Faith, greenhorn’s luck and a squadron of Samaritans made this airman’s postwar dream ranch come wonderfully true

GRAY CAMPBELL January 1 1949


Faith, greenhorn’s luck and a squadron of Samaritans made this airman’s postwar dream ranch come wonderfully true

GRAY CAMPBELL January 1 1949


Faith, greenhorn’s luck and a squadron of Samaritans made this airman’s postwar dream ranch come wonderfully true


AT THE postoffice they told us to cross the tracks and take the road north into the hills. The ranch was quite close, within 12 miles of

the town of Cowley, Alta., the letter had said. The lady at the postoffice had mentioned Squaw Butte and away in the distance we could see a height of land that might be the landmark. I watched the engine temperature climb as the car struggled up the hills and over the little bridges. Finally the road ended at a gate through which a track led into a hay meadow.

I opened the gate and followed the trail. The ranch looked larger than we had imagined. We were in a large green bowl with alpine slopes of clean, parklike grass on three sides topped with evergreens. There was Squaw Butte, sure enough, towering over us dead ahead with all the land sloping south from the rugged little peak. We spotted the house, a friendly, tidy building, freshly painted the color of ripe corn trimmed with maroon and protected by a belt of trees. Off to one side there was a new cabin. We noticed a large stock dam, a trim arrangement of corrals, barns and sheds. It looked awfully large and expensive, spread out there in a picture setting overlooking the

valley behind us where strip farms reached out to the Rockies about 40 miles away.

Eleanor held Timmy up and said: “Look,

darling, Daddy may get us a home after all.” Timmy squirmed; at three weeks his only interest in life was keeping full of warm milk. I didn’t have to ask Eleanor how she liked the layout for her eyes were fairly shining. But we were a frightened pair of youngsters. We knew, without proceeding farther, that this would exceed our wildest dream3 for a place of our own. And having traveled so far the thought of losing it would be a major setback.

We debated whether to go ahead. I remembered the figures on the back of the envelope in my pocket. We had about $4,000 and an insurance policy fcr $2,000 with a few years to run. How much could we get for the car and would we be able to sell the trailer? We sat there in a mild panic of indecision until the owner came out of the house and waved us on. I put the car into gear and drove ahead.

Eleanor went into the house with Timmy while 1 traveled up the valley with the owner to feed some cows. It was just starting to green up and he pointed to hay fields that were sod-bound and needed working. After 40 years on the place they had been planning to retire. There were almost 2,000 acres, most of it deeded land. It had advantages of scenery, good grass and a temperate climate. It was swept by the chinook wind, which bared the western slopes and high ridges for winter range. This was important. There were disadvantages in roads and schools. It struck us that the district abounded in small, family-size units where good homes are established. There was no evidence of large spreads that made fortunes overnight, yet I he people had not been forced on relief in the hungry ’30’s.

When we began to discuss business I didn’t dare look at Eleanor. We both felt we were there under false pretenses. We were short a few thousand dollars and our eagerness did not take into account the matter of equipment and stock. We might,

with the Veterans’ Land Act grant, just manage to buy the place. We had optimistic hopes of running cattle on shares and struggling along for a few years until we could build up a herd of our own.

Misfit in Mufti

DRIVING back toward Lethbridge the same day we tried to cheer each other up by reviewing the progress we had made. I had left the RCMP in 1939 and joined the RAF in London that September. In 1941 I had met Eleanor in Yorkshire while on leave from instructing at Cranwell. The setting had been romantic, long walks and rides on the moors while I told her about Canada. My home was in Ottawa but seven formative years had been spent in the West and she caught the spirit from nostalgic memories of those good days. We were married in June but five months later I was posted back home. Eleanor managed to come out in 1942 and we lived in Calgary and Swift Current where our first son, Dane, made a lusty appearance. Then I returned to England for a tour on Lancs and Eleanor went to Ottawa with Dane to sit out the war.

When I returned to Canada I was bewildered and mixed up. I suppose most of the others were also wondering just where they would go from here, if they could take the places they had left. For six years we had been handed a concentrated dose cf life. Now we had to pick up the threads of normal existence.

My son was strange and shy with his father in spite of careful briefing. But Eleanor in her wisdom had taken a cottage in the Laurentians for a month, and with fishing expeditions and games to excite a little boy, in no time the kid was calling me Daddy and a new life opened.

I began to worry about a job, a place to live. The plans we had made in 1941 for a home in the country with children, dogs, horses and garden seemed very remote. But there was something tangible in a good offer from a local firm and I started a business course. We were being shaped into a pattern we had not anticipated. Eleanor managed to rent what might be called a converted chicken coop on the outskirts of town and called it home. We bought a car and with the clothing grant I tried tc appear as a man of the business world.

Toward spring we were moved to Hamilton for a trial run before starting up in Winnipeg. The son we were so proud of proved to be the main difficulty to our finding accommodation. In desperation we bought a two-room trailer and pulled it to the outskirts. There was fun in this and for the first time we felt independent. But the job gradually took the edge off the adventure for I made no headway and began to fret. These complications had not existed in the service and here I was letting Eleanor and the kid down at the first obstacle. Could I not navigate myself? Did I need the crew around for support? Or was I the sort of person who functions only in the mass, with a squadron behind for moral support?

Pioneering in a Trailer

THE firm tried to help by sending me on a trip.

But I couldn’t shake out of the slump. I began writing to friends in Alberta hinting that when we made some money we would settle out there. Back came enthusiastic ideas: from Saskatchewan an offer to help start a flying school; from Medicine Hat a friend going to Toronto on business called to see us with encouraging stories of his early days. And from Banff we received a copy of a book by Russell H. Bennett, “The Compleat Rancher,” directed to veterans who might be casting around for an active, outdoor life. We practically memorized the book for it answered completely our earliest dreams.

Eleanor shook me out of lethargy about three one morning when she caught me lighting a third cigarette. “Let’s do

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something about it, right now—chuck the job and start again. Even if you want to go back to flying l won’t say anything. First thing you know you’ll he feeling sorry for yourself and I can’t stand self-pity. The job won’t improve if you feel that way about it. You might as well start again.”

I began to feel better when I sent in the resignation, spent some evenings flying and wrote the examinations for a commercial license. In September, 1946, we started for the States and began rolling west with our modern covered wagon.

I remembered an old trail 1 had patrolled before the war that leads from Havre, Montana, through Wild Horse into the short-grass range country in southern Alberta. Along that trail we could find the Manyberries Range Experimental Station and if our luck was holding Harry Hargrave might still be there as superintendent. We wanted to investigate this ranching business.

We Caught the Fever

Luck was riding with us. We found Mr. Hargrave. He must have been puzzled with the outfit and the Ontario license plates camped among the buildings. We found it hard to explain. After a shaky start we both poured out a torrent of words mixed up with plans that bad been growing on the trip. Harry caught the general trend. Fortunately he had read Mr. Bennett’s Isiok and so had a fair idea of the state of our minds. He talked slowly, with a wisdom gained from a lifetime on ranches. We shall always be grateful for his advice.

Before the end of September we had started an apprenticeship on the Deer Creek ranch of J. D. Gilchrist. We were going to test ourselves. It was a struggle at first for us both, but our mentor was kind and patient. Every experience was a novelty and we were delighted at small achievements. We gained in confidence as the winter raced by 'There was no time to worry about anything greater than aching muscles. We had delayed getting in touch with the Veterans’ Land Act people until we could show that we meant business. But during that busy winter we managed to make a trip to Lethbridge for an interview. 'They showed remarkable consideration.

Timmy had heralded the first spring in this new world and now we were looking for the end of the trail. After six years of living in trunks, constantly on the move, we wanted desperately to sink our roots in the soil of this great country.

So here we were, driving back to Deer Creek via Lethbridge after a quick glimpse at the gates of paradise.

We both felt that we could search for years without finding another spread that could touch (his as our ideal.

'The ranch we chose covers about 2,000 acres in the foothill country of Alberta, within sight of the Rockies, 21 miles from Pincher Creek which is on the Crow’s Nest Highway and not far from the Calgary-Lethbridge road. Our closest large town is Lethbridge.

But could we put it across? With more nerve than sense we called at the V.L.A. office and told them we had found the place. While their machinery went into gear we had a breathing spell in which to find the extra money we now needed so badly. We were going to buy the place and then work out the problem of stocking it with cattle. Nothing was going to stop us at this stage.

With the owner’s permission we moved in and started to work. We were convinced the V.L.A. could not help but approve. For the first month we were too busy to worry unduly. The longing to be established grew' to an obsession.

'The first problem was to raise the money to buy the land. The V.L.A. would buy 800 acres of it for us for $6,000, of which we put up $600. The remainder of the deeded land we had to finance ourselves. My war gratuity came to about $1,600. We sold the trailer for $1,200 and the car for $900. We cashed insurance policies for another $1,400. and we sold the personal effects we could spare including a new suit of mine and electrical appliances.

But we entered a period of uncertainty because we were $3,000 short of our objective. We stalled for time. Then, out of the blue, friends from Hamilton, Ont. who had followed our progress, came along with money and the request that they be made silent partners. We now had the money for the land but the deal still had to be approved.

During May I was away t hree days on the spring drive taking the owner’s cattle into the mountains. That was the time the Government appraiser came. It was a pity that I happened to he away riding for this caused a delay in his report. We had to answer letters asking for more details on our financial standing and working plans.

The appraiser, good at his job, had found a lot of loose ends. Cold tear began to displace our hope. We now had just enough money to buy the ranch and if any other conditions were imposed we should be at a loss to meet them.

Holding the Fort

The delay was giving the owner understandable concern. Other buyers appeared and we began to look like squatters. 'The deal for cattle on shares fell through and we stopped work fencing, farming and gardening long enough to realize that we were getting in a spot, such as we had never before experienced.

Now it was late in June. The V.L.A. Board said we had to stock the ranch with cattle and show a reasonable chance for a return the first year. I went to a bank and asked about getting cattle to start up. The manager shook his head sadly and suggested a condition we could not meet. J didn’t waste further time and left the sacred precincts. Now I was at rock bottom. And I had assured Eleanor that I would return with a solution.

Walking down the street of this prosperous little town I wondered where to turn. For the first time I was alone and frightened, a complete stranger. As l crossed the road a big smile lightened the face of a priest and a strong hand grasped mine. What on earth was I doing here and why did I look so worried? I told the story briefly. We had been good friends when I was in the police. I was a Scotch Presbyterian and he was a missionary priest who had taken a vow of poverty. But we had shared an interest in sports, hooks and common experiences in our work. He said we should not give up and offered to sell his car so we could have the proceeds to buy cattle. It gave me courage. I told him we might lick it some other way and we parted with his promise to come up and help wifh the haying.

The worthy Father had injected a ray of hope. I telephoned Eleanor to hold the fort for a few days, climbed into an army jeep and drove to Medicine Hat. There I talked through the night and the following morning (it was

Sunday'» with a couple of great guys who had gambled with life and won.

They wanted to put up money hut I refused. I wanted to find a bank manager with a little faith who could work out a straight deal. Suddenly one of them had an idea. A man he knew had just been moved to Lethbridge. He grabbed the telephone. “I’m sending along a new customer. Can you see him today? Sure, he'll be there in a couple of hours. Where can he find you? Okay. Listen to his story and give the boy a break.”

I was tired and hungry but lost no time in getting to I*ethbridge. He turned out to be the kind of bank manager that helped make the West. We talked for hours, I answered so many questions my head was spinning.

At the end of this session the thing was still up in the air. The bank manager said he would get behind us on the cattle deal and gave V.L.A. assurance to that effect, but we had not settled the details. True, we were living on the ranch and working it, but V.L.A. still wasn’t ready to commit itself and the owner was getting impatient. Our dreams were getting fainter. I didn’t feel so well myself.

Looking back on it now I realize that there must have been a fairy godmother in the wings pushing characters, wonderful characters, out on the stage just when it looked as though the happy ending might be a crash landing. At this point I called on a lawyer in Lethbridge I had known before the war and had admired for his willingness to help people.

He saw the V.L.A. and the bank manager, then decided to drive back with me to the ranch. He beat up our flagging hopes and attended to details we never realized existed. He talked like a Dutch uncle to everyone and worked so many miracles we dubbed him the Wizard of Oz. When he left he took with him all our headaches and told us to go ahead and work the ranch.

A Chick Anniversary

We did. It was getting late for haying and we had to go day and night, racing against the coming winter. By this time Harold had joined the cause. He was a veteran we had met at the Deer Creek. After a visit during the thick of our troubles he decided to remain until we had the feed put up. We had to borrow a team of horses here, hay forks there, and all the neighbors began to rally around. We branded our first bunch of cows and calves, put up all the feed we could cut, joined threshing crews and managed to do the impossible from four in the morning until long after dark. We took time off to attend local auction sales, picking up for $8.50 an ancient binder which cut the oats, and for $2.50 an old sulky plow with which we managed to break 30 acres of new ground, using four horses.

At the end of July we heard from our lawyer friend again. He and the bank manager had arranged for me to buy 30 cows with calves from the retiring owner. The money was to be repaid in three annual installments.

The signing of the papers in Lethbridge was a big occasion. 1 had a mad impulse to ask them to hold everything until I went out to the ranch and got Eleanor so she could see the last chapter.

There were many highlights the first year. When the station agent telephoned that our baby chicks had arrived we dropped everything ai d rushed to town. There was Eleanor beside me with the baby on her knee, a very tanned little boy of four pressing his nose against the window. As we

approached town it dawned on me that it was our wedding anniversary. We had only had one together and this was a special occasion. It was up to me to make amends. I saw a poster announcing Mart Kenny and orchestra playing at Waterton Dikes. “El,” I said, “this is our anniversary” (you can imagine the look of reproach I received), “let’s try to park the youngsters and drive to Waterton for dinner and the dance.” She glanced at my faded blue jeans and torn shirt, two-day stubble on tanned face, at her own garb and the kids, and laughed. We compromised by having a magnificent splurge with ice cream. As we bounced home with the chicks cheeping in the hack we realized that we were having the best anniversary in six years.

At Last We Belong

Apart from riding to town for mail and supplies we were out only three times last winter. Why go to town when you enjoy life in the country? The Christmas dance at the school was our first big event. We took the big sleigh, bundled everyone aboard including Timmy with his carriage. It was a party for the whole family that did not require stimulants for jaded spirits. Children played until they dropped in their tracks, then were bundled up in coats and tucked away in desks. There was a refreshing absence of formality, an abundance of good manners. And we newcomers were accepted.

The ranch can run 200 head of cattle and last winter an old friend sent us two carloads of steers to winter on a 50-50 profit basis. We made money on the deal. We put in a cash crop of rye, 50 acres, and this fall we had 30 yearlings for sale. We have oats from 30 acres and 200 tons of hay in reserve for this winter.

It’s been a pretty good year hut until we get over the hump with these payments we’re going to have to live very simply. Our food is plain. We milk three cows and ship cream. We cut wood to save on the coal hill. We met all our payments this first year V.L.A., the first installment on the cattle and taxes and all our bills. Nature has been kind to us on 7 C Ranch.

Sure, we work long hours, always racing against time and the weather, never seem to be caught up. But everything we do is for ourselves. Selfish? Not exactly, just a nice comfortable feeling of independence. After years of travel we have at last found our home, the place we want to be 50 years from now. Because we wore not born to the life every little incident affords pleasure. A calf arrives, a chick or duckling hatches and the whole family rejoices. It is a family enterprise in which all members take part and share responsibility.

To sit at a table filled with one’s own produce may sound commonplace, hut it. gives us great satisfaction. We continue to be overwhelmed when neighbors arrive, unannounced, to help. An Indian calls for a meal and returns a few days later with a haunch of venison for a present. Attending a school or a stock meeting is still a novelty. It all adds up to the fact that at last we belong to a community.

As we round out our first year I cannot help thinking of the other chaps who came home and the problems ! they must he facing. The plans made ! back on the squadron were twisted and | warped by factors we never antici; pated. I hope they are getting the breaks. Tf any of the hoys should see this I trust that some day they may be j able to look us up and share the peace j that has come into our little world. ★ :