Oct. 26, 2012
To hear Molly Klinker tell it, the story of her youth is a cross between Little House on the Prairie and Hoosiers, combined with whatever movie had a ranch girl operating farm equipment by the age of 10 and driving a tractor by the seventh grade.
"Tractors are not that hard to run. They're actually easier to operate than a car for me, but I grew up with them," she says.
Drive northeast out of Fairfield, Mont., six or seven miles, and you can't throw a stone without it sinking out of sight into some fertile ranch land owned by a Klinker.
There's the vast spread of Molly's parents, Marty and Marcia, 2,500 acres strong, give or take a row or two of alfalfa, malt barley, spring and winter wheat. A mile away is ranchland run by her grandfather, the same place Marty was raised. Beyond that is even more land cared for by her great uncles.
The Klinkers, at least the homestead of Marty and Marcia, also has "200 head of cattle, so not much," Molly says, throwing on the helpful addendum to make it clear that around Fairfield, 200 head of cattle is the equivalent of a hobby farm.
Relying on the land and praying for the right weather to generate the annual harvest is a way of life that has been followed for generations in the area, and the Klinkers have been there almost from the start. Entire families tending to the land, the lessons bestowed on each generation unchanging.
Always the very first lesson, work ethic: "My dad waking us up at 5:30 and telling us what field we had that day." And extending to an appreciation "of starting something so little, setting the seed in the ground, watering it, watching it grow, all the way until it's finally harvested."
The same process of cultivation and nurturing was not limited to the land. It extended to the education of the nearby ranch children.
The same stone that was thrown six paragraphs earlier? It's possible it was originally dug up by Klinker's great-grandfather when he was breaking ground on Greenfield School, a small outpost of learning that could accommodate the education of the ranching families in the area just outside of Fairfield.
Klinker's great-grandfather helped build the school. Her grandfather learned there, as did her father. And in the eighth grade Klinker was taught by the same teacher who had instructed her dad when he was the same age.
Maybe it wasn't Laura Ingalls in a one-room schoolhouse in Walnut Grove, but Klinker's eighth-grade class graduated just four students to Fairfield High, so it wasn't far off.
The education of the Greenfield students extended to sports, and, with maybe 50 students total from kindergarten to eighth grade, most of the lessons were learned the hard way.
"We would have to go down to the fourth grade just to field a team (to play against Fairfield), and we'd get crushed something like 50-4. I'm thankful for those days at Greenfield, but they were definitely character builders," Klinker says now.
At the time Klinker was attending Greenfield, she was also getting an advanced basketball education in Great Falls. Her parents would drive her the 40 miles three times a week to play on teams coached by the Kumm brothers. First it was John, then Phil taking Klinker's team through the eighth grade.
It was a worthwhile family sacrifice, because Klinker's development in basketball allowed her to enter ninth grade immediately prepared to join the culture of successful athletics at Fairfield High.
Need a visual? Think Hoosiers, but only if Hickory High wasn't a once-in-a-generation story but an annual pursuit of trophies. Picture a caravan of cars following Fairfield's basketball teams through the dark, winter nights and parents of kids who played for the Eagles 20 years before still sitting in their usual seats in the FHS gymnasium.
"There are a lot of gifted athletes that come out of Fairfield," Klinker says. "It's kind of what the town thrives on." Klinker is hardly an athletic outlier in her family, so she fit right in.
Her older brother, Tyler, earned a rodeo scholarship to the University of Great Falls. Marcia was a track athlete in her youth, and Marty played basketball for one semester at Montana State before the call of the farm became too loud to ignore.
With so much of its history grounded in the surrounding soil, it's not surprising the teams at Fairfield High take on the ethos of the ranch. The young learn the way things are done from their elders, until one day it's their turn to take over. It's a lesson that extends from ranch to the court.
"You always had such great leaders to look up to," Klinker says. "My freshman year I played with Chelsea Banis (now a redshirt junior center at Montana State). When they're gone, the next group takes over and then the next. It's why the program is so strong."
Klinker went from a class of four at Greenfield to a powerhouse girls' basketball program at Fairfield High.
The Lady Eagles won Class B state titles when Klinker was a freshman, junior and senior. That sophomore year? A state runner-up finish to rival Malta, the same team Fairfield would beat in the championship game the other three years.
When Klinker walked off the court for the final time last March at Hamilton High, her third state title in tow, she had won her final 52 games with the Eagles, the fourth-longest streak in state history. Something she was able to bequeath to the next group of team leaders.
And when the bus carrying the state champions arrived back in Fairfield, life quickly returned to normal, as it always does when a schedule is based on the rising and setting sun, on planting, irrigating and harvesting. The sun came up the next morning, and there was work to be done.
Life on the ranch does not take a break, and at the time Klinker was counting down the days until she could get away.
Now in her first season at Montana, time and distance have given her something she lacked when she was living it up close: perspective. An appreciation of having family close by. Of everyone in the area, family or not, being in pursuit of a common goal and having everyone else's back. Of the richness of life on the ranch.
"Last year at this time I wanted to get as far away as I could from home," she says. "But once you step away and can see how good you had it, you're so thankful for everything you grew up with."
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