Ranch chores weren’t a bore
I was lucky to grow up in Monument. Over there in sagebrush and juniper country, never did I have chores I disliked. Never did I go whining to Mother with a, “Why do I have to do that?”
True, I didn’t much like being sent to get something from the cellar. I hated that dark, dank, cobwebby place. Always I feared that when I reached into a dark bin for potatoes or onions, I would touch something wiggly, something unknown and alive.
Nor was doing dishes my fondest chore. But my sister and I shared that task and we had much to talk about. We took turns washing and drying. The pots and pans were what I didn’t like — especially if they hadn’t been put to soak.
But then came chores that I really liked — such as bringing in the wood every night for the cook stove and the heater. That job conjured up pleasures. After a cold wintry walk home from school, I’d cozy up to that heater, hugging it until I almost singed. And oh, the delights as a result of the wood I brought in for the cook stove: Mother’s desserts, and sourdough biscuits and pancakes, hopefully with chokecherry syrup.
Another really fun chore was feeding the chickens. Mother usually fed her flock but when she was especially busy, she asked me — and everyone should have, during his lifetime, the experience of feeding chickens.
When I was the chicken feeder, I felt as if I were an important potentate — all those chickens looking to me for sustenance as if it otherwise might be their last day.
With feed bucket in hand, I announced that big event by calling out in loud, clear voice, “Come, chick, chick, chick. Come, chick, chick, chick.” And, oh, how they responded.
From all over the barnyard they came, fast as their skinny legs could carry them — the proud old roosters, Mother’s Black Minorcas, the pullets, the fryers, the tiny chicks whose stubby little legs did not let them keep up. It mattered not what they had been doing. When their potentate called, they came.
And then came more fun. Whereas Mother followed the same routine daily, feeding the chickens in the same place and throwing handful after handful right in front of them, I thought it more fun to be a creative feeder.
Instead of throwing the feed in front of them, I’d throw it out to the side. At first, the chickens seemed quite surprised — but only momentarily. Then pell-mell they rushed to that feed.
I threw the next handful of feed in the exact opposite direction. Again, they were perplexed but recovered quickly and began rushing to that spot to see if the second handful was better than the first. I threw the feed in all directions — until the pail was empty — with those chickens doing their potentate’s bid at every throw.
I enjoyed something else pertaining to chickens. When Mother planned chicken for dinner, after the chicken was killed and defeathered, came the part I liked. At that age, my fancied vocations changed almost weekly. And during that era, I sometimes envisioned being a doctor. I reasoned that cleaning a chicken could serve as a head start to that profession. Mother was happy to have me think so.
I first made the incision, exposing the innards. I then took great interest in identifying all. I knew every one — liver, heart, gizzard, craw, etc. Although before our next chicken dinner I might have decided on another vocation, I still liked to “dress” chickens. Mother liked that, too.
Another job that was fun was separating. After every milking, the warm milk was brought to the house and poured into the top of the assembled separator out on the porch. Then came the fun part: I turned the handle on the separator.
And with that, as if by magic, a pale blue stream of skimmed milk came from the larger spigot. From the smaller spigot came a thick, golden stream of cream. Every time I saw it happening, I marveled that, just by turning the handle, I could accomplish such a thing.
But my favorite of all chores was bringing in the cows or the horses. The cows were brought in from pasture every night. The team of horses was brought in only when needed for plowing, haying, harrowing or seeding.
The saddle horses were brought in only when someone wanted to ride to town for the mail or groceries, or when Lynn rode for cattle or to mend fences.
Upon being assigned this task, off I headed through the mahogany and the rabbit bush with my little dog, Major, at my heels. Major, not one of our working dogs, had apparently decided his job was to take care of me.
If I was bringing home a saddle horse, I took along a halter, hoping to catch the designated horse and ride it home bareback. Catching a horse out in the pasture was not easy. When the horses saw me with halter in hand, they immediately knew what was in store and wanted no part of it. I tried hiding the halter behind me. They quickly figured that out.
Even after catching the horse, getting astride it without benefit of saddle horn, stirrups or saddle strings was not easy. I looked for a big rock or log for help. But if I found one, it was important to correctly judge the diminished height required for the leap. I once made a mighty leap with such an aid out in the horse pasture, sailed over the horse completely and landed on its opposite side.
The cows were brought in every night, and on one such occasion it occurred to me that cowboys must have ridden cows, otherwise why the name “cowboy”? Since I wanted to be a cowboy, I thought I, too, should ride cows. I chose for this debut Suzie, a half-Guernsey cow of compliant and mature nature. I managed to climb on Suzie — legs sticking out akimbo to accommodate her bulbous girth.
Off Major and Suzie and I headed up the trail to the house. And this being a cowboy was great. But when we came to the clearing around the house, “compliant” Suzie decided that was enough. She broke into a gallop, kicked up her heels, and acted as if she were a rodeo bull. With nothing to hang on to, after her first protest, I hit the dirt. But it was soft dirt and I got up proud as could be. For a while I had been a cowboy.
Looking back, I think what a lucky kid I was. I not only had chores I liked, but I was lucky enough even then to know I liked them.
Elaine Rohse can be reached at email@example.com.