Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category


August 1, 2014

There’s not a bunch of information left to give you on the frontier and homesteaders. I’ve pretty much covered the palatable subjects about frontier life and I think I’ll leave the gross ones alone. There are plenty of gross ones, but I doubt you want to read them and I don’t want to write them. Today I’m going to spend a little time talking about harvesting the crops the homesteader was required to plant in order to “prove-up” on a piece of land.

In order to receive homestead papers, some sort of crop needed to be produced on a homestead. This crop needed to be more than hay for livestock or a garden for the family. Farming in Colorado, much like anywhere in the west is an adventure. Some years, like this year, rain comes in a deluge, accompanied by flooding and super saturated land resembling potter’s clay. Other years like the 1930’s no rain comes, a hot wind kills any plant that tries to grow, and dust reigns supreme. This made the odds of harvesting a crop a lot higher than they are at the poker tables in Las Vegas.

Homesteaders tried growing wheat. A few hardy strains of hard, winter wheat were developed which could be harvested in late July. At first the grain was scattered by hand and the grains that fell on fertile ground would sprout in spring and produce a small crop weather permitting. Before horse-drawn machinery, the wheat was cut with a hand held scythe (much like ancient times), bundled and threshed with wooden beater bars. Later the grain was harvested with horse-drawn cutters and eventually the shocks of wheat would be thrown into a horse-powered thresher.

Corn was harvested in a similar manner, but early Colorado farmers learned that corn was not a good dry land crop and grew better near river and creek bottoms.



July 11, 2014

Everyone seems to groan when the weatherman announces that the day’s temperature will be in the high 90’s. Most modern houses have built-in air conditioning and other than occasional trips from the air-conditioned house to the air-conditioned car to the air-conditioned mall, we really don’t have much to gripe about. Visualize the pioneer “hot day”. Granted a sod house was considerably cooler than a wooden shack or cabin. A great many homestead cabins had tin roofs. The prairie sun beat down on the tin roof making the inside of the cabin equivalent to at least an Easy Bake Oven.

Added to the tin roof, due to the lack of refrigeration, most food needed to be cooked to discourage lunch from turning into ptomaine poisoning. Cooking required firing up the old cook stove. The cook stove, which provided welcome heat in winter now, became a built-in sauna. No wonder pioneers were rarely overweight.

Before the addition of electricity, which didn’t come to much of Colorado’s eastern plains until the 1950’s, the cook stove was the only reliable source of cooking and canning winter vegetables and fruit. Imagine firing up the stove, placing a water bath canner filled with water on the stove, and boiling the canning jars for twenty to thirty minutes. Large pots were used to cook jams, jellies, and preserves in preparation for winter. These activities were never reserved for a cool fall day; the fruit and vegetables were of course ready to be preserved in the hottest part of the summer—July and August.
As a child I remember watching my mother drag bushel baskets full of peaches, pears, apricots, and tomatoes into the kitchen in the morning knowing the house would be sweltering by lunch—and we didn’t live in a sod house. So enjoy your air-conditioning.


November 29, 2013

Most homestead houses were razed after they served their purpose of standing proof that someone was actually living on the said homestead. The female addition to the pioneer family usually insured that a proper house was eventually constructed. Most women, even pioneer women, weren’t willing to live in a poorly constructed 10-foot by 10-foot shack with a dirt floor. Insulation was not used as a rule and during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930’s more than one woman despaired at the piles of dirt stacking up in the kitchen corner.

Unlike many western residents, I grew up in the homestead house. In 1910, my grandfather commissioned a large addition to the homestead “shack”, but the house contained the remainder of the earlier incarnation. The kitchen and back porch were the homestead house. The living room and two postage stamp-sized bedrooms were the 1910 addition, plus a two-room upstairs accessed by the steepest, narrowest set of 14 steps known to man. I fell down those stairs enough times to suffer my own version of a closed head injury.

When the 1910 carpenter added the addition, several things were/or weren’t part of the construction. In the upstairs addition, the carpenter didn’t bother to remove the wood shingles on the roof slope. This made for a wonderful built-in slide of about 4 feet in one of the bedrooms. It also added a nice scaling wall so young residents could climb up through the window and lay on the back porch roof on hot summer nights.

In the 1960’s my father capitulated to my mother’s request and added a large picture window to the living room. That’s when we discovered what the carpenter had added to the walls for insulation. Behind the plaster and lathe, were old newspapers, magazines, and more than one pair of overalls and jeans. The properties of this insulation were never questioned.

Heat was always a problem, since the “central” heating in my growing years consisted of a stove in the center of the living room and the kitchen cook stove. Surprisingly the stove pipes never provided as much heat as my Mother was sure they should and the upstairs remained the temperature of a refrigerator freezer during the entire winter

Many times modern is really better.


October 11, 2013

We’ve discussed the building of homestead shacks and lack of cookstove fuel previously in this blog, so I’ll quickly revisit the problems facing early homesteaders here and then get on with challenges facing pioneers with the onset of autumn and winter. Soddies had an advantage over wood construction, as a bit of rain would encourage the sod to turn to mud and fill in gaps between the sod bricks. Wood cabins had to be chinked, usually with local clay between the logs. Chinking was an endless task, as the clay would dry and frequently fall out. Lack of chinking in the summer could add a pleasant air conditioning in summer, but in winter it resulted in a snowdrift on your bed.

A snug, warm cabin resulted in happy residents, which meant the job of chinking was a necessary autumn job. Someone needs to get busy with a log cabin I visited recently as you could see blue sky between the logs.

In the cabins built by my ancestors, using flat slabs had an advantage. The slabs could be placed closer together than possible with a round log. If a crack developed between the slabs a smaller board could be nailed to solve the problem or in some cases a worn pair of overalls stuffed into the crack solved the problem. However, the round logs add a bit of insulation from the cold that isn’t true of flat slabs of wood.

As stated before wood and later coal were necessary to keep the cookstove burning during the cold nights of fall and winter. A cookstove became the most important piece of furniture in the homesteader’s cabin. Providing heat and warm food were integral to a hom


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.


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


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

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 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.