A ‘Real’ Amercian Cowgirl–Gail Jenner

Gail and Sandy, one of her 40 horses

Yesterday, we learned about the fascinating “State of Jefferson” and Gail Jenner’s books about that subject. Gail and her family have a working ranch in the California Siskiyous and portray the work ethic and love of land that many of us remember from our ranching/farming ancestors. Today, we talk about her life as a “real” cowhand and ranch wife.

You’re married to a fourth-generation cattle rancher. Were you raised on a ranch?

No, I wasn’t. I was raised as a suburban kid in the San Francisco Bay Area, the daughter of a second-generation Italian-American (from New Jersey) who met and married a CA girl, often called “the American girl” by my Italian-American relatives back East. We have a host of relatives still in Italy and we remain fairly close.

How did you adjust?

Actually, I look back and realize that events seemed to propel me in this direction! Growing up, we knew a couple of families that had rural “roots” or small acreage with horses, etc., and I found myself slipping over there to groom horses/ride horses.. I even  learned to can applesauce and fruit when I was about 10 or 11. I loved it. Then, when I was 13, my dad took us (my twin sister and I) to Montana on a 2-week business trip and one day, as we made our way through a herd of cows being driven down the highway, I announced, “I’m going to marry a rancher.” I also attended a smaller, more rural college where there were lots of agricultural students (that’s where I met my cowboy/farmer husband).

But, no, I never felt I even had to “adjust” to ranching or country life – although that is not typical. A lot of my girlfriends who also married farmers struggled the first couple years, esp. with small town living and the remoteness and isolation that often comes with it. Ranching can be pretty intense with very little time off and very little money available for extras (hence, most farm wives work outside the home). Even taking time for “IMPORTANT” events sometimes doesn’t happen….and that is hard. Not to say we haven’t had issues! My husband is a recovered alcoholic, so we had our “years in hell” (as we fondly call them <G>), but the tension was about the drinking, not the lifestyle. What WAS difficult was adjusting to a FAMILY business. We are part of a small dynasty and my father-in-law is not an easy man – although a fascinating and wonderful man when he wants to be! There was not a lot of autonomy or independence, esp. in our early years of marriage, and because my soft-spoken, gentle husband could not speak up easily, he often found his release through drinking. But we survived that, by the grace of God, and I can say the last 20 years (we’ve been married 37+ years) have been truly wonderful.

Do you ride and help with cattle roundup, branding, etc.?

Absolutely. I love working cows and it’s something we all do, even the little ones. We have a pretty large herd of cows and it takes us about 10 days or more to “get through” all the cows, calves, etc.

Describe a typical day on your ranch.

Depends on the season! In summer, we get up fairly early. My husband irrigates early, then either cuts hay, bales hay, harvests, or mechanics, while the “boys” (including the women/wives) haul hay. We put up “one ton” bales now so it’s all done mechanically, and we “girls” drive the trucks (large flatbed trucks or even a semi-truck flatbed) in and out of the fields, to the barns. If I’m not helping with that, I’m usually gardening and preparing food for whoever is coming in at lunch. After lunch, or before, I try to squeeze in some writing or research. I also watch our 3-year old grandson on one or two days or afternoons. When I shop, sometimes I have to go “over the hill” to Yreka (our “big” town, pop. about 7,500). I’m always doing laundry and cleaning, esp. since our house (an old ranch house) gets pretty dusty. My husband ends the day with more irrigating and that can take an hour or more. We usually eat dinner around 8:00 or later, if necessary.

In winter, because it gets very cold here (and snows – we are at almost 3,000 feet and surrounded by the Marble Mountains, Salmon-Trinity Alps, and Klamath National Forest), we “feed cows” at least 6-7 months of the year. That can take a couple hours or longer, depending on conditions. We “calve” in the fall, so wintertime we have cows and calves, steers and heifers, plus bulls to feed. BTW, we, like most ranchers around the nation, keep cattle in pastures and fields. This notion of “factory cattle” or feedlot cattle is quite erroneous. Anyway, when cows are calving, we have to check them morning and evening, and sometimes late at night. My husband often has to “pull calves” if the cow is in trouble. Like babies, that can mean anytime day or night – and we’ve missed all kinds of events over the years when this happens! My husband does a lot of mechanicing in the winter months, trying to catch up on projects or bringing machinery up to date. We don’t buy new equipment, for the most part – way too expensive. But my husband is an engineer and can design or re-build most anything (including tractors, D-8s, scrapers, backhoes, feed trucks, wagons, whatever). He is actually a genius and is often sought for his advice on any mechanical problem.

In spring and fall, there is also more work with cows and planting/sowing/plowing projects. Farming is often squeezed in between everything else, so again, it can mean 12-13 hour days. At least now we have enclosed cabs and tractors (when we were first married they farmed in open cabs – VERY cold!!).

Gail's husband and brother-in-law preparing peppered hams

Gail’s husband and brother-in-law processing hams

You’ve talked about butchering and making your own sausage, the old-fashioned way. Do you raise most of your own food?

In the summer, our table almost always features all/most of our own food! I do can and dry a lot of food, although not as much as I used to, especially since the kids are out of the house and I DO want to WRITE! But we raise natural beef and we raise our own hogs. We also have some fruit trees and MILES of blackberries that I love to take advantage of in the late summer. We used to cure our own lard and make our own apple cider, but it’s been a few years since we’ve done that (haven’t had any “good” apple years for awhile). We do butcher all our own meat and we make our own hams, bacon, sausage, etc., even with the same tools that the family used 120 years ago. It’s incredible and absolutely fantastic. We used to raise chickens and turkeys, too, and we had a milk cow for years – but not now. It is WORK and when the wives also work outside the home, plus with kids busy with activities, it’s a huge responsibility.

Farm women who do all the traditional stuff are not women who work outside the home, unless they have a lot of help from someone. In our operation, the men do little if any of the “house/yard/kid” stuff – except occasionally. The last vacation my husband has even taken (aside from 24-hour trips to our daughter’s or my sister’s for Christmas or holidays) was YEARS ago. I can’t even tell you when my husband took me out to a show or to a “nice” dinner or evening. Women who expect their husbands to participate in more than that will never make it as a farm wife!

What do you like best about the ranching life?

Although ranching/farming is a lot of work, the tradeoffs have been more than worth it! First of all, we live in a kind of Shangri La (that’s what my mom always called our valley — green and quaint and beautiful). Only three stop lights (over the hill, in Yreka), but none here. Only Dotty’s for hamburgers and ice cream.

Littlest Wranglers. Grandson and great nephews

Littlest Wranglers. Grandson and great nephews

The kids can “go with Dad to work” much of the time, and they learn early what it means to work together as a family; they learn the meaning of hard work, too, which does pay off when they’re older and get jobs. In summer, we often stop at the slough and throw a hook and line in. We might catch a bass or two for dinner! We ride together when we’re working cows or are in the mountains, and it makes for a close family circle.

Of course, the kids complain later on (especially in their teens) that they don’t get to do what their friends do, but the flip side of that is that their friends WANT to come out onto the ranch and do what THEY do!?I mean, who doesn’t want to ride horses or fish in the ponds/slough?

We eat family meals together and we have the extended family over a lot during the year (the kids and now the grandkids are all pretty much the same ages). There is never NOT enough food <G> and it’s natural and healthy and good. We don’t seem to have a problem with child obesity in this family <G> and time in front of the TV or with video games is pretty minimal; winter time sees more of that and certainly in the evenings after everyone has showered and eaten, but it’s a pleasant kind of activity.

We do take a few Sundays off (not enough, though) and take rides or visit friends, etc., and the kids did all the regular things growing up — lots of sports, 4-H and FFA and clubs, skiing and dating, etc., but they did more, too: rodeo, camping/fishing & hunting in the mountains — and being in small schools, they had close friends who have remained close through the years.

I think it truly is a great place for families and raising kids. It’s sad that more and more farm kids cannot return home because it’s hard to make a decent living in farming/ranching unless you have the opportunity to join in on a family enterprise (we are lucky in that regard!), but the blessings and fun that we do have is great. I can’t imagine living or doing anything else!

You’ve written three historical novels, two non-fiction books and numerous articles, plus raised three children. What accomplishment are you the proudest of?

I’ve written three novels, only one is officially published (ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS, which won a 2002 WILLA Award), and three non-fiction books with Arcadia Publishing (which I connected with via Women Writing the West authors!). I co-authored a teacher’s curriculum guidebook with Simon & Schuster and have contributed to seven anthologies  (historical/textbook/ and Christian). I’ve sold several “women’s stories” and children’s stories, articles, columns, some poetry and some recipes, and have written two scripts.

Yes, we have 3 children and now we have 5 grandchildren. Our daughter is a CPA and married to a contractor, and they have 3 children; our eldest son graduated from college, then came home to ranch with us; he’s married and his wife is a teacher, and they have 2 little boys. Our 3rd child is in his 3rd year in college.

Without a doubt, my kids (and now grandkids) are my greatest joy. I love being a mom and a “nonna.” I love giving to my family and friends and community. I love being a part of something, like this ranch, or family or community, where what I do “makes a difference.” I look at writing that way, too; I want it to “make a difference” or at least, enlighten others, if nothing else. And I don’t want us to lose that connection to our roots/our history/our past.

What would you do, if you were not where you are today?

I don’t know. Hard question. Probably I would still be writing (I’ve been writing since I was  9 years old), but perhaps I’d have done more traveling and I’d have pursued my art or music (both have been sacrificed or set aside over the years!). I have always said I’d like to be a museum curator or librarian.

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Published in: on August 28, 2008 at 1:47 am  Comments (4)  
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The Mythical State of Jefferson

As I traveled I-5 recently from Oregon into California, I saw an intriguing sign along the road, declaring “The State of Jefferson,” and I remembered I was in “Gail Jenner Country.” Gail is a fellow member of Women Writing the West and the author of two books about the “mythical State of Jefferson,”  Images of the State of Jefferson and The State of Jefferson: Then and Now. Gail and her family also run a working ranch in the Siskiyous. I talked with Gail about her books.

What motivated you to write about this “51st State?”

It’s part of ‘who we are’ up here in NORTHERN California (350 mi. north of San Francisco and about 320 miles north of Sacramento). We here tend to identify more with culture/geography/lifestyle of southern Oregon than with the rest of California. Likewise, southern Oregon identifies more with us than with much of the rest of their state. Those two regions have often felt ‘destined’ to become the State of Jefferson and there are many people who have attempted to pursue such a state delineation.

I understand this “State” came about with an attempted secession of Northern California and Southern Oregon in 1941. What prompted this movement?

Actually, the struggle to establish a separate state (by any number of names) has gone on for 150 years, since the days of the California and Oregon gold rush. The first legal attempt occurred in 1852, when a bill was introduced into the California State Legislature at Vallejo. Though the bill failed, the notion did not, as was noted in the January 14, 1854 edition of The Mountain Herald (Yreka, California): “The citizens of the County of Siskiyou and State of California are requested to meet at the Yreka Hotel, in Yreka, on Saturday evening, the 14th of January next, at 6 o’clock P.M., for the purpose of taking measures to secure the formation, at an early day, of a new Territory out of certain portions of Northern California and Southern Oregon…”

The better-known movement came later, however, as expressed by Judge John L. Childs, who stated in his “inaugural” address as the “first elected governor” of the hopeful state on December 4, 1941: “The State of Jefferson is a natural division geographically, topographically, and emotionally. In many ways, a world unto itself: self-sufficient with enough water, fish, wildlife, farm, orchard land, mineral resources, and gumption to exist on its own.”  The attempt to separate legally, however, failed, as the Pearl Harbor bombing occurred three days later and locals decided to put aside their differences. The movement was never seriously taken up again, except sporadically and without the support of enough voters to make it viable.

One interesting side note to the “movement” was that it made national headlines and even won a young reporter, Stanton Delaplane, of the San Francisco Chronicle, a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

I noticed a headline in the archives, stating “In Far Northern California: Independence is a State of Mind.” Do the residents of this area still subscribe to the Jeffersonian ideals and way of life?

Today most “Jefferson staters” continue to seek recognition, if not in political terms, certainly in cultural terms. Some still dream of splitting the state into two – or three states. In the 1960s, there was an attempt to divide CA into three separate states, which even involved state legislators, but it also failed.

But there is other evidence that the dream lives on: Southern Oregon’s PBS Radio Station is officially named the Jefferson Public Radio Station; signs along Interstate 5 and local highways indicate they are part of the official “State of Jefferson Scenic Byway or Highway”; businesses sell Jefferson State memorabilia. There is a State of Jefferson Chamber of Commerce, although its meetings are more social events than political ones. The Pioneer Press, a Western Siskiyou County newspaper with its office in Fort Jones, California, is the “official headquarters” and flies the “state” flag daily (green with two X’s, signifying “Double-crossed” by the state capitals that seem to “ignore” the extreme portions of their states (OR/CA).

Most important are the attributes of the mythical State of Jefferson. People here are independent: most are outdoorsmen or loggers or ranchers; we still have a number of miners. Most people here struggle economically, although the number of retirees and artisans, who can make a living regardless of the economic conditions of the region, are moving in. Many are “far to the left” of the area’s traditional mainstream, but still, they are pretty independent in their thinking and want to maintain the quality of lifestyle found here. The area’s population is really diverse – which many outsiders don’t realize – and includes artists, musicians, hunters, fishermen, ranchers, several Native American tribes and reservations, loggers, retirees, federal workers, small business people, etc. We have a number of monasteries and retreats, plus camps that speak of the diverse faiths that abide here, too, but the over-riding characteristic that unites most people is the ideal that comes with living in such an area of rugged geographic and intense physical beauty. We are surrounded by mountains, with Mt. Shasta rising up out of the heart of the area. There are wilderness areas, the last of the wild rivers, mountain valleys and remote mountain canyons.

There is a bounty of wildlife, too, which (btw) cohabitates beautifully with cattle and ranching. In fact, most people don’t realize that 75% of ALL wildlife in the U.S. is protected because and by farmers/ranchers/landowners – NOT by the federal government, etc. We have a natural preserve on our ranch where THOUSANDS of birds nest and migrate to, including bald eagles, Canadian geese, swans and egrets, also songbirds and owls and hawks, plus beaver, muskrat and mink, deer, occasionally bear and elk. For two summers, we had a pair of elk “living” with the cows and when we would move the cows, the elk would travel along, until they neared the barns, then they’d take a detour and move out to another part of the ranch. We also have Sandhill Cranes now that come back each year. There are mountain lions that roam the hills nearby and bobcats and coyotes and foxes.

Did you find parallels between then and now?

Absolutely. One of the most fascinating aspects of this area is the love everyone has for local and regional history coupled with the love of the outdoors and the mountains/forests.

Our historical societies are hugely popular and active and many people (like my husband’s family) actually “continue to live their history.” The PAST is STILL part of the PRESENT. It’s an odd, but delightful sensation. We still use many of the same tools and antiques around the ranch. Items are not lost to the family and truly, they are the original recyclers. Farm families with histories like theirs continue to use and re-use. Also, people in this region still struggle SERIOUSLY with Sacramento and Salem, in regards to the issues that most concern them. It seems that the urban and “city” dwellers of the two states are dramatically opposed to “hearing” the people of this area or taking seriously any of their concerns. There have been two movements that speak to this point of view: The People for the U.S.A. or Take Back the West group, and the SOSS movement (Save Our Shasta and Scott Valleys and Towns).

Do you think modern residents would ever consider another movement to form their own state?

Not officially. As I said above, the region has an independent characteristic, but the powers that reside in the respective capitals (and legislators and urban areas) will NEVER let go of the rich regions found in this “state.” As mentioned above, the two groups that continually seek a voice in the state legislatures are about as independent a voice as will ever be heard.

What kind of research did you do for your books?

Tons of interviews and research into old books, old documents. My co-author, Bernita Tickner, is in her mid-70s and is a native and descendant of four generations of locals, dating back to the gold rush and early packing/mining days. Her husband’s family is also an old family, with roots that also go back to one of the local tribes. We also did a lot of traveling, but both of us have traveled this region a lot anyway, and have been here long enough to have a lot of insight.

I know you are a busy ranch wife. How do you find the time to write? Do you have a set schedule?

I tend to be a high energy person. As a fourth-generation rancher’s wife, I am deeply involved in agricultural groups, esp. the CattleWomen, who are focused on education and scholarships. I am a part-time history and English teacher and am involved in teaching and working through the county schools’ office on special projects.

But most of all, I am a ranch wife, a mother, and now a grandmother, so I am deeply involved with family and work. I raise a large garden; I cook (several days a week for 4-5 men) and I can and preserve a lot of my garden produce; I work with our horses, when I can (not nearly as often as I’d like); I work on the ranch (more when I’m needed, not every day), but usually when we work cows or take cows into the mountains (which we don’t really do anymore – but that’s another issue <G>); I do like to travel to see our daughter and her family or our college-aged son (we have one son who is now part of the ranch and is married with two little boys), or to see MY family (all over). I used to play tennis, but a bad back has eliminated that, so I exercise, etc., on my own or at the nearby fitness center. I also work at our local museum, but that is only a summer commitment and it’s actually given me another opportunity to do local research, esp. since I write an historical column for our local paper and I now write for our local NPR/Jefferson Public Radio’s historical series.

BUT, I do write nearly every day, sometimes early in the morning (I like to get up early), or late into the night – esp. if I have deadlines. I can write for hours or spend time rewriting/brainstorming, etc. (which I can do even while driving a hay truck!), so each day brings a different schedule. Actually, I have NO schedule, except that I write when/how I can.

What’s your next writing project?

I am revising a novel on Black Bart, which I wrote after collaborating on research with another historian (retired). It was “published” as a serial in the Paradise Post, a newspaper in the heart of Black Bart country. Since it seems to “cross” a lot of genre lines, we have since decided to try self-publishing the book. I’ve never done self-publishing, so this is a new venture, but the book has a natural audience all over CA and the “gold country.” Plus, there are NO novels about Black Bart, only collected bits of trivia and the same historical material, so the novel has garnered some real enthusiasm.

I’m also working on a screenplay. I have written one that has placed in a couple of writing contests, and I’m always writing about local history (small essays, etc.), and I have another novel and another script in the planning stages. Recently I wrote a couple of short stories that I’ve entered into contests.

Thanks, Gail. This is a fascinating subject. For more information, go to www.jeffersonstate.com and Gail’s blog http://stateofjeffersonnews.blogspot.com


Join us tomorrow for a glimpse into Gail’s working ranch life.

Published in: on August 26, 2008 at 4:11 am  Comments (3)  
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American Cowgirls

A petite young woman mounts a 750-pound steer, and hangs on to nothing but a rope tight-wrapped around one hand. That she stays on this bucking, twisting, snorting beast for ten seconds, eight seconds or even two seconds, seems a miracle.

This is the intriguing picture of my grandmother I have carried in the back of my mind since I was a little girl. Ever since I began to explore fiction writing as opposed to journalism, this idea has been nagging at me, telling me I needed to write about her.

And so, in 1999, I began a novel, with the working title Cowgirl Dreams, hopefully to be published in 2009–ten years after I started writing it.

My grandmother, Olive May “Tootsie” Bailey, grew up the daughter of homesteaders during the early 1900s in the Sunburst-Cut Bank area of Montana, near the Canadian border and east of the Rocky Mountains.

Although she no longer rode in rodeos when I came along, “Gramma” was an avid horsewoman and ranch wife, equally at-home on the back of a horse as she was in a dress and heels. She and my grandfather, Otto Gasser, were equal partners in rural Montana ranching.

She died when I was only twelve, so I never got to talk to her about life as a rodeo cowgirl. But she had taken many pictures, created photo albums, scrapbooks and journals, from which a story emerged. My dad also told me stories about his growing up in the 1920s and ’30s. The spark grew to a flame, and I was hooked.

The 1920s were the heyday of rodeo, where the cowgirl was as much a part of the festivities as the cowboy. This decade is where I chose to start my story. While my grandmother apparently rode only in small town and neighborhood rodeos, she was friends with, and competed against fellow Montanans, Alice and Margie Greenough, Fannie Sperry Steele, and Marie Gibson. Trixie McCormick was another Montana trick rider who performed during the 1940s.

Fame and fortune was as much of a dream then as now, and those dreams became the backdrop for Nettie’s story in Cowgirl Dreams.

I recently ran across a wonderful link to a video entitled American Cowgirl http://www.americancowgirl.com/film.htm Check it out. It tells the story.

Published in: on August 11, 2008 at 12:52 am  Comments (5)  
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Journeys and Inspiration

Montana is my inspiration–for my books and many other things in my life. I recently took a “short” trip (700 miles one way) with my sister-in-law into Big Sky Country to visit family, and that adage came back to me “You can take the girl out of Montana, but you can’t take the Montana out of the girl.”  There is always something palpable that washes over me when I crest the summit of Lookout Pass from the Idaho side and see the sign “Welcome to Montana.” It is a warm sense of peace, a comfortable state of being, it whispers, “Home.”

My life journey began about 300 miles east of the Continental Divide, near Jordan, Montana. I like to say, if you open a map of the state, look at the

east-central portion, and where there is the least amount of writing on the map, that’s where I lived. In other words, “the middle of nowhere.” But it shaped who and what I am today–my work ethic, my moral foundation, my sense of independence and stick-to-itiveness. I’m proud of that heritage and the grandparents and parents who gave it to me.

This trip, I didn’t make it all the way back to my “roots.” There were just too many miles and too few days to do that. Last year I did go as far as Billings on a research trip. I was close (100 miles) to my grandparents’ last ranch at Ingomar (Home of the Jersey Lilly Bar & Cafe and the setting for my fourth book in a series), and I hope next year I can make it back there.

Journeys like these remind me of my childhood and I find myself getting nostalgic about “the good ol’ days.” But driving the road that stretches like a long black ribbon, I have time to appreciate the beauty of our world–from the snow-capped ever-green mountains to wheat fields as golden as fresh-baked apple pie, from Washington’s Columbia River Gorge and its cerulean blue against a mocha cliff backdrop, to the silvery sage of eastern Montana.

It is remembering, but it is also renewing sisterhood as we laughed and harmonized our way over the mountains and through the plains, inspired by the journey.

Published in: on August 8, 2008 at 2:28 am  Comments (2)  
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