Good question. The short answer (strange as it sounds) is that the pioneers did it with a lot of help from horse’s hooves! But first, a little background….
The Abraham Lincoln Parker family brought 2 head of cattle on the very first boat that brought them up Taggart River in the spring of 1917 (later named Good River by A. L. Parker after settler Rev. Good). By the end of that year, the Parkers had purchased an additional 9 head and added a horse or two.
With no time to spare (and with the acute necessity of planting gardens and erecting shelters for themselves as well as the animals), staving off starvation and loss from their valuable herd that 1st winter was a monumental challenge. Abraham Parker had tackled the topic of purchasing cattle the same way he tackled everything---by studying all the research material he could get his hands on and making informed decisions. The versatile Galloways were chosen for their short, furry like hide with long guard hairs, ability for withstanding extremely cold temperatures, and their willingness to eat most anything.
As luck would have it, however, by November 1st, 1917, the family reported over 3 feet of unexpected snow on the ground. That winter proved to be one of their worst ever and with many more feet of snow to fall, it piled up and stayed put until late spring. With the long, intense winter (all the Parker boys spoke of the “bitter cold” of 1917 until the day they died) and running low on provisions came the decision to feed the stock from their own root cellar. All (man and beast alike) were on a strictly regulated diet. In spite of the rationing, some of the cattle still didn’t make it through that first winter. It was a painful blow.
During the next several years, by purchasing calves from Juneau and putting them on their own cows who were giving birth, they were able to swell their number of stock to over 200 cattle and 4 to 6 horses. Selling beef became one of their greatest sources of livelihood. However, there were major obstacles. Brown bears killed over 50 head of cattle in one season alone. Poison water hemlock that grew here and there, but primarily in the Cooper’s Notch area (named “Death Valley” by the family) killed everything that ate it. The problem was that the cattle seemed to love it! Miles of barbed wire fences were built in an attempt to protect the cattle from roaming in the direction of the Death Valley. Remnants of the fencing can be found to this day.
But the most predictably unpredictable challenge of feeding the cattle was the weather (some things never change!). The Parkers soon figured out that well over a ton of hay per animal was necessary to meet the requirements of the winter months. And Lester Rink and Harry Hall had the same challenge! Bert Parker said “to put up hay in this country, you have to be a weather barometer!” And, of course, no one was. But the homesteaders sure tried. With mostly wide open fields covering Strawberry Flats, haying became a cooperative, annual community event that went on for days. Everyone participated to the smallest child. Generally one woman was designated to stay home and “cook for the whole outfit” morning, noon and night. Great barns were built and filled, with innovative inventions designed to dry and cure the stacks & stacks of hay. But, like everything else, in spite of the homesteader’s best efforts, grain and feed sometimes ran shorter than the winters were long. That’s when the horses literally became a livestock saver. The story goes like this….
The Parkers began to observe that their horses could always find supplementary feed by repeatedly pawing the snow covered ground until grasses and seeds were unearthed. Ah, and therein was a solution! Send some of the cattle out with each of the horses and “the cattle would follow him (the horse) so tight that he would have to move on and dig out another new spot”. It worked like a champ and provided long hours of entertainment to the children and adults alike. It was reported that all the young calves and all of the stock would be there eating before the horse could turn around and procure some for himself! Bert Parker exclaimed, “Oh, the horse had patience though. He wouldn’t bite them or kick them or anything. They’d (the cattle) be down there eating it before he could get it and then he’d paw some more and then they’d wait. Them little fellows!”
Them little fellows, indeed! What a testimony to early community volunteerism & cooperation getting the job done!
P.S. GHAA has volumes of Abraham Parker’s agricultural, engineering, medical & veterinary study books that comprised the education so necessary to early, successful homesteading. Also, for more information on Lester Rink & Harry Hall’s cattle, early farm implements used at Strawberry Point, and hair-raising adventures of the “wild cattle” and the “Great Gustavus Shootout” go to www.gustavushistory.org and search on reference number 20135.