Archive for September, 2013


September 27, 2013

There’s an autumn chill in the air. To modern families this season brings the warming thoughts of crisp apples and crunching leaves. But to the 1880’s pioneer, autumn brought a chill in the pit of the stomach and panicked feeling.

Two major concerns hit pioneers as winter approached—food and warmth. Packing in staple provisions like flour, corn meal, sugar, tea, and coffee were essential. Flour or corn meal were usually kept in fifty pound barrels, sugar in smaller barrels and tea or coffee in large tins. We won’t even discuss the additional protein that might inhabit the barrels by spring.

If the family wasn’t able to grow a vegetable garden, it was a sorry choice of meals. By the second year, most homesteaders grew a garden heavy on root vegetables—carrots, onions, turnips, beets, parsnips, and rutabagas which could be stored in an underground “root cellar.”

By spring most of these vegetables were shriveled or dried to a hard knot.

Fresh fruit was difficult to acquire in summer and nearly impossible to find in winter. Most pioneer women relied on dried apples or local fruit like chokecherries, gooseberries, currents or native plums made into jams, jellies or syrups. Chokecherries are a native extremely bitter fruit which turns a deep black purple in late summer. They make excellent jelly and wine.

Dried apples were reconstituted to make pies, but lacked much of the pleasant flavor of the fresh fruit. One early lament of a stage coach driver was that he would rather have someone “poke out his eyes,” than eat another dried apple pie. It is no wonder that fresh apples or oranges given to school children as a special treat at Christmas time was such a glorious event.

As I’ve discussed before trees were rare on the plains. Early travelers along the immigrant trails had used most of the available wood for campfires. Pioneers were forced to travel longer distances to find wood or use buffalo chips or cow chips to keep their home fires burning.

Any volunteers for homesteading?



September 20, 2013

The average homestead house was approximately ten feet by twenty feet in size. When Elijah Everitt brought his family of four to this cozy spot, it included a wood burning stove, table with four chairs, and perhaps one large cot and two smaller ones. Doable, but not exactly a roomy place in 1881.

Now extrapolate out the space when Charles, Elijah’s son married his wife Mary Ann and the children bloomed from four to twelve. No wonder that in 1910, the homestead house was expanded to triple it’s size and included two bedrooms on the lower level and a huge second story divided into two rooms. It must have felt heavenly to Mary Ann and Charles to have a bedroom with a door that closed.

Of course, all that body heat probably added to the house’s warmth in winter but imagine the summer nights. Perhaps some of the older children retreated to those willow trees for sleeping accommodations. In addition to the body heat, the kitchen stove burned both winter and summer in order to provide meals for the family. Lack of windows in the house also kept cool summer breezes from lowering the inside temperatures.

Hot in summer and cold in winter didn’t make the homestead house a perfect abode, but it was home. The sacrifices made in lack of privacy and uncomfortable temperatures was overshadowed by the ultimate goal of having land to call their own.


September 13, 2013

We’ve spent some time in the last few blogs discussing writing, so now it’s time to get back to history. Most readers tend to think of homes on the plains as the classic sod home made from carefully cut blocks of soil and stacked in typical brick-staggered style, but in some spots wood construction was more prevalent. Close to underground water, cottonwood trees flourished. This meant large fallen trees could be used for housing construction.
The clay-like soil on the Colorado plains made building soddies a difficult job. When the soil was dry, cutting the blocks of soil was nearly impossible. The clay soil resembled rock. When the soil was moist, the blocks became a sloppy, slick material, which wouldn’t stay in place so the builder spent more time hefting the mass back into place than the builder spent building.
In my book, WILLOW SWITCH, the Everitts also have access to pine slabs brought down from the Rocky Mountains during their freighting operations. Rather that traditional log construction, the wood had been cut in one to one and ½ inch slabs ranging from eight to ten inches wide. The house, barns, and corrals were made of these slabs. (In the 1970’s a developer purchased and replaced the slab corrals, using the wood for interior decoration in their offices.) After the 1890’s tarpaper was added to the outside of the structure to further seal the house to make it wind and moisture proof. Before that time, stucco like material was used to weatherproof. The houses were of simple construction but if a woman was a resident the usually sported at least one window, decorated with a splash of calico or at least a pretty cotton flour sack.
The roof of the house was frequently tin, or in the case of the Everitt’s house, a split pine shingle. These shingles worked well in a year with normal or high moisture, but in dry years the worry of a stray spark from the coal/wood stove burning the house to the ground was always a concern.
Homesteaders utilized whatever materials were available to construct their homes. The requirements of homesteading were specific and always required that a home was constructed and land tilled before the homestead could be considered “proved up on.”
If a homesteader had more money to spend the house might be a handsome mansion of wood, rock, or unfired brick. On most homesteads, however, the house was strictly utilitarian and very small.
By the way, my book, Willow Switch is now available at the Tattered Cover Bookstores.


September 6, 2013

Wow! I wish you were all standing right here and we could have a big old party. We could sing and dance. I would mentally do handstands, because unlike my 91-year-old deceased aunt, I can’t physically do them any more.

Why are we celebrating? Something cool happened for me and I know it can happen for you, if it hasn’t already. Tomorrow, my Willow Switch books will be in the hands of the good folks at the Tattered Cover bookstore.

The Tattered Cover for those folks who don’t know is one of the largest independent bookstores in the United States. Having books in the three Tattered Cover Denver locations is akin in my view to Nirvana. They also have an online presence, hint, hint.

Having a large bookstore sell your books is a really big deal. Even though a large publisher published my writing instruction book, the Tattered Cover did not pick up copies for sale. Even though my book on the Air Force Academy sold in excess of 10,000 copies, the Tattered Cover did not accept it for sale. So getting my book in the Tattered Cover is cause for celebration.

In my thirty-five years of writing, I’ve been on the down side of writing. I have my own stack of rejection slips. I have a drawer full of book proposals, a documentary treatment, and several children’s books languishing, never to be published. I also have an article for a major national magazine that I wrote, rewrote, rewrote, and rewrote again taking over a year, only to have it finally turned down. I’ve been there and I’m so excited to be on the other side with this book.

So come celebrate with me, because the next time it will be you, and I want to celebrate with you.