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The census is coming

It’s been 10 years and time has marched on. Which means next year in 2020 ­we’re all going to be counted to make sure we’re still alive somewhere on the planet. Once again, we’ll fill out forms, answer questions and try to remember stuff we haven’t thought about in a decade.

Back then, I did my duty. I answered the questions, filled in the blanks on the forms (mostly told the truth) and now I’m officially counted as alive and living on the planet. Ten years back I penned a poem about the subject of census-taking. It’s still relevant today especially in light of the current and escalating brouhaha about which humans are worthy of being counted and taxed.

Have You Been Counted, Labeled, and Tallied?

When it’s census time again my friend,

Counting me and thee

They’ve a list of nosy questions,

One or two or three.

A herd of fresh-hired scribblers

In rain or snow or sun.

Will travel every trail and byway

Not missing anyone.

What have I earned in the last 12 months?

In working rancher’s time?

A question I truly cannot measure

Since I won’t have made a dime!

And have I dwelt here all alone?

Or are there others too?

I’ll tell them I’m a widow woman

And I do what I can do.

They’ll want to know my background,

Have I attended school?

Do I speak a different language?

From a special ethnic pool?

Do I have an indoor toilet?

Or just an outhouse stall?

Is my house a fancy condo?

Or a tent against a wall?

Do I drive a car or pickup?

Do I have a telephone?

Do I know how many people?

Are living in my home?

Do I have a yearly mortgage?

Do I own or rent or hire?

Do I have some good insurance?

For hazards, flood or fire?

Census takers say it’s private,

(This knowledge that they seek);

But it all goes into computers

Where government can peek!

Next year is census time once more

Here they’ll come again,

The census-takers with their clipboards

To count how I have been.

I’ll be counted and dissected

But, I won’t even cuss!

I’ll do a random act of kindness

Before I bite the dust!

As they toil away, asking questions,

Gathering up the facts,

I’ll make their day, invite them in!

Tell them to relax!

I’ll welcome each one quite politely

And praise them with loud cheers!

I’ll serve each taker with some cake

And a few cold beers! ❖

Petersen: A Christmas poem

This is a true story adapted from a diary entry that appears in Pioneer Memories, a book of early times in Sweet Grass County, Mont., in 1881. While I have offered it here a couple of times over the years, I recently had a request to see it again. Merry Christmas and good tidings to you and yours.

She vowed she would not cry this Christmas,

but it was hard to be strong,

For the freighter in that winter of ’81

was late — what had gone wrong?

Their place was the depot for all the ranchers from 80 miles around,

They expected their goods on Christmas day,

how she hated to let them down.

When a rough old cowhand who stayed with them

(Old Eb was all of his name),

Said, “things’ll turn out, don’t worry, Ma’am,”

she raged, then felt ashamed.

Eb swore a lot and seemed so cross,

she never knew just why,

But he was polite; John trusted him,

so she kept her thoughts inside.

The day before Christmas, she made ten pies

with venison, apples and raisins,

Plus one extra for husband, John,

who grinned and sang her praises.

The cookstove consumed great stacks of wood

as she roasted, boiled and baked

Antelope steaks, big pieces of venison,

two snow geese, and cake.

Things were ready for all the guests,

but there were no presents or tree,

Or gifts they’d chosen from the wishing books,

dreaming how Christmas would be.

Then a stomping of horses she heard without —

“The freighter! He’s here!” she cried,

“He’s here!” She ran to open the door.

And laughing, brought him inside.

She could have kissed the grizzled driver,

and maybe he thought she might,

For he back-tracked out of her warm bright kitchen

as if he’d taken fright.

The freighter and John unpacked the goods,

marking each neighbor’s belongings;

She envied Daisy’s packet of needles,

and gazed at them with longing.

But later, one came back to her

in a handmade Christmas card;

In greetings for women, Daisy threaded a needle;

for men, a pencil starred.

There were bright shiny cups for the children,

and popcorn still on the cob;

She and John rubbed off the kernels,

and John said he’d make them pop.

She made red coloring and dipped the corn

for the children to thread on strings;

Old Eb and the freighter brought in boughs

laden with cones like wings.

Half a day’s travel the freighter had lost

to gather those boughs and that tree;

And everyone helped hang garlands of corn,

it was pretty as a tree can be.

Then shyly, Old Eb brought in some rum

and said that he’d be glad

If she would make toddies for all the folks,

for this was all he had.

She passed cups ‘round, steaming hot,

and John raised his and declared,

“Merry Christmas!” but Eb, he stomped his foot,

then glowered, grumped and glared.

“That ain’t’ no way to do it,” he said,

(he added a lot of swearing),

“Bow your heads, and I’ll say what’s fittin’.”

(She knew that she was staring).

“Dear Lord,” said Eb, “here we all be,

we’re just a bunch of critters

Out here in the hills, but we got us some meat

and fixin’s for Christmas dinners.”

“And we’re gonna remember tomorrer about

the manger and the Babe —

Now then, folks, drink ‘er down.”

Eb tossed off his with a wave.

She sipped her toddy, then said she ought

to find her mouth-harp player —

For music during the Christmas carols —

in her room, she said a prayer.

And had that crying spell after all

for misjudging Eb in her mind,

And because she was happy, too, and so grateful

the freight had arrived in time.

John came in and hugged her tight

and held her a moment or two,

Then went to greet a sleigh-load of guests,

And she, she got busy, too.

It was a lovely Christmas.❖

Gwen Peterson: A poem for the sheepherders who provide fiber for the world

Sheepherders are a lonely lot. They spend their time caring for sheep in the high country. Why, you might ask?

Because that’s where summer pasture is. Sheepherders spend summers in the mountains moving their woolly charges from meadow to meadow and keeping them safe from predators. Many herders pass their winters in town just waiting for spring so they can go back to the mountains.

This was particularly true in the old days. A herder, after not seeing another human for weeks or months except for the occasional camptender bringing supplies, would return to town with his wages sizzling a hole in his britches. He was ripe for enjoying the delights of a town. While many ambitious thoughts and plans may have lurked in his head — perhaps on how he would improve his life, maybe start ranching, maybe find a wife, maybe—? We can’t truly know what dreams may have bubbled in his brain. The general pattern was that once arrived in town, he’d seek a boarding house and a bar … not necessarily in that order.

For instance, when Sven, the herder, hit town, he rented a room on the second floor of the town’s Boarding House. His pay money was practically setting his trousers on fire. He could not resist. Like iron filings to a magnet, Jake’s Saloon called to him. Arrived there, he quenched his thirst and then quenched and quenched some more.

Sven got so far into his cups, he nearly took to knee-walking. He staggered forth to his lodging building. To access the second floor, the boarding house had exterior stairs. Sven began scaling, mostly on hands and knees. This staircase had a landing…a nice pause in a person’s journey to the summit. However, this night Sven , having lost all functioning brain power, failed to note the landing. Reaching it, he made an error in judgment, crawled forward and pitched off the other side onto Mother Earth. That’s where he was found next morning. Unhurt, but a bit bruised and chewing on dirt.

It’s not for others to critique Sven’s life … not at all … he was a man who, during his career, likely saved thousands of sheep from predators. He spent many lonely nights listening to the howls of coyotes and wolves and defending his flock from marauding bears. He slept with his rifle by his bed with blanks jacked in so’s to scare away a protected species predator wanting to eat a lamb for lunch.

While the story of Sven pitching off the outside landing is a humorous tale in the retelling, it’s also a tribute to those who tend the flocks that are the backbone of an industry that produces fiber and food for the world. All of us owe a debt to herders. Here in Big Timber, since we’re a largely Norwegian ethnic population, we are in process of having a larger than life metal statue of “The Unknown Norwegian Sheepherder” constructed and installed smack in the middle of town.

In old days, a passerby could utilize the hospitality of an empty tent, sheepwagon or a forest cabin. Nothing was ever locked. D.J. O’Malley, one of the early cowboy poets, long since gone to that roundup in the sky, wrote the following tribute verse to a herder in 1887.


You, stranger, who comes to my tent,

I hope you’ll ride away content.

Eat all you want, my only wishes

Are, when you’re through, you’ll wash the dishes.

The fare is plain, I will allow,

But you are in a sheep camp now,

So bacon fried, you’ll have to go

With flapjacks made of sourdough.

There’s coffee made and in the pot,

Placed on the stove ‘twill soon get hot.

You cannot ask for pie or cake,

For they take too much time to make.

So stranger, please be kind enough,

Don’t try to treat the herder rough;

Eat all you want, eat all you can,

But tie my tent and wash the pan.

Yes, stranger, of a sin beware,

Don’t make the poor sheepherder swear;

But please respect his only wishes,

Eat of his grub but wash his dishes. ❖

Gwen Peterson: “Old Age Blues,” a poem to the tune of “Rawhide”

Cowboy Clarence has reached his dotage — not on purpose. Father Time kind of did him in. Clarence used to be the hottest fiddle player in the county. Actually, he still pretty much is, but his skills are dwindling, which is to say, his body is failing him but his mind remains razor sharp. At a recent Swamp Creek School House dance, Clarence provided the music along with some other players. At about 9 o’clock, Clarence stepped to the microphone, declared he was tired and then bellered — in a raspy twang — the following parody to a Frankie Laine tune: Rawhide.

“Old Age Blues”

Shufflin’ shufflin’ shufflin’

Shufflin’ shufflin’ shufflin’

Shufflin’ shufflin’ shufflin’

Shufflin’ shufflin’ shufflin’


I’m shufflin’ shufflin’ shufflin’

Though my years are golden

Energy is slowin’, OLD AGE! HAH!

The years are piling higher

And help I now require

Getting to the end of my days

Soon my chips I’m cashin’

Done used up all my passion

I’m watchin’ for that heavenly ride

Movin’ slow, shufflin’ ‘ on

Movin’ slow, shufflin’ ‘ on

Movin’ slow, shufflin’ ‘ on

Old Age! HAH!

Aching joints, random pains

Random pains, aching joints Aching joints, random pains

Old Age! HAH!

Keep movin’ movin’ movin’

Joints are disapprovin’

Keep my old bones movin’, OLD AGE! HAH!

Don’t try to understand it

Never really planned it

Just kept on livin’ high and wide

Git up speed is easin’

My heart still goes on beatin’

Ain’t waitin’ for the end of my ride

Movin’ slow, shufflin’ ‘ on

Movin’ slow, shufflin’ ‘ on

Movin’ slow, shufflin’ ‘ on


Aching joints, random pains

Random pains, aching joints

Aching joints, random pains

Old age! HAH!

Clarence’s rendition stirred the entire dance audience into shouting OLD AGE, HAH! at particular places in the lyrics. After a big finish, Clarence bowed, thanked the listeners, packed up his fiddle and went home. But not to worry … he’ll be playing at the Senior Citizen jam next Sunday. ❖

Gwen Peterson: Baling continues, rain or shine, a poem

Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, claims it’s going to be an early spring — according to one source. According to another, the little varmint asserts we’re to have six more weeks of winter. Either way, it works out about the same.

Either way, cowboys and ranchers are adding to their collections of bale string. Whether big round, big square or small square, the string piles up.

In years gone by, baling wire was a useful castoff material. Baling wire could be used to fix fences, close gaps and squeeze between vehicle door and frame after the keys got locked inside.

Nowadays, it’s baling string that accumulates over the winter. It lacks the necessary rigidity if you want a tool for prying. Still, the stuff is useful in many ways.


Now, baling string’s a common thing

Real useful on a ranch.

It fixes fences, ties up gates

And maybe holds up pants.

When winter comes and snow lies deep

A ranch man loads a bunch

Of string-tied bales into his truck

To take the cattle lunch

Each time he busts a stretched-tight string

And scatters out the hay,

He’s left a-holding loops of twine

That pile up day by day.

Now some just drop it on the ground—

That ugly tangled string–

Which makes a mess and chokes out growth

Of new grass in the spring.

Others toss twine in the truck.

It piles up behind the cab.

By spring the string has turned into

A heavy concrete slab

Or if the stockrack’s fastened on,

It makes a handy place

To loop the strings like strands of hair—

A kind of bale-string lace.

Or make a braided macramé

To hang upon the wall.

Or harness up a two year old

To save him from a fall.

Twine once rescued Fluff the Cat

Who fell into a well.

Baling string let down a basket

And Fluff climbed in pell mell.

Kids use twine for a fishing line

With safety pin for hook.

And if they catch a trout or two,

Take them home to cook.

Though baling twine’s indeed a blessing,

On that we can agree,

(But keep the fact I hate the stuff

A secret twixt you and me!) ❖