Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Renewal First Requires a History

With a large family reunion scheduled for later this summer, all of us here at the ranch have a list of chores to do in order to get ready to host guests from several foreign countries and from around the United States. My first project was painting the ranch fuel tanks which haven’t been refurbished since we arrived here in 1985. With an institutional gray and Navajo read paint made for “metal substrates” in hand, I began the 2010 Kurtz Ranch summer renewal project.

As I drew my brush across the front of the diesel fuel tank, I carefully painted around an identification tag screwed onto the tank. It read: “S.O. CO. Indiana, 1946 (Standard Oil Company of Indiana). I began to contemplate those who had purchased these tanks so they could run their tractors for feeding and haying nearly sixty-five years ago. And with a shift of my ladder, I drew my brush across the dents on one side of the tank: remnants of the tank being accidently knocked off its stand by a tractor maneuvering in a small space. How thankful we were that day that diesel fuel does not ignite easily.

The communal acts of painting, repairing, and rebuilding easily meet the history that created the wearing and tearing down. Many of our refurbishing projects have been long overdue. For Pete and me it started in 1979 when we first came to the Elk River Valley. We lived south of here for six years before purchasing our ranch from an old ranch family, the Bedell’s. The history of the ranch goes back to the late 1800s after the mining boom in Hahn’s Peak died out and settlers sought homesteads in the Elk River Valley. Pioneering newcomers found grazing land for sheep and cattle and a rich river bottom in which to raise hay and a variety of crops like lettuce, potatoes, and rhubarb. A Dutchman by the name of Winkleman bought up homesteads all around this part of the Valley in 1895, including our ranch, finding the land down valley perfect for raising sheep. He settled in a half-mile north of where we live on a small creek, he called, Dutchman’s Ditch.

In the early 1900s, Winkleman sold off some of his land to sheep men, Harry and Ralph Drake. Part of their land became the land on which our ranch rests. It changed hands from family to family several times until Travis and Bernice Arnett purchased the ranch in 1961. They owned it until 1968 when they sold it to their daughter Sharon and her husband, Orval Bedell. The Bedell’s summered their sheep and cattle here and then wintered in Jensen, Utah with their two boys, Chad and Travis. While here in the summer, they lived in the old homestead cabin built on the sight of our new large cabin at the entrance to the ranch. The timbers used to build the old cabin were charred: remnants of the fires the Utes started in local forests in order to discourage the white settlers. These charred timbers, which were also used to build our barn, were actually strengthened by their exposure to the heat created by the fires.

We purchased our ranch from the Bedell’s in 1985. Our son, Andy, was almost six and our daughter, Cassidy, was just a year old. They grew as they explored the landscape of the ranch and in doing so the inner landscapes of their strengths and limitations. They were introduced to life and death in the birth and death of pets, stillbirths, and long-time horse soulmates; the and the satisfaction of physical and often times inconvenient work. And when they then left to explore a wider world not only with a diploma in hand and dreams of their future, they left knowing how to do a few things like change oil, turn a runaway horse, and tighten a fence wire.

This summer my painting will continue. With each stroke, I renew and remember. I recently finished Cassidy’s bedroom, which she painted her favorite color of blue thirteen years ago. I re-stained the garden bench in which my mother sits when she visits at fair time in August. And I will soon begin staining the equipment shed and then tackle the house Pete and I walked into twenty-four years ago. With each stroke, I tell some history to myself, and then look forward to the coming days when we will continue to write more stories.

This is how it will be, too, come July when my extended family will sit around the campfire in reunion to renew and remember: celebrating not only the stories of their lives, but also the historical ties that bind and hold them together.