Sunday, January 31, 2021


Warp Corps folks at a Compassion for Campers distribution in Woodstock.

Compassion for Campers, the program that provides supplies and gear for the McHenry County homeless who have no reliable shelter, has announced a revised schedule of  distributions for the remainder of the cold weather months.  The program is going to once a month service instead of every two weeks in February, March, and April.   

According to Compassion for Campers coordinator Patrick Murfin, “After discussions with our great volunteers and in recognition of the difficulties we have in reaching the homeless population we aim to serve, all distributions will be held at Warp Corps, 114 North Benton Street in Woodstock, which is both centrally located and has existing contacts and relations with the homeless community and the social service agencies that serve them.”  Client access to Warp Corps will be from the rear entrance on Jackson Street.

Distributions will be held on Tuesday afternoons from 3:30-5 pm on the following dates—February 16, March 16, and April 13. 

Clients will be Covid-19 screened with a temperature check and standard screening questions.  No one failing the test will be turned away but we will ask what they need and  supplies will be brought out to them.  All clients are required to be masked before entering the building and a mask will be provided to anyone who does not have one.  Clients will be admitted one at a time and no more will be allowed inside at any time than the location can safely accommodate with correct social distancing.  At the conclusion of the distribution all remaining supplies will be packed for storage and the host area will be cleaned and disinfected. 

Camping gear laid out at First Church in Crystal Lake on January 19.

The Compassion for Campers warm weather outdoor program will resume in May at church sites and will probably resume rotating between Crystal Lake, Woodstock, and McHenry.  More information on that will be forthcoming.

Compassion for Campers is grateful to the Faith Leaders of McHenry County, volunteers from Ridgefield-Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church, and Warp Corps for their invaluable support.

Volunteers are still needed to help with the distribution, especially younger folks in good health.  Contact Patrick Murfin at  or phone 815 814-5645 if you are available on Tuesday afternoons.  Donations can be made by sending a check made out to Tree of Life UU Congregation, 5603 Bull Valley Road, McHenry, IL 60050 with Compassion for Campers on the memo line. The donations are placed in a dedicated fund and not used for any other purpose.  Tree of Life also donates all of the administrative expenses of the program.

Andrew Jackson First Used Troops to Quell a Strike

For the last four years this portrait of President Andre Jackson hung in a place of honor in the Oval Office.  President Biden swiftly had it removed and replaced by Benjamin Franklin.

The recently departed in shame occupant of the White House hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval OfficeOld Hickory was the president that the Resident admired most because they shared so many traits.  Both were vain, quarrelsome, given easily to offense, relentlessly vindictive to his enemies, autocratic while appealing to the poor, uneducated, and resentful as their champion.  He was also an unapologetic racist who gloated in his Indian removal policies and defended slavery.  He was also, as we will see, the sworn enemy of the just emerging labor movement.  All of these “virtues” made it easy for the Cheeto-in-Charge to ignore Jackson’s opposition the Second Bank of the United States,  his opposition to protective tariffs, and his swift defense of the Union in the South Carolina Nullification Crisis.  But then Trump was a man of no firm convictions, only tactically useful stances.  Among President Joe Biden’s first acts of cleansing was replacing the Jackson painting with a portrait founding statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin.

Canal diggers called navvies  in the jargon of the early 19th Century did physically exhausting work for long hours in wretched weather,  Small wonder they rebelled.

A canal connecting the navigable waterways of Virginia with the Ohio River had been George Washington’s dream first.  And a big one.  Decades later it seemed that despite enormous obstacles, it was finally coming to pass.  But on January 29, 1834 the hundreds of immigrant Irish, Dutch, German laborers downed their picks and shovels in protest to the brutal conditions of hewing the ditch by hand from the stony soil of Virginia (now West Virginia) from first light to the descending gloaming seven days a week.  Blacks were also on the job—mostly slaves contracted from local plantations—but whether they joined the impromptu strike is unclear.  Slave or free all were ill clothed and given little more than a single thin blanket in the brutal winter weatherWages—for those who got paid at all—were less than a dollar a day and the use of tools and such were charged to the workers.

As the laborers downed their tools Supervisors and foremen on the job were roughed up and some Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company property was damaged

U.S. Army Regulars turned out against the starving, ragged, and unorganized canal diggers were handsomely turned out in parade ground uniforms.

The company claimed insurrection and riot and appealed for aid.  In Washington, DC the crusty and volatile Andrew Jackson wasted no time in ordering Federal Troops to suppress the “rebellion.”  It was the first time the Army was ever called upon to suppress a strike.  It would not be the last.

When they arrived on the scene the smartly dressed Army Regulars had no trouble putting down the strike by men armed only with stones and brickbats.  It is unclear if shots were fired or if the flash of bayonets was sufficient to disperse the strikers, who had no organization or union.  A few identifiedleaders” were arrested, others fled.  Most of the men sullenly went back to work under armed guard.  It is presumed that any slaves who participated where much more brutally handled by their owners or overseers with the lash.

It all began before the Revolution.  Virginia planter, surveyor, and militia officer Col. George Washington had vast land claims in the Ohio wilderness which he dreamed of filling with settlers on 99 year leases to the land that he owned.  But besides persistent hostility by Native American nations, and the British policy of confining legal settlement to the east of the Allegany Mountains, the biggest obstacle to making those dreams come true was the near geographic impossibility of easy access to and from the land.  Those mountains divided the watersheds of the Ohio and Potomac rivers and provided a rugged barrier to even land access.

Washington wanted to build canals, complete with locks to raise boats to higher and higher elevations to circumvent and push past the rapids which were the navigable limits of the Potomac.  In 1772 he received a Charter from the Colony of Virginia to survey possible routes.  But before work could progress beyond the planning stage, the Revolution intervened and Washington was occupied elsewhere.

But he never forgot the pet project.   Back home at Mount Vernon in 1785 Washington formed the Patowmack Company in. The Company built short connecting canals along the Maryland and Virginia shorelines of Chesapeake Bay.  The lock systems at Little Falls, Maryland, and Great Falls, Virginia, were innovative in concept and construction. Washington himself sometimes visited construction sites and supervised the dangerous work of removing earth and boulders by manual labor.   

Now confident that his scheme would work, Washington began to plan more inland sections.  A call to another job—as President of the United States—interrupted his plans, but he looked forward to resuming work in retirement.

Unfortunately that retirement did not last long and when the great man died in 1799, the Patowmack Company folded.

Almost 25 years later, in 1823 Virginia and Maryland planters began to fret that the Erie Canal, which was nearing completion in Upstate New York would leave their region far behind in economic growth as all or most of the production from the rapidly growing states north of the Ohio would be funneled to the Great Lakes, and via the Canal and Hudson River to New York City.  They organized and got chartered the new Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company.

Five years later in 1828 Yankee born President John Quincy Adams, probably with some qualms about the possible effect on the westward spread of slavery, ceremonially turned the first spade of earth.

The route of the Chesapeake & Ohio.  The ditch was nearing Williamsport when the spontaneous strike broke out during harsh winter weather. 

Progress was slow and arduous as the canal ran parallel to the Potomac.  There had been other sporadic work stoppages.   Difficulties in the era of repeated financial panics also interrupted work.  Then there was bad weather, the increasingly difficult terrain, and even a cholera epidemic.  In late 1832 the ditch finally reached the critical river port of Harpers Ferry.  Workers were pushing on to Williamsport when the trouble broke out.

Work continued with more interruptions and a lawsuit between the Canal Company and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad about a right of way to cross from the Virginia to the Maryland side of the river also complicated matters

In 1850 the canal finally reached Columbia, Maryland far short of the goal of connecting with the Ohio.  But by that time the rapid spread of railroads, particularly the B&O, had rendered completing the project obsolete.  Washington’s grand canal never got any further.

The Chesapeake & Ohio at Georgetown just outside of Washington in the post-Civil War era.  Trains using the iron bridge in the background were rapidly making the canal obsolete.

But the existing ditch was still useful.  Boats, originally romantically named gondolas and later called barges, used the water way until it finally went out of business in 1924.

Today you can visit the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park and hike along the tow path.

The bloody tradition of using Federal troops as strike breakers out lived the canal. 

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Six Year Gone and a Centennial Birth Anniversary Pete Seeger Remains the Most Beloved American

Over his long career Pete Seger signed thousands of notes and letters to fans, friends, family, aspiring musicians, activists, and folks who who had helped him in even the smallest of ways usually adding a cartoon of his long-neck banjo.  Those notes are some of the most treasured items many folks have.  

Note:  Pete Seeger passed away six years ago this week on January 27, 2014 at age 94. That makes this year the 100th anniversary of his birth, a milestone that will be well celebrated throughout the year. He missed some tumultuous times and we all missed his strength and encouragement.  Of course hard times and struggle was no stranger to Pete.  But despite decades on the front lines of fights for worker’s rights, civil rights, peace and environmental justice and the sacrifices that he made, Pete remained remarkably optimistic.  He had faith in We the People.  He would have loved to play this month at Joe Biden’s inauguration as he did with Bruce Springsteen and his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger for Barack Obama.

Pete Seeger was born in New York City on May 3, 1919.  His father, Charles Seeger, was a noted musicologist.  Both of his parents taught at Julliard School of Music.  The whole family was musical.  His younger half siblings Peggy and Mike, born to his father’s second marriage, also became noted folk musicians inspired by travels with their father on music collecting trips to the rural South. 

Peter Seeger (on father's lap) with his father and mother, Charles and Constance Seeger and brothers on a camping trip in 1921.

On one of those trips young Pete first heard and was enthralled with the sound of the five string banjo. By the time he was 16 and a student at Avon Old Farms private prep school in Connecticut he was playing the instrument in jazz combos

Seeger began studies at Harvard, where he founded a radical newspaper and joined the Young Communist League.   But in 1938 at the age of 19 he took a job as an assistant to Library of Congress folk archivist Alan Lomax, a close friend of the family, on one of his song collecting forays through the South.  The recordings made on that trip included some of the most influential ever made.  Seeger helped record Huddy LedbetterLeadbelly—among others.

He moved to New York City in 1939 and was introduced by Lomax to a circle of folk musicians and activists clustered around Greenwich Village.  He adopted the claw-hammer banjo style he heard at mountain barn dances.  He dropped out of school and was soon performing many of the songs he had learned with Lomax as he bummed around the country.

In 1940 he met Woody Guthrie, the singing Oklahoma exile who had become a popular California radio performer, when they sang together at a benefit for migrant farm workers. The experience electrified Seeger.  He now knew with certainty what he wanted to do with his life.  The two became close friends and sometime performing partners.    He sang and played in saloons, churches, and, most of all, in union halls

One iteration of the Almanac Singers perform in 1942--Woody Guthrie, Millard Lampell, Bess Haws, Seeger, Arthur Stern, and Sis Cuningham.

Back in 1940 the loose Greenwich Village crowd formed the highly political Almanac Singers, which became troubadours of the labor movement and of radical causes.  The group was more like a large collective of singers who performed together in various settings and combinations.  The core included Millard Lampell, Lee Hays and Sis Cunningham.  In 1941 Woody Guthrie joined the group.  Others who participated in the group at one time or another included Lomax’s sister Bess Lomax Hawes, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Cisco Huston, and Burl Ives.

Following Pete’s natural inclination toward pacifism and the Communist Party’s opposition to American entry into World War II prior to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the group released a three disc, six song 78 rpm album called Songs for John Doe.  Singing on the record were Seeger, Lampell, Josh White, and Sam Gary

Less than a month after the record was released, the invasion of Russia changed everything, rendering the songs obsolete and an embarrassment as the Party and singers rapidly shifted gears.

A second album, Talking Union was released in the summer of 1941 and featured the labor songs that members of the group had been singing in union halls and on picket lines for the previous two years.  The album included now classic union songs—Talking Union Blues, Get Thee Behind Me, Satan, Guthrie’s Union Maid, and Florence Reece’s coal mine strike song Which Side Are You On?  This time out Hays joined Seeger and Lampell in the lineup. 

A third and final album, Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads came out later that year, this time with Guthrie also singing.

Despite an already developed pacifist streak, Seeger shared Guthrie’s fierce anti-fascism—Guthrie’s guitar had a sign on it, “This machine kills fascists.”  When the U.S. joined the war, the Almanac Singers broke up and Seeger, who had previously protested the Selective Service Act, was drafted and willingly entered the Army.  He spent his war in G.I. entertainment shows.

Seeger married Toshie-Aline Ohra in 1943 while in the Army.  Besides true love the marriage was a political statement at a time when Japanese-Americans were languishing in internment camps                

While in the Army in 1943 Seeger wed Toshi-Aline Ohta, the daughter of an exiled Japanese Marxist and American mother who he knew from his days in Greenwich Village.  The couple’s legendarily close and supportive marriage lasted nearly 70 years until her death in 2013.

Seeger quit his membership in the Communist Party in the late ‘40’s and after the revelations of the worst of Stalin’s crimes later said he regretted not having done it earlier.  But he refused to apologize for it and said that he remained a “communist with a small c.”

The Weavers were one of the most popular recording artists in the late 1940s and early '50's.  Left to right Seeger, Lee Hayes, Ronne Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman.

Back home after the war Seeger resumed his career as an itinerant folk musician and activist.  In 1948 he joined with his former Almanac Singer partner Lee Hays, and with Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman to form a new group, The Weavers.  In between performing for 1948 third Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, the Weavers quickly became a popular touring and recording group.  They popularized songs like On Top of Old Smokey, Kisses Sweeter than Wine, and Seeger’s version of a South African song, Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight).  By 1950 they were radio regulars and were called America’s favorite singing group.  No less a folk music aficionado than Carl Sandburg said, “When I hear America Singing, the Weavers are there.”  In 1950 they made a #1 hit record with their version of Ledbelly’s Goodnight Irene

The same year Seeger made his first solo record, a 10 inch album called Darling Corey, one of the first releases on the seminal Folkways label.  The Weavers’s popularity continued to grow with television appearances.  A Christmas Eve 1955 Carnegie Hall concert featuring the Weavers was regarded by many as the beginning of the folk music revival of the late Fifties and early Sixties. 

But trouble lay ahead.  Called before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee Seeger asserted his First Amendment rights and scolded the committee for trying to outlaw political thought and speech.  The defiance made national headlines.  Seeger was a hero to many, but the Weavers were blacklisted from radio and television, lost their Decca recording contract, and saw concert dates cancelled across the country. 

Pete Seeger testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC).  He refused to answer questions but did not invoke the Fifth Amendment but claimed that the hearing were an un-Constitutional attack on his First Amendment Rights of Free Speech and Assembly.

Worse, in 1957, Seeger was indicted on ten counts of contempt of Congress.  The case dragged on for years.  He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to ten concurrent one-year prison sentences.  The convictions were finally overturned on appeal in 1961. 

In the meantime the stress caused the Weavers to break up and Seeger struggled to make a living as a solo.  But times and attitudes were changing. The Kingston Trio picked up Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone? In 1961, even before his conviction was overturned his old friend, the legendary producer John Hammond, signed Seeger to a Columbia Records contract and released his first record on the label, Story Songs

Seeger was still banned from commercial television however.  Hootenanny refused to book him causing the show to be boycotted by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, and other top acts.  But in 1965 and ‘66 Seeger made the series Rainbow Quest at WNJU-T, a New York UHF station broadcasting mostly Spanish language programing.  Few people saw the first run, which was virtually directed by Toshi.  Pete and a guest would sit on straight back chairs by a simple table and swap songs and stories without a studio audience.  Guests included many old friends like Baez and the likes of Johnny Cash, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, The Stanley Brothers, Elizabeth Cotten, Patrick Sky, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Donovan, Richard and Mimi Fariña, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGheeSome years later PBS picked up the 39 shows for syndication on their affiliates and millions finally saw them.

Seeger featured many of his folk musician friends like Richard and Mimi Fariña on his public radio program Rainbow Quest.

The Smother’s Brothers famously broke the network TV ban when they booked Seeger.  His first song was broadcast, but the second, his searing indictment of the Vietnam War Waist Deep in the Big Muddy was cut by censors.  After a confrontation with the series stars, CBS relented and let Seeger perform the song on a subsequent program.  But the controversy helped doom the popular TV show.

The folk music revival was in full swing and so was the Civil Rights Movement.  Seeger was often on the picket lines throughout the South.  In June of 1963, Seeger returned to Carnegie Hall.  An album recorded live at the event was released under the title We Shall Overcome. It reached number 41 on the album charts and remained on the charts for 36 weeks.  The title song was a re-working of a picket line song We Will Overcome by Lucille Simmons by Seeger and friends at the Highlander Center, the training ground of Civil Rights leaders and workers. A month later Seeger appeared at the Newport Folk Festival with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs.  The era of protest music was officially launched

Pete Seeger with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and an unidentified teen a the Highlander Center where he adapted earlier versions into We Shall Overcome, the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

Seeger introduced his own songs, including Where Have All the Flowers Gone which became a hit for the Kingston Trio in 1962 and If I Had a Hammer, co-written by Lee Hayes, and recorded by Petefr Paul and Mary, to appreciative audiences in these years.  His recording of Malvina Reynolds’s Little Boxes even climbed into the pop music charts. Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, and The Byrds all had hits with Seeger songs. 

Through the late sixties and into the seventies, Seeger threw himself into opposition to the Vietnam War.  He sung to innumerably rallies and at countless benefits and collected legions of new young fans.  The highlight came in 1968 when Seeger sang to 500,000 people at the anti-war March on Washington where his fellow performers included Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie, John Denver and Peter Paul and Mary. 

After seemingly rootless decades, Seeger decided to settle down on the banks of Hudson River where he and Toshi had bought land and built a log cabin in 1949. But the pollution that had turned that beautiful and historic river into an open sewer stirred Seeger to action again.  In 1968 he launched the restored sloop Clearwater from which he campaigned for environmental causes for the rest of his long life.

Seeger on the sloop Clearwater sailing the Hudson River for the environment.

His relentless attack on General Electric for dumping PCBs in the river led to a historic law suit and a clean-up that is still going on today.  About the same time he joined the U.U. Community Church of New York City and has sung at many U.U. churches since.

In 1994 the nation that had tried to put him in prison awarded Seeger the Presidential Medal of the Arts in a Kennedy Center ceremony.  In 1996 Arlo Guthrie and Harry Belafonte were the presenters when Seeger was inducted as a roots influence into the Rock and Roll Hall of FameAcclaim continued with an honorary degree from his alma mater, Harvard, which had once enforced the blacklist against him and a two Grammy Awards for Best Traditional Folk Album and one for his children’s album,  Tomorrow’s Children.  All told, Seeger recorded over 100 albums.

In his later years Seeger’s singing voice was ravaged and his fingers sometimes painful with arthritis on the banjo.  But a good cause could still call him out.  He would scratch out a few bars of a song then, encourage the audiences to join in the familiar songs, and let younger musicians perform.  He remained clear eyed and clear headed with the same sense of selfless dedication and love of music that have propelled him for over his long life.

Seeger with grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Bruce Springsteen at a concert at the Lincoln Memorial for Barack Obama's first inauguration.

With grandson and frequent singing partner in his later years Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Bruce Springsteen Seeger led a huge crowd to an emotional singing of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land at Barack Obama’s first Inaugural.

In 2012 he performed at Carnegie Hall again for his annual Clearwater benefit.  At the end of the show he invited the audience to walk with him down to the Occupy Wall Street encampment.  Hundreds followed him out of the hall and to the park where he stood on a park bench and sang for the protestors.  Vintage, irrepressible Pete.

Seeger needed a walker, but he led a spontaneous march from his annual Clearwater benefit several blocks to the Occupy Wall Street encampment in 2012. 

Pete Seeger finally took his last breath on January 27, 2014 at age 94.  When he died Pete was probably the most beloved American—unless you were among those who were the targets of his loving outrage.


Friday, January 29, 2021

Snow Flakes the Size of Watermelons Fell on Fort Keogh

Enormous snow flakes fell on Ft. Keogh in Montana in 1887.

By coincidence, yesterday’s post about the fate of the cow pony Old Blue touched on one of the same series of storms as this entry which made the winter of 1886-87 so memorable on the High Plains.  .

The winter of 1886-87 was the most brutal ever recorded over a wide swath of the West.  East of the Rocky Mountains from Indian Territory to Montana storm after storm dumped white stuff on the open range where much of the nation’s beef was raised.  The Great Blizzard of ’87, which lasted for ten days from January 9 to 19, was worst in Montana.  Sixteen inches of snow came down the first 16 hours amid driving winds and temperatures that dipped to -47˚.  And it just kept coming.

Cattle, already weakened by a summer drought and poor grass, floundered and died by the hundreds of thousands.  As ranchers began to try to dig out of drifts that covered their cabins and reached high lofts of their barns, they hoped things would get better.

It was a good thing troopers at Fort Keogh were issued warm, heavy buffalo robe coats and hats.  They needed them in January 1887 when the snow was significantly deeper than in this earlier 1880 photo.

But on January 29 at Fort Keogh—named for a captain in General Custer’s doomed 7th Cavalry command—near Miles City in southeastern Montana huge flakes began to fall.  And I mean huge.  Flakes were gathered and measured at 15 inches across and 8 inches thick weighing several ounces.  Men, horses, and cattle were actually injured by the falling flakes, the largest ever recorded anywhere.  The reports were so outlandish that they might have been dismissed as tall tales had they not been witnessed and attested to by a whole Army post.

Charles M. Russell was a working Montana cow hand during the brutal winter of 1886-87.  He rose to fame on the basis of sketches and watercolors like this of the storm.  The Last of 5000 means the steer was a survivor of a vast herd killed by the storm--and it looks like his days are numbered.  Russell became one of the great Western artists, which was good because after the storm devastated ranching it was hard times for former cow pokes.

More blizzards fallowed in February.  When the spring thaw finally came, coincidentally unleashing devastating floods, the corpses of millions of cattle littered the plains.  The industry was virtually wiped out and the old system of open range feeding never recovered.

So, campers, if it’s been a rough winter where you are, thank your lucky stars the flakes of Fort Keogh did not fall again on you.


Thursday, January 28, 2021

Piling Stones on the Prairie for Old Blue—A Murfin Memoir

Old Blue's grave circa 1900.

My Mom, Ruby Irene Mills Murfin, was my Cub Scout Den Mother—eight or nine squirrelly, squirming boys in blue shirts and caps and yellow bandanas.  I was a Bear so that made me what, eight or nine years old?  That would make it about 1957 or’58.

Mom liked projects.  Big projects.  Projects that were not necessarily in her Den Mother’s manual.  Projects that helped us learn about the country around us, which happened to be the environs of Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Once she had cut up a prized possession, an old mink coat that went out of style with Joan Crawford’s shoulder pads.  A furrier could have used the pelts for a fashionable stole or evening jacket, but she gave them to us.  We made Indian war shields trimmed in fur and lances dangling pelts like trophy scalps.  We all whooped it up, terrorized siblings and neighbor children, and massacred settlers to our hearts content for days.

We made all sorts of things from the pine cones she collected every summer on picnic trips along Happy Jack Road.

                            Ruby Murfin was going for glamor, not the Den Mother look in this photo.

But this day she heaved a peck basket full of rocks she had collected from the bed of a fast, high country trout stream that my father fished the summer before.  They were smooth and oval or oblong and all rough edges long ago knocked off by some old glacier and millennia of rushing icy water.  They were about the size of a good big Idaho potato.  They had satisfying weight and heft in a boy’s hand.  Our minds naturally went to what we could heave them at and satisfactorily break because we were, after all, boys which meant we were as wild and vicious by nature as any pagan hoard.

But before we could commit mayhem, Den Mother Mom sat us in a circle and read to us from a picture bookOld Blue the Cow Pony by Sanford Tousey.  Blue was evidently a ranch horse of extraordinary talents.  Rounded up among the free and wild horses of the high plains he was an Appaloosa, a nimble, sure footed horse preferred by the Shoshone and the far off Nez Percé.   He was tightly dappled.  From a light rump his coat shaded to blue-gray in the forequarters. Some folks called him a blue roan.

The front plate and title page of Stanford Tousey's Old Blue the Cow Pony

Once broken and tamed, he took to the rigorous demands of working cattle—the intricate dance of cutting calves or steers from a herd for branding, running at full speed over broken ground as his rider threw his lariat, knowing just how to taut the rope so that the cowboy could leap from the saddle and throw the critter to the ground.  He had endurance for long days and nights of constant work and the speed to win the Sunday afternoon races at the home ranch.

Blue was also extremely loyal to his cowboy.  Together they rode through many seasons until the horse’s muzzle grew gray.  He was the stuff of cowboy folklore yet he kept working.

A cowhand and his pony prepare to cut a steer from the herd.

Then one year—could it really have been 1886 the year of the Great Blizzard that buried the high plains from Colorado all the way up into Canada in several feet of white death?—Blue and his rider were caught in the high country near the Great Divide searching for strays when the storm hit.  As I recall the tale, if they could not make it to the safety of the home ranch, they would surely die.

Through the raging storm with winds blowing icy pellets sideways, in the dreaded white out the man lost all sense of direction.  But Blue knew.  He kept plodding on breasting drifts up to his shoulders.  Two, maybe three days, the rider insensible and barely clinging to the saddle.  When the storm finally broke they were in the midst of a featureless plain far from the Mountains. 

Fredrick Remington's Drifting Before the Storm captured the brutality of the Blizzar of '86 on men, horses, and cattle.

Finally they encountered riders from the home ranch not more than two or three miles away. When they reached Blue he gave up his burden to them, laid down and died.

They had to leave him where he lay.  The body quickly froze and was covered by drifting snow.

But as soon as it cleared that Spring the cowboys rode out with their shovels and buried Blue where he lay.  But now there was a new danger…the hungry coyotes that would find the shallow grave and dig it up.  So they began to haul stones from a distant stream to build a cairn over the grave to protect it the same as they would do for any fallen comrade.

A small pile a couple of feet high would have done the trick, but they wanted something more—a monument.  They built the pile high and fenced the plot with split rails.  And on a tall board stuck into the ground they painted, “Erected to the memory of Old Blue, the best old cow pony that ever pulled on a rope. By the cow punchers of the 7 X L Outfit Rest in Peace.”

When Mom finished telling the story to us she said, “That was a long, long time ago and some of the stones on Old Blue’s grave have fallen.  But we are going to help.  We are going to bring new stones!”

She let us each pick a stone and broke out the Tempera paints and brushes.  She had us each paint our rock and decorate it with the brands we had designed for ourselves the week before.  Mine was the P-standing-A-T, the capital letter A standing on the top of letters P and T with a leg on each.

The 1950's Cub Scout Uniform.  In reality we were far less wholesome than depicted but proud of our cool threads.

At our next Den meeting Mom loaded us into my Dad’s Wyoming Travel Commission station wagon and drove out on the giant Warren Ranch.  We found the grave by a rutted dirt road not far from the Colorado line.  It was a raw and blustery day, the sky leaden, but the frozen ground clear of snow.  It must have been March.  The grave was there just like in the picture but the stones slipped along the ground on one side, the sign had faded, and the rail fencing long since replaced with wire.

One by one we each solemnly stepped forward and placed our stones on the pile.  Mom took some pictures with our old Kodak Brownie Box camera.  We may have said a prayer for Old Blue, or sung a song.  Or not.  We piled back into the station wagon and drove back to town in an odd silence, not a single boy trying to start a round of Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.

It’s hard now to realize that almost as much time has passed since those Cub Scouts piled their stones as there was then from the time the ranch hands began the cairn 135 years ago.

And that’s the story.  Make of it what you will.  There may have been miracles involved.