On a Mother’s Day phone call, my mom was schmoozing me with how glad she was that different than the vast majority of people my age (65), I still keep up with new technologies.
This from a rising 86-year-old woman who, while nearly totally blind, uses a cell phone and is only taking a break from using magnifying software to email exchanges with friends.
My parents both embraced technology while I was growing up but during the call, mom shed light on why my rancher-paternal grandfather refused to give in to tractors.
Well into my youth I watched as Mel Bowman stubbornly insisted on using his beloved teams of draft horses throughout the 1950s to rake hay after my dad had mechanically cut it and before he bailed it. It is one of my iconic images of my grandfather who died when I was in high school.
I remembered that while guiding that team of horses, Duke and Bally, he was approximately the age I am now.
But I also recalled something else as my mom explained that grandpa thought tractors were wasteful because they were hard to maneuver into corners of the meadow or in fields where we grew grains to feed our livestock.
My grandpa was born in 1888, just as the steam power of the First Industrial Revolution was about to give way to the petroleum-driven Second. It’s similar to my grandsons being born as the Second Industrial Revolution began to cave to the renewable-energy that will soon dominate the Third.
He had been too young at age 5 when his father’s bay horse, Darby, was taken 100 miles south of his birthplace by rail in 1903 to be ridden by a cousin instead when U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and his victorious Rough Riders were given a parade in Salt Lake City.
Coincidentally, the Black Troops of the Twenty-fourth Regiment, who had stormed San Juan Ridge alongside the Roughriders, were the first activated for the Spanish-American War while stationed at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake.
These troops from the south had already been welcomed home with a parade less than six years earlier and those killed honored each Decoration Day.
Grandpa was able to go to Logan, Utah with his family to see a performance of “Buffalo Bill” Cody starring in the Ringling Bros. Circus.
When he was ten, he and Darby pulled a two wheel cart loaded with milk cans each day to a “chessery” in High Creek, Utah whose power was generated by “treading” sheep or a small pony.
Soon he earned enough money hauling away brush from fields that were cleared to buy his own horse, “Queen” and watched as grain was ground into flour still using a water wheel for power.
When he was 12, grandpa learned to drive the team of twelve horses that powered the first thrashing machine in that area which was owned by his grandfather, my great-great grandfather, Hyrum Webster Bowman.
A step in that process was running the grain, once it was cut, through a stationary machine powered by steam.
When he was 16, four years before the area became Cache National Forest, he and his brother used horses to bring timber cut up in High Creek Canyon back down 3,000 vertical feet to a sawmill started by his grandfather and still powered by water wheel, earning a percentage of the lumber sold back then for $19 per thousand feet.
When grandpa was 19, he helped drive their cattle nearly two hundred miles north, where he and his brothers, sister and parents each homesteaded land in the shadow of the Tetons, which grandpa consolidated into our ranch after his brothers moved on to other pursuits and his parents died.
To also earn additional income, he and his brother George bought the second steam-threshing machine in that area and contracted to harvest all of the grain on farms and ranches for miles around.
Then they started a sawmill using a steam engine on Sand Creek, hauling logs to it from Antelope Creek then using horses again to haul the sawed lumber to the Fogg and Jacob store in St. Anthony for $20 per thousand feet, half in store credit.
He and his brother furnished the lumber for Alma Blanchard’s first dance hall along the Henry’s Fork near Chester. In his personal history he also mentions that his coop used a bulldozer to improve on the dirt dam they had built up at Arcadia to bring water to the meadows.
They also hauled loads of cement one winter from the railhead in Ashton, up over the Tetons for a dam being built on Jackson Lake.
So as we can see, he wasn’t always resistant to new technology, far from it.
I think that in the last stage of his life though, he just couldn’t come to terms with the fact that his life-long love of raising, training and using horses had come to an end between the two world wars.
Think of the span in the play and in Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning movie, “War Horse.”
My dad, who was a tanker during the latter of the two wars, came home highly aware of the power of technology, but growing up I viewed my grandfather’s stubbornness through a far too narrow lens because I, too, loved his draft teams as well as the saddle horses we used to herd cattle.
As my mom says, he gave pragmatic reasons for his resistance to gasoline-powered tractors but I also believe it broke his heart to see his horses replaced by technology of a new age.
I wish I had talked to him about it back then rather than stereotyping him. I should have suspected there was more to the story because he had learned to drive and he and I tooled around in a cool Korean War era Jeep that eventually my grandparents gave to me.
I believe I would have learned had I probed, that his resistance at that late stage of his life was actually more about nostalgia and loyalty than resistance to technology.
For more than 200 years, horses had been a revolutionary, highly disruptive technology along both sides of the central Rockies after Cheyenne introduced them to Shoshone for mobility and buffalo hunting.
I may harbor a similar technological nostalgia by driving a descendent of that old Jeep he and my grandmother gave me when I turned 15. A remnant of a gasoline-fueled engines that will soon become a thing of the past.
For similar reasons I have kept their “pass-me-down” early 1900s Underwood typewriter, even though typewriters were replaced by keyboards ten years into my now-concluded, four-decade career in community destination marketing.
Looking back, it is clear that more than I realize, the early adoption of technology I used during my career flowed from gene pools on both sides of my inheritance.