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Hi-Line Living: The Haldemanns

working for a living


Havre Daily News / Floyd Brandt

John and Betty Haldemann, both nearly in their 90s, have a large ranch 25 miles south of Chinook, deep in the Bear Paw Mountains.

The couple - he is 87, she 88 - work on the ranch regularly. Betty, who traverses the multi-thousand-acre grounds on a three-wheeler, clips the strings off hay bales and takes care of the small animals - sheep and guinea hens. John, on the other hand, likes to get by on his favorite piece of machinery, the swather.

The Haldemanns don't work as hard as they used to. Their 29-year-old daughter, Alba, does most of the heavy lifting. But, Betty pointed out, "We're still boss."

A couple years ago, the Haldemanns began spending the winter months in a Chinook apartment, or the'd travel to Washington State, where Betty is originally from. John has medical issues and getting stuck on the ranch for the winter might not bode well should he need a doctor.

Spending winters on the ranch had been part of the deal in the beginning. With spring water on the property, plenty of flower and oatmeal and enough canned produce and goods in the cupboard to last months, it was a part of life, Betty said. The roads that snake through the mountains and make up part of their driveway can make a dangerous drive. The gravel can shift - Betty found out the hard way one day when she was taking kids to school - and the sheer amount of snow and wind the area gets can make visibility nearly impossible.

John has lived on the ranch since 1954. He said he was about 25 when his father moved the family to Montana. It was the weather that brought the elder Haldemann to the West.

Before moving to Montana, his father owned dairy cattle 40 miles outside of Chicago in Joliet, Illinois. After some time, his father got rid of the dairy cattle and switched to beef cattle, John said.

He sometimes traveled to Nebraska, where he bought his cattle. He realized his sinus problems subsided when he was further west. His doctor said moving to the dry West would be good for his health. But Nebraska land was too expensive, so John’s father looked to Montana.

“He fell in love in Montana, and he felt pretty good, too,” John said.

Since 1954, the Haldemann ranch has more than doubled in size. And as of more recently, it has been divided and put in a trust.

John has had front row seats to ranching evolution.

“I started working on the ranch in Nebraska,” he said. “They had all horses on there. I worked at that ranch all winter, and they had four horse-teams. I’ve been mowin’ hay all my life.”

When asked if he harbors even a hint of nostalgic desire for the days when things were simpler, and work harder, he laughs.

“No,” he said, almost incredulous. “It’s so much easier with tractors. Now they have air conditioning in the cabs.”

It was the work, and a spark of romance, that brought Betty from Bellingham, Washington, to Montana.

Betty said she had five children when her husband was killed in the Vietnam War. Her job included “making the circles,” milking cows for ranchers who needed help. After her youngest daughter married, she didn’t have to work so hard. So she slowed down.

It was during that mild period when John found her in a help wanted directory and asked if she could “calve out heifers.” She said she had never done that sort of work before but she was willing to learn.

“I said, ‘Well, I can try it.’ I was ready for another job,” she said. “So I took the train and he picked me up.”

John picked Betty up at the train station in Havre. It was the trip to Chinook that roused momentary wariness, she said.

“I’ve never come that far. I thought, ‘Where is he taking me?’ I got kind of a little scared,” she said. “Well, it was this ranch here.”

Betty stayed in one of the other houses on the property and learned how to calve. After the season was over, she went back home, but not before John became interested in her, she said.

She was in Washington when John told her he wanted her back on the ranch. She had an epiphany.

“‘Well, I don’t like to live by myself,’” Betty said she thought to herself. “’My kids are getting married and stuff.’ So I came and I lived in that little cabin over there, and he lived over here. He was the only guy here, cause his father was brought to the nursing home.”

Betty said John told her he wanted to marry her. But she had reservations.

“I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m a Christian,’ and he really wasn’t, and I didn’t really like bad words.”

John chimed in during the telling of the story, saying he was a Christian, but kind of not.

“‘I can’t marry you because I won’t be happy,’” Betty said she told John.

But then John changed his mind, Betty said. He began going to church with her, and he has ever since.

“He’s been faithful,” she said.

John and Betty were married in 1984 on the ranch. Two-hundred people attended, Betty said.

“He fixed up the trees, made the lawn real nice,” Betty said. “They were just so happy he was getting married.”

Betty said John is not always the best at expressing his feelings. But John would argue that. It’s just that sometimes he prefers to let his swather do the talking.

In the summer of 2003, a Farm Service Agency aerial vehicle was flying over the Haldemann ranch when it noticed that letters had been carved out in the grass. The sky view revealed, in big letters, the words, “I love you Betty.”

John didn’t tell Betty about his organic love poem. A newspaper clipping of the words, which she still holds onto, is how she learned about it. She still has the clipping.

Havre Daily News / Floyd Brandt

“I figured someone would see it,” John said of the sentiment carved on the ranch.

The Haldemanns love life on the ranch. They each showed off different aspects of what they love about their lives, John the view of the Bear Paw Mountains in the distance, Betty the spring water coming out of their faucet she attributes their long life to.

“We have good water. If you drink our water, you’ll be healthy. Our animals are never sick,” she said.

Alba, who was walking the property in the middle of the swelterting day, attributes motion to her parents’ long life and ability to work.

They get up every morning and have something to do, they’re not sitting around with nothing to do — that probably keeps them going, Alba said.


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