless.
Go figure.

Monday, September 4, 2017


It's Monday again.
Time for a little more rhyme . . .
Today's topic was 'Parents'.
And what could be better than something written by one of them?
From my Mom:

How sweet to greet the welcome guest
And give him sustenance and rest,
To sit with him for half the night
In confab serious or light,
Then tuck him in your own soft bed
And on the sofa lay your head.

And in the morning, sweet, indeed,
To yield the bathroom to his need.
Then break his fast with royal food
Ah! Hospitality! How good!
What else, my host, so warms the heart?
Except to see the guest depart!

Mondays do get knocked a lot,
With poetry, we three besought,
To try to make the week begin,
With gentle thoughts--perhaps a grin?
So Jenny and Delores, we,
Now post our poems for you to see.
And when you’ve read what we have brought,
Did we help? Or did we not . . .

And next week in our neighbourhood,
We'll tackle 'Nature'. It'll be good!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The First Day

School starts this week in our fair town.
Here is my Mom's first day from 1930 . . .

Standing: Bern, Eldor, Glen
Sitting: Mom

On Mom's first day of school, she spoke almost no English, only Swedish.

My first day of school was anticipated with the fear and anxiety which had been passed down to me from my brothers who went before me.
I recall horror stories with exaggeration about strappings, sitting on a stool at the front of the room for being late, and beatings from older boys.
Beware of the 'older boys'.
As the time came for me to make my debut, my legs became so numb that I could hardly walk.
I was so afraid.
Winnie Charleton (two years older) kindly took me by the hand and led me into the one-room schoolhouse.
Mrs. Hunter smiled as she pointed to the desk at the front of the room where I would work.
Four other girls sat behind me in the same row.
"Good Morning, boys and girls!" said Mrs. Hunter.
"Good Morning!" responded the class.
All except me.
Mrs. Hunter looked at me with a lop-sided smile.
"Can't you say, Good Morning?" she asked.
"Yah," said I, then quickly, the line I had rehearsed with Mama, "Min nom Enes. I am half past six."
Little titters rippled around the room.
"Would you say that again, please?" asked Mrs. Hunter.
Luckily, I understood.
"Min nom Enes, I am half past six."
The giggles turned into a roar as the thirty or so children rocked with laughter.
I was so humiliated that I laid my head on the desk and covered it with my arms.
What would my punishment be for this, I wondered?
Mrs. Hunter simply said, "Enes - that's a nice name."
Then she turned to the blackboard and wrote her name.
I worried all day about the punishment I would receive, but nothing happened.
We were given our first primer and we tried to copy the words DOG and CAT. We copied numbers, 1 to 10, and played 'I Spy'.
My fears finally dwindled.
School was actually fun!

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