“Things end but memories last forever.”

— Kumar Milan

“Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.”

— Cicero

“Make peace with your past so it won’t destroy your present.”

— Paulo Coelho

“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.”

— Lois Lowry

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

— William Faulkner

“It is not the years in your life but the life in your years that counts.”

—Adlai Stevenson

“And the memories of all we have loved stay and come back to us in the evening of our life. They are not dead but sleep, and it is well to gather a treasure of them.”

— Vincent van Gogh

I don’t know about others, but occasionally I run out of productive ideas for post topics. Lots of ideas out there but so many simply don’t go anywhere. And sometimes, you get a strong sense that something completely different might be calling. This seems to be one of those times.

Some years ago over a wonderful dinner, the hosts asked me for a few stories about life events that particularly stuck with me. After hearing these, they suggested I expand them into a book. My response was that I didn’t have enough stories for much more than a book chapter. So, no book or even book chapter but maybe this post will serve instead.

Random memories, including Marilyn, Joe, and Bob

What follows are memories that have stuck with me over what is becoming an unexpectedly long life. They are in no particular order – randomly, as they bubbled up into some semblance of consciousness over recent months.

Lessons from a week on a stone-boat

A stone-boat and team, like myself and Sam Yellow Face.

Growing up on a 7,900 acre cattle ranch in Alberta’s Porcupine Hills was a life-changing experience for my early-teen self. One of my happiest memories was picking stones out of a grain field with an old Peigan Indian named Sam Yellow Face. Sam lived on the Peigan reservation abutting our ranch and had worked with our family for years.

Picking stones for about eight hours a day may not sound like much fun for a teenager but a big part of the deal was that I could drive the team if I could harness it. Sam taught me how, using a stool for the huge (18-hands) draft horses. Long way up but these were such gentle animals. Part of my chores was to brush these guys – about a half-dozen of them – at least weekly, which they seemed to love.

The other joy of stone-boat times was the stories that Sam told me about growing up on an Indian reservation and the many struggles of these fine people. Sam’s youngest daughter Lorraine helped my mother with kitchen and housework while we lived at the ranch.

I worked with Sam on many other ranch-kid chores, like fence-mending and hayrack driving (after helping get the fresh-cut hay into the wagon). All very hard work but I wouldn’t have missed a minute of it.

Sam was quite old in those days but he could easily outwork an eager teenage kid. I remember him as very gentle, full of stories about the early days in Alberta, and even some about Peigan family life. They still lived in deerskin tepees.

Wonders of learning in a one-room, eight-grades, country schoolhouse

Ashvale School. Originally from the Porcupine Hills where it served from 1909 to 1959 as a school.
Ashvale School. Originally from the Porcupine Hills where it served from 1909 to 1959 as a school – Picture of Heritage Acres Farm Museum, Pincher Creek, Alberta

This simple building, which had a separate four-stall horse barn for kids like me who often rode horses to school (see next memory), had long tables as desks, with students grouped roughly by grade. At the back of the room was a huge (to me anyway) coal stove that was kept burning 24/7 all winter.

The group of maybe 10 younger students from grades 1 to 4 sat together and were mostly taught by one of the older students (grades 5-8) at the teacher’s direction. The teacher worked mainly with the older group of students, about a half-dozen of us. The teacher in two of my three years here was Cheeko Sawada, a recently-graduated Japanese young woman who won the Governor General’s gold medal that year. She was a true gem, and a wonderful teacher. Strict, but so very kind.

Coal stove duties were assigned to an older student on a weekly basis during the long, cold Southern Alberta winters. These lucky ones had to arrive an hour early each school morning to stoke up the fire that we banked to slow-burn each night after school. Most often, the stove-duty kids were driven to school since the country roads were rarely plowed, at least that early in the day.

The chance to “teach” a group of younger students was a wonderful experience. Almost made me decide to become a teacher. The youngsters were always so eager to learn, making the novice-teaching job so much easier and great fun. Many of the lessons were designed around games by the real teacher. These games kept the schoolroom full of laughter much of the day.

All of the boys, except city-slicker gun-shy myself, regularly brought 22-rifles to school. At lunchtime, these boys went out in the nearby coulees to hunt gophers. They were quite good shots, with rarely a day without at least one less gopher. I seem to recall that the Mounties (police) paid 50 cents for each gopher tail, which was a serious chunk of change in those days for us farm kids. Gopher holes were a constant menace to horses, with broken legs and often a broken rider not uncommon. Horse was shot, but not the kid, fortunately.

My lifetime love of learning was certainly fired up hugely by these three years in a joyful one-room schoolhouse.

Riding a horse to school at 30-below-zero

Riding a horse to school.

Well, this isn’t exactly a winter scene but it sure does look like where I often rode a horse to school. Not as often in the winter since it was pitch-dark mostly when we headed out to school. We typically got a ride from parents in a truck or even a tractor. Roads out there in the Porcupine Hills weren’t plowed much but winds took care of much of the snow on the raised roads.

On early mornings when there was a bright, mostly-full moon and good snow cover in the fields, two or three of us older boys would ride to school on horseback. Winter temperatures at these times were often well below zero. A 30-below zero morning was quite common but we didn’t ride when it was windy. Too dangerous.

We always rode with one or two others in case a horse slipped and tossed its rider. Happened a few times but I do not recall any injuries apart from bruises, thanks to solidly-frozen ground.

Not sure what I learned from these too few deep-winter horse-rides to school but the scenes of snow-covered fields and glowing moonlight have stuck with me.

And, yes, we really did hustle along because it was terribly cold even without a wind. Carefully, though, because such hustles can cause a horse to slip. Never worried about such mishaps as I recall.

Meeting Marilyn Monroe on the River of No Return

Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum

Might as well get this teaser story done with. After I left the ranch to return – very reluctantly and unhappily – to Vancouver city life, I was fortunate enough to escape each summer to “work” at my grandfather’s “bungalow camp” (aka very rustic motel) in Jasper National Park.

The big joy here was that, by then, I had been driving all kinds of vehicles on the ranch since age ten. The farm-rule was that, if you could reach the pedals, you could drive it. Cars, trucks, Jeeps, tractors, … – whatever needed driving.

So, in Jasper, one of my daily chores was to drive into town to fetch food supplies for the camp’s large main dining room. Never got stopped by the Mounties, probably because most kids my age there were also driving. Jasper was a very small Rocky Mountain town in those days.

Another of my chores was to handle much of the camp bookkeeping each morning. This was done in a closet-sized side-office, open to the main office area. And this is where I “met” Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum, both staying with us while filming Otto Preminger’s 1954 movie River of No Return. Actually a pretty decent Western movie.

Several times, Marilyn would “attractively walk” – a better term escapes me – through the office area to a waiting limo. She was extremely shapely and joyfully-dressed, even allowing for the somewhat biased opinion of a 14-yo boy. She never spoke to me, but she did glance my way, which really made my day. Marilyn was very good at this glancing stuff, no surprise. She was there for a month or so, causing my “work” schedule to be appropriately rearranged.

Marilyn was truly beautiful at her then 28 years of age. She had just married baseball superstar Joe DiMaggio and they spent much of their time in camp hidden away in the farthest-back bungalow. One of my chores was refilling bungalow wood-boxes each morning (got to drive the pickup truck) but I recall that the bungalow curtains were always tightly drawn for some reason. Never did see Joe.

Robert Mitchum was another story. He was a very big guy (at least to a short teenager) but what I recall most is the manner in which he dominated any room he was in. My grandfather was a great talker (Upstate New York raised) so he and Mitchum got into quite a few very long exchanges. I found them fascinating. Mitchum was a powerful storyteller as you might expect for a big-time actor. More often than not, unfortunately, I got chased out to do some chore or other so missed a good deal of these amazing conversations.

Marilyn injured her (so beautiful) ankle while on the set at the Maligne or Athabasca River location and spent a while toward the end of (delayed) filming on crutches. Catch the film if you are interested. It is surprisingly good and Marilyn is in top form (acting and otherwise).

Life of a ranching line rider as told by a real one

A real line rider.

A line rider, as you probably don’t know, is a ranch employee who patrols boundaries, turning back stray cattle, repairing fences, and checking conditions (such as grazing or water supply). While living at my grandfather’s ranch in Southern Alberta between the ages of 10 and 14, I got to know and work with a real line rider who was in his mid-sixties: Lou Ray.

I often went to the bunkhouse, where several other ranch hands lived, to talk about whatever Lou felt like talking about. He had so many wonderful stories, especially for a teenage wannabe rancher. Here are a couple.

Banff Windermere Highway. Lou in his very young years helped clear and build the first road linking Banff National Park and Windermere in the Columbia Valley of eastern British Columbia. It is now part of the TransCanada highway system. Lou’s main work as I recall was clearing the road route of virgin trees and brush. He probably worked with a dozen other mostly-young men. This was extremely hard work, and done in all kinds of weather. Lou said it helped make him “cowboy-tough” for the rest of his life.

Building early roads the hard way.
Building early roads the hard way.

The Waldron Valley Ranch. For much of his cowboy life, Lou worked on the massive Waldron Ranch, which was adjacent to my grandfather’s ranch. Lou was a ranch worker, meaning that he did a little bit (or a lot) of whatever was required. Installing and maintaining barbed-wire fences. Chasing and returning cattle (always dopey cows) that broke through fences in search of better forage. But, mucking out stables was lowly work reserved for ranch kids like me. Teaches you humility fast. And you do get used to the strong barn-muck aromas.

The Waldron Valley looking West toward the eastern slopes of the Rockies.
The Waldron Valley looking West toward the eastern slopes of the Rockies.

But the work Lou said he liked most was that of a “line rider”. Lou would leave the main ranch in late May (Alberta winters are long) with a couple of pack-horses and work his way down to almost the U.S. border and back over the next several months. “Out in May, back in October.” He worked completely alone during this time, hunting game and fishing for most of his food. A ranch pack train would replenish his staples a couple of times a season.

I recall Lou saying that these times were the best of his life. No boss. No ranch chores. Every day on his own, doing things his way. Lou was a “very independent cuss”, as my grandfather described him. A hard-worker, who usually knew what was needed before my grandfather asked.

This connection to long-past ranching life lasted only a summer. No idea what happened to Lou, but he was relatively old for ranching work. My dream is that he retired to the great big ranch in the sky.

The Waldron Ranch is a big part of Southern Alberta history. In case you want to read more about it, it is in the Related Reading section below. Even Clint Eastwood and Tom Selleck are part of this story. And, of course, the Sundance Kid.

Getting to drive a hayrack when you have learned to harness up the team

Non-ranch folks may know what a hayrack is (and even how much work it is) but relatively few know much if anything more about them. They are a very big part of the way you feed over 300 head of cattle and 50 head of horses through the long Southern Alberta winter.

Ranch and farm kids get introduced to hard physical work very early. Often, the work gets assigned when you are physically able to do some important part of it – such as harnessing up a team of very large work horses. Photo below hardly does credit to the size of the horses or the size of the hayrack.

Work horse teams and fully-loaded hayracks.
Work horse teams and fully-loaded hayracks.

My few years of ranch life left me with a great love of horses (except for one that took delight in nipping me and ripping off (and eating) my straw hats). They are truly wonderful creatures. One of my many chores as the family-oldest was feeding the barn horses and brushing them mane-and-forelock-to-tail each week.

Qualifications for this joyful chore were being just barely tall enough, aided by a milking stool, to reach the backs of 18-hands tall (about 72 inches) animals, measured at the withers or shoulder blades. In case you are wondering, brushing horse height above stool reach was accomplished by having the horse bend its head to where I could reach easily from ground level. My favorite part of the grooming.

Getting to drive hayracks was a great joy and challenge for an apprentice ranch kid. There was a hitch of course (including the big heavy one on the hayrack): I had to be able to fully harness the team of draft horses. The photo above gives you some idea of how many pieces are in a harness (times two). This took me easily a half-hour and I ended up nearly exhausted. But not too tired to get up and head for where the grownup folks were mowing and raking deep native grasses.

Much of our hay was up on flat hilltops so driving the team up some fairly steep grades was a bit tricky. I loved the whole job so much that I got this part in hand fairly quickly.

And, one of the great joys of being a relatively short teenager was that I couldn’t throw pitchforks of hay into our racks, which had high sides. I got to stay aboard and move the tossed hay around to keep it roughly level in the rack. Even this was a kind of fun job once I got the hang of avoiding the intentionally-targeted hay tosses by the big folks.

Too much left to squeeze into a single post

This happens. I try to keep posts to under 3,500 words, which is said to be a 12- to 15-minute read. This one is just under 4,000 words. My apologies, but it is a story that I very much wanted to tell.

This post focused on what is clearly a defining period of my early life. So much of it is with me vividly still. The conclusion (Part 2) next week will cover some very different and difficult parts of this long life remembered.

Related Reading

The Waldron Ranch story is a fairly long one but may be of interest to those with a bit of cowboy in their heart. The story is far from over.

The Waldron lands connect a large wildland park and even larger forest reserve. With the exception of bison, they are home to all the species that were originally native to the Prairies, including grizzly and black bears, wolves, cougars, hawks, eagles, elk, moose, deer, coyotes and foxes.

Bar U Ranch.

The Bar U Ranch National Historic Site, located near Longview, Alberta, is a preserved ranch that for 70 years was one of the leading ranching operations in Canada. At its peak, the ranch extended over 160,000 acres with 30,000 cattle and 1000 Percheron horses. Two owners were instrumental in the establishment of the Calgary Stampede, forming part of the Big Four.

The ranch was founded by Fred Stimson, whose North West Cattle Company kept cattle on 147,000 acres of open range between 1881 and 1902. Stimson used the Bar U brand for NWCC stock. From 1902 to 1925 the Bar U was operated by George Lane and his business partners, whose business ventures included meat packing, mills and other farms and ranches. Lane renamed the operation the Bar U Ranch, buying out his partners in 1908.

From 1927 to 1950 the Bar U was part of a group of ranches operated by Patrick Burns totaling 700,000 acres. Burns grew grains on the ranch, which remained one of the largest ranches in Canada during the period.

After 1950 much of the ranch land was sold. The present National Historic Site is the central remnant, owned by Parks Canada, which bought the property in 1991 and opened it to the public in 1995.

A number of prominent personalities were associated with the Bar U. In 1891 the notoriously infamous Harry Longabaugh was a horse breaker at the Bar U, later becoming the outlaw and Wild West gun fighter “the Sundance Kid” (and member of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch in the American Old West). Edward, Prince of Wales visited the Bar U in 1919 and was so taken with it that he bought a neighboring ranch, which he named the EP. Charles M. Russell painted a series of paintings at the Bar U. Ranch-cowboy Everett Johnson reportedly studied here as the lead character for the novel The Virginian and the later television show.

Longview is a village in southern Alberta, Canada. It is located in the Canadian Rockies foothills, on Cowboy Trail, 32 km west of High River and 64 km south of Calgary. Highwood River flows west of the village. Longview is known for its view west toward the first range of the Rocky Mountains, its cattle ranching heritage and its natural resources (principally oil), but more importantly the open spaces, rivers (the Highwood) and some of the finest beef by most standards.

Longview is also known as the home of Canadian Country Music star Ian Tyson.

The Long brothers, Thomas and Oliver, homesteaded at Big Hill, not far from where the village is now. Their last name combined with the view from the then post office, which was opened in 1908, is how the village was named. When the oilfields at Turner Valley were revived in 1936 [in part by my grandfather], Longview became known as Little New York. Little New York had a sister town uphill to the north called Little Chicago. No one seems to know how Little Chicago and Little New York got their names and both towns actually grew up overnight. In 1936 there was nothing there but an empty prairie field. Then, in 1937, oil was discovered and people, most of them long out of work because of the great depression, came flocking and Little Chicago and Little New York were born. Buildings appeared like mushrooms. For the first time in years, men who without so much as a coat on their backs or a nickel in their pockets had the first money they had earned since the depression began. Today Little Chicago is gone and except a monument near the Cowboy Trail to the north of the village, little remains to show it ever existed. Little New York was more fortunate, as it is now the village of Longview.

In 1991, Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award-winning film Unforgiven was filmed in and around Longview, as was a television film starring Tom Selleck and Monte Walsh.

Eastern slope of the Rockies from the Porcupine Hills of Alberta
Eastern slope of the Rockies from the Porcupine Hills of Alberta.

Peigan (Blackfoot) Indian naming

Whenever I tell the story about my working on the ranch with Sam Yellow Face, I get some pretty serious glares from nice city-folk and those unfamiliar with Indian naming practices. Sam’s youngest daughter named Lorraine was evidence of the growing trend toward English/Canadian naming practices.

While I was on the ranch, one of our local Peigan families managed to bear a child whom they named “Johnny Born-With-One-Tooth” for obvious reasons.

As I was researching this story to see how widespread it may have been in my now-distant past, I came across quite a few examples from the 1960’s:

  • Mary Born With A Tooth
  • Mary Jane Pauline Strikes With The Gun (born North Peigan), 1916 – 1986
  • Mary Jane Pauline Strikes With The Gun (born North Peigan) was born in month 1916, at birth place , to Ottarkwe-ammoniw Charles Victor North Peigan and Judith Nora North Peigan (born One Owl).
  • Ottarkwe-ammoniw was born in August 1891, in Piikana Nation, Alberta.
  • Mary had 14 siblings: Fred North Peigan , Sakoksisskstakiaakii (Last Beaver Woman) Dorothy Yellow Horn (born North Peigan) and 12 other siblings.
  • Mary married Asiskoyorkitopiw Leo Strikes With The Gun in 1936, at age 19 at marriage place.
  • Asiskoyorkitopiw was born on March 31 1910, in Peigan, Alberta, Canada.
  • Mary then married first name Born With A Tooth on month day 1951, at age 35 at marriage place.
  • Mary then married Ap-onistaw Edward Meat Face in 1934, at age 17 at marriage place. Ap-onistaw was born in 1910, in Peigan, Alberta, Canada.
  • They had one son: Edward Meat Face.

The gradual replacement of Peigan naming is illustrated by this Assembly listing:

“The first Local Spiritual Assembly of Piikani First Nation (Peigan Reserve) was formed with Louise Whitecrow, Charles Strike-With-A-Gun, Rose Knowlton, Sam Yellow Face, Ben Whitecrow, Joyce McGuffie, Dale Olivier, Guy Yellow Wings and Chief Samson Knowlton [Canadian Baha’i News July 1961].”