West of Woolwich: Where do the old cowboys go?

Posted Wednesday, March 28, 2012 in Features

West of Woolwich: Where do the old cowboys go?

by Fred Kahrl

Back in my high school years, I worked summers on a hardscrabble cattle ranch that sat at the foot of the front range of the Rockies.

There was no Hollywood name for the ranch … just the name of the owners … “Burns” … then in the third generation on this site. Their summer pasture ran right into the knees and ankles of the Crazy Mountains, and the rest of the ranch stretched down along Swamp Creek.

One of the three rooms in the “bunkhouse” had a dirt floor, and our toilet and rusty shower stall were in the dank basement of the widower owner’s house nearby. We were in the habit of just peeing into the pasture right next to the bunkhouse, along with the ranch dogs who slept with us.

The foreman … the son and only child of the owner … lived a half -hour away in Big Timber so his kids could walk to school.

Big Timber was, in fact, not very big at all.

In those days there was only one full-time ranch hand … the 1960’s version of a “cowboy”, you might say. He was a Scandanavian named Swen … I never learned his last name. His accent was thick and his humor relentlessly cheerful.  He was a bit simple, as were his needs.

His corner of the “good” room in the bunkhouse was barely furnished with a few worn sticks of furniture, his “bunk”, and some faded photos.

We respected his space as though it was behind a vault door, trying to imagine spending the long winter months alone there with the dogs and his tiny radio … constantly feeding the pot-belly stove with pine and aspen firewood that no self-respecting Yankee would have even allowed in his woodpile.

He wore the classic one-piece “Union Suit” underwear year ‘round, and carefully rolled his own cigarettes when he sat with us in the “big” room of the bunkhouse in his favorite wooden chair … right next to the stove as if it were still going … his long legs crossed easily and his wiry grey hair sticking up in all directions.

But, outside he chewed snuff … “snooze” … because ranchers hated an open flame.

No matter what “Cook” put on the table, Swen was delighted. He had all sorts of  little food jokes that he repeated almost daily, always followed by a chuckle, his big front teeth flashing.

“Please pass the hen-apples,”  yuk, yuk.

His main job in Spring and Summer was as “Irrigator”. He would head out each morning on his big white mare with a  long-handled shovel and a big patch of plastic canvas … with a 6-foot 2x4 nailed along one edge … strapped behind his saddle. He sat outside the barn door sharpening that shovel each evening as the foreman discussed which field to irrigate the next day.

Out in the hayfields he would put his canvas dam across an irrigation ditch,  and then work back along the downhill bank of the ditch, making little notches in the bank at just the right intervals so that the rising water would flow through and then down the slope of the field.

You could only cut so much banking at a time because of the pitch of the ditch. So, while one stretch was “running” he would go back and carefully replace the sods in the notches of the previous flow.

This was a very meticulous task, and reflected a lifetime of learning how to use the gift of water most efficiently.

The fields had been sub-soiled … which is to say … a long metal tooth had been dragged through the ground by the biggest tractor in the outfit, loosening the soil down at least three feet. Thus the irrigation soaked down deep and fed the hay far longer than if it just ran over hard ground.

Swen’s other gift was knowing when the flow had reached the lower edge of a field, and moving his dam so no water ran into the next ditch down the hillside … “wasting it”, said the foreman.

Swen’s other important job was milking the big Guernsey cow morning and evening. With six or eight high school boys at the table, milk went fast. And “Cook” made her own butter and cottage cheese for us as well.

I enjoyed Swen immensely … I would chat with him as he milked, with all the feral cats sitting around us waiting for him to squirt them in the face. His aim was perfect, and the cats would close their eyes, open their mouths and put their ears back as they got drenched, one by one. Then they would wash themselves most carefully before disappearing into the barn until the next milking.

I have stayed in touch with the Burns’ through the years since, and about 15 years ago … when visiting Big Timber … it occurred to me to ask what had become of Swen.

“Why,” said the foreman, “ he’s in the Home for Old Cowboys, of course.”

It had never occurred to me that there was such a place, but it was very reassuring to discover this special Western accommodation. These homes were first funded by the ranchers in surrounding areas, but had moved on in the present day with state and local funding.

It is perfectly logical, but it was never a topic of any Western movie I enjoyed, nor was it even between the lines of all the books and articles I have read since my summers bucking hay in the shadow of the Crazies.

We are surrounded here in New England with safety nets for the less fortunate in their old age, the modern face of traditions going back to when colonial villages came to provide that sort of care when residents lacked families to provide their final care.

“Why, he’s at the Home for Old Cowboys.”

As we debate how much care we … through our government … will provide for our less fortunate citizens, I wonder how much more I need to learn about our traditions of helping others so I can make a more informed contribution to this modern conversation.  

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