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Women called 'backbone, glue' of nearly century-old family farm

Published On: May 22 2013 04:20:05 PM MDT   Updated On: May 23 2013 08:54:58 AM MDT

They're the caregivers, the secretaries, bookkeepers and cooks. They're machinery operators and horseback riders, irrigators and managers.

NBC Montana wanted to do a story on Montana farm and ranch women. So we visited a 5th-generation agricultural operation near Corvallis.

There isn't a man on the place who doesn't credit women, past and present, for nearly 100 years of success. They call them "the backbone, the glue."

Meet the women of Willow Creek.

Every spring, the Tintzman ranch shines new. Willow Creek twists through its fields and pastures, and pumps life into everything it touches.

Florence Bates Chaffin was a new bride when she moved up Willow Creek to the farm in 1917. After Florence died, her daughter, Gayle, found her diary.

She read excerpts from that diary, telling the everyday stories of cooking and canning, and worrying about bills too.

Florence was in her 20s when the flu epidemic took her husband, leaving her alone to care for their farm.

She had hired men. But for a girl weaned in town, working in a man's world, it wasn't easy.

Gayle reads a passage about a cattle buyer visiting, and of her mother's negotiations with the man.

"Made me an offer, but did not sell for sure," reads Gayle. "Must have more money by Thursday for interest."

For three years, Florence worked on the farm without a husband.

Then in 1927, she married Anfin Anfinson, and he and Florence operated the ranch. Gayle Anfinson was their only child. Gayle married Elmer Tintzman, a farmer himself.

"I've always thought of myself as a farmer's wife," said Gayle. "That's all I ever really wanted."

Like her mom, Gayle was happy in the kitchen, baking and cooking, for her husband and three sons. But like Florence, Gayle cooked for threshing crews, sugar beet harvesters and branding crews too.

She kept the books and did the taxes.

"Monday I washed," recalls the farm wife, "Tuesday I ironed."

In a pinch, she would help Elmer farm, each parent taking a toddler on a tractor, plowing and harrowing. She didn't really like taking the baby on the tractor.

When Elmer said there was a calf to pull, she didn't like that either.

"That's not my cup of tea," she told her husband. But he told her "you have to."

She still remembers that little heifer straining so hard to have that calf.

"When that calf plopped out," recalls Gayle, "I felt wonderful."

Elmer passed away in 2012. Their son, Brett, runs the place now. At his side is his wife, Dori.

"We were high school sweethearts," said Brett. "She's a hard worker, there's no doubt about it, and she's always positive."

He and his wife are good partners.

Brett changes one sprinkler wheel line in one field. Dori changes the line in another field.

"Water is key for any farmer," said Dori.

"Growing up on a dairy I had a concept of the work," she said.

She spends five days a week working as a caregiver and cook at her sister's care home. She takes turns with Brett driving school bus. It's all to help the family and to improve the farm. Expenses are high.

"We can't complain," said Dori as she drove the bus to Corvallis Primary School. "Cattle prices are good, grain's high, but fuel and twine are expensive, and fertilizer is out of whack."

Dori and Brett's son Tyler Tintzman is starting a registered Angus cattle herd.

The Montana State University senior credits much of his interest in animals to his mom.

"Anything that needs done," said Tyler, "she's up to do it. Same with my grandma. They're probably the most important parts of this ranch. They're the backbone."

Tyler just started cutting hay a couple years ago," said Dori, "Him and I do most of the hay cutting and raking and baling."

Everybody helps brand if they're around.

Dori and Brett's daughter, Jenna Tintzman Hendrickson, and her husband, Billy, live on the place too. They're starting their own cattle herd. Jenna works as a registered nurse.

"There's a joke," said Jenna, "that a good farmer always has a wife that works in town."

Jenna and Billy are carving out a life on the farm for their baby daughter, Lilly.

"We want her to grow up knowing how to change pipe and buck bales," said Jenna. "Drive a tractor and at the same time have a college degree, and have the best of both worlds."

The days are getting longer.

After branding, Dori gets supper on the table. It's late. Everybody's hungry.

It's coming summer up Willow Creek. Pretty days and lots of stuff to do.