Grandpa Ray and Will Rogers

Ok, so Grandpa never met Will Rogers.* But he felt the same way as Will, who once said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” Grandpa could make friends with just about anybody. He was especially good at making friends with people who knew where the fish were biting.

Of course, Grandpa met a lot of people over the years, at the Cozy Coach in Westbury, delivering mail, as a county agent, selling crop insurance….Even those who didn’t know him in the area knew of him. At Emmaville a couple of years ago, I met a man named Ron who grew up around Two Inlets, another small berg in the middle of nowhere, and who enjoyed the occasional beer in the Two Inlets Store. Grandpa and Grandma had some good friends who were Ron’s neighbors and often met them for beers around the little horseshoe bar at the store. Ron didn’t recall Grandpa by name when I mentioned him, but when I described him, he knew exactly who I was talking about: “oh, yeah, real loud guy, laughed real loud and drank a lot of beer.” Yeah, that was my Grandpa.

Grandpa loved to stop at small roadside taverns (he called them beer joints) when he traveled, and always managed to strike up a conversation with someone. Story after story was told. One round would lead to another, and the next thing you know, Grandpa was planning a fishing/hunting/camping trip with the guy. He and Grandma had friendships with people all over the country, dating back to the 1940s. Year after year, Grandpa or Grandma would call them up just to see how they were.  Grandma was a good letter writer and kept up correspondence with a lot of the folks they met.

Every summer, all summer long, Grandpa and Grandma would have company. Friends would come from far and wide to stay and do some fishing down at Floyd Lake. Grandpa never passed up the chance to take his guests fishing.  He reveled in watching their reactions when the sunnies were really biting.

Grandpa was fascinated with the way people lived in other places and in other cultures. He often told the story of some folks from Chicago who came for a wedding. Upon arrival at my grandparents’ farm in the woods, the city folks marveled at the surrounding “wilderness”. One man wondered how anyone could make a living where there were no offices or factories. After Grandpa had given the bride and groom a celebratory ride in a manure spreader behind his tractor, one of the Chicagoans asked about the contraption. Grandpa asked the fellow if he had been in the army and if he remembered “honey wagons.” The light of recognition went on; they had found a way to relate. That story always made him chuckle.

In their later years, Grandpa and Grandma spent the winters near Brownsville in Texas. After spending a few years trying to figure out how to fish the Rio Grande, Grandpa befriended a Mexican-American guy he met on the river.  Soon he was having success on the Rio, but he also enjoyed visiting the man and his family and learning about their lives.

A more poignant story involved Grandpa’s one and only elk hunt in Montana.  After several days of hard hunting, he was still waiting for an opportunity to see elk within shooting range.  Driving near Neihart in the Little Belt Mountains, Grandpa and his friend Darrell Abbott, a rancher from Gilt Edge, spotted a herd of cows several hundred yards away.  Grandpa decided it was his last best chance, got out of the truck and took a shot. It was a good one – he knocked a cow elk down. While Darrell continued hunting, Grandpa hiked up to his kill and began dressing out the elk.  As he was working away, he began to wonder how in the world he was going to get the elk down from the mountainside.  Just then, another hunter came along on horseback and offered to help.  He showed Grandpa how to quarter and bone out the animal and together they packed the meat down to the truck.  By the time they were done, Grandpa had a new friend.

The man was a local, a retired prison guard and offered to host Grandpa the next year on another hunt.  Grandpa was excited about the trip, having talked with his friend during the year to firm up plans.  Then he got the sad news: his new friend was killed in a car accident, pulling out of his driveway.  Grandpa and Grandma traveled out to Montana for the funeral of his friend. He never went on another elk hunt.

I often wish I had friends like Grandpa did. I tell myself these are different times; people don’t socialize like they used to do. But really, the formula remains the same: make a friend, be a friend. Stay in touch. Make plans and follow through. Whenever I think about the way Grandpa lived I am reminded that having friends is a responsibility.

Another famous man Grandpa actually did meet, Hubert Humphrey, once said, “the greatest gift of life is friendship and I have received it.” Grandpa may not have said it in so many words, but his life reflected this truth.



*Sorry, I couldn’t resist using that title as a hook!







The War on Shrubs

Shortly after Mel and I bought our 11.78 acres of brush and swamp nine years ago, I cut a loop trail through the woods.  Other than having to clear a few downed trees, all I had to do was cut some brush to clear a path.  This brush was actually shrubs and young trees vying for limited sunshine under the old basswoods that dominate our woods. At one point along the trail, I encountered some chest-high woody plants with nasty quarter-inch thorns.  I assumed these were hawthorn or some such thorny shrub, cut my way through them and moved on down the trail.

We used the trail in winter to cross-country ski and in spring to find emerging wildflowers. It only took about ten  minutes to make the loop on skis, but three such loops made for a decent morning workout.  I had to do a little maintenance every year, but I saw it as a good excuse to spend some time in the woods.

After we bought the defunct Emmaville Store six years ago, we found that getting time at the cabin was getting harder and harder to come by. Our little loop trail fell into disuse.

Last summer, after selling Emmaville as a going business, we came home to the cabin and a backlog of maintenance items. After working my way down the honey-do list, I finally made it back out to the woods.  Our trail had grown over again in many places. As I walked it and contemplated clearing it again, I came across a tall jungle of the same thorny bush I encountered eight years before. What was then a bathroom-sized patch was now an impenetrable tangle occupying nearly half an acre.  Some of the plants were approaching tree size. 

Upon further inspection, I found that this mystery shrub was growing so densely that other shrubs and tree saplings were being excluded.  Whatever this thing was, it wasn’t good for our woods. I suspected it was buckthorn, an invasive plant that is becoming widespread in Minnesota.  But this plant did not match the description for buckthorn. 

Eventually I identified the beast as prickly ash, a native species. I read that the plant is useful for herbal remedies (another name for it is “toothache tree”) and the larvae of some butterfly species favor it.  But, according to the Minnesota Wildflowers website, “the spreading, shallow root system will send up new suckers when not inhibited by competing vegetation, creating dense thickets of nearly impenetrable brush that tears at the hands, face and clothing.” Yep, that’s the one.


We have every intention of letting nature take its course in our woods.  But we want to make sure we have healthy trees coming up to replace the mature and over-mature trees.  The prickly ash is out-competing more desirable species such as maples, oaks, alders and dogwoods.  Also, we would like to walk in our woods without getting bloodied. I decided the prickly ash needs to be controlled.  I found out the hard way that just cutting it does no good, but probably encourages its spread. Also, losing the old basswoods and other trees to blowdown is creating new openings for prickly ash to occupy.

Late last summer I sprayed a 2,4-D based herbicide on the plants around the perimeter of the thicket to see if that would slow down its spread.  I’ll find out this spring if that worked. Everything I have read on-line suggests the best control is to cut the stems and immediately spray the stump. I might try starting some aspen cuttings to fill in where the prickly ash was. I am hoping I can whittle away at this problem over time to keep it under control.  Oh well, I guess I will have to spend more time in the woods…..