Keeping family history alive after ‘librarian’ passes on

Ryan Taylor writes about life in the country.


For the Capital Press

Published on August 22, 2014 11:39AM

A Scandinavian friend of mine once told me an African proverb. It said, “when an old man dies, a library has burned to the ground.” I thought of that when I was asked to eulogize my mother’s “Norwegian bachelor rancher” cousin, Orlin.

Orlin had a lot of volumes in his cranial library. I was lucky enough to check out a few of the stories as I grew up and helped him work calves, borrowed his sheep buck back when we had a few ewes, or bought some hay from him. I wasn’t always in desperate need of the hay, but I’d never turn him down when he offered to sell it because I enjoyed the chance to visit. And I really liked using his tractor, a classic 1650 Cockshutt with an F25 Farmhand, to load it.

Counting sheep

Orlin didn’t always ranch. After college, he worked for the Farmer’s Home Administration awhile.

At FmHA, he was tasked with the duty of verifying collateral. Once he was tasked with the duty of counting the number of ewes in a borrower’s flock. Having personal knowledge of the difficulty in counting a thousand or more sheep, he got to the place early and had coffee with the rancher’s wife while the rancher was out gathering the sheep. He nonchalantly asked her, “So how many ewes do you have?” She replied with the certainty of any sheep-raising matriarch, “There are 1,248.”

Not letting anything on to the rancher, he told him that he’d sit up on the side of the hill to count the ewes if he would just run the flock past him. He did and the sheep hustled by about 30 deep. Orlin wagged his finger and moved his lips. When they’d all passed, he walked up to the rancher and said, “I got 1,246, is that pretty close?” knowing it would be suspicious if he was right on the mark. When the rancher picked his jaw up off the ground, he told Orlin, “That’s about right!” The collateral was duly accounted for.

Message in a bale

Orlin and I both had some experience with a Vermeer 605F baler. It gave us another connection beyond our common ancestry. I just kind of baled hay with mine and hoped I could get the bale started when the hay was slippery. Orlin saw the job as an opportunity to record a little data.

He would take the brown paper from the twine bag, pick up his pen and write the date, weather conditions, quality of the hay and field it came from, and toss that piece of paper in the windrow to be consumed by the baler. Then that winter when he was rolling out that bale as he fed it, he’d sometimes find the slip of paper to add a little excitement and knowledge to the day’s chores.

It was like putting a message in a bottle in the ocean and finding it on the opposite shore. Or opening up a box of Crackerjacks and finding the prize. It makes me smile every time I think of Orlin rolling out a bale and finding his hidden note.

Retaining history

He was the one who could write down the history of both hay and family, could tell us where his grandfather’s homestead cabin stood and why there are no trees along the river by their place. He knew the story of a stationary square baler on their place that once baled the hay that fed the horses that ran the pile drivers that built Pearl Harbor.

It was all right there, in his head, or written down on the back of a used envelope or a piece of paper from the twine bag.

Now it’s up to us who are left to put those stories in our library and invite the next generation to check them out. Because time is short.


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