Honoring family and ranching heritage
May 25, 2010
Months of snow and unrelenting fog have given way to lush grass and an explosion of dandelions. I’ve mowed our small patch of lawn twice. My husband is sharpening the blades on the riding mower, preparing to tackle the outlying expanses.
In a few short days, families will pool their collective mowers and trimmers to spruce up rural cemeteries in advance of Memorial Day. Observed the last Monday of May, Memorial Day was once called Decoration Day. It commemorates U.S. men and women who died in military service. The first casualties so honored were Union soldiers of the American Civil War.
A good many small cemeteries hereabouts are distinguished from the surrounding pasture or crop land by an unremarkable barbed-wire fence and perhaps a sign proclaiming the parcel’s official name. Most often, locals simply refer to them by the communities’ names they once served, such as the Carlyle Cemetery. Unlike their manicured city cousins, it’s rare to find piped water within rural cemeteries, but cactus and gopher mounds are plentiful. Despite their shortcomings, these remote – but beloved – grounds are tended with respect, honoring the memory of those buried within.
Wyoming poet, humorist, emcee, radio host, and all-around nice guy Andy Nelson honors his late father, James Francis Walker Nelson, in Riding with Jim: Adventures with Cowboys and Farriers (2010, 256 pages, photos, illustrations, hardback ISBN 978-0-9706459-5-1). The younger Nelson describes the book as the most meaningful project he has undertaken. It’s easy to see why. Pairing his own poetry and prose with stories written by his father, Nelson delivers a book that contains twice the fun and twice the hi-jinks of any other cowboy/farrier title currently available in stores. There are some serious, poignant selections too, including “Ridin’ with Jim”: http://www.cowboypoetry.com/jamesnelson.htm.
For those of you who have met Andy, you’ll have a much better idea of what makes him tick after reading his father’s stories. For those of you who haven’t made his acquaintance, let’s say that his father is likely the source of Andy’s wit. Be forewarned, parts of this book are difficult to read quietly to yourself. It is not a good choice to read on an airplane or while your spouse is trying to sleep. Even if you don’t like to read, you can still enjoy the photos and illustrations by cowboy cartoonist Bonnie Shields (www.bonnieshields.com).
To purchase Riding with Jim, send $25 to Andy Nelson, PO Box 1547, Pinedale WY 82941; (307) 367-2842; http://www.cowpokepoet.com.
Recommended Stories For You
Liz Adair, who teaches workshops on using family history in fiction, brings facets of her own relatives’ experiences to the page in Counting the Cost (Inglestone Publishing, 2009, 335 pages, softback ISBN 978-0-9778814-6-8). I read very little fiction, and even fewer romance novels, so committing to read this was stepping outside of my comfort zone. (Watch a book trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moiORkCKbYM)
What enticed me to start reading the tale was Adair’s statement that though it is fiction, the novel has its roots in her family history. I fully embrace the notion that fact can be better than fiction! What hooked me was Adair’s skillful description of the landscape, ranch life, and housekeeping in Depression-era New Mexico, along with the creativity fostered by hardship. Fueling my interest in homestead history, the story about a cowboy who falls in love with a married woman from back east became secondary to their daily struggles amid harsh circumstances.
Order Counting the Cost for $19.45 (postpaid; check, credit card, PayPal) from Inglestone Publishing, 120 S. LeSueur, Mesa, AZ 85204; http://inglestonepublishing.com/. Book clubs: order seven or more hardback copies for half price, or download a free PDF at http://www.lizadairfreebooks.com.
As a rule, biographies refer to people. However, Nancy Heyl Ruskowsky brings us Two Dot Ranch: a Biography of Place (Pronghorn Press, 2009, 400 pages, 100+ photos, ISBN 978-1932636475). Beginning with John Coulter’s foray in the Yellowstone region, Ruskowsky traces Chief Joseph’s attempt to lead his people to safety, through what would later become part of the historic ranch near Cody, WY.
From fur trading to open range, homesteading up until January 2000, the narrative traces the succession of owners and lease holders of what was once considered the largest ranch in the world. I was fascinated by the 1964 account of the Curtis and Skoglund partnership relocating from Browning, MT. Arriving in Cody by rail, it took 70 Burlington box cars to accommodate their 2,027 mother cows, 1,500 yearlings, 100 bulls, and 250 horses, which were then trailed northward to the ranch. Additional flatbed cars carried equipment and machinery.
Softcover copies of Two Dot Ranch are $27.50 (postpaid); hardback copies are $41.49. Contact Nancy Heyl Ruskowsky, 331 Rd 6 RT, Cody, WY 82414; (307) 587-3968; firstname.lastname@example.org.