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March 19, 2007
Nary a Track
About the photo:
Rancher and poet Paul Kern shared this 1924 photo of his grandfather, Alfred Kern. Paul writes:
This vintage photo is of my grandfather, Alfred Kern, with his mule team and rural mail route carriage near Mink Creek, Idaho in Franklin County, Idaho. He is the one to the right Note the sheep camp in the background. Grandpa used to go through a team of mules every three years.
Among other occupations common at the time my grandfather worked as a rural mail carrier to the ranches and farms between Preston, Idaho and Mink Creek. He had two teams, one based in Preston that took him the sixteen miles to Riverdale, where he switched teams to continue on to Mink Creek, up higher in the mountains and about another sixteen miles further on. On the return trip, he would trade teams again at Riverdale and return home. Each team went 32 miles each day. At that rate the animals lasted only three years.
It's hard to appreciate the work of these beasts of burden from our perspective today—but they gave it all they had during their short lives of servitude. Through my entire life I have seen horses and mules give everything they have until they drop— literally. And what do they get from it? Some good treatment along the way - maybe - but not always. They don't even get much recognition or remembrance once they're gone.
Here in Utah we are surrounded by pioneer museums that tend to present the human side of things—but leave out the role that the beasts of burden played in the opening of the west. One day, walking out of one of the largest ones in Salt Lake, the following poem just struck me. Though the names of the mules in our family picture are long forgotten - they themselves are not - and live on in the lore of my family. At least we have the photograph along with inherited appreciation and memories.
The horses are gone and so are the oxen,
The mules are too—all long forgotten,
Within the walls of the pioneer museum,
There's nary a track or even a trace of 'em.
But there are dishes and hats and spectacles,
Goods hauled west in horse-drawn vehicles.
They even have lots of photos of those,
Who stared unsmiling in a photographic pose.
The musty smell of days since passed,
Lingers on saddles and an old boot last.
A single and a double-tree,
Cracked harness and a chair for three.
There's a prairie schooner by the wall,
And a surrey and sleigh just down the hall,
Covered with pictures of those now dead,
They didn't all walk—it has been said.
Most of those things as a general rule,
Were pulled out here by horse or mule.
It's odd how humans so quickly forget,
And take for granted the things they get.
What they have and what they've got,
Came through creatures of a lesser lot,
You'd think a horse photo or maybe two,
On the walls of the halls would be just due.
But the horses are gone and so are the oxen,
The mules are too—all long forgotten,
Within the walls of the pioneer museum,
There's nary a track or even a trace of 'em.
© 2007, Paul Kern
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.
Here is a photo of Alfred Kern in 1917:
My grandfather served as a US Army conscript in France together with millions of American mustangs. Note the riding pants, boots and gaiters.
Read more about Paul Kern and some of his poetry here.
March 12, 2007
About the photo:
Montana singer, songwriter, musician, storyteller, writer, auctioneer, Model T authority, and fiddle expert Stan Howe is pictured in this 1949 photo along with "Betsy," in a photo taken at the family Ranch in Westmore, Montana. Stan tells about the photo, his family, and growing up on the ranch:
I remember that hat like it was yesterday. It was white and had a red ribbon around the brim and a red ribbon for a band. I think my dad thought it made me look like a sissy-he wanted to get me a nice straw ranch hat—but I thought I looked just like Roy Rogers in this one, stampede string and all. I've always regretted I didn't go in and get my Hopalong Cassidy cap gun before mom took this picture but I didn't. No gun. Still a cowboy, though.
Way before I was born, in the fall of 1935, a lady in Ismay had a little colt from a Welsh mare and an unknown gentleman caller—what they used to call a catchcolt. It was the prettiest colt and everybody came to see it. When she was old enough to be weaned—she was probably about a year and a half old—my dad asked about buying her. The lady wanted $25.00, which was a fortune in 1937.
The folks had a 1934 Ford pickup and my dad would dig coal and sell it in the winter. He had some cash money from that and he and his dad had played for a few dances that winter and set a little cash money aside. They had a sow that had farrowed and had too many pigs to raise by herself so my mother bottle fed four or five of the baby pigs and when they were a month or two old he loaded up a load of coal, the baby pigs and his money and they went to Ismay. They were not terribly hard up right then, they had 5 or 6 milk cows and crops and stock prices were better than they had been in the earlier 30's. He sold the load of coal for $5.00, sold the pigs for a dollar or two apiece and bought Betsy. This was in the early spring of 1937.
The lady wouldn't take any less so they had to pay the whole $25.00 in cash for her. He bought a load of feed grain and loaded her in with the grain. He tied her head up so she wouldn't eat it and founder on the way home and when they got home the boys named her "Betsy." She was too small for my dad to ride but he broke her and my oldest brother rode her 3 miles each way to school when he started first grade in 1938. My mother would watch until he went over the first hill, then Gramma Howe could see him, she would watch and make sure he was alright until he went over the next hill and Gramma Ludwig could see him and she would watch until he got close enough the teacher could watch for him. He always said he and Betsy learned to ride together, he learned to fall off and she learned to wait for him to get back on.
Betsy was a treasure to our family. We all learned to ride on her, we each got a colt from her and she taught us how to pay attention on a horse. If she got tired or if you weren't doing what she wanted she would reach back and grab your pant leg and pull you off. Then she wouldn't let you back on until she was good and ready, especially if you had her saddled. She had no patience for dumb kids who didn't know how to work cows or sheep. She also didn't like to be roped off of and would dump you in the cactus just about the time the rope went past her ears. I think she was too small to really hold a calf and knew it.
Betsy had a colt every year or two and my dad gave one to each one of us kids. I rode Betsy when I was little and as I got older needed a bigger horse that I could rope off of so she didn't get ridden anymore and only hitched to a buggy once in a great while. The last colt she had-when I was about 12, I got. I named her Chocolate. She was small like Betsy was and I was already pretty good sized so by the time Chocolate was big enough to break I was 14 or 15 and too heavy to ride her. I broke her as a buggy horse and drove her for several years in local parades and such. As far as I know, Chocolate was never broken to ride, just to pull a buggy or a cart. She was a wonderful buggy horse, just the right size and pretty as she could be—chocolate brown with a light mane and tail. The same color Betsy had been when she was young.
When I started college I sold her to a local man along with the harness and buggy and used to see her for many years in the Bucking Horse Sale parade in Miles City and the fair parades at home. Chocolate had many colts so there are still descendants of little Betsy in eastern Montana. Betsy was born in the early fall of 1935 and lived until 1969 or 1970. Chocolate and Betsy were our last two horses and she was lonely after Chocolate was gone so my parents sold her in 1961 to a family with kids. I was teaching school in Hardin when she died.
She was a great little horse. Between Betsy and me and my Hopalong Cassidy cap pistol and my Red Ryder BB gun, we were the terror of every bad man in Eastern Montana. At least I thought we were. Looking back, we must have been because I don't ever remember any bad men being around that area.
When we didn't know how poor we were in money, we just knew that we had horses and thousands of acres to ride on, calves to rope, bum lambs to raise and good food at every meal. We had music and laughter and learned to work and fix what was broken and make things we wanted from whatever we could find to make them from. We had friends who were no richer than we were who came and helped us put up hay and worked livestock with us because we helped them put up their hay and worked their livestock and nobody kept track of the hours and days. We had cap pistols and bb guns to keep the bad guys away and dogs to be our companions and keep us out of trouble and a little Welsh pony who was tolerant of our lack of riding ability and who gave each one of us a colt to raise and break and grow up with us. Things weren't tough at all and we never thought about how rich we really were.
We lived on Sandstone Creek, between Ismay and Plevna, Montana, at the far eastern end of the state just about 50 miles from the North Dakota border. Our ranch was split into three parts. The home place was divided by the Milwaukee Railroad and our buildings were just to the north and west of the old townsite of Westmore. There was still a post office there when my parents moved there but it closed not long after. At times our address was
Ismay and at times it was Plevna, depending on who had the rural mail route in those days. Our school section set a half mile to the east of our north property line and at one time we had another section two miles to the east of the home place.
My parents moved there in 1941, it was the first place they had ever owned; before that they had leased various farms and small ranches in the area. They bought two places, the Bauer place and the Moulton place and put them together to make the home place. It was a good place but small, only about 1000 acres, we had about 65 acres of farm land and about 25 acres of bottom land along the creek that my dad planted to alfalfa. We almost always had good hay.
My dad liked the stock but did not like farming and the plowed ground wasn't enough to be worth buying good machinery so when I was about 8 or 9 he put it into hay and by the time I was old enough to be much help we had about 100 acres of hay to put up every year. We usually had a lot of hay ourselves and baled for several neighbors so I spent many hours sitting on the back of a Case Baler tying up wire hay bales. We usually had 25 or 30 cows, a couple hundred head of sheep and a dozen or so horses.
Since we had good hay we could run that much stock on such a small place but would have to herd the sheep on the railroad right of way and turn the horses out on the government sections when we weren't using them or we would run short of pasture pretty quick. Betsy and I spent many long days herding sheep, I sang her every song I knew and read a thousand books sitting on her back.
We were totally surrounded by one of the big ranches in the area and my dad worked for them quite a bit checking cows and sheep, lambing and putting up hay. He also worked construction and did mechanic work. For awhile we leased another place to get more pasture and had cows on shares with the banker in Ismay.
My family played music for dances all over the local area. I started playing when I was ten, with a little "Singing Cowboys" guitar I bought with money I saved up from working and birthday and lost-tooth money. I still have it. After my dad died in 1964 my mother moved to town and eventually remarried. But she always kept the farm and always missed being out in the country with the lambs and baby calves, the baby chicks, her bobtail Collie dog, the horses and the open country. It took her a long time to get used to living where people were right next door. When she died 40 years later, she provided the opportunity for me to have first chance to buy the ranch from my brothers and sisters, so I did. It will eventually pass down to some great nieces and nephews.
The ranch house in 2006
My mother never wanted to be anywhere but where she was. She told me many times that she had come to those red scoria buttes of Eastern Montana when she was a tiny girl with her widowed father and that they had made a life and a living out of the country and she never wanted to leave it. When it came time for her to answer the call she wanted to spend her eternity buried beneath those red hills and that is where she rests today. Betsy rests on a little hill up east of the house on the ranch of the last people who owned her. I have stopped by to visit her grave and talk about the little horse that two families learned to ride on. She taught us all a lot.
You can contact Stan Howe: 4433 Red Fox Drive, Helena, Montana 59602, 406-443-5658, email.
photo by Jeri L. Dobrowski used with permission
Stan Howe at Elko, 2007
See the current Photo of the Week on Page 1 here.
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