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December 21, 2018


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Dan's Writings ›  


A New Kind of Christmas

I am not a Christmas kind of guy. I suspect that there is a touch of the Grinch in my DNA because all the Christmas carols and the commercial frenzy has driven me crazy enough to sit out a few Christmases entirely.


Of course, it has not always been that way. In the 1950’s and early sixties, when I grew up, there wasn’t nearly so much stuff to make me nuts. Don’t misunderstand, compared to most 1950s families we had plenty. There was always an abundance of food, cookies, candy, a few lights on the shrubs in front of the house, and a carefully decorated tree. The presents under that tree were more than adequate but not ridiculous. Most things were practical. There were always things like socks, a warm sweater, school supplies. But there was also something that was fun, like a bicycle, a skateboard, a hula-hoop, or the latest toy from Mattel. I don’t really remember any of those toys. What I remember is a steam turbine engine that my father built for us.

I had somehow found an advertisement for a working model steam engine. In the catalogue photograph you could see that the engine was black iron with a shiny brass piston and trim. It was built on a hardwood base and sported a fire box rigged to burn lighter fluid. My brothers and I really wanted that engine but, when my dad looked at the price, he inhaled through clenched teeth. He began to shake his head and I could see that it hurt him to have to say, no.

Christmas was still two weeks off and instead of falling into the mania of most children I spent a lot of time staring at that picture in the catalogue and puzzling over how that darn thing worked. My dad hovered over me and tried to explain that when water turned from a liquid to a gas that its volume expands by 1100 times. The steam that is produced pushes the piston out and turns the shaft were the power is transferred to whatever work you want the engine to perform. I could see that Dad was enjoying the fact that I was fascinated by his explanation. His face lit up when I asked questions. He would chuckle as he disappeared into the back of our garage where he fiddled with household repairs.


I have a workshop on the ranch that my dad would have loved. When I work out there, I often wish he was still around so we could build something together. My grandsons, Lincoln and Barrett like to hang out in the shop with me. They sit on the concrete floor and play with the scraps of wood left over from one of many projects. I can’t help myself and crawl down there with them and we build towers with the scrapes and knock them over with joy and laughter. Barrett can’t say much yet but Lincoln has started wondering about Christmas. Jilian and Colton understand the commercial pressure on their children and I do my best to support them in that struggle.

I think back to the Christmases of my childhood and my mind settles on that Christmas when I was fascinated by steam engines. I remember coming down the stairs early that morning and seeing the lighted tree and the colorful packages scattered below. My brothers and I dug into those presents with gusto and I’m sure that the gifts were wonderful, but I remember only one. It was about the size of a shoe box, wrapped in the brown paper of a grocery bag, and taped clumsily, in a way my mother would never have done. The names of all three of us boys were written in pencil and, though we knew it was from our dad, we had no idea what it was. When we stripped the paper away, we found a crudely built, but absolutely marvelous, steam engine. 

The boiler was made from an old coffee percolator and the plumbing was small copper piping soldered by my father’s steady hands. The pipes necked down to a pinhole that concentrated the stem and pushed it out with enough force to turn a tiny turbine attached to the shaft where the power could be utilized for whatever three small boys could imagine. I’ll never forget that Christmas gift and I will never forget the look of joy on my father’s face. It is the way I want my grandchildren to remember me and this Christmas. As I sand and paint the wooden blocks that I’m making for my grandson’s, I sense that my smile is as radiant as the one I remember.

Merry Christmas Everyone. Dan


Harry Greene

December 24, 2018

I cannot imagine a higher complement for such a fine piece of writing, such a thoughtful rememberance—I need the kleenex now!

Mark Holloway

December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Megan Harding

December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas to you and your family.

Rosanne Stratigakes

December 24, 2018

Thank you Dan. What a wonderful heart opening article. Reminds me to get our son’s block out ,get on the floor,build something and lnock it down. (We’re saving blocks for grandchildren-maybe sometime in future.)

Gerald Carl

December 24, 2018

What else is there say except”I love the story”.Hand made is love built into every minute. Along with meme ride that last.

Jim Swab

December 24, 2018

That’s a good story, Dan; you have your priorities straight. Thanks, again, for the tour of the ranch back in September.—Jim


December 24, 2018

Wonderful story. Took me back to a better time. Thank you for making it ok to not being Christmas fan.


December 24, 2018

Wonderful story! Thanks for sharing.

Greg Olsen

December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas to you and your family! Thank you for sharing…….


December 24, 2018

Your description is much like what I remember. Home made sweater and clothes my mother made. Thank you for sharing Christmas from your past. All the consumerism turns me into the Grinch. I chose to step away from the present and relive the past in my mind.


December 24, 2018

What did your father do for a living? Your Christmas experiences sound much like mine – my dad was a minister but he was also attracted to good engineering and made things like a reflector telescope with an equatorial mount and a high-fidelity record player. I remember a microscope and a steam engine, too, for Christmas. Have a good one!

Fee Jacobsen

December 24, 2018

Dan, thanks for keeping it real. The boys are lucky to have these memories in the making. I didn’t grow up with the “Christmas tradition” so the commercialism is still a mystery to me. The first time I saw a pickle ornament “made in China”, I wondered what the folks in China made of it. Best wishes to the whole family for a merry, merry and continued success in all you do in 2019.

Dan Cohen

December 24, 2018

Big hugs, you teared me up..

Pamela Downs

December 24, 2018

Grear story Dan. I also made all my gifts this year.

bob jackson

December 24, 2018

Always the boy in us. I peruse that photo of the shop and I see all my toys. The biggest and best, of course, is the Miller Bob Cat welder/generator sitting on the back wall. It is a very good welder, one that works like butter with stick. We have one also. Dan probably justified this big purchase (toy) the same as I, all those months of welding to construct our “new, improved” buffalo corrals 20 years ago. The other toys, the grinder, the bench vise, the pad sander to go with other shop essentials, rat (mouse bait). And that short steel ladder behind the Bob Cat means there are other areas of the shop that hold "goodies’ higher than one can reach. But what is in that row of military ammo boxes? Secrets to any boy.
I equipped some of my Yellowstone back country cabins (with barns) the same way … with the basics. No electricity and no welder of course. Vises for holding chain saw bars while sharpening. And all the hand wood working tools placed in the hand made fold out doors cabinets over the work bench. Your taxes paid for them. Where is Dan’s anvil Up front next to the door? Looks like a spool of black and white thread on a top shelf also? So where is the leather sewing machine? I have a couple, the smaller one, a Singer Patcher, I still use to repair leather gloves, blue jeans and coveralls. Blue jeans? yes, mostly to add the V patches to both sides of the waist band. Yes, to make them fit as the jeans “shrink” through the years. Ya, that’s it.
Such are a boys toys. And we always can buy or make more because we know we will put them to good use. Especially all the black smith tools I have still stashed in an out building just waiting to have that black smith shop built, brick floor and all, so the winter days stay warmer.
But what about that speaker box I see on that top shelf? Country music? For me tens of thousands of miles on a horse, but I never could get into that stuff. Now give me Billy Idol, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. Green Onion, Pipeline, “…Cadillac doing about 95, oh Maybelline…”. Ya!! But to each his own. The dude abides.


December 24, 2018

Very sweet, thank you, Dan!

Diane Mercier

December 24, 2018

A lovely memory for you and a wonderful story to read. Handmade gifts have a person’s heart written all over them. As I read about your family and your work, I see so much heart.

Linda Clark

December 24, 2018

Wonderful piece, Dan. And it seems you’ve been able to tamp down the Grinch and find the joy that underlies what a true Christmas can be. It doesn’t come from the stuff our materialistic, consumerist culture insists we need to be happy. It comes from sharing connections with those we love and care about and from expanding that circle to so many others who have so much less than we have. From a recent piece on NPR’s “On Point” show, people called in to say how they were making Christmas much simpler with far fewer gifts and more time to spend with those they love and care about. One grandparent shared that she and her husband give three $20 bills to each grandchild—one to spend, one to save, and one to share/give away. I’m keeping that idea for when my two grandkids get older. Right now I’m lucky that my son and daughter-in-law have given a one gift limit for me to give my two grandchildren. And they are lucky that they live in a community of like-minded parents who share their simple lifestyle and values—makes it much easier to resist the pressures of the market! Tell Jillian and Colton to hold fast! The greatest gifts that Barrett and Lincoln could ever get they already have—living in the circle with the parents and grandparents they have who epitomize the best of values. And living on a splendid piece of our much beleaguered planet Earth is just one more gift of incalculable value they have been given. Lucky, lucky kids!

Linda R Smith

December 24, 2018

I absolutely LOVE this! Lovely trip down memory lane, thank you. Wishing you all much health and happiness in the New Year.


December 24, 2018

Thank you for sharing this sweet story that took me back in time. Sometimes I wish we could turn back the clock and live our lives at a much slower pace, with a lot less distraction from what’s truly important. Have a Blessed and Merry Christmas.

Lan Evenson

December 24, 2018

Thank you for the heart warming memories.

Beth Waterhouse

December 24, 2018

The box I remember was a big red box with a few air holes secretly in the back, and it was tipsy and had a few scratchy noises… out came a black and white cocker spaniel pup! Only my dad would try to put something like our dog, Peggy, under the tree! Thanks for the memories, Dan, and Merry Christmas to all of you out at Wild Idea. You have good ideas.

Bruce Green

December 24, 2018

Ha ha. Appears that Dan is somewhat of a Christmas fan after all. Thanks for sharing your awesome experiences with us.


Chuck Beatty

December 24, 2018

The gifts my Dad made me are the ones I still treasure 50 years later. Merry Christmas, Dan, and to the entire WIB family.

Kathy Antonen

December 24, 2018

First all the science, then straight to the heart.


December 24, 2018

isn’t it wonderful to live in the simple truth that love has no limits?

thank you for sharing.

Emil Stockton

December 24, 2018

One of the most memorable and used Christmas gifts of my childhood was a set of wooden block made by my dad, I had not thought about the blocks in many years until I saw your project photo. Beautiful article, Thankyou!

Jerry and Norma Reynolds

December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas to you and Jill and the family – which is beautiful we are sure as is shown in the faces of your grandsons. Faces that we are sure will light up as yours did when you opened that special gift from your dad. It’s a generational Man thing it seems….. May it continue.

Daryl Peterson

December 24, 2018

I pledge to do what I can to slow it all down. Just unsubscribed to 17 companies that have been sending not just one but 2 or 3 email solicitations every day since before Thanksday. “Enough already yet” as my grandmother used to say. Time to refocus on our families and our planet and its inhabitants. Thank you Dan for a great Christmas story. Be well and be warm and take care of one another. Merry Christmas.

michel vincent

December 26, 2018

joyeux Noel de France ,,, awesome ,,,, géniale comme toujours pour ce récit de la vie ,,,,, longue vie a vous ,,,,

Francis and Teresa

December 26, 2018

Very well put… love the true spirit of gift giving you expressed. That would be the HEART of Christmas.
Merry Christmas

Diane Thill

December 26, 2018

Another beautiful, poetic and heartwarming story. Your childhood memories of Christmas brought my own flood of memories and tears. It is still hard to believe that the little Jillian in your first book about starting your buffalo ranch is all grown up with little ones of her own. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

Jeanette Hayes

December 26, 2018

Our youngest son has one of those steam engines much like the one you remember seeing in the catalog. It was his Christmas gift in the late 1960’s or maybe 1970. Now a grown man with a college age daughter and a high school son, he and his brothers were cleaning our garage here in Michigan in November for their Dad, when he came across it and was as excited as when he opened it that long ago Christmas. It now resides in his home in Oregon. What a wonderful gift that excitement for that long ago present was for his father,who left this earth in early December of this year.


December 26, 2018

Dan. Thanks for your story. I grew up in the 60’s and remember a simpler Chitsmas. We mostly make our gifts,still Honey from the bees, granola with cherries, lots of nuts sweetened with maple syrup and dark chocolate amaretto truffles from my mom’s Recipe. Boxes get shipped late every year
. In addition to being a cancer researcher, I’m a pretty good good silversmith, so my gifts are predictably bracelets, necklaces and money clips. The guys just don’t wear jewelry much, so now I’m making, with my husband’s help lovely antler candle holders out of copper and shed. Or shot antlers. They look nice on the table…lit with beeswax candles.
My dad was an incredible metalsmith and fabricator. So both my brothers and I learned to solder and weld at an early age, as well as being “hand me the wrench” mechanics. But we were working on his . 36 roadster with a flathead Ford V8, so we felt lucky just to be with him and that lovely machine,
My younger brother is an incredible knife maker. This year I got a beautiful Damascus steel knife with a buffalo horn handle.
Buffalo is his favorite material for knife and hatchet scales. Lucky me!
And Dan,We also feasted on your bison steaks for Christmas dinner, thank you so much for your provisioning. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Alan Anderson

December 26, 2018

They will likely have many great memories from their times with you Dan. It may be that the thing that they remember most fondly is your tireless work to preserve a great ecosystem for them to exist in and pass on to their children.

Jane Baile

December 26, 2018

We certainly grew up in a totally different world back in the 50s and 60s. I often wonder if my parents felt the same criticism and nostalgia as the looked back when they were 70. As all former generations do. Maybe I’m too self -centered to think that this time changes are drastic, phenomenal, extreme and have taken us all into a scary New World with no going back. Wars changed the lives of certain generations. The invention of the wheel, the arrival of electricity, the automobile… But technology is completely changing our society, our relationships. Thanks for this brief moment of Christmas Past.

Luce Jaccard

December 26, 2018

Thank you so much for this Xmas story. Especially now that I just learned I’m gonna be a grandmother soon… Sounds like an echoe. Wish you and your family a beautiful and pleasant year 2019!


December 26, 2018

Merci Dan pour ce merveilleux conte de Noël !


December 27, 2018

Just beautiful, Merry Christmas!!

Keith Lewis

December 27, 2018

That’s a beautiful story Dan. I admire your father’s ingenuity. You, Jill, Jilian, and Colton all have those vital qualities—that’s obvious from what you’ve accomplished, nurturing the Wild Idea. I’m delighted that you’re passing those qualities along to your grandchildren.
As you know, I sailed as a merchant seaman for 34 years on big ships with small crews on the wide and lonely oceans of the world. Sailing as chief engineer on both steam and diesel vessels, I was always pleased when learning that a new engineer had grown up on a ranch or farm. That was just what we needed to operate those ships far from sources of help. Ranchers and farmers are smart, talented and resourceful, with a wide variety of skills: mechanical and electrical, machining and welding, both arc and gas, etc., etc. They’re self-reliant and accustomed to working alone, often for long hours under stressful conditions. And they’re good shipmates.
So here we are on Planet Earth, alone in a dark unfathomable Cosmos—like a ship at sea powered only by its insular, self-sustaining machinery. All depends on the diligence of those on board caring for those intricate mechanisms—where Life itself depends on those interwoven ecological components. Thank you for all you’re doing to preserve this remarkable but delicate planet. You’re great shipmates—you’re my heroes!
Keith Lewis

Bob Steelquist

December 27, 2018

Inside every Grinch there’s part Elf. Holiday Best Wishes to the whole family. Bob

Marie Parys

December 27, 2018

Thank you for sharing your story of Christmas and I wanted to share a story my Christmas past. My mother passed away last year at 98 and I have a large container of family photos, and recently I looked at one from Christmas 1955. Included in the photo are my brother and two of my cousins, we were all sitting on the floor in front of a less than perfect Christmas tree. What strikes me about the picture is the dress I was wearing which my mother made for me from a worn out dress someone gave her. The striped taffeta skirt had been in good condition and she had made a new top for the dress from royal blue taffeta matching one of the colors in the stripe. She surprised me with the new dress on Christmas morning. I do not remember any toys I was given that year which were usually limited because my mother told us that Santa had a price limit. Although the photo is a sepia tone, I remember the vivid colors of the dress because my mother made the dress for me. This photo brings back the importance of love in our lives.


December 27, 2018

Thank you for sharing your story. Your spirit and love is what we all need. Many happy returns of the season.

Pamela van Giessen

December 29, 2018

Dear Dan and Jill – On Sunday 12/30 my husband and I will join a multitude of neighbors at the Heartland Cafe to say goodbye. As you know, Michael and Katy sold the place a few years ago though remained involved. The new owner tried but was not able to make a go of it. The reason is that the Heartland was never really a great restaurant; it was a neighborhood institution, a safe harbor, that also packed a lot of serendipity. For instance, my husband and I met a guy in Big Fork MT who did Flathead lake tours who used to live in Rogers Park a few blocks from our house and hung out at the Heartland and managed a neighborhood coop. Better serendipity: in the late 1990s I was working at home as an editor for a NY publishing house. Would go to Heartland for lunch in the company of a manuscript that needed massive editing. I’d enjoy a bison burger and stay through almost dinner, drinking coffee and editing. Years later I see a guy in the place reading the very book I labored over in the Heartland. Fast forward a few more years and a friend recommends I read A Wild Idea. Before I finished it I ordered both my brothers your gift baskets for Christmas. I so loved the idea of healthier meat that is also healthier for the environment. Then, my husband got me a gift basket. We love your meat (best beef stroganoff ever and fabulous burgers!). I finish Wild Idea only to discover that I’d enjoyed your bison years before — at the Heartland. So, thank you for selling your meat to that crazy Michael James. Thank you for all you do. I have been a fan for years, though didn’t know it until about a year ago. Now I tell everyone about Wild Idea and encourage them to source all their red meat from Wild Idea. On New Years Day we will be sharing a wet aged sirloin tip roast with a bunch of friends. Cheers to you and Wild Idea for a great 2019!

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