Monday, April 4, 2011

Happy 100th Birthday to Grandpa John Bartram!

John Bartram 1911-1987
If you've been following my posts, you know that I have a huge soft spot for my maternal grandpa, John Bartram. Today would have been Grandpa John's 100th birthday, so I'm dedicating this blog post to him.

I've already written about Grandpa's rodeo exploits and his knack for telling tall tales. Here's a little bit more about his life. John Bartram was born on April 4, 1911, in Allen, Kansas, to Joseph and Alice Veale Bartram. He was the fourth youngest of 17 (!!) kids. He and his siblings grew up on his father's farm, and he left school after third grade to help out with the necessary chores that kept this large ranching family alive, including farm work, carpentry and horse shoeing.

Grandpa had the adventurous spirit that was so prevalent in many of my ancestors. In 1924, at the young age of 13 years old, he made his first trip to California, hopping a west-bound freight. He stayed here for one year, working on ranches in the Clearlake area, before heading back home to Kansas. He again returned to California in around 1927 at the age of 16 (again riding a westbound freight train), and this time he stayed for good. He landed a job at the Rowell Ranch in Dublin Canyon (between Hayward and Dublin) where his brother, Dutch, was working as ranch foreman. He worked at the Rowell Ranch until the early 1950s.

Riding in a parade at the
1939 World's Fair in San Francisco
In 1932, Grandpa began his career as a professional rodeo performer, competing in rodeos all over the west for over 20 years. He bulldogged and roped steers and rode broncs and bulls. He joined rodeo greats Johnny and Frank Schneider and Joe Berl to make up the American team of rodeo riders sent to the World Games in Australia in 1936, where they competed against cowboys from Russia, Australia and other countries. He also participated in the rodeo portion of the World’s Fair in 1939 in San Francisco. This was a dangerous sport, but he competed with gusto. At one rodeo, Grandpa was bucked off a bull and broke his back.  He recovered and continued his rodeo career, but the injury stayed with him through his life.

In 1936, Grandpa met a pretty little rodeo queen at the Livermore Rodeo: my grandmother, Donna Madsen. They fell in love and were married in Reno, Nevada, on March 26, 1938. Grandma and Grandpa had four children: Clinton James, Brenda Rae, Rebecca Elizabeth (my mom); and Clay John. In 1959, Donna and John were involved in a terrible automobile accident which left my grandma brain damaged. She passed away in 1966, leaving Grandpa John to care for the family.

Back: Uncle Jim, Aunt Brenda, Mom (Becky)
Front: Uncle Clay, Grandma Donna, Grandpa John
L-R: Uncle Jim, Aunt Brenda, Grandpa John, Mom, Uncle Clay
As a grandfather, he was wonderful to all eight of his grandchildren. He was loving and attentive, and seemed to enjoy spending time with us. We probably didn't realize it at the time, but my sister, Cindy, and I were fortunate that Grandpa lived with us for part of our childhood. Here are some of my memories of growing up with Grandpa John:
  • His tall tales and songs. I've already written about his story of the buzzards who hoisted him out of a dry well. There were plenty of other stories and songs, including some that I can't repeat in polite company... 
  • He never lacked a ride! Grandpa was an alcoholic and we eventually had to take his drivers license away from him. It didn't slow him down, though. Whenever he wanted a six-pack of his favorite beer (Olympia), he'd saddle up his horse and ride a few miles down the road to the local country store. He didn't even need to dismount since the storekeeper would come out with his beer, take his money and then come back out with his change. Then, he and his horse would ride back up the hill and he'd enjoy a nice cold brew out on the porch. 
  • His short-lived excitement at me getting my own drivers license. At first, Grandpa was tickled about me getting my license because it meant I could take him into town for more affordable beer. I wasn't so excited about getting this chore, though, so I made the poor guy suffer it by taking him on joy rides and watching his knuckles turn white with every turn. When I moved away to college, Cindy continued the joy rides with Grandpa (including one infamous ride that entailed running over chickens, which he never really got over).
  • His wake-up calls. I'm not a morning person, but Cindy and I raised sheep in 4-H, which meant we had to get up early each day to feed them. Grandpa made sure we were up every morning to take care of our sheep, and usually had to resort to tearing my bedclothes clear off of me in order to do the trick.
  • He called me Wendower -- not sure why!
  • His pride in us kids. Grandpa didn't get to finish school, so he was proud of us kids and encouraged us to succeed. He helped us when he could, especially with our 4-H endeavors, and cheered us on in everything else.  
Grandpa John and his girls!
Grandpa John passed away on August 15, 1987. He had suffered for years from the effects of alcoholism, emphysema and, finally, lung cancer (not to mention a broken heart from losing his Donna). He was a strong guy with a strong heart, though, and fought these diseases for far longer than anyone expected he could. It was still quite a blow to all of us when we lost him. As I think of Grandpa John on this 100th anniversary of his birth, I'm happy to remember his warmth, humor, resilience and love. Happy Birthday, Grandpa John!

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