I’m going to be honest with you, I never met John Braken, nor did I meet his son Dave, nor Dave’s wife Madge. They’d all passed away by the time I came in contact with their family, the confusing and troubling legal mess their children, grandchildren, and other relatives had inherited, and their legacy for being some of the best folk you could ever meet. Whether it was a broken fence and a lost cow or an afternoon of hard work fixing the roof on a leaky barn, Dave was someone everyone knew they could depend on. He’d been working on his dad’s ranch since he was kid. His dad and he had all kind of photos in the old albums. They’d have lopsided smiles, and they’d be covered in God knows what after chasing down a calf in February.
Dave Braken and Madge Connelly went to the same school. It’s not surprising that they knew each other even though she was two years younger than him because they were both locals, and the school was K-12. With an average graduating class of 30, everybody knew everybody. Like Dave, Madge was farm kid. Throughout high school, Dave would cheer on Madge and the volley team in fall while she cheered for him and the boys during winter hockey and spring soccer. In summer, they were both so busy on the family farms it was hard to see one another. But the day Madge came second in the school’s local science fair was the day when Dave knew he wanted to marry her.
When they graduated from high school, Madge headed off to the big city. It was where her only sister had gone and where the allure of the University of Calgary beckoned. Dave stayed behind. He worked on the ranch with his dad during the weekends and the evenings, but to try and save up some money he also worked fulltime at the local power-plant and mines. They tried long distance. But two years in, when the Connellys divorced, the time and distance apart was too much. Madge broke it off. Convinced he had to win her back, Dave applied at Olds college for an agriculture program. He quit his job, said goodbye to his mom and dad, and headed off to school again. It was a move he’d never would have seen himself taking. Two years later, not at the top of his class but happily residing in the middle, Dave graduated. His parents were ecstatic, but Dave noticed his dad looked older than he ever had. He sat a lot, and, when John thought no one was looking, he limped a lot too. Dave moved back home and started to take over the day to day operations as best he could. It was quite the challenge for both him and his mum to get John to retire, and they never did quite manage it.
The evening before thanksgiving, John and Dave were fighting with a new electric fence. The weather was bitter cold, John’s was limping more than ever, and Dave was having no luck with the fence at all. When his mom called saying she needed someone to run into town to pick up some last minute corn, Dave threw in the towel and trudged off to the store. He grumbled the whole way there, but by the time he’d gotten home he would thank his mom a hundred times for not buying corn. Madge was home. They were in the same checkout line. Dave never admitted whether he’d seen her before he got in line, but by the end of it he’d convinced her to come out to the ranch the next day. She came mid afternoon while Dave was out working on the blasted fence. Bundled up in over-alls and a winter coat, she joined him outside, and Dave explained the predicament. Madge listened to him explain the issue, took a couple looks at the fence, and, just as he was saying he’d have to call in an electrician or someone, she flipped something, and it started to work. Dave asked her to marry him right then and there. He had to wait another year for her to say yes.
Dave and Madge got married the year after that, and, when her dad retired from farming, Dave and Madge took over working their farm. When her folks passed away, Madge inherited the farm and the land was combined under Dave’s leadership. They’d managed to save up quite a bit of money at that point, so they purchase more land here and there until their entire ranch was more than 10, 000 acres by the early 1980s.
During this time, Madge and Dave were also busy raising their son: Robert.
Robert is actually the father of the gentlemen who introduced me to the stories of the deceased Dave and Madge. The tradition that had begun with Dave working all summer on the ranch with John had been passed on. Robert spent most of his summer working with Dave, but when his dad encouraged him to go to Olds or some other post secondary, he went, and it was in Calgary that he’d met Sarah, and so came along Ryan and his sister Michelle.
In 1999, when Dave passed on, is when the problems began to arise. Dave had never talked to anyone about his will. Perhaps he’d discussed it with Madge, but, since she’d died in 1997 a full two years earlier, she was hardly able to help. Dave, true to his being, had tried to be fair to everyone. Dave understood that Madge’s family, the Connellys, had greatly benefited the two of them when they’d inherited the Connelly’s farm after her parents’ death. To try and be fair, Dave left the ranch to a total of seven beneficiaries. These included Robert, Ryan, Michelle, and the children’s four cousins from Madge’s sister. Things got messy. The will was not clear and fight after fight broke out over what he’d meant. Between the anger and confusion, legal battles broke out trying to interpret the will and make a decision. The legal fights, bickering, and general craziness lasted over ten years. Hundreds of acres of land was sold to cover the two million dollars in legal fees. And in the end? No one was happy anyways. Relationships were stressed. Some even ended in divorce. A proud family legacy of doing the right thing and always being the people others could depend on eroded away.
The remaining land was split into parcels among the parties. Very little thought was given to whether any ranch would be sustainable with how the land was broken up, and, with almost everyone dependent on a second job to keep their ranches alive, it was very complicated at best and a complete mess at worst. Ryan, now in his mid thirties, really wanted to see the ranch return to its former prime and make a living from cattle and the land the way his dad, granddad, and great granddad had. However, with the way everything settled, Ryan found himself in a similar position that Dave had had in his youth. He worked out at the powerplant and mine all week long and tried to keep the ranch running during his evenings and weekends. It was far from ideal, but the only thing everyone could agree on was that it wasn’t any good.
No one really knew what to do next, and that’s where I come into the story. Upset and confused about what to do next, many members of the Braken family contacted me at Farming Families. Together, we would try to solve this mess in a way that honoured Dave’s intentions: benefiting all seven beneficiaries without fighting.
Make sure to check in next month to find out how Ryan and I managed to work things out for everyone. If you feel like you’re trapped in a similar situation contact me today at 1-877-247-4829, and we can start discussing your goals and options.