The Wit and Wisdom of the Farmer: What I Learned From my Grandpa
Updated: Apr 23, 2021
Luck is not chance, it's toil; fortune's expensive smile is earned.- Emily Dickenson
My grandpa, Everett Gene Orem, was a member of the greatest generation. He was a child of the Great Depression, and he exemplified the American ideal of the self-made man. He was the youngest of ten children, and at nine he was an orphan, too poor to even afford shoes to wear to his mother’s funeral. Undeterred by the harsh reality of his circumstances, he bunked up at his older sister’s ranch; his brother vowing to send money home to help support his way. Gene earned his keep though, helping break horses and caring for cattle on the family ranch. Everyone had to help, and Gene was resourceful and quick to learn. One of his favorite stories to tell was the time he woke up in his bunkhouse cot to find a rattlesnake curled up at his feet. He had nerves of steel. Alone, at 12, he drove a tractor the hundreds of miles from Roy, New Mexico to east Texas where he joined a cattle drive before returning to the ranch for the school year. Can you even imagine? His life was full of adventure, and more than his fair share of loss and hardship, but you wouldn't have known it by his attitude. He was never bitter. Instead, the lessons of his youth taught him to work hard for what he wanted, an enduring loyalty to family. He was both brilliant and good-natured. He was a natural leader and a gifted athlete. He led his high school to state championships in football, track, and basketball, but turned down a college scholarship because he didn’t have the money for transportation to the university. While disappointing, he made a big life for himself nonetheless.
He married his high school sweetheart, my grandmother Anna Charlene - asking her what she was doing for the next fifty years. She laments often these days that she should have bargained for more time; he passed away not long after their fiftieth wedding anniversary. After graduation from high school, he began work in construction, moving to Los Almos to work for the atomic bomb test site. Next, he took his young family to the northwest to build bridges in Portland, Oregon and manufacturing sites along the Columbia River. He was the ultimate working man - putting his photographic memory to work to bring to life the architectural drawings of engineers. He was a problem solver with practical know how and grit. Before Google, he learned from others and figured it out on his own- Joe Magee style. He was an iron worker and a reluctant mechanic. And then, as fate would have it, he got wind of a construction job in Columbia Falls, Montana. He and Charlene loaded up their three oldest kids in the car, packed the travel trailer and headed north to the gateway to Glacier National Park. When the job ended and the company offered him a full time supervisor position, they talked it over and agreed to stay. They had fallen in love with Montana.
They bought a homestead on the east side of the Flathead Valley – 15 minutes from the entrance to Glacier National Park. Both had grown up as farm and ranch kids, with agricultural roots going back generations in the South, and it made sense to them to raise their young family in the country. Gene's grandfather had raised cattle and horses in Texas for the U.S. Calvary before the Great Depression, and his father was a cattleman as well. It was in his blood. So, while his friends at work were relaxing at lake cabins, he bought up several adjacent farms and started his own beef herd. He worked at the plant full time and relied heavily on his wife, my grandma, to really run the ranch while he was gone. It was she who put up hundreds of acres of hay each summer to feed the cows.
Poppy, as we called him, kept daily journals of life on the ranch - with details of wildlife spottings and livestock health. For example, on the day my dad was born, his journal entry marks, "Cow had calf, wife had son." My birth is also marked in those journals, along with dates I spent the night or helped grandma make pie.
I grew up just across the field from their house; my parents lived in the 800-square-foot farmhouse on one of the homesteads my grandparents bought - the Hall place. The little house was cozy, and the farm road to Grandma and Poppy's was well worn by my bicycle tires. My dad took over the farm operation in his early 20’s after my grandfather suffered back injuries and then his first heart attack. Life for Poppy slowed down some, and he made time to enjoy the farm in a new way. He'd slip into his blue striped coveralls and jump in his truck to check things out on the farm, stopping occasionally to fish in one of the ponds or to watch a family of foxes play in the woods. He was in a constant battle with Canadian thistle and Mullen weeds. He worked hard, every day, even in retirement and with a heart defibrillator. Poppy never hesitated to make room for my siblings and I in the tractor seat, and the reward for helping him pick weeds or haul rocks was often a trip to the root beer stand for a float. It was a treat to spend time with him - whatever it was we were doing. I loved going to the dump with him; we'd often drag home more treasures than the load of garbage we had taken. Joining him at the cattle sale ring made me feel like a rodeo princess; his farmer friends would buy me Sixlet candies I'd share them with him. His blue eyes twinkled mischievously, and he could get angrier than anyone I knew - especially when I fought with my sister. He just couldn't stand that. He taught me to be fearless - or at least how to appear so. He'd set me in a spot while moving cows and handing me a stick, admonish me to hold it high above my small head and not to let the cows knew I was afraid. You'd be surprised how many times I've imagined those huge bovines when faced with a monumental fear.
While he worked hard, he also made sure to make time for family. He was always the loudest fan at our basketball games or at least nearly as loud as my dad. I knew, without a doubt, I could count on him for a hug and a pep talk no matter what disappointment or challenge I faced. His advice was always to work harder, to not back down, to believe I was capable. After all, he did anything he set his mind to do - and I shared his genes. He was always ready to listen. The back door of their house was always unlocked. I'd push open the squeaky screen door to hear him call out a familiar greeting. He made sure grandma kept cookies for us in the bread drawer in the kitchen. I'd find him sitting in his chair, looking up at his beloved mountain with his binoculars, a football game on TV.
Poppy, rarely missed my sports games and was my biggest fan. Undoubtedly, his prompting helped me see a bigger life for myself than I would have on my own. He insisted I go to college, encouraged me to pursue college sports, and despite his weakened condition danced with me at my wedding. I owe him so much. He instilled in his children and grandchildren the importance of hard work, and the satisfaction of a job well done. He wouldn’t let us give up. He also taught me that attitude is everything. He's been gone nearly twenty years now, but I think about him nearly every day. Folks in town remember him too - he was well-loved by those who worked for him at the aluminum plant in town. He was an unforgettable man. A legend. One way he taught me to be optimistic, resourceful and hard-working was through his phrases, idioms of his generation and of his making. I want to instill in my daughters the same ethic and value Poppy built up in me. So, of course I'm raising them here on his farm and they know him through our stories. And every so often I hear my girls admonishing one another or their cousins using Poppy's phrases, I think - yes, this is it - the wit and wisdom of Poppy alive and well.
Make yourself useful, as well as ornamental
You are as handy as a pocket on a shirt
You have the same shoes to be glad in
Put a smile on your face like a wave on a slop bucket
I’m a dollar waiting on a dime
You’re a day late and a dollar short
Don’t Stand around with your teeth in your mouth and your hind-end hanging out!
Photography by Jeremiah and Rachel Spray www.jeremiahandrachelsprayphotography.com