Field Notes – Plain Hard Work
The pieces in the Mountain West Voices series are vignettes, not documentaries, so I often have to make tough choices about which elements I can include, and which are left out.
In the case of Paul Ringling, the choices were especially hard, and I had to leave out a lot of interesting stuff. I hope to use some of the unused material in a longer piece later this spring, but in the meantime, I would like to mention a few things that didn’t fit into the piece. Although Paul has spent most of his life working with cattle, he found time to spend five seasons with the circus (as you might have surmised from his name, he is related to the Ringling Brothers). During the Second World War, he carried out important radio communications work in North Africa, a chapter of the history of that war that is still little known to most Americans. Paul was for many years director of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association. He is an accomplished pilot. And he served several terms in the State Legislature, representing Meagher County. Following are some excerpts from my interview with Paul Ringling.
(EARLY RANCH LIFE)
By the time I was 11 or so I was doing a full day’s work on the ranch. I learned to ride with some of those ranch fellows. They didn’t talk a lot. They rode at a little jig trot, and they went till the job was done. You left no later than about six-thirty or seven in the morning, and you rode to where the work was – you didn’t haul your horse in a trailer or a truck. You rode to where the work was, and you got through, you rode back home. So by the time I was ten or twelve, then I was kind of in the swing of things. And when I was a kid on the ranch, we never had a dog with us. Those cattle that we had, those days, now we used dogs for sheep, but there were no dogs around where we worked the cattle. Now, and even myself, I had a dog, a blue heeler with me, but when I was a kid I sure didn’t.
There were crews on a ranch – this was a good sized ranch where I was – there was a lady there…you had breakfast at six, you had lunch at noon, you had supper at six. They rang a bell for the breakfast and lunch and supper. One fellow wrangled – you used a lot of horses. So the horses were out in a big pasture, one fellow was a wrangler – that was his job. He had to leave about five o’clock in the morning to get those horses in, or maybe a little earlier…but no later than five. And then the custom was that if you were driving a team or whatever, you had the harness on – the harness, the collars, whatever – before breakfast.
It took more people to operate a ranch then than it does now. Now, it’s very difficult to get labor on a ranch.
There was a blacksmith – on any fair-sized ranch there was a blacksmith…specially during haying time he was all the time working on sickles, sharpening the sickles, replacing the sections, and a blacksmith had, you know, the wagon wheels, rims on, there was a lot of repair work done by a blacksmith. And most of those larger ranches had a chore boy. He’d milk the cows and took care of that kind of stuff around there. And then there were the bunkhouses. In the winter time there wouldn’t be as many, but in the summer there’d be irrigators, and of course people working with the stock – hauling hay. And then in haying time that one ranch I was on had two big hay crews. They’d work from 4th of July till September. Twelve to fourteen men in a crew. For putting up the hay.
And on that ranch there were 14-horse mowers and they changed teams at noon, so there was a lot of horses to do the work.
Most of the cooks were women. There were friends…groups of friends that would get together to socialize, maybe after supper. Of course most everybody smoked…they’d roll a smoke and visit and stuff….But there wasn’t a lot of social life at that ranch.
On Saturday evening, everybody that wanted to went to town…went into White Sulphur…went to dance or movies…
You ate three squares a day – that’s for one thing. Because you worked. So when you sat down to eat you ate a big breakfast, ate a big lunch, and you ate a big supper. There’d be meat at every meal, and hotcakes, mostly hotcakes, with some bacon and eggs and like that for breakfast. Stew and some things for lunch. And supper. But meat at every meal. And then potatoes. Meat and potatoes and gravy, every meal had gravy, and especially if you had biscuits in the morning…
We didn’t feel bad we were working – we didn’t know any better. But it was plain old hard work….fencing, for example…haying…didn’t matter….working with the cattle, if the weather wasn’t good, didn’t make any difference, you were still out there working.
I went to work on the circus about a month after I graduated from high school. I was….I was 17 when I went to work on the circus. And the circus, what we called trooping…we moved every day.
The distances way shorter when you were back in Ohio and Indiana…Illinois…I remember one little town in Wisconsin, the population in that town was about 6,000 and we had 14,000 people at the matinee!
Talk about work – if you didn’t want to work, you didn’t want to be on the circus,because that was every day. If you couldn’t do your job, someone else was going to do it. But I don’t believe you could get people to work like that nowadays…some, but not a lot.
I was 11 when my father died, but my mother was 1/3 owner of the circus. In 1938 I went to work on the circus, and worked five seasons on the circus…
I went to school on the GI bill, at Bozeman, then that summer I was going to go back to work – I’d been hired. Then there was a family fracas, and management changed, and the new management rehired me, but it was a family feud, and my mother was having trouble on the ranch, and my wife and I talked it over, and decided to heck with it, I’d go back to the ranch.
First I worked at the ticket department, then did a lot of the physical setting up and tearing down…then I switched to outdoor advertising for the show…
There was a lot of camaraderie with the circus, but you were mostly with the group you worked with. Like the first two years I was with ticket sellers, and the second two years I worked on the setting up and taking down, and the second two years I rode what we called the squadron or the first section. The circus moved in four sections. We’d be going out of town, and the performance would still be going on. We had the layout gang. There was no haphazard set up, we might be what we called an end-to-end layout, or a side-by-side…but every wagon had a spot, and that’s where it was. The light plant had to be where it belonged, and everything was laid out for a circus lot, where it would be…for each day. But our, on the squadron, we had the layout gang, we had the cookhouse, and six o’clock in the morning, they were serving breakfast. And it was a breakfast. I mean a good, working man’s breakfast.
If you told people today that you moved 1200 animals and 1200 people every day, they’d look at you like you were smoking something. But we had 100 railroad cars, and the flat cars, and the baggage cars for elephants, those were all 72 foot cars. Not like a regular box car you see on the railroads now.
Many times I’d go in and watch the performance…pick out an empty seat and go in and watch the performance.
(SCOTT) What do you remember?
I can get into remembering a lot of things, but I liked to watch what we called the double trap act, that it was two people that did all kinds of things, one would be hanging on the other one. I liked to watch the elephants. There was a man named Heier (sp?) a Hollander, that had a real sense of acting. I remember one manager at the circus said it was worth the price of admission just to watch him take his hat off. He just had that presence. He rode what we called a high schooled horse…
(SCOTT) Meaning what?
Oh, the horse did different kinds of maybe a high trot, then put his forelegs out, one, then the other, do specific types of things in the ring with the rider.
(SCOTT) What about the barkers? Do you remember them?
Oh, they were in the sideshow.
They were the ones enticing people to come into the sideshow and see the fat lady and the tattooed man and the midgets and that was a whole separate thing, too. I knew a lot of people around the circus, but they were a class all by themselves.
The circus was entertainment that everyone could go to. Even the Amish people came to the circus. There was nothing lewd or risqué….there was nothing suggestive or haywire with any of the presentations.. justlots of animals…and then clowns of course. And then those people saw performances with the circus that they never could see anywhere else.
Oh, trapeze for instance.
(MORE ABOUT RANCHING)
Cattle ranching is a type of work or operation that’s unique to itself, I think. You’re in agriculture. A rancher is not a farmer. They’re in agriculture, but they’re a different thinker, and I’m not saying one is better than the other, but they’re different. If you like to work with livestock then it’s great. If you don’t, you better do something else.
You’re real fortunate if you’re doing what you like to do. People who work with cattle, they can look at a cow and tell if she’s happy…which sounds kind of silly – a cow is a cow – but if you’ve worked around stock, with horses and with cattle, you can tell if they’re happy, if they’re satisfied, if they’re getting enough to eat, if they’re kind of enjoying life.
(IN THE WAR)
My classification was a high speed radio operator, and that’s in international Morse code. And our mission was the Luftwaffe – the German airforce. believe it or not it’s over 60 years ago and that unit is still classified that I served. First in North Africa and then Italy
When we were done we gathered up all our gear and dumped it in the Adriatic…I guess it’s still there! I don’t think the bureaucrats in the Air Corps knew what to do with us.
Everything was stamped top and bottom secret. Nobody else could do our job. We were radio operators…international Morse Code. What we were doing was intercepting communications from German ground stations to the planes, plane to plane – that type. And then we had an intelligence section, they couldn’t do what we did. Our chief never even opened the door. A hand went out took it to our intelligence section, and we didn’t have a thing to do with them. We didn’t socialize with them or anything…
Believe it or not, the cooks and KPs in our outfit knew we were radio operators, but they didn’t know what we did. It was that secret.
(My best friend’s) name was George Culler. And he lived on a ranch up west of where I was on the Birch Creek Ranch, the same creek, but it was about 7 miles up to where he was. Yeah, we did all kinds of things…and we had total freedom. We were children…kids…but we weren’t home…up at his place, his father and mother weren’t out there wondering what we were doing. They figured wherever we were we were getting along OK.
There were no telephones back and forth up to their place, so when I left the Birch Creek ranch riding up there people just figured you got there. I guess. And then we had a cow camp out by Ringling, and he and I’d ride out there and we might be out there for a week.
(SCOTT) At what age?
Oh, we were ten or so.
(SCOTT) And what would you do out there for a week?
Oh, we’d ride. We were out there working cattle. We’d ride hunt, everything.
(SCOTT) What would you do for food?
We didn’t have much fresh food. It was all canned or cured, like bacon and ham and that. For meat. Unless we shot a rabbit or something. Couple of them and ate ‘em. Or some sage grouse, something like that. Otherwise it was biscuits and gravy and ham and eggs and beans…
(George’s mom) was a lady that I don’t think she ever got up later than 5 – she was doing something all day long. She canned..we would catch a lot of the native cutthroats, the medium to small size, she had them in jars, and the bones were fairly soft, like canned salmon, there’d be a little bit of a pickle to them, but boy they were delicious. We’d take them haying when we were working in the hay and stuff. And she cooked everything. There’s nothing went to waste around that lady. If it could be cooked, she cooked it. Beaver, and fish….game…And she raised a big garden. Milked cows…and she was either mending or sewing or doing something…
I never remember having a bad time. I remember one time us kids made a boat and we put it in the Smith River, well we didn’t have much idea of what we were doing…we plugged the cracks with sheep paint, which didn’t work. But we had the sheep paint all over us. When we went up there and that lady got through scrubbing us…we didn’t have any more sheep paint on us!
I just happened to think about something…you were talking about the 20’s and 30’s, now the people who worked on ranches, they were all men…on the larger ranches…but many of them would work for their board in the winter time, or two or three, three or four of them would shack up together in the winter, and maybe just live on a little wild game and stuff…till the next spring when the work started.
We’re talking about times especially up in the 30’s where if you had a job – a decent job – you were pretty careful to take care of it. ‘Cause there’d be three more guys behind you waiting to get it.
(SCOTT) So who were these guys? I mean…
Well, a lot of them were single…most of them were single. Some of them were married, but most of the men who worked on ranches were single…
(SCOTT) And were they from Montana, or some of them drifted in from someplace…?
Oh, they were from all over. Mostly from the West, but maybe not all from Montana. North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska…what I call the West.
The first year I worked on the circus my mother bought land out north of White Sulphur Springs for 90 cents an acre…not 90 dollars, but 90 cents…and one fellow saved his money, what you’re talking about, and he bought the first 80 acres he bought, he went up to Great Falls and paid a dollar and a quarter an acre for that. From Federal land.
(SCOTT) This is land that someone had defaulted on?
Well, there were a lot of foreclosures, so the banks had land…
We’d been married going on two years when I went in the service…
(SCOTT) That must have been rough to be newly married and then separated…what was that like?
We didn’t see each other for three years. When I went in the service, Eltheia (sp?)…my wife’s name was Eltheia – went to Butte business college and completed that course, and then she went to college in Bozeman. And the day I got home she quit her job.
I don’t think it was so awkward for us. We were sweethearts in high school. So we damn sure knew each other when we were married. We went over to Lake McDonald, rented a cabin and got reacquainted. What other couples did I don’t know, but I know what we did.
When we were kids in high school, if you had five dollars, gasoline was ten cents a gallon, you could buy ten gallons of gas; cost you a dollar and a quarter to go to a dance, and you could eat or something, and when you were done you’d probably have a couple dollars left.
One thing we really enjoyed doing was going to dances…and, everything you did, you know…but we really enjoyed dancing.
There were two, almost always two dance bands in White Sulphur…they’d play for dances. And just about every Saturday night, somewhere, there’d be a dance. Maybe a country school house, or one of the organizations would have a dance…school dances…different town…we might go down to Wilsall to a dance, or maybe even as far as Livingston…or maybe go to a nightclub and dance…
(SCOTT) Are we talking piano, violin, accordion?
Just about every dance band had a piano player. And then there might be a saxophone player. A drummer. Piano and a drummer. Couple of instruments. Clarinet and saxophone. 0213 just about every one had a saxophone, piano and a drummer.
(SCOTT) So we’re talking the 1930’s? What kind of dances…?
We did very little of what you call country square dances, that type of dance. It’d be waltzes and foxtrots…that kind of music…
We were out in the country but we didn’t do country dances…
(SCOTT) Did you and your wife continue to dance after you were married?
Oh yeah, we loved to dance. We danced whenever we could, wherever we could. Oh yeah, when I had my arm around that girl you couldn’t have bought me for a million dollars, I don’t think.