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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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hello Heidi,

    Wow, I’m truly flattered, even a little flabbergasted, by the wonderful set-up you’ve done and for letting me be interviewed!

    I am especially flattered by your reference to me as a COWGIRL…
    actually, I have never called myself that since I wasn’t raised as a cowgirl. I do call myself a rancher’s wife or farmer’s wife, and I am an active CattleWoman

    In contrast, I would call my daughter and my niece cowgirls since they were raised on horses and cattle, but I do have the HEART of a cowgirl, so maybe that does count after all???? And, after 37+ years, I guess I have learned a few things about ranching….

    Truly, I love horses, I love ranching, I love country life, I love rodeo, and I feel quite blessed. For a time my husband and then our older son did ride bulls, and my dh won All-Around Cowboy 3 years at several rodeos in northern CA. And all the kids ride mutton (sheep) as little tykes — lots of fun and excitement — and everyone gets in on our local rodeo parades and activities…..

    But—again, thanks for including me in your blog tour. I’d like to attempt one myself. Would you consent to doing an interview for me?

    Hail to Women Writing the West!!!

    Gail L. Fiorini-Jenner

  2. Hi Gail,
    I saw your blog. Love the pictures, especially of your nephews. So cute. I thought you might like to know about a film and book project I am doing called American Cowgirl. You can see my film trailer featuring Connie Reeves, who at 101 years old was still riding her horse every day. http://www.americancowgirl.com/film.htm You might also like to see my blog. Cowgirls have been writing to me sharing their inspiring stories. http://www.americancowgirl.com/blog/ Congratulations on all of your success. It sounds like you have a wonderful life and a terrific family.
    All my best,
    Jamie Williams
    Tucson, AZ

  3. Thank you, Gail–it’s been a fun and informative experience. And yes, I would consider you a cowgirl–you don’t necessarily have to be in rodeo to be one! Women who work cattle and ride are definitely cowgirls too.
    Heidi

  4. Heidi,

    Neat interview. I especially enjoyed Gail because I grew up in a small town and vowed never to marry a farmer/rancher. So I married a math teacher who took me back home to the farm.

    After 40-odd years, I can relate to what she was saying. And you asked ALL the right questions.

    Good job. I’m looking forward to seeing the book Gail’s publishing.


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