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Four generations of Withington Creek writers

Family Tradition: Ranch life has always been an inspiration for Smith Thomas family

I’ve been writing for Grainews for more than 40 years, starting when I was a young ranch wife with two small children. I’d been writing articles for a few horse and cattle magazines to help pay the bills, and was grateful for another “market” for my work.

My writing career began early, thanks to my father. As a child, I wrote stories about horses, and by fifth grade was making handwritten stories into little “books” with illustrations I drew. I loaned those “books” to classmates to read.

When I was 12, my father suggested I write a shorter story to send to a magazine. I wrote about a family encountering a bear (“The Picnic Adventure”) and typed it on Dad’s old typewriter. He sent my story to Trails for Juniors, a weekly magazine for Sunday School kids. To my surprise, I received a cheque for $10. Beginner’s luck set my course for the future, when I realized I could get paid for doing something I loved.

Over the next few years I sold more than a dozen illustrated stories and some cartoons to Trails for Juniors and other children’s magazines and began writing a few articles for farm and livestock publications. Horses and cattle were my passion and by then I had cattle of my own and was raising and training my own young horse. I was learning all I could about horses and cows, and sharing that knowledge in my articles.

During high school I wrote stories and articles to earn and save money for college. My most exciting “sale” was to Farm Journal. I’d sent an article about our 5-H Wranglers, the first 4-H horse club in Idaho. The editor bought it for $100, which was a lot of money in 1959, and the most I’d ever received for an article. Farm Journal sent a photographer to take pictures of our club, and when the article came out the next year (“Like Horses? Start a 4-H Club”), my yearling filly and I were on the cover!

A young Heather Thomas Eppich on the cover of her first book.
photo: Courtesy Heather Smith Thomas

During college I continued to write stories and articles. When Lynn and I were married, we started buying the little ranch on Withington Creek from my parents, and another ranch next to it. My writing became even more important as a way to help pay the bills as we struggled to get started ranching. This was my “off-farm job” I could do at home in between taking care of cattle, training horses, and raising our two children.

Meanwhile, I’d written my first book (A Horse in Your Life: A Guide for the New Owner) in the summer of 1964, between my sophomore and junior year of college, and it was published in 1965. I wrote several more books in those early years but mainly wrote as many articles as possible to sell to horse and cattle publications. One year when we were desperately short of money and had to buy hay, I was asked to write 20 short booklets on horse care topics for a horse course. That job helped us buy hay and survive a tough year. I eventually wrote 23 books and more than 12,000 stories and articles.

My writing for the past 52 years has been intimately intertwined with ranching. It helped support the ranch and the ranch inspired some of the subject matter. In essence, my writing is just another “crop” from our ranch.

Inspired by my father

I am grateful to my father for helping steer me onto this path. He was a writer; he wrote articles for church magazines. I think we inspired each other. After my first book was published, he wrote several inspirational books.

His first one, By the River of No Return, published in 1967, was a collection of modern-day parables, using some of his outdoor experiences and the ranch to help the reader understand the message. Chapter titles included Satellites and Saddle Horses, Raspberries by an Irrigation Ditch, Snow in the High Country, Hills and Valleys, He Makes Me Lie Down, Yellow Bells, With Wings like Eagles, The Grass is Greener and Like a Shepherd. His book was hugely popular because it expressed profound truths about God and His love for us — in very simple stories that people could easily relate to.

His other books were also popular. Wild Rivers and Mountain Trails was published in 1972 and chapter titles include Snakes and Butterflies, Yardlights and Stars, To Corner a Toad, From Here to Jackson’s Strawstack, To Catch a Rat, Switchbacks on the Trail, Empty Creel, and High Mountains in the Distance.

His third book, Sagebrush Seed, published in 1977, contained more short lesson, in chapters with titles like Good Grass Grows, The Rifle on the Wall, Horse Bells, Cleaning Ditches, Without a Lead Rope, The Dogs of God, Beyond the First Range of Hills and Carrots, Cow Parsnips, and Water Hemlock.

The fourth book, The Open Gate in 1989, included Fireweed and Ashes, In All Generations, Pruning Peach Trees, Prayer on the Run, When the Rocks Talk, Square Watermelons, Any Bush Will Do, The Turkey Trap, Chasing Donkeys, Fences, Frogs and Pollywogs, A Bucket of Muddy Water, and Little Tiger Cat.

My dad’s sermons and books were an inspiration to many people, partly because he had a gift for expressing great truths in simple language. I like to think that I inherited some of that gift, putting complicated things into words anyone can understand. That’s the task of a writer in my opinion, especially ag writers because we often deal with technical stuff, whether it’s medical problems of livestock or how-to steps in machinery repair and maintenance, or a complicated irrigation system. Our job is to make it easy to understand and enjoyable in the process.

Michael Thomas.
photo: Courtesy Heather Smith Thomas

I’m pleased that the ability to communicate through writing has continued through several generations on Withington Creek. My son Michael wrote training manuals for Micron Technology (in Boise, Idaho) — putting technical material in understandable terms — when he worked there several years after college. But after he and his wife Carolyn had kids they decided to raise their kids on a ranch.

For the next 20 years he was too busy raising cattle, taking care of several leased ranches and doing custom haying to think about writing, but now he’s writing articles for farm and livestock publications. He brings a wealth of experience to his work as a writer.

The fourth generation is carrying on the tradition. Michael’s daughter Heather Carrie (now married to Gregory Eppich, a young grain farmer in Saskatchewan) began a writing career early, planning her first book while she was in college. She has always enjoyed horses, just like grandma, and began training horses professionally in high school.

Wanting to share her tips and advice on horse handling (valuable knowledge gleaned from experiences training and working with a wide variety of horses), she wrote her first book. She called it Basic Horsemanship: How to be Safe with Your Horse. Published in 2015, it will be useful to young horsemen and women and 4-H horse groups.

Young Heather is launching into her own “off farm job she can do at home” with a column for Grainews, telling about her experiences as a young farm wife and mother. The Feb. 6 issue of Grainews was special; it contained her first column, along with my column (Rancher’s Diary) and an article by Michael. We had three generations represented in that issue!

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