Pg 452 More Big Hill Country 2009
"They gave more and expected less."
Like many of their generation, Herbert and Gertrude Fox, or “Bert and Gert” as they were known, were a hardworking, resourceful farm couple that, with a strength of spirit and a good sense of humour, enjoyed the satisfaction and endured the challenges of family farm life. Bert was born July 29, 1919, in Nanton, Alberta, and grew up in “the Hills” west of Nanton. Given the limitations of harsh economic times and isolated rural surroundings, he spent a lot of time afoot and on horseback, roaming the hills as he grew up. His work and play fostered a durable and strong attachment to nature and farm life, and there was no question of his desire for that to continue.
The events of history interceded and, joined the army in 1941, Bert served four years with the Seventh Field Company, Second Division Engineers. His tour of duty began with basic training in Camrose, leading to a lengthy station outside London, England, and ultimately landing him on the beach near Caen in France. part of the ‘second wave’ after the famous Normandy invasion of 1944.
By the terms afforded by the Veterans Land Act, he was now able to borrow the money he needed to move forward with his plans for ranching. Twenty dollars an acre bought him the half section located nine miles up the Grande Valley, but he found himself fairly under-equipped to begin working his new property, starting out with only an axe, his Swede saw, and a prize Adams saddle. Bert did the required work “off the place” such as cutting mine props for use in the Drumheller coalmines and custom haying for Percy Copithorne. resulting in enough money to buy his first four cows and a John Deere model “M” tractor.
Money may have been scarce for Bert in those early days of Grande Valley, but he struck it rich one evening at an Alhazar Temple dance in Calgary. This is where he first met Anna Gertrude Swalling (1920- 1996), a farm girl by way of Delburne. At this stage in her life, Gert thought she had left the farm life behind. having truly done an admirable job of enduring the thirties, educating herself, and then finding gainful employment in Calgary. However, Bert soon produced a ring that resulted in nuptials on the 21st of March 1951. The sparks may have been flying that day for the two of them, but the weather recorded was some of the worst ever. A snowstorm raged that nearly prevented Bert from getting his old Fargo truck to the church on time. Known for her calm nature, the bride showed little anxiety. As the hour drew near, still with no groom in sight “there was no need to worry” said Gert, expressing the steadfast trust they held for each other. “If he’s late it’s because he is riding his saddle horse to get here!”
It was the first of many times together the two battled adversity, the second challenge coming as soon as later that summer when their first crop was completely flattened by a hailstorm.
Grande Valley was designated a Local Improvement District and without snow plows, it was common practice for travelers to wheel through the hayfields as a better option. Phone service was still unavailable and the log house where Gert began her married life was without electric power. In spite of his best efforts, Bert had not quite finished his renovations which included filling the cracks between the logs where the wind whistled in. To his amazement, he admired how “she soon turned out a batch of bread and even a lovely pie” in the cramped kitchen.
As the two prospered, a nice frame house was moved from Mortimer coulee and the old log house went into service as Gert’s chicken house. She soon counted on regular visits from neighbours who became her “egg customers,” looking to enjoy a cup of tea and some prize-winning baking in the bargain if Gert wasn’t too busy off in her garden or looking after her two boys: John Herbert (1957) and George William (1960). Gert and the two youngsters usually made the trip to Cochrane on Sundays, where they attended the service at St. Andrews United Church. After church, the boys were let loose at McKay’s Ice Cream to spend their allowance while she made the rounds delivering her eggs. Both she and Bert were active in the church through the late sixties and seventies, canvassing for renovation funds, teaching Sunday school, and helping stage many events at the church.
Their strength of spirit was tested in late 1969 when Jon’s life was cut short in a choring accident on the farm. The despair of losing their first son made a lasting mark, though as time passed they were able to move on together and resumed their involvement in the community.
The Fox farm was home to a fine herd of Hereford cattle that pastured west of the ranch on two sections of government grazing lease. Plenty of feed had to be put up before winter and Bert persevered with the technique of stacking loose hay when most all had gone the route of square or round bales. During the hottest days of the year, he could be seen out in the hayfield, “topping off” the big 20-foot stacks wielding a pitchfork to muscle the hay so it would shed the snow and rain. It was a technique that required some old-time skills that Bert used in abundance on his farm. He was also the last of the farmers to harvest with the threshing machine. Every fall right through to the mid-seventies he worked with the Patterson family, first cutting their crops with a binder, then stooking the bundles so they’d be dry and ready to run through the old threshing machine. Eventually, parts were impossible to obtain for the machines and they called it quits.
Though dedicated to a slower but more economical way of operating, Bert held status as one of the most clever and trusted farmers in the valley. In the early days, he recognized that in order to “build up” the grey wooded soil red and alsike clover were the best legumes for hay instead of the alfalfa that never seemed to thrive in acidic conditions. As well, Bert was quick to add selenium into the supplement for his cows once it was speculated that it might be lacking in that area of the country. It then became common practice once it was seen the marked difference it made in their health.
All the while working alongside his parents, young George, with support and encouragement from the rural communities around the Cochrane area, developed as a country singer and eventually brought his music to Canada and many other parts of the world. “There was a real golden age through the ’70s and 80’s when the country dance was alive and well,” says George. “I was fortunate to learn my craft at some of those great community functions, singing to people that I had a great respect for, even after seeing the way they could behave at two or three in the morning!” George was encouraged enough by these followers to use his savings and sell some of his cattle in order to finance his first recording. It was a fateful morning on the ranch during fall weaning time when, above the din of bawling cattle, George and his Dad managed to hear shouting from up at the house, “Someone calling from Toronto!” Gert shouted from out on the front porch. “They want to talk to you about your tape!”
Things were soon set in motion that had George launched full-time into a music career, his videos, and television specials through the nineties often incorporating the foothills area and the town of Cochrane. The CBC special “A George Fox Christmas” was filmed on the streets of the town, and out on Grande Valley footage was taken for the CBC “Time of My Life” special and his first music video “No Trespassing.”
In the summer of 1995, a street naming ceremony took place in Cochrane marking the contributions and achievements made by George and his parents. The road leading west from the number 22 highway on the south side of the Bow River became known as George Fox Trail. George expressed his gratitude, acknowledging how important the gesture was to him.
“I really feel like my singing career has been a result of the work ethic I learned here and especially from how I was encouraged by this community”, he said.
In the words of a song George has written, he reflects on what great contributions were made by his parents and others of that generation who knew the value of working together and even in trying times always having A Kind Word for each other.
Gert passed away on Thanksgiving Day 1996. Bert, George, and his wife Monica were all with her at home when cancer took her at age 76. Bert sold the ranch in 2000 and moved for a time to Big Hill Lodge before joining George, Monica, and his two granddaughters Anna May and Ruby in Ancaster, Ontario.
Bert passed away peacefully at the McMaster Hospital, Hamilton, Ontario on Monday, November 19, 2007, at the age of 88.
A Kind Word
You’ve done quite a stroke of business
I can’t thank you quite enough.
You took the lead and found a reason
When the going was mighty tough.
This family and this nation, independent free and strong
Owe thanks to the likes of you, now we’ve got somewhere we belong
So I’ll proudly sing the story of your pioneering glory,
A Kind Word
To set your mind at ease
As this page in history turns with due respect so
Won’t you accept A Kind Word.
I learned a lot of history about the early days
The prairie fires, the hail and the dry spells, that put
you to the test.
You won’t talk about the war years and the sadness
“It’s better off left unsaid, son, it won’t bring peace
Yet your name is still recalled and believe me, that’s
A Kind Word
And a story of how you lived
Rest assured you’re mentioned there
As one who gave more than their share
And who deserves
A Kind Word.