Like MacArthur's old soldiers who "just fade away," old cowboys and ranchers may just ride into the sunset, but not Francis A. Probst of Midway, Utah, who's still going strong. He's seen enough and done enough for two lifetimes, and celebrated his 90th birthday this week - on May 3. He has lived through two World Wars, the pioneering of a farm in Wasatch County, the Great Depression, two years as mayor of Midway, an LDS mission in California with his wife, Alice Galli Probst, and most recently, assisting with the birth of a two-headed calf on his cattle and sheep ranch. And having lived through all these varied and exciting experiences, Probst remains a smiling, humble man who still works a full week and maintains an abiding love for his family and neighbors.
The most dramatic period in Probst's life was his employment with his wife as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus at Auerbach's department store in Salt Lake City for 32 years from 1945 until 1977 when the store was closed. This is an unchallenged record. As he tells the story, "My wife and I came down to Auerbach's store in Salt Lake and were looking around when we saw a Santa Claus. He had long, white whiskers on and tobacco juice running down the middle of them. The children were coming up to this Santa Claus and talking to him, and I shook my head, and said that this wasn't right. And so I went to the management and asked if they would like me to come down and be Santa Claus, and I had a little deer that I would bring with me."Earlier that spring, while running his sheep in the hills above Midway (now Wasatch Mountain State Park), Probst found a young fawn, separated from its mother. He carried it home on his horse, and with his wife, bottle-fed it so that it survived and became the favorite of the hundreds of children who visited the store in the next two years to talk with Santa Claus on his North Pole throne. By 1947, the fawn had matured and jumped the fence surrounding the Probst ranch, and made off into the wilds.
That fall, Probst's wife, Alice, was invited to become Mrs. Santa, and worked with him each Christmas season until the store ceased operation. Santa smiles when he says that in his 32 years, no child ever tried to pull his beard off. The couple had many enjoyable days singing "Jingle Bells" and other Christmas songs with the customers, and made friends throughout the Western states.
The parents of Francis Probst, who had emigrated from Switzerland, were among the first Swiss settlers of the Midway area. This little community, nestled in a valley below the east side of Mount Timpanogos, still maintains its Swiss character with many Alpine-style homes and public buildings, and an annual Swiss Days celebration. Probst's father worked a small plot of ground and raised chickens. Each Friday he would deliver butter, eggs and fresh vegetables to the housewives in Park City. So Francis grew up in a farm environment. Since the elder Probsts were very poor, the small amount of money that Francis and his brothers earned was given to the parents to help maintain the family.
Probst recalls volunteering in 1917 at the age of 19 for the U.S. Army, where he served overseas for five months in the Allied trenches near Verdun, France, in the First Anti-Aircraft Sector. He tells of computing firing data at a substation, which was connected by telephone lines to the gunnery positions as much as two miles away. The gunners' three-inch shells succeeded in bringing down many enemy planes. There Probst met Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, America's flying ace.
Francis also tells of fighting alongside Algerian soldiers who would tunnel under the barbed-wire fortifications to enter German trenches. After the Armistice, his captain invited him to tour Metz, where he was impressed by the tremendous reception given American forces, with flags waving and cheering crowds.
After returning to Midway, Probst succeeded, after three years of negotiations, in securing a homestead of 640 acres, which he eventually enlarged into a ranch of 5,000 acres for grazing his sheep and cattle. He built a cabin in the mountains where he spent his honeymoon in 1926 under very primitive conditions. Even now, Probst still loves to ride his horse, Smoky - sometimes with a grandchild behind him. He has a flock of 90 sheep and cares for a herd of 25 registered white Charolais cattle, which graze in a six-acre pasture in the center of Midway.
A two-headed calf was born in March of this year, an event that happens only once in some 50,000 calvings. Neither the calf nor the mother survived the birth but the calf will endure for posterity, as Probst is having it mounted by a taxidermist, and it will be displayed at several places in Midway in May.
In 1950, Probst was elected mayor of Midway, a position he held for two years until he was called on an LDS mission with his wife to Los Angeles, Calif. Upon returning to Midway, they resumed their Santa Claus experience at Auerbach's and also traveled extensively in this country, Canada, Mexico and Europe. The Probsts built their own private hot pool, which is enjoyed by the large family including 20 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. The water supply, for which he has rights, comes from the "hot pots," which have long been famous in Midway.
Probst loves animals almost as much as his family, and his fine herds of sheep and beef cattle, with numerous lambs and calves each year, attest to their excellent treatment. He is supplying the property on which a new LDS Stake Center will be built in Midway. His cattle graze there now. He says, "I did not want to sell that six acres for housing or business. I wanted to keep it for a park or other use to benefit the entire community." He is anticipating the start of construction this fall with enthusiasm, for he feels that the new building will be a great asset for the people of Midway, for whom he has such deep affection.
Francis Probst tells the story of a rancher who was trying to fill out a railway claim form for one of his cows, which had been hit by a train. He came to the last item which read "Disposition of the carcass." After puzzling over the question for some time, he wrote: "Kind and gentle." This aptly describes the Midway rancher's personality - kind and gentle.