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Singing a Cowboy Song recalls foothills history

The Imperial Oil Twin Butte No. 2 oil well in 1921. This well was drilled with a cable tool rig and gas engine to a Canadian record of 4,400 ft.

Bessie Vroom Ellis continues the work of preserving the pioneer history of the foothills with her latest book Vrooms of the Foothills: Singing a Cowboy Song.

The book is the fifth in a series Vroom Ellis has published filled with stories, photographs and maps on southwestern Alberta.

Seventeen-year-old Bessie Vroom about to lead the Pincher Creek Fair and Rodeo parade in

“Photos and their stories are so interesting and important to record,” the 94-year-old Vroom Ellis said. “But, old photos lovingly preserved in family photo albums aren’t to be seen by others. And many families relate their stories orally. To rectify this in a small way, my series of five books include over 1,000 photos. By putting these photos in print with the memories, history is recorded for future generations.”

“Also, very few books contain maps of historically interesting things. All my books include maps so the reader can visualize the location of, for example, old trails, towns and villages, rural post offices, schools, mines, oil wells, sawmills and geographic features.”

In the 1970s Vroom Ellis began writing her memo- ries of life on a remote ranch just 25 to 30 years removed from the home-stead era.

Those stories formed the basis of The Vrooms of the Foothills: Adventures of My Childhood. The success of that book led to Cowboys and Homesteaders, When the Work’s All Done This Fall, and Ranching, The Real West.

Singing a Cowboy Song recounts the social history of the settling of southwest Alberta as Vroom Ellis weaves her own memories and stories she has heard into a broader historical narrative, with more than 300 photos and maps.

The photos celebrate people who lived near Beaver Mines, Cowley, Fishburn, Lundbreck, Mountain View, Pincher Creek, Twin Butte and Waterton Park.

The book’s title, Singing a Cowboy Song, is a tribute to the popular old western songs. Vroom Ellis references the songs throughout the book.

Philip Big Swan, hereditary chief of the Peigan, and Pete LaGrandeur, stockman on the Peigan (Piikani) Reserve about 1943. They were at Peigan Siding, east of Brocket.

“Cowboys, homesteaders and settlers made their own fun,” Vroom Ellis said. “Music was an important part of their lives at home, church or a community gathering. Many played instruments like piano, fiddle, guitar, accordion or harmonica.”

The chapter Sweetheart of the Rockies has photos and stories of weddings, anniversaries and old churches.

Singing a Cowboy Song is filled with photos and stories of people with whom Fort Macleod residents will be familiar, such as Philip Big Swan, Tom Three Persons and his wife Issyo’maki or Ambush Woman, rancher Pete McEwen and his wife Mary Gladstone, rancher Fred Neville, and rancher Fred Pope.

Other familiar names include Ernie Haug, Sr, and Lillian Webb, who were both raised in Fort Macleod Haug owned the Waterton Dance Pavilion beginning in 1920, where summer dances attracted people from all over southwestern Alberta. Lillian was the daughter of North West Mounted Police Sgt. Maj. James Webb and she was the Fort Macleod Jubilee Queen in 1924.

The memories and photos for Singing a Cowboy Song were compiled before 2017, so all that remained was to edit the material, create the maps and format the book.

Vroom Ellis taught school for nearly 30 years and wrote the column Wonderful Waterton for The Lethbridge Herald and contributed to newspapers in Calgary and Montana, and to CJOC Radio and CJLH-TV in Lethbridge.

Vroom Ellis is already planning her next edition in the Vrooms of the Foothills series.

“My next book will be a lot of fun. There will be photos of parades, community activities, old automobiles, children and their school ponies, sawmills, forest rangers and homes.”

The Vrooms of the Foothills series is available at Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village in Pincher Creek, The Fort — Museum of the North West Mounted Police in Fort Macleod, Galt Museum and Archives in Lethbridge, the Cardston Book Shop and on-line.

Bessie Vroom Ellis in 2014 at Carbondale Falls on the Carbondale (Railway) River. This was the site of the coal mining hamlet of Carbondale, west of Beaver Mines.
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