By: Maureen Brownlee
Myrtle Mae Ishbel Hargreaves was born February 18, 1924 in Jasper, Alberta to Roy and Sophia Hargreaves. Ishbel spent her childhood at Mount Robson Ranch and made her first trip to Berg Lake at age four.
By the time she was a teenager, she was a competent horsewoman, wrangler, packer, and camp cook. She could tie a diamond, haze an outfit down the trail, find some vaguely described camp while Roy went off with a hunter in the opposite direction, and then get supper onto the camp table by candlelight. During the war years Ishbel and her younger sister, Margie, were called on fill in for the men who were overseas. It was a demanding way to grow up but Ishbel took it all in stride, using humour to get through the difficult bits.
Ishbel married Murray Cochrane on June 5, 1946. They spent the next thirteen years at North Croydon. Writing about those years, Ishbel said:
“Looking back, much of that time is a blur. It was farming, clearing land, gardening… there were cows, horses, chickens and pigs to feed. Washing was done on a scrub board and wrung out by hand. We had four saddle horses and two teams.”
Murray was farming and logging, sometimes away for much of the week in the winters, and Ishbel, was busy helping out with the farm and feeding and clothing a growing family. All of their six children were born during these years.
In 1959 the Cochranes moved back to Mount Robson to manage the Ranch for Alice Wright. They would run the ranch for the next thirty-some years.
Summers were filled with ranch work, which Sophia had once described to Alice Wright like this: “Feed ten or more people three square meals. Do a week’s washing for the same number. Write a dozen letters to everybody from wholesale grocers and saddle manufacturers to dudes interested in vacationing or a hunting trip. Sort incoming and outgoing mail. Escort a bunch of horses to the summer range five miles away. And on and on.”
Alongside the demands of her own family Ishbel also trained generations of young people who came to the ranch for summer work. For more than thirty summers she shared her kitchen secrets, and her great ranch recipes, and taught many a teenager the value of her no nonsense work ethic. She also added liquor store orders to her weekly town shopping list and gave free English lessons (you didn’t, for example, unthaw a roast in Ishbel’s kitchen) but she also gave her staff a pretty free rein – once the supper dishes were done
In between and alongside the ranch work, and especially during those longish Mount Robson winters, Ishbel always found time for creative handiwork. She was a skilled seamstress and she was always knitting something. She also decorated many memorable wedding, anniversary and birthday cakes.
In 1980 Murray and Ishbel bought the ranch. Times had changed and customers didn’t arrive on the train anymore. The Berg Lake chalet had closed in 1978 and the business relied more on highway traffic. Ishbel took it all in stride, adapting ranch traditions to cater to the new clientele.
Ishbel was a practical and generous businesswoman. Wendy Dyson, remembers when she and Bruce Wilkinson came to Red Pass to run an adventure business in the old youth crew cabins. Wendy was worried that other local tourism operators might see them as competitors. She told me that the first time she talked to Ishbel was on the phone. Ishbel introduced herself and then she asked, in that straightforward Ishbel way.: “how much are your rooms?’ and Wendy said, I thought, uh-oh because ours were much cheaper than the Ranch. But I told her. And Ishbel said, “Good, I’ve got some people here who think mine are too expensive I’ll send them on to you.” And later, when Wendy set up an accounting practice in Valemount, Ishbel brought her the ranch books. “She was a great mentor,” Wendy said. “She taught us that we all need to work together to succeed.”
Ishbel had a passion for local history and understood the imperative to get it down before it disappeared. She was a founding member of the Valemount Historic Society and she always stepped up when something needed doing whether it was gathering pictures, or writing or proofreading stories for the history book, baking or quilting for a raffle, or selling duck tickets or scraping paint or sanding down window frames for the Valemount & Area Museum.
Ishbel brought that same energy to the Tete Jaune Community Club, serving in a variety of roles including President. Just as she understood the need to preserve local history, she understood the value of neighbours getting together and building things for the good of the community. She was often an enumerator for provincial and federal elections, and worked the polling stations on election day and for years she kept the weather records at Mount Robson.
Ishbel and Murray did a lot of travelling over the years, from the top of the world highway on a camping trip, to the bottom of the world to visit New Zealand. There were commemorative trips to Holland, with visits to Germany, England, Ireland, Scotland tacked on. There was a train trip across Canada. In 2000 Louise went to Holland with Ishbel and they took a weeklong cruise on the river Rhine. There were driving trips to the states for Hargreaves family reunions, and camping trips, and many other family trips.
In 1995 Murray and Ishbel sold the ranch and bought an acreage on Stone Road, near Valemount. More busy years followed. A new house was brought in, the old one moved out. There were new flower beds to plan and plant and a vegetable garden to get in order. Ishbel continued to be involved with the Historic Society, never content to rest on her laurels, she conceived the outfitting display for the basement of the museum and got Mac to build her a wooden packhorse.
The quilting was ramped up a notch too as the grandchildren were graduating one after the other, two one year, and Ishbel made each of them a quilt to mark their achievement. In 1996 Murray and Ishbel celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
After Murray’s passing in 1999 Ishbel moved to Valemount, making a home for herself at 4th and Cedar, planting bulbs and ranch roses. It was during this time that Ishbel met Susan Feddema-Leonard of the Wilmore Wilderness Foundation. Susan shared Ishbel’s passion for history, specifically the history of the outfitters who built the trails through the Wilmore where the Hargreaves horses once ranged during winter. Ishbel gave Susan the gift of her memories, her journals, and her photographs and Susan gave Ishbel the gift of two final horse trips into the country of her youth. Together they gave the world the gift of the People and Peaks history books and the documentary film Women of the Wilmore.
Ishbel was predeceased by her husband Murray, her sister Margie, her son-in-law Bruce Graham and her brother-in-law Buster Duncan. She is survived by her six children, Margie, Art (Marilyn), Les (Julie), Mac (Deb), Louise (Lyle), Russell (Merina), by 13 grandchildren and 25 great grandchildren, and by her nieces Ellen and Carman Anne and her nephew Rex and their families.
Ishbel loved her family. She was proud of her kids, her grand-kids, and their kids and was always quick to share stories of their achievements and their escapades. She was more than willing to get in the truck and head out, however far, to attend a competition, a graduation, a wedding, a birthday, an anniversary. She was equally happy when the family came to her.
Grandchildren remember time spent picking blueberries, or gathering firewood, or searching for Easter eggs hidden outside. Extended family and friends remember boisterous card games (apricot brandy was mentioned a few times) and all manner of celebrations. She loved music – her television was always set to the music channel, and she enjoyed cooking, especially for appreciative eaters. She loved flowers, tame and wild, and she was always interested in the world around her, the plants, the critters, the weather, the rocks, the people. She was a gracious and generous host, there was always room at her table for one more, and there was always something in the cookie tin, or in the fridge or the freezer no matter the hour. She will be missed.
Ishbel passed away in Jasper Oct 24th 2014 at the age of 90 years.