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Greta Rybus

Greta Rybus is a photojournalist and photo editor living in Portland. She started her blog, “Who I Met," as a way to begin juicy conversations with interesting people she meets. The blog has migrated with her from Montana, Europe, and, finally, to her new and dearly-loved home in Maine. You can see more of her work at www.gretarybus.com

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Who I Met with Greta Rybus
Posted: December 9, 2014

Julie Giles – Oxen teamster

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When you walk into Julie’s barn in Steep Falls, you don’t see the oxen at first. You turn a corner and there they are, bigger than you might have ever expected, over six feet tall and weighing over a ton. Julie herself is just over five feet tall. Seeing her, so small, and them, so tall, it’s like the world’s sense of scale is being tinkered with. It almost doesn’t seem real.

Julie treats the oxen as if they were her sons. She speaks about them almost if they were people, with a glowing tone reserved for those one loves most. She is raising them in a barn she built on the land where she herself grew up. She’s returned to her childhood home because of a promise and a love for her oxen.

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TELL ME ABOUT THE HOUSE WE’RE IN, WHAT’S THE HISTORY OF THIS PLACE?

This house was built in 1963 and ’64 by my mom and dad. First, they built the building which became the fly shop and then Dad built the house. He built everything, every piece of furniture in it. They died in 2005. Mom died first and then Dad was 23 days later. Before he died he asked me to come back home and I made a promise to him that I would. We talked about the barn a little bit and he said to me, “Build me a barn that I could be proud of.” He always wanted a red and white barn so that’s why it’s red and white.

My friends told me that I should’ve built it at the other place, the house where I was living at the time. They said he’d never know. But I said no. I said, “Someday I’m going to have to face that man.” I don’t regret it but I will tell you that this house has fought me, like there’s something here in this house, like a spirit or something that gets me only so far until everything goes totally wrong. Not in the barn but in the house. Maybe it’s my mother that’s fighting me, I don’t know! A friend, she calls herself a witch, she felt it when she came in here because she talked to me later about it.

WHAT WERE YOUR PARENTS LIKE?

They were hardworking people. Mom worked in a woolen mill at the Kezar Falls when I was little. Dad was a logger. We came down here in ’63 and she still worked in the woolen mill until it closed and she got another job and worked there for 26 years and she worked in a grocery store and that’s no longer there. Dad, he worked in logging and then he set the fly shop when it became big enough that he could build it. He was very supportive of me, worried about me immensely because they had lost their son. He taught me that if I wanted something bad enough to work for it, nothing was unattainable, and I kind of still learn that with my oxen.

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WHAT IS THE TERM FOR SOMEONE THAT RAISES OXEN?

We’re “a teamster.” We raise steer oxen as a teamster. Some people just go into it for showing – that’s when you go to contests for “Best Matched” or ‘Working” categories, and you just stand there and make them look pretty. I did that for many years until I started pulling oxen, which is when the oxen team compete by pulling a heavy concrete weight. I became very active in ’97 and I love it. It’s a lot more work, a lot more detail to learning geometrics of pulling: you don’t just hitch onto a load and go. You’ve got to give them every advantage that they can have. You’ve really got to have a team that listens and they’ve got to be patient, because they can really screw themselves up.

WHEN DID YOU FIRST REALIZED YOU LIKED CATTLE?

My ex-husband got me started. My first team was my wedding present to him. We had a pair that helped build a barn at my other house. I love horses and I didn’t know it ’til we got divorced that he was scared of horses. So I kept the bulls and I raised pedigree show rabbits and traveled with them. My animals went all the way from Maine to Michigan and showed at fairs. When I got divorced we had three pair of oxen: his, hers and ours, and I shipped mine first because I couldn’t afford to keep all three of them and gave him back his pair and I kept the one we called ours. They’re what really taught me how to pull because they taught me every bad thing they could! They were naughty, there was so much they didn’t know and their mother (me) was learning right with them. And they learned, but together I learned how to read an animal.

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TELL ME ABOUT THE OXEN YOU HAVE NOW

The oxen that I have presently are two teams of Chianinas. It’s one of the oldest breeds known to man. It came from Italy, where they were bred for their docility and willingness to work. The Americans found them during World War II, but the first animal was not allowed to come into Canada until the mid-70s. Now they are the work horse of the industry. They have a big heart but you’ve got to learn to be “the alpha” just like with a dog. It doesn’t matter how small I am, they respect me. One of my oxen, Caesar, weighs 2,700 pounds and they want him be 2,900 for the spring. Leo, he’s the smallest one, he weighs just under a ton. I love them very much, they do have a such big heart. My biggest team’s been driven by a five year old, all by himself, and Leo and Donatello have been driven by two different 11 year olds that had never driven a pair of bulls before. So that told me that they learned to trust the kids.

The other one is Babaro, he’s a red and white Holstein, he’s six and he weighs almost 2,700, which is unheard of. He was an identical twin, I had both of them since they were a month old. I lost his brother a year ago in October, and I made up my mind that Babaro’s here to stay. He’ll be worked with the Chianinas. The reason I went with the Chianinas was I’ve had a lot of different breeds and accomplished a lot doing this pulling, but I never had a pair of “sweepstakes cattle” and sweepstakes are the heaviest division there is. You’ve got to have Chianinas now to stand a chance. So in 2000, I got my first pair, Dominic and Caesar, from New Jersey. I drove 8 hours to go get them and bring them home.

Then the next year they delivered Leonardo and Donatello right to my own barn when they were six months old and never had a on halter or anything. They were like two little kegs of Dynamite. Dominic and Caesar and Babaro were raised on bottles but Leo and Donatello were already broke. They have Italian names because the breed is from Italy. I had a boss that wanted me to name one of these Michelangelo and I said “Do you know what that means?” and Nancy said “No” and I said “Michelangelo was an angel and Chianinas aren’t angels!” And she just laughed at me.

TELL ME ABOUT THE PERSONALITY OF THE ANIMALS YOU HAVE

The biggest one, Caesar, is a scaredy-cat – he jumps at everything, but he doesn’t miss a trick. Dominic, his mate, his half-brother, he’s a love-bug. The other team is an awful lot like them, but they’re curious, very curious, and they want to please. Babaro does not know he’s an ox. I swear to God he does not think he is an oxen. The more you work this breed the more they want, they’re workaholics. That fits me, I’m a Scorpio, a “scorpion” and that’s what they say about us. And under the Chinese sign, I’m a dragon and we’re workaholics, too!

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WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE A FEMALE OX PULLER?

It’s fun out-of-state. The guys – the men that I compete against and with – they have a lot of respect and admiration.

IS IT RARE?

Yes. It’s very rare. To be as active as I have done and now especially with the Chianinas. There’s only one other lady that’s doing it now and she’s pulling her father’s, but I think she’s got a pair of her own now. Here in Maine, you can get a lot of disrespect, a lot of guilt, a lot of jealousy.

IT SOUNDS LIKE THERE’S A LOT OF DRAMA IN THIS COMMUNITY, WHAT’S THAT LIKE?

It stinks. These people do not realize, here in Maine especially, the other New England states have been through it, we’ve got to work together or this industry is going to be dead. It really is. And I have fought for pulling since the early 80’s. We have an association that’s called Maine Draft Horse and Ox Association here in Maine. Now our rules are state statutes of how to treat an animal in the pulling ring and how the teamster is supposed to behave and what not. I was right there every meeting in Augusta till it got passed. But they don’t think that they rules meet for them, you’ve got the Good Old Boy club and I’m not a Good Old Boy.

I go by the rules, I try. Once, a fair changed the rules: they gave me a couple seconds longer because I was driving a team here two years ago at Fryeburg, one ox was mine, one was an ox I’d never driven before and he was bothering about hitching to the drag. Normally some of the men would pitch in and help but nobody offered to help because it was me.

ARE THEY NOT PITCHING IN BECAUSE YOU’RE A WOMAN?

Single. A single woman. And I’m 62. Just turned 62 in October.

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ONE THING I NOTICED WHEN YOU WERE IN WITH THE ANIMALS WAS HOW MUCH YOU CHANGED YOUR VOICE. WHAT ARE THE WAYS YOU MANAGE THEM AND FIND A WAY TO BE ALPHA WITH A CREATURE THAT WEIGHS WELL OVER A TON?

It starts when they’re little. My dad had taught me, more or less, that they won’t always have a good day. Make them mind- If they do something wrong you’ve got to correct them that second, not five minutes later. And stand by it. They’re just like a little kid: they only know what you teach them. If you keep telling a kid “no, no, no, no” or “if you do that we’re going to do this, if you do this you don’t do that” etc., and if you don’t follow through, what respect does the kid have for you? An animal is the same way. We don’t have a bit in their mouths like a horse. I’ve got a four-foot piece of white oak and my voice. I’m 5 foot 3 and Caesar’s standing 6’2 at the shoulders, he can reach over eight feet when his nose goes up in the air, and I just change my voice, I talk to him like I’m talking to you most of the time but if they’re bad my voice goes down and my voice the only thing that I’ve got. Even when it comes to pulling – I screwed up one place, my voice went up instead of going down so they said, “I’m not listening to you.”

WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU LOVE SPECIFICALLY ABOUT OXEN?

Their devotion. Every team I’ve had have done something spectacular in the time that I’ve owned them to make them special. You really can’t say which ox is your favorite, because I’ve had a team that turned a load and went back into the woods to avoid stepping on me, I had an ox break loose free from his yoke and I said his name and he came to me. I’ve fallen in the woods in front of them when they’ve got a load on them they know that when I stop, they stop. That’s how they’ve been trained. It’s just like you trust your partner. I’m all they really know and where I’m there, the trust is there. I’ve gone to many out of state pulls this year to see Caesar pull for other teams, I don’t have to say a word, he spots me and he roars.

I BET IT’S HARD TO DO ALL OF THIS ON YOUR OWN.

I’ve had open heart surgery, unexpected. I was supposed to have a shoulder replaced and they found I had a micro-valve leaking so last May, I had open heart surgery and this January I had my left shoulder was completely replaced and this May, I had right shoulder completely replaced. Not because of my animals, because of desk work.

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TELL ME ABOUT THE DESK WORK YOU DO

I’ve done payroll and books my entire life. Presently I am working at the town of Waterboro and I love the job very much. I’m Deputy Treasurer but I was the treasurer for nine years. I love it very much, the townspeople are super.

WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU AS A PERSON?

Honesty, integrity, my word and standing by my beliefs. I’ve got to say that because it’s how I was raised.

WHAT IS A LESSON YOU’VE LEARNED IN YOUR LIFE RECENTLY OR ARE LEARNING RIGHT NOW?

You’re never too old to learn. And don’t give up.

WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?

My animals. Without a doubt. They’re my reason for getting up every day. Whether it’s the oxen or my two aging dogs.

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WHAT IS THE GREATEST STRUGGLE IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?

My health. Since my surgeries I don’t have the endurance that I had and trying to get it back is a great battle. I don’t want to admit I’m getting older, I guess. Having lost my Mom to heart problems and her signs, it scares me. Because we weren’t expecting her to go, they were treating her for her gallbladder and she died of her heart. They didn’t call a cardiologist in until it was too late. I was in Cornell University bringing an animal home when she was taken in and she told me, “Go ahead and go bring that expensive little boy home.” I came home on a Friday and checked in here with Dad, because he lived alone, I lived in Limington, and Mom didn’t want to see us, she needed some rest. Then 24 hours later they’re calling me to get in here if you want to see her. I didn’t make it. I didn’t make it. I pray I never cross paths with that doctor because that person, he’s going to get a piece of my mind.

And then Dad died 23 days later. He lost the love of his life. He’s got passages in the bible marked that show how much my Dad loved my Mom. She didn’t think he did at the end of it but Dad would walk on water for her. I just would love to find the love of my life but unfortunately there isn’t one yet. There is a love of my life, but he’s deceased, he died. I’m here for a reason because I’ve fallen off my roof, I’ve had these three surgeries, and I’m still here and every night I ask the man upstairs, “Show me what you want me to do.” The only thing I asked was, “Please don’t take my boys (my oxen).” He’s taken one, I don’t know why, but he’s taken one.

A friend told me, and I never thought of it but it kind of helped, somebody else needed him worse than I did. Didn’t make it any easier. They’re all watching over and when I get in a tough place I just ask for strength and ask every one of them to give me that strength because they all had their own adversity at some point in their life and they showed me strength. Caesar showed me an unmerciful strength a year ago. He was virtually pulling on 3 legs. We didn’t know it, they thought he had an abscess on his foot. He was in New Hampshire, pulling, but he gave it everything he had. He pulled three legged, that’s how much that animal has got a big heart and likes pulling. They do what I do, that breed gives you 100 percent and all I do is love them.

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IF YOU HAD A MOTTO OR MANTRA, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

I get up in the morning, and when I walk to the barn, I always say good morning to my Mom and Dad and my grandmother by the look of the weather vane. When I walk into the pulling ring I’m saying the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the God’s-honest truth. I don’t go to church, I haven’t found a pastor that I believe in. The weathervane on the barn represents,“Good morning Mom and Dad.” And my Dad thought the world of his mother-in-law and I did not know how much until they were all gone. When I was going through Dad’s paperwork, his mother was alive but yet when was in World War II next of kin was his mother-in-law. He did his damndest to get home on her parent’s anniversary so that he and my mom could get married. He missed it by three hours. So Grammy and Grandpa were married on the 4th of September, Mom and Dad had to get married on the 5th of September.

WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?

When the chores are done and you can just stand there and listen to them chew their supper knowing that they’re taken care of. It’s nice to come home and have them talk to you when you walk in the barn. No matter what the day is and I’m exhausted, book work all day long, and personalities and the stress of a municipal job. It’s relaxing just to sit there in the barn and listen to them do nothing but chew their cud.

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