Thursday, April 22, 2010

Spring has arrived in Kentucky

Spring is probably the prettiest time of year in Kentucky and it seems like it announces its' arrival with more exuberance than I'm used to. The multitude of flowering trees is the one thing I notice the most.

The redbuds are first out, with incredible banks of rose pink against dark forests of trees just starting to leaf out. They are everywhere, along the roads, along the pasture fences, around the ponds.

As they start to fade, the dogwoods begin their takeover. With their trunks and branches fading into
the darkness, the flowers leap into your vision with the brilliance of a scattering of stars.

Underfoot, the ground is carpeted with wild violets, tucked into every little damp, shaded corner and I enjoy their delicacy ... soon overwhelmed by the aggressive growth of the rest of the greenery, including briars.

Once the blackberry briars are out in full force, my "nature hikes" are limited to open areas. I've dealt with wild plum thickets riding in Montana but have never before had to deal with tangles of springy briars that seem to actually leap out to grab any portion of body or clothing.

In my attempts to get photos for later use in my artwork, I may leave "interesting" objects where the briars overtake them in artistic ways but I photograph them, very carefully, with a zoom lens, while standing well back from the eager thorns.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Winter in Kentucky - January 30, 2010

Enough snow to actually "plow" ... the most I've seen since I moved from Montana 10 years ago. Have to admit snow removal is easier here and the little Case 646 tractor is the handiest thing I've seen for long time.
If it wasn't for the Case tractor and bucket ... and the Haflinger mare ... I don't think the farm would be operational. Used to swear by the Ford 8N tractors, that is what I "learned" to drive on and we always had one at the ranch. But with the hillside and trees here, even an 8N would be too big for a lot of the little jobs we have to do.
Small enough to even clean stalls with it, which makes things a whole lot easier on bad backs! With the bucket, a lot of ditches can be dug too, which is a definite plus where there are things like sidehill swamps!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Milk cans

There were very few dairy farms in Montana in the early 1900s and those few were close to town, supplying that town. Ranchers like my grandparents weren't close enough to be able to take advantage of a "town market" on a regular basis. Sixty miles from town, in Montana, meant a trip to town maybe once a month in the summer, when the roads were passable and not at all in winter.

Farmers and ranchers didn't have much cash money then but everyone would take what they had to sell when they went to town. The local town merchants bought those items, the local creamery buying milk from anyone that brought it to them and grocery stores buying eggs and produce brought in.

My grandparents did not have dairy cattle, they raised beef cattle, Herefords mostly. Several of the cows had a strain of Shorthorn and gave more milk than usual, so they were the ranch "milk cows" and provided family milk with "extra" to sell occasionally.

The cows calved in the early spring and 3 or 4 days after the calves were born, they were separated from the cows. The calves went out to a small pasture, the cows were turned into another pasture. and came in morning and night to be milked. Each calf was let in with its mother to nurse one side while the person milking got the other side. You got fast at this, as it was much easier when the calf was busy on one side and not trying to steal milk from your side. If you were too slow, you ended up finishing the milking one-handed, using the other to fend off the calf who was trying to steal from your side while slimeing you with milk slobber.

We used most of the milk ourselves. Without refrigeration, it went off quickly, so you needed it fresh almost daily. I envied the neighbors, who had a "spring house" where they kept their milk which kept their milk much colder than ours was in the cellar. The cream was skimmed off to make butter, extra milk was sometimes made into cottage cheese. The barn cats got their share of fresh milk, lining up for their share "direct from the faucet". Anything sour got fed to the pigs and chickens.
Nothing was wasted.

When a town trip was planned, the milk was saved and put into one or two of the big metal milk cans, to be delivered to the local creamery in town. They paid cash and I can remember the cans being brought back up empty and someone handing over a ticket and money.

It was one of the highlights of the town trips for me, as the creamery made ice cream, one of the few places in town that you could get an ice cream cone. If we had milk to sell, I always got to choose what flavor of ice cream I wanted, the one "treat" that I counted on.

After my grandparents retired, we only kept one milk cow. She provided all the milk needed for my parents and I after we had refrigerators, but the milk cans stayed on as a reminder of the earlier days. They accompanied my parents to their home in town after their retirement and to my home after that. Unfortunately, like nearly everything else, they did not survive the storage unit fire that occurred while I was moving from Montana to Kentucky ten years ago.

However, just last week, my town trip provided an unexpected bonus. At the gas station on the corner, where we stopped to gas up,
a small pickup sitting at the pumps, with what was obviously a load going to the dump ... and lashed at the very back ... two old milk cans!

I bailed out of the pickup as fast as a little old lady can, these days, and grabbed this "kid" ... okay, probably late 20s, but anyone under 40 is a kid to me anymore ... and asked him if he was headed for the dump and was he taking the milk cans with him.

He looked a little startled to acosted by a total stranger in a parking lot but I went on to tell him I used to have two milk cans that my grandparents had on the ranch in Montana. I explained they'd been lost, along with everything else that was in storage during my move from Montana to Kentucky and I'd been hoping to find one.

At this point, he realized that I wasn't a tourist, even though I talked "funny" and I'd definitely got out of a farm truck. He kind of shuffled his feet a bit and said "Well, I'd planned to take them home and put them on my front porch, but I guess my wife won't know if there were one or two. Which one would you like?"

I explained to him I was also an artist, so really did like the one with the most "artistic" rust patterns on it and I'd be more than happy to pay him whatever he wanted for it, I was just delighted to have found one. Believe me, I couldn't get the $10 bill out of my purse fast enough.

Lots of happy memories I haven't recalled for many years, as well as lots of planning for a series of "country still life" arrangements centered around the milk can. Let's see ... milk can with old fence, with weather-beaten "farm for sale" sign, at the corner of the old stone barn at the ranch ...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Winter ... then and now

Yesterday morning I lit the wood stove for the first time this year, one of the things I look forward to here in Kentucky. Having grown up where winter was a fact of life for many months out of the year, I miss the feeling of comfort I got coming in from outside chores and being able to sit in front of the potbellied stove, luxuriating in the heat and a hot cup of chocolate.

I chuckle listening to the winter weather report here in Kentucky with local weather reporters cautioning about the "bitter cold" coming. I've been in Kentucky now for 10 years and my goosedown chore coat is still in the trunk where I packed it the last spring I was in Montana.

Most of my winter memories are a series of images in my mind, vignettes from all of the Montana ranch winters in my life, from going with my father and grandfather as they were feeding cattle with a team and bobsled when I was 5 and 6 to the last winter before I moved to Kentucky, chaining up the Dodge 4 x 4 to get in to the back pastures to take hay to the mares.

I remember my grandfather coming in from chores, stomping his feet, wiping tiny icicles from his moustash and hanging the workhorse bridles beside his coat so that the bits would be warm and not stick to the horses' tongues when they were harnessed the next day.

I remember my father saddling a horse and riding 3 miles to the mailbox at the county road and back during the winter when the snow was too deep to get out with a car. We didn't have 4-wheel drives then, winter travel was restricted to where you could go with chains on your car, or horseback.

As a child, I wore a wool snow suit made by my mother from an old winter coat, to go with Grandpa and Dad to feed cattle. I still hear the team snorting and blowing in the frosty air, trace chains jingling, snow crunching under the sled runners, cattle bawling as they jostled for position as hay was pitchforked from the load.

At school, we kept our lunch boxes in the "cloakroom", a separate little room in the one room schoolhouse for our coats and overshoes. Kept closed so the schoolroom would stay warm with the one coal stove, on the coldest days there were ice crystals in our sandwiches. The teacher would make a big pot of cocoa on the top of the coal stove so that each of us could have a warm drink with our lunch. I also remember being dared to put my tongue on the handle of the pump at the well outside the schoolhouse and trying it ... just once.

I remember my father saddling one of the ranch horses and galloping across the hayfield east of the house, as he towed me on my skis. They have a name for it now, skijoring ... and have wintertime races and competitions. Then it was just fun.
Some winters my father would spread grain in the yard during the winter to feed pheasants that came in from the fields where the snow was too deep to find food.

As an adult, I remember all too well getting up every two hours at night and putting on winter gear, to walk down to the calving shed to check 2 year old heifers or foaling mares. It was always a relief when there were no problems because problems mean you have to strip down to your long underwear and work in a shed where the temperature was hovering around zero.

Storms could come up unexpectedly and 3-day blizzards could drift an incredible amount of snow in various places. My Dad's big 4 x 4 pickup was always parked along the fence in front of the house and I can remember one storm that drifted the snow so deep that it not only covered the yard fence, it covered the pickup as well.

Neighbors lost cattle in that blizzard that they had not been able to get down out of the pasture into the valley. The cattle were up on top of a ridge and drifted with the snow and wind to the edge of the sandstone ridge. The pressure of the cattle from the back pushed as many as 20 or 30 head over the rim, the same result as when tribes of Native Americans had used that same sandstone cliff as a buffalo jump centures ago.

When I was in my 50s, definitely old enough to know better, I was back to raising horses. Now, I loaded square bales to feed in the "back pasture" which was three miles from the ranch buildings, cross country. Rear chains were always in place and emergency chains for the front in the cab, not under the baled hay. The trick to winter mobility is to have the 4 wheel drive chained up in the rear, but not the front. If you get stuck with a 4 wheel drive chained in the rear, you get out, dig the snow away from the front tires and put the chains on. This should give you enough extra "pull" to get you unstuck, but you then turn around and go home!

If you get stuck chained up on all four, you walk home to wait for the neighbor with the bulldozer!

In spite of the hard, brutal hours of work, I would never exchange that for the irreplaceable memories that bring a smile even now. I see, again, the mares come charging across the drifted ridge to the pickup at a gallop, the big black herd boss mare in the lead, plowing through the drifts, with snow flying, breath billowing in the frosty air, and powdered snow like sea foam splashing around the legs and chest.

I remember the gleam in my Rottweiler's eyes as she would leap up the hay bale stairsteps to the top of the haystack and launch herself from the top of the stack to the snowdrift beside it, disappearing in a fountain of snow, only to errupt like a black volcano, slide down the drift and back to the haystack to repeat the process.

Priceless memories of a lifestyle that no longer exists.

Friday, October 9, 2009

I miss the Montgomery Ward catalogs

The older I get and the less I enjoy going into town and shopping, the more I miss the old "Monkey Ward" catalogs, along with the other "mail order" catalogs and even the "order by mail" advertising in the magazines and papers we received.

They served a multitude of purposes for ranch families and for years most of our shopping was done from the catalogs.

Our clothing was ordered from the catalogs, everything from socks and underwear to a Sunday-go-to-meetin' dress. There were extensive fabric pages, where you could buy fabric by the yard, cottons, silks and wools, along with buttons, thread and trims and I remember looking at them with my mother and grandmother, who were ordering yardage to make my school clothes.

For as long as I can remember, my grandmother subscribed to "Grit" ... a newspaper type publication with articles of interest to women about gardening, cooking and family. There was always one full page of patterns that could be ordered, aprons, dresses, shirts and blouses as well as embroidery, knitting and crochet patterns. I learned how to embroidery with patterns ordered from Grit, ironed on white flour sacks.

Then there was the excitement when the Christmas catalogs arrived. I would spend hours paging through the catalogs and making "I want" lists ... although I only remember one Christmas gift that came from the catalog. That was a farm set, with a heavy cardboard barn that was put together with tabs and farm animals of heavy rubber.

I think I was even more interested when they started coming out with the "Farm" catalog, a separate, smaller catalog that was especially for farmers and ranchers. I could not believe that you could actually ORDER A SHETLAND PONY from this catalog. My cousin had a pony that she rode to school and I was incredibly envious. I rode bareback, not having a child-sized saddle, on my mother's retired cowpony and oh, how I wanted a pony and saddle so I could ride to school too!

I may be getting old and crochety now, but I would really like to be able to sit down and page through the catalogs again when I need socks ... or underwear ... or a new flannel work shirt. I don't enjoy going to a store, wandering around trying to find the department I need, or trying to find a clerk to tell me where that department is. I spend too much time dodging other shoppers, their carts and kids careening through the isles, with my temper getting shorter, only to discover IF they have what I am looking for, they don't have it in my size.

With a catalog, an index takes you to that department, you can see what it looks like, the colors and sizes it comes in and you can make your choice in the quiet and comfort of your own home. This does seem, to me, a much more reasonable way to deal with the frustrations of shopping.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Repairing, making do ... where has it gone?

It's raining out today, so I'm inside catching up on some of the house things ... laundry, folding clothes, packaging the frozen rabbit pieces ... things that have gotten side tracked in favor of getting the outside things done while the weather permits.

I found myself picking up a pair of socks, seeing a hole in the heel and rolling it up to be tossed in the garbage and wondering why we throw things away and buy replacements? That's not what I grew up with and I'm not sure when it happenet changed.

I remember evenings at the ranch house before my grandparents retired.

My grandfather often had a bridle or section of harness and his leather sewing kit, replacing a buckle, or rope, braiding in a new lead. He was the one that taught me how to braid with four strands or cord rather than the usual three.

I don't remember my grandmother ever sitting in her rocking chair without her hands being busy. Her sewing basket sat beside the chair, always with stockings waiting to be darned. Like many ranch women then, she always wore a dress and in the winter, especially, heavy brown cotton stockings were worn to keep legs warm. I remember the wooden egg she would slide into the toe or heel of the stocking and weave the thread expertly across the hole as she repaired it. When the darns were developing holes, they were discarded, but not into the garbage. The foot was cut off and the leg cut into strips, to be put in the rug rag bag, where they would eventually be hooked or braided into rugs for the side of the bed on cold winter mornings.

Clothing was patched and patched again, until the cloth at knees and elbows would no longer hold a patch. Then the garment was taken apart to become a shirt for me or quilt pieces for another winter quilt. Heavy wool clothing was especially valued for these everyday winter quilts, as heating was by coal stove, one in the kitchen and one in the living room, no extra heat in the bedrooms and not particularly effective insulation. During winter blizzards, I can remember brushing a fine sifting of snow off thenorth window sill in the bedroom, and being thankful of an extra wool patchwork quilt.

Almost everything I can remember my grandparents giving as gifts, other than books ... for me, usually, as I was a reader from a very young age ... was handmade. My grandfather made my "hope chest" ... something every girl was expected to have and in my case my name was on the front, carefully cut by hand from scrap plywood with a coping saw.

My grandmother often gave hand-embroidered pillowcases which she edged with crocheted lace as gifts. I remember her sorting through her box of transfers to find something "suitable" for a wedding or a birthday and deciding on the color scheme. She taught me to embroider, starting with a simple kitten design on kitchen towels, although I found the crocheting much more difficult and was never good at that until I started working with yarn, years later.

My grandfather had one set of "town clothes", wool dress pants, a tan western shirt and a tweed wool jacket with leather trim. I remember photos of him in those clothes when I was still in grade school and he was buried in that same set of clothes nearly 20 years later.

I don't remember my grandmother every having a "store bought" dress until after they were retired and living in town and my mother took her to a store and insisted she buy a dress and a sweater before they drove out to visit her older brother on the coast. She had favorite patterns that she made her dresses from and a whole package of apron patterns as well.

This is typical of how I remember her, in a picture taken when she was in her early 70s, after my grandfather's death, when she was spending summers at the ranch with my parents. Dressed in a cotton print "house dress" with a flour sack apron over it, her hair neatly rolled and sitting in front of a bank of lilacs near the cellar.
I'm not sure when it started being easier to replace rather than repair, although it seems things now are often made to be quickly obsolete. Sales people and advertising emphasizes the need for you to wear the current style to be seen as "successful" and there's always a new "gadget" that makes things easier and quicker and someone to convince you that you really can't do without it.

But for me, one of the most cherished keepsakes I have is a kitchen towel I embroidered to give as a gift to my grandmother when I was not yet a teenager. She kept it in her "special drawer" until her death, then it went to my mother's hope chest. After my mother's death, it came back to me, one of the few tangible memories of when you "made do" ... and gifts were something that you invested time and thought into rather than a quick trip to the store with a credit card.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Thoughts on gardens

I grew up believing gardens were a fact of life. Everyone had a garden. Seed catalogs arrived in January and February, the next interesting event after the Christmas catalogs in the fall. While most of the seeds we planted were those that were saved from the previous year, everyone enjoyed looking at the catalogs with their new varieties and lush foliage in the middle of the Montana winter. We were lucky to have 90 days growing time, so what we could grow was limited as well as the varieties.

One of the first signs of spring was when Grandma started the tomato and cabbage seeds. She had shallow wooden boxes filled with cans with both tops and bottoms cut out. The cans were filled with dirt and seeds planted and the boxes sat on tables and benches in the south-facing enclosed kitchen porch. Often the tomato plants were already blooming when they were set out.

After the long winter, we were always anxious for the first fresh produce of the season. Rhubarb was one of the first things up and fresh rhubarb shortcake for desert, with whipped cream from our cows was one of the early taste treats. Leaf lettuce, radishes, green onions, green peas, carrots, cucumbers, new potatoes all came quickly, then green beans, cabbage, beets, corn and squash.

Besides providing fresh produce all summer, the garden provided vegetables that carried us through the winter as well. We canned peas, green beans, corn, carrots and beets, pickles from the cucumbers and potatoes and onions in bins in the root cellar.

The garden was a family project, with my grandfather and father helping as well. With limited rain, irrigating was a necessity. The house garden was watered from the well, with a gasoline engine that ran the pump during the summer with the"big garden watered from the creek with a pump and pipes. Much of the garden work was done in the evening, watering, hoeing and pulling weeds.

One of my earliest gardening memories is of my father sneezing while he was hoeing potatoes and losing his false teeth in the potato patch. I was only 5 or 6 years old at the time and thought that was hilarious because he had to take his teeth to the creek and wash them off.

When canning time arrived, everyone helped as well. I remember sitting on the back porch shelling peas, snapping beans and shucking corn out of bushel baskets of vegetables brought up from the garden in the early morning. I was too young to help much with the actual canning, though I remember the big black Monarch kitchen stove being stoked and the racks of jars full of vegetables being lifted into the big canners to boil.

Apples, peaches, apricots and cherries were sold in grocery stores in town in wooden crates and we always got several crates of fresh fruit to can every year. There were thickets of wild plums and chokecherry bushes in several places at the home ranch which made our jelly, jam and preserves.

The cellar walls were lined with shelves from floor to ceiling filled with row after row of pints and quarts of canned food. I can remember being sent to the celler to get another quart of green beans, a jar of dill pickles, more potatoes. Then back for a quart of peaches for a cobbler or another jar of plum butter for the biscuits.

I have never quite outgrown the feeling that I need to plant a garden in the spring. Regardless of where I've lived, I have usually at least tried to have some garden, tomatoes in Las Vegas ... lettuce, tomatoes and corn in Montana again, even when I was working full time.

I've done a bit of gardening here in Kentucky as well. Unfortunately, the heat and humidity severely limits what I am able to do though I try to manage a few of the things I like best fresh from the garden every year. Tomatoes simply don't taste right out of the store either. I really enjoyed getting fresh brocolli out of the garden one year, one of my favorite vegetables, and one I could not grow in Montana.

But I would give anything to be able to sit down to a breakfast of my father's sourdough pancakes drowning in home made chokecherry syrup ... or a lunch of sliced tomatoes and onions on home baked sourdough bread.