Spirit of the West comes alive in stories told by 3 sistersThree sisters combine their memories into action-packed tales of ranch life while growing up in eastern Montana.
By: Linda Sailer, The Dickinson Press
Three sisters combine their memories into action-packed tales of ranch life while growing up in eastern Montana.
The stories are compiled into a 408-page book titled “Montana Stirrups, Sage and Shenanigans: Western Ranch Life in a Forgotten Era.”
The authors are Francie Brink Berg of Hettinger, Anne Brink Krickel of Phillipsburg, Mont., and Jeanie Brink Thiessen of Hacienda Heights, Calif. A fourth sister, Beverly, died in 2002.
They bring the reader along when the family trailed cattle from one pasture to the next, to laying a bedroll under a pine tree, to listening to coyotes howl from the rim rocks and the cattle grazing nearby.
The book is filled with 260 historic photos taken from the Brink family collection.
“I was really surprised while digging in boxes of photos that we’d get that many,” Berg said.
By the time the girls came along, the era of cattle kingdoms and free range had ended, along with the rush of homestead years. However, advances in ranching were yet to come. This was a period when ranch activities were seldom noted by western historians — in a sense almost forgotten, Berg wrote in the introduction.
“In many ways our parents did things in the old ways, in others they eagerly adopted emerging science,” she said.
Berg said the women started talking about compiling their stories shortly after her husband, Bert died in September, 2001.
While taking one sister back to the airport in Billings, they spent the night in a tent near their ranch.
“We stood on the ridge looking down at our place — it was so fun, we started thinking of stories,” she said.
That initial conversation led to thoughts of a book.
Berg credits their gift of storytelling to their parents, who would sit around the kitchen table and tell their own stories.
“We spent over four years writing it,” Berg said. “At first they were unconnected things, so we started putting things together.”
A published author of 13 books, Berg added conversations to the stories.
“We could hear the voices of people long ago and knew exactly what they would say — Dad calling the cattle or our hired man biting into a grasshopper sandwich,” she said.
The sisters tell vivid stories of when they trailed cattle to pastures twice a year for 13 years.
“We find so many people who remember the times we did,” she said. “We’re hoping our stories spur memories. We’re hoping people write their own stories.”
The Brink ranch was rich in Old West history. The ranch was originally the headquarters for a big cattle operation. An early owner, Henry Tusler, once ran thousands of cattle on both sides of the Yellowstone River.
The 1877 Ft. Keogh Trail ran through their land, as did 1913 Yellowstone Trail, old Highway 10 and Interstate 94 in later years.
The sisters’ parents, Adeline and Elmer, both came west by 1909. Their mother came in a covered wagon to South Dakota. Their dad ran away from home at the age of 13, and ran wild horses out of the Missouri River breaks near Jordan, Mont. They made their first home on Missouri River bottomland, but were displaced a couple years later by the Fort Peck Dam. That’s when they purchased the land near Miles City and started over.
“They knew the Old West and the ways of the Old West,” Berg said.
The authors write memories of branding cattle, rangeland hunting ethnics, encounters with rattlesnakes and coyotes, country school and even racing an antelope on horseback.
The book speaks to readers of all ages who enjoy the romance of the West.
“One thing we’ve noticed is men like our books too,” Berg said. “It’s written by three women authors, but the husbands grab the books first.” Thiessen, who is a retired teacher living in southern California, didn’t appreciate the uniqueness of their childhood until she’d grown older.
She said it was a special time, growing up in a wild environment, where the girls would ride out into the pastures on horseback without food or water. They’d drink water wherever they could find it.
“Once the horses’ muzzles were in the water, you’d better be through drinking,” she said.
Thiessen remembers the dangers of the prairie, where a stallion would protect his band of wild mares by attacking her gelding. She describes the numerous wild babies the girls encountered — the pet magpie, two prairie dogs, and orphaned coyote pups.
She said coyotes can’t truly be tamed, that even a “tame” coyote will kill chickens, lambs, dogs and cats if given a chance.
Thiessen said trailing the cattle was difficult.
“We didn’t have enough people, and sometimes it was deathly cold,” she said. “Generally, I was usually the one to build the fire and get dinner going. When our uncle went with us, he’d do the cooking, but wouldn’t eat beans. The old Montana cowboy said he’d eaten enough beans to last his lifetime and wasn’t going to eat anymore.”
Thiessen credits her childhood for fostering her problem-solving skills. A teacher and principal for almost 41 years, she used those skills when working with the children.
Krickel, who is a bacteriologist by profession, said it was her children and grandchildren who insisted that she write down the stories.
The sisters started sending the stories to each other, maybe add a memory and send them back.
“I tended to write down the funny things,” Krickel said. “I loved the humor our family had. We thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company.”
Krickel took her mother’s advice to heart, that girls could do anything a man could, only use your mind first.
She tells of coming across three bloated heifers lying near a field of green alfalfa. One had died and the other two were near death. She stabbed them to release the gases, but when that didn’t work, she proceed to butcher them to save the meat — she was maybe 14 years old at the time.
“I kept my head down, hoping people who drove by would think I was an older sister,” she said.
One of her favorite stories is when the hired man accidentally took his sheep dog along to town in the back seat of his car. The dog put its paw on his shoulder and the sheep herder was certain he was being robbed — that is until he felt a wet lick on his ear.
The sisters will launch the sale of books with a book signing April 7 in Miles City.
Krickel has been pleasantly surprised by response of friends who are reading the book.
“My friend read a few pages, laughed, told her husband and hasn’t seen the book since,” she said.
The book is available at Western Edge Books, Art Work, Music in Medora, through Amazon.com and the sisters’ webpage, MontanaS
tirupsandSage.com. It also may be ordered by mail from Flying Diamond Books, 402 South 14th St., Hettinger, ND 58639.