Sunday, January 6, 2013

Open Valley

The word went out that there was to be a gathering in an open valley and all the stump ranchers were to come and have a day of it. It would take place after the fall harvest.  The entrance to the gala event was something unusual. Why? To take a break from the hardship of farming or ranching in the Peace River area of northern British Columbia, Canada.  Stump ranching was where 160 acres were homesteaded and brought up to the government standard. There were conditions for homesteading --Reside on the property for at least six months of the year for three years, plow break five acres of it and cultivate some of it, and construct a habitable dwelling. After that period a land inspector plus 3 witnesses would come to inspect it. The application must be applied for within five years. Usually the title was granted. The problem was the road to title was so difficult many gave up and moved on.

 So, you can see that coming together for a gathering was to be together perhaps just one more time. It was a hard life to homestead. The land was grey wooded soils with a great need for nitrogen and other chemicals to enrich the soil. Besides that there were the outside jobs which were hard to find. One had to supplement their income and 160 acres was not enough to support oneself on the land.  So many people came and went but while they were there it gave comfort to us all to be part of their lives.

The fall was fast coming and the gathering would put about 30 families, plus about eight of them single, together.  Admittance to the  homestead gathering was to be an unusual gift found on the homesteads. There was an assortment that still to this day only homesteaders of that caliber thought up. There was the spade shovel with only half the spade attached. It had been sanded & painted to look like a flag pole with the spaded end painted with the Canadian Maple leaf which, of course, was the flag of Canada. It had the words “Our Native Land" painted on it. One fellow brought a coal oil lantern all shined up and there was a carved horse in the center where the wick was and part of the lamp had been painted with blue sky and clouds. A small flashlight had been set and when turned on it gave the horse and skies a real warm glow.  Another one was a beaver hat. What made it so different was the band which had the words “Chinook winds are welcome.” There was a horse collar and in the horse's head area there was large plate supported on a part representing the horses back with moose meat and potatoes made out of paper and glue and painted so life like. There was a sign saying "Moose Meat and Potatoes - a homesteader’s diet." There was a miniature outhouse with a half moon painted on the door. When one opened the door there was a sign "We had a fire in the bathroom but thank goodness it didn’t reach the house.” That got a big laugh. One couple brought a unique looking coffee table. It was made out of a base of a spruce tree and was the shape of a curve that had all kinds of knots and tree rings that was just beautiful. They had shellacked it and it was a deep light brown color. One of the great pieces was a scythe with the words painted on the blade “Rancho not so Grande.”

Another fellow brought a whipsaw about six feet long with the words painted on it  "Rancho Cost a Plenty by J.P. Penniless."
So it went with things of the unusual setting the stage for a night of fun. The one that got your heart feeling the goodness of it all was the sign nailed to a tree near the gathering - "You’re welcome at my camp fire." To a homesteader that meant friendships and attachments not soon to be forgotten.

The spot chosen for the gathering was in a valley with a stream running by. There was a circle of straw bales to sit on and a picnic table had been fashioned out of rough lumber and all the potluck food was placed there. Some of the folks played musical instruments with a fiddle, guitar and accordion. One would soon be dancing or just listening to the music that was accompanied by tapping toes, clapping hands and a few singers who could brighten the place with their voices. The evening was full of talk, stories and laughter.  Part way through they had an award for best unusual entrance piece. It was a painting on a snow shovel of a cowboy sitting on a stump with his head looking out over a field. His face was leathery looking with weariness in the eyes that seemed to say it all. The words on it were “Mother said there would be days like this.” They gave him a blue ribbon, which read "First Place – Homesteader Stump Ranch collection."

It was a coyote night alright for the moon was full and the coyotes were howling. The light from the fires danced around in the darkness and often I would look over the faces of the stump ranchers who were there and see life written on their faces. There were weary lines and happy lines and smiles that soaked up hardness and left it for another day. Laughter with sure joy in it and laughter so funny because Joe was carrying his food and in the half dark stepped sideways to avoid a hole and fell in another one. There he was with mashed potatoes and gravy on his best shirt looking dejected and then seeing the humor in it laughed until we all laughed at him laughing.

I noticed old Tom and he was looking around and I knew what was coming. He began to tell his story in a way that only Tom could do. It was not so much the story as it was his baritone voice and his high laughter sorting out each detail and adding some sugar to it.  He always ended his stories in the same way. "Well," he said, "there you have it!" And we sure did

Patty began to sing and she had a sweet voice as the words to Cool Water drifted over the camp. Some of the other singers joined in and I felt like heaven had dropped in for a minute. There were tears by the ones who were leaving. Homesteading was hard and there was too much month left over at the end of the money. We belonged there that night and none of us would have been anywhere else.

The great event of the evening was the cowboy poet amongst us.

Gather around the campfire
Tell your best yarns and then
Have a snort of chewing tobacco
Until you have to spit again.

Be polite and spit where the dogs have done their part
Join in with the dancing, singing and rest between the bars
Quote all of the old time songs as you know them by heart
Enjoy your friends and neighbors right from the start.

Rest and work thru your weariness
Leave the troubles and cares behind
Arm-wrestle and rope and tell your jokes
Especially the one we’ve heard for the tenth time.

Well neighbors, the time its midnight and the fire is burning bright
Let’s stay for another hour and look at the moon this night
Let’s fill our cup of kindness and listen to the coyotes howl
Lets go home happy tired and rested from our labors one and all

Some of the stump ranch ranchers have had their fill
And the Smiths will be pulling up stakes and moving on
The Barkers and the Penningtons also hear the call
That leaves it to those left behind to see it through.

Who will be here next year of the homesteader’s crew?

We reluctantly gathered up our coats and other things and looked at each other. We said good night like it was raining pearls and the only wish we had was to hold on to whatever we felt at that moment. We savored it and headed home. To this day I feel the call of the North.  It always trails off to a place long ago in a valley filled with ordinary folks. Most had in them all the pioneer ways which when set down, are almost sacred and well they should be to those feeling a kinship deep down to their toes.


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