Early this morning a stranger called and asked if I could meet him at George’s Camp in an hour. I said yes and hurried the kids out the door.
This is a long story.
First, to introduce George Larson. He and his brother Howard are both gone now, to the part of heaven that’s reserved for conservative Baptist bachelor ranchers. But they are still very real in my memory.
Their parents homesteaded on Allen Creek north of Custer, Montana. It was just the two boys in the family, both of them extremely slight in build, both of them shaped by the Depression. Come World War II, George went and Howard stayed home to help their parents. They say that George fell in love while he was in uniform, in a faraway land, but that in the end he decided their relationship could not outlive their cultural differences. And so he never married, and neither did Howard.
Back home on Allen Creek, the homestead grew into a ranch. The brothers eventually procured enough land to run upwards of 300 cows. Howard stayed on at their folks’ house; George moved a few miles west and north to his own camp. And they ranched. The bachelor brothers just ranched, though on Sundays they made it to the Baptist church in Custer, where George played the organ. Other than that, theirs was a quiet life. They were staunch Republicans, you might even say anti-progressive, so much so that when electricity came through this country they opted against it. To this day no power lines scar the land that was theirs. (Current stewards of the ranch use solar panels and generators.)
By radio and by newspaper George kept up with current events. He was very opinionated when it came to politics and he was ever eager to stir up debate, especially by writing a letter to the editor. George was an avid letter writer, period, and still today I treasure a few he wrote to me. He always signed in loopy cursive: “Your friend, George.”
George and Howard neighbored the PV Ranch for all their long lives, and they were wonderful neighbors indeed. Dad and his crew helped the Larson brothers brand two days each spring, camping out the night between brandings in bedrolls at the Larson place. George and Howard were Hereford men, and oh how they loved their cows. The PV cowboys often joked about the brothers’ habit of giving dry cows another chance. Each spring Dad would help George and Howard work herd before branding, and Dad would just sort out culls the way he did at home: anything that hadn’t calved, anything that was crippled, bad bags, bad eyes, and so on. Before the Larsons would start branding, though, they’d always go back through the cut with Dad, and they’d always throw most of their dries back into the bunch. Some of those cows, we wagered, hadn’t calved in years!
When I was of an age that I went with a horse most everywhere my dad went with a horse, I understood that riding for George and Howard would be a fragile honor: they were traditional, they were conservative, and, well, they weren’t used to having little kids around. When finally I earned the privilege of attending one of their brandings, I was amazed that lunch was a gallon can of Dinty Moore beef stew heated on the branding pot, served with tepid water and a single package of cookies for everyone to share. My how we complicate life these days, compared to the simplicity that George and Howard enjoyed.
They helped us brand every year, too. It would be a damp, green twilight in May and here they would come, rattling up the lane in their stock truck, a horse apiece in the back (short horses; they were tiny men and they always rode very short horses) and a bedroll between them in the cab. They didn’t camp in the bunkhouse with the other cowboys but instead in the guest house here in the yard. They would stay over for three or four days at a stretch, riding with the crew and running the branding irons during the day — branding was always their job, eating supper with our family and visiting gently until they retired, early in the evening, for 4 a.m. would come early. They were men who never swore, who never yelled, and were embarrassed if someone else did.
(One of my favorite photos of all time, this image that so aptly captures George. I was friends with many people of that half-generation above my own grandma. Becca, Martha, Betty, George; they liked me and I liked them. I’m afraid, now, that I sometimes get caught up with trying to keep Old Montana alive for those old friends of mine. That I drive myself crazy trying to remember and teach all the old rules which the little freckle-faced girl that I was took so seriously. But I find that nobody much cares anymore. And probably most of those rules that I keep aren’t pertinent in New Montana anyway.)
Howard died several years before George did. George died, I think, in 2013 — yes, I can remember that Emi was a baby at his funeral. George continued to brand PV calves each spring until his sight wouldn’t allow it anymore; his gray eyes clouded over with the smoke of so many branding fires.
In his later years, George went through several hired folks who helped him keep the ranch going. Finally, as he died of cancer, the Waddington family lived at Howard’s place and cared for George so that he could be home until the end. One of the Waddington boys moved a trailer house in to George’s camp and kept those old Herefords going.
After George’s death the Waddingtons ended up with the ranch. Within a few years, though, they sold the place and headed south.
Deseret, the ranching division of the Mormon church, bought the Larson ranch, and they too have been really good neighbors to the PV. We don’t share branding help anymore, like we used to, between the Larson place and the PV. Some things just change with the times and I suppose there’s no need trying to figure out the why of all of it. I have often wondered, though, knowing as I do that George was a super-conservative Baptist, what he might have to say about the water that’s gone under the bridge.
A couple years ago my husband, Beau, was in contact with one of the Deseret employees who mentioned that the Waddingtons had left an almost-new trailer house sitting at George’s Camp when they left. The trailer was now Deseret property, but they wished to be rid of it, and said they would exchange the trailer for the cost of dirt work to bury most of the buildings at George’s Camp.
Because the employee housing here at PV headquarters could use a real facelift, Beau spoke for the trailer on behalf of the PV, assuming he’d just made a common-sense management move.
And then… Beau’s general manager, the guy higher on the ladder, refused the offer. First he ignored it, then declined it. He had absolutely zero interest in moving that trailer house to the PV.
Finally Beau and I ourselves signed the paperwork to own the trailer house, thinking something might still be negotiated… but no. In the end we owned a trailer house the PV didn’t want, which we didn’t want on our own land, and which has taught us gut-twisting lessons about the peculiarities of corporate ranching and the realities of hierarchy in business.
Life is funny.
So. A little over a year ago we managed to sell the trailer to a mobile-home dealer out of Billings. But he has yet to hitch on to it and drag it off of Deseret property so we can proceed with the dirt work. You’ve probably guessed that I’d sure like to close this particular chapter of our lives. So when that strange voice called this morning asking to meet me at George’s Camp so he could prep the trailer house for moving, I had the kids out the door like little bunnies. It’s about a 40-minute drive from here. We met a crew of three guys in Custer and they followed us to George’s Camp, just off the Stage Road in the sweet clover sea between Alkali Creek and Buffalo Creek:
At the end of today, the trailer is still sitting at George’s Camp. But it’s got wheels under it now, and they assure me that it’s almost ready to move… so long as the weather cooperates.
There is something good about all this trailer house nonsense, though: it’s given me lots of chances to visit George. I mean George’s Camp.
To spend time with someone who understands the old traditions and why they were important. Once upon a time.
To consider the long list of what used to be pertinent but no longer is… and how someone like me best moves forward in a New Montana.
And more than anything… just to visit for a minute about the way things used to be.
© Tami Blake