Archive for August, 2013

Traveling Trees

August 30, 2013

ImageReaders tend to think that the title of this piece of a nonsequitur. Trees by their very nature, roots and all, can’t travel anywhere. As I explained in my novel Willow Switch, the giant willows of my youth did, indeed, travel.

For mere utilitarian purposes, when my grandfather and great-grandfather left Ohio in the late 1870s, my grandfather a youth of fourteen cut willow branches from the tree in their front yard. The willow switches were used to keep their oxen moving by a well-placed whack on the flank. Dry branches would break, so the men kept the switches supple by placing them in the water barrel on the wagon’s side—one barrel for drinking water, one for switches.

As plants are wont to do, in the course of the long journey, the switches grew tiny red roots that later wound their way toward the bottom of the barrel. In the two years it took for their journey, the saplings were pretty robust by the time they reached their destination.

Eastern Colorado as I’ve stated before is far removed from a green oasis. Along dry creek beds, cottonwood trees grow where enough underground water exists to support them, but non-native species are difficult to start and even more impossible to grow to maturity. Elijah and Charles Monroe, my ancestors discovered that digging holes about sixty yards from the dry creek bed yielded moist earth for the saplings to establish themselves.

That’s how the traveling willow trees came to be over 100 feet high by the time I was ready to climb them.

Photo attached is my maternal grandmother under my favorite tree.  



August 22, 2013


The thought of willow switches brings old-fashioned corporal punishment to mind. More than a few old-timers have told stories of getting a “switching” for an act of defiance or disobedience. Most children of the early 20th century were told to “go get a switch” by some higher authority before becoming the recipient of punishment. More than a few one-room schoolteachers kept willow switches handy for discipline purposes.

For my siblings and I, willow switches have a different meaning. English willow trees planted by our great-grandfather soared to over 150 feet high on our family property. At least two of the giants were 6 to 8 feet in diameter. Unlike other deciduous trees, the willows weren’t tall straight trees. At least one of the giant branches lay along the ground and rose at a gentle slope making a perfect easy climb a niche perhaps 10 feet above the ground. The branch was perfect for imaginary spotting of outlaws coming over the hills or a bit further along the branch afforded the perfect diving board into the water tank on a hot summer day. (Mom wasn’t home when that happened.)

My favorite willow had a wide gap approximately three feet up and then a perfect notch three feet higher for a lovely summer afternoon playhouse. No extra wood was necessary. The added attraction on this tree was a long dead but still supple branch which was perfect for hopping on and riding off into the imaginary sunset. A far better choice than the real horse that occasionally had a mind of his own.

I spent my summers in those trees. When my mother insisted I take piano lessons I told her I would rather climb trees than practice and I’ve never regretted that decision for even a minute. Summer meant skinned knees from the rough willow bark and occasional bruises from missing a step going up. I spent my summers in THE TREES and it was great.



August 18, 2013


For those who’ve picked up my book, Willow Switch, and found it so different from my thriller work, perhaps some explanation is in order. Willow Switch is the fictionalized account of true events. From my personal view, it was a story that needed to be told since it didn’t deal with gold seekers or discontents.

In the late 1870’s probably around 1877 or 1878, Elijah Everitt gave up his Lake Erie fishing fleet and chose to move west. The fleet had burned to the waterline at least three, and perhaps as many as seven times. (It depends on which story version you like.)

Elijah left his oldest son, John Edward, his wife, and young daughter in Ohio. With his youngest son Charles Monroe and a wagon stocked with notions, Elijah began his trek to Denver in the new state of Colorado. Most accounts say the trip took nearly two years, as the men wandered throughout the mid-west peddling their wares to isolated farms and ranches.

Along the way, perhaps somewhere in Iowa, Elijah became ill and was forced to spend several weeks, if not months recuperating. Some of the family suspects the illness may have been tuberculosis which was rampant at that time. Whatever the source, the illness further delayed the trip.

Willow Switch

picks incidents to give the reader a snapshot of the trip, but you can be assured that the men encountered more adversity and calamity that the book relates.


August 18, 2013

If it weren’t for the Homestead Act of 1862 the western portion of the United States might have remained unpopulated for at least another fifty years or longer. President Abraham Lincoln’s foresight hastened the settlement by offering plots of land, approximately 160 acres at $1 per acre, or for free, if the homesteader was willing to live on the land and work it (read that as putting in some type of viable crop) for at least five years.

Homesteaders had to be at least 21 years of age or the head of a household to take advantage of the Homestead Act. Thus my grandfather who was but 17, was able to claim his portion of the Homestead dream and file for a homestead plot.

Even current day residents of Eastern Colorado will tell you that 160 acres is a pitiful acreage for raising any kind of livestock. Weather in eastern Colorado is totally unpredictable and ranges from the average of 18 inches of moisture a year to a high of 25 inches or a low of 10 or less. This precipitation includes winter snows through summer showers or downpours. This means native pasture grasses are frequently dry or non-existent.

Making a home on the Colorado plains for early homesteaders involved a success rate akin to the gambling odds of winning a million dollars in Las Vegas. The rule for homesteaders was that bigger was always better. Homestead families linked as many 160 acre plots together as possible in order to make a viable ranch living. An old rule for ranchers was that it took 20 acres to feed one cow for a year, so if the ranching homesteader wanted to have enough animals to survive–everyone homesteaded. In addition to the family lands, homesteaders purchased railroad sections to add to their holdings, but I’ll talk about them later.


August 18, 2013

By 1800, the eastern states of the United States had a set education pattern. Young people entered the system to reinforce what had already been started at home. Unless the family was devoid of educated members, children had a working knowledge of the alphabet and basic numbers. Using the Bible as a basis for reading, some parents had even taught their children to read. The eastern education system took over from the basics and educated children through at least eighth grade.

West of the Mississippi education took on another form. Other than medium-sized towns where enough children justified a school building, education was left for parents to handle. Far-flung homesteads didn’t warrant the hiring of a schoolmarm or furnishing of a building, desks, and books.

One Colorado resident, Miriam Fonder, began her own school because the children in the area were becoming “ruffians.” Eventually taxes were assessed to pay a minimal teacher’s salary and supplies but were discontinued for a year because of “Indian” problems. According to some stories at one point, a Ute chief and his “braves” stomped into the one-room school, held a book upside-down, and finally stomped out much to the relief of Mrs. Fonder and her students.

As the children’s population increased some pioneers solved the education in a manner similar to the Rattlesnake School District in eastern Colorado where the school was placed on skids (later on wheels) and moved to the place of greatest school population.

What follows are a couple of questions from an 1895’s Kansas Eighth Grade Final school test which may give you a better idea of why an eighth grade education was sufficient. Unfortunately, I have no idea where this test came from so can’t attribute it to its proper owner.

4. District No 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?
6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S. Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each.


August 18, 2013

They look so wonderful in old movies and Western television shows!  Those sleek, frequently white, horses pulling pioneer wagons and stages across the lush green Western prairie.  BUT, here is the reality.  Commonly, horses were not used in pulling wagons or stagecoaches across the plains.  Even the heartiest Percheron or Clydesdales weren’t used for the drudgery of wagon pulling in most cases.  Why?  Those handsome steeds were too expensive.

So, now you ask, what did they use?  Most wagons and stagecoaches were pulled by mules. Not nearly as romantic as those white horses, but more dependable and less likely to step in a hole or a wagon rut and break a leg.  The other animal of choice was the ox.  The lumbering oxen made slow progress, only about seven miles per day.  Small wonder it took months to reach the gold fields of California or Colorado.  Many folks who headed for the gold fields chose to walk.  They could make better daily mileage by walking than the ox team.

With animals another problem faced migrating pioneers.  Water and animal food were a constant concern.  Once they left the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, pioneers learned that many of the water sources in the West were rushing torrents in spring and dried sand in summer.  Water barrels helped with the problem, but the miles between places to fill barrels were long. 

So wipe those romantic ideas out of your brain.  Traveling West was a grueling, dry, miserable undertaking, and horses need not apply.


August 16, 2013

While I’m side tracked here I might as well put out one more blog on writing before tracking back to history. In my 30+ years of writing and teaching writing I’ve encountered many talented writers who tired of rejection slips and began selling door-to-door cosmetics or something similar. Each time I encountered these talented folks who fell by the side of the road, my heart fell into my toes. When questioned most of them would say they just couldn’t take it anymore. The rejection, the long hours with no reward, and the writer’s block seemed to freeze their ambition and talent.

My word to them and you, if you are considering quitting is DON’T. Sit out the next round if you need to, but don’t quit. I tell folks I’m stupidly persistent. When I first started writing at the ripe old age of thirteen, my mother discovered a science fiction short story I’d scribbled on a Big Chief tablet. She demanded to know what “this” was and promptly burned it in the cook stove. That set me back a bit and coupled with an English professor in college who told me “You’ll never be a writer.” I was in my 30’s before I sat down to write a piece for publication. But in all that time, the desire to write was still burning inside me.

Despite the fitful start, I’ve had thousands of articles and more that a few short stories published, because I just kept plugging along. I have seven published nonfiction books, five children’s coloring books, and four novels published. So my advice to the discourage writer—Don’t Quit. Like most writers, I have enough rejection slips to paper my laundry room wall, but I just keep going and so should you.



August 9, 2013

and that’s a good thing. I’m going to shift thoughts this week and spend a bit of time explaining about historical research. When I began researching historical facts back in the 1980’s some of the resources where scant or nonexistent. My first lucky hits were in a fantastic place called the Denver Public Library’s Western History Section. This great department is like Mecca for the western history researcher. Back then things were on that strange stuff called microfilm. Now the material is in more modern media formats. The department staff is friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable, a real plus when seeking obscure facts. All historic researchers know about the valuable sources on the Internet, more specifically® so I won’t discuss the sites, except to say that what you can find on the Internet was once almost impossible to locate. Only the most diligent researchers were able to ferret out information prior to the 1990’s. More than any of this I want to emphasize the importance of doing your research. As a teenager I was an avid fan of a certain romantic suspense author whom I won’t name. In the middle of one of her books about the Civil War era, the heroine walked into a room and flipped on the light switch. Another best selling romance author told a story about her 1800’s heroine explaining to her guests that the orchids decorating the room were flown in from Hawaii that morning. Humm! In the first case, even at sixteen, I never read another book by that author. In the second, the author brought an entire room of conference attendees to tears of laughter. My point? Do your research. Let your research show, but don’t bore your reader to death.

Water, Water, Water

August 2, 2013

And not a drop to drink.

It’s an old adage, but quite true in the western United States. Boasting around 18 inches of rainfall per year, the American west is truly a desert. When explorer Stephen Long encountered the plains, later to be the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Wyoming, he correctly called it “The Great American Desert.”

Despite the sight of tall prairie grasses brushing the underbellies of his men’s horses, he was accurate in his labeling. Once the early pioneers crossed the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, water was at a premium. Water barrels attached to the sides of wagons became a necessity. West of the great rivers, streams and minor rivers were far and few.

Occasionally creek and river beds were a sandy expanse in summer, changing in mere minutes with the advent of a brief rain into raging torrents of water floating full grown, twenty-foot high cottonwood trees ahead of the sludgy, brown stream. In mere hours, the whole scenario would vanish leaving pockets of quick stand and gumbo mud behind.

To westerners water was and is more valuable than gold and the fight for water rights from the 1800’s to the present is on-going. Westerners are now involved in a water rights grab akin to the Oklahoma Land Rush. Population explosions in towns and cities have taxed water supplies to the limit and now below ground aquifers with names like Laramie-Fox Hills, Denver, and Arapaho have become household words as land owners make decisions on whether to hold or sell their valuable water rights. This decision effects the agricultural/ranching base of the rural areas.

Small and large reservoirs have assisted in solving an infinitesimal part of the dilemma, but water remains the largest obstacle in settling the West. All this will affect who has water to drink.