There is a rich farming and ranching history in the area and one man who has had the opportunity to watch much of it, is marking 90 years.
Murray Johnson, who grew up and farmed in the Michichi area is celebrating his 90th Birthday. His roots in the area are deep.
Murray says it was his grandfather, Smith Johnson, that made the decision to leave Nova Scotia and come west to homestead.
“It was my granddad who homesteaded there in 1908, so that farm has been there for 110 years,” he said. “Quite a few people were getting itchy feet then, trying to improve their lot. There were a lot of people heading west to homestead.
This was before the railway was in the area and the family travelled overland from Calgary. The original homestead is still in the family.
“We have the same half section that my dad homesteaded, I’ll never sell it, in my lifetime,” he said.
His father Fulton was only 14 years old when they came. Under the regulations for homesteading, there was a requirement that someone had to occupy the land. During one winter when Fulton was 15, the rest of the family stayed in Calgary so his sister could attend school, and he stayed alone on the parcel.
With his grandfather’s health failing, he headed to British Columbia to be with family a few years after they began their homestead, and Murray’s father took over.
Murray was born in 1928 and naturally began working on the farm. His father was a bronc rider in the first Hand Hills Lake Stampede in 1917.
“He wasn’t a prize winner but he did a lot of riding. He and his friends on our farm used to take broncs out on Sunday afternoon and ride for the fun of it, he recalls.
Murray never followed in his dad’s rodeo ways, but in 2009, he was invited as an honoured guest to open the Hand Hills Lake Stampede.
Horses were always on the farm and used for work. One year because the roads were so bad they drove their cattle from Big Valley home during roundup by horseback.
“That was before 1950, and the roads were muddy, so my dad said ‘we’ll trail them home.’ That is something I’ll never forget. It was 35 miles and it took us three and a half days. My dad and I were on horseback and we had a fellow with a team and covered wagon. We would put up a tent at night and one of us would usually stay up at night and watch the cows because we couldn’t always find a corral,” he recalls.
For his first nine years of education, he rode his horse to school before he attended high school at Drumheller High School. He was one of the rural kids that spent his high school years living at the dormitory.
“Those were some of the best years of my life.
“There were 65 of us at the dormitory, about half were girls and half were boys. It was unique to what it would be now,” he said.
There were 28 boys all living in the same room on bunks.
“You had to learn to get along with people,” he laughs. “We played ball and played hockey. That was something I looked forward to coming to live in Drumheller. We would go to play in the arena which was something different.”
There he built lifelong friendships.
“There were four of us, Ron Stanger, Don Borwick and Bob Trentham. We used to meet in Bowden once every six weeks just to get together. We started high school on the same day and the four of us are still here.,” he said.
Murray worked with his father until he was 34 when his father was tragically killed on the highway while helping a fellow change a tire.
Murray married in 1964 to Sharon who was a teacher. They met at a wedding dance at the Social Credit Hall (now Sizzling House). They had a son Dale and a daughter Susan. He was 4-H Beef leader for 35 years in Michichi and Morrin. He has also been heavily involved in the Homestead Museum.
Music has always been a part of his life. When he was about 9 or 10, he took a few music lessons from a neighbour. Unfortunately, his neighbour passed away. He never really studied music after that, but he continued to teach himself the fiddle.
“My neighbour, Bob Hoy, encouraged me to play with him. I went into a band in high school, and then at Olds College, there was an orchestra. In the 1950’s I played with Bob Hoy for a couple of years at dances,” he said.
He still gets out his fiddle to play with other old-timer musicians at lodges, nursing homes, and parties.
“I have met a lot of wonderful people through music.”
He retired from the ranch about 15 years ago, shortly after his wife passed away. He married Pat and now resides in Hanna.
Family and friends are invited to a birthday celebration this Saturday, March 10 at Delia Hall. The party starts at 3 p.m. with dinner at 4:30 and music to follow.