Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Cowboy Boots--Enduring Through Time

When you picture the hero of a historical western, what kind of boots do you see him wearing?
Boots worn by cowboys during the mid-nineteenth century looked nothing like the boots worn today.
They were about seventeen inches high, coming almost to the knee and ended in a horizontal line, like a stove pipe. They often had wide square toes and low heels. No fancy leathers or stitching were used. These boots were most often black, made of calf skin and were snug fitting. At the top, “mule ears,” which were thin leather pull-on straps, hung down on either side of the boot.
These early cowboy boots added to the protection of the chaps, guarding against dust and gravel, prickly pear and sticker bushes, and also shielded the ankles from rattlesnake bites.
Then in 1875, a cowboy on his way home from the Kansas City stockyards, stopped by a cobbler shop in Olathe, Kansas. He wanted a boot that was different from his Civil War-style boots. He wanted something that would easily slip in and out of the stirrup, with a slanted heel, and a high top with V-shaped front and back, so he could take his boots on and off without difficulty.
Charles Hyer
The owner of the shop, Charles Hyer had come to Olathe in 1872 where he found a job teaching shoe and harness making at the Olathe School for the Deaf. Charles, who had learned boot making from his father William, opened a cobbler shop on the side and hired his brother to help him run it.
The cowboy was so pleased with Hyer’s work that he returned to Colorado and told others about his new boots.
These early cowboy boots were fairly plain. Any fancy stitching was limited to  the boot tops, but this was not common. The floppy mule-ear straps were replaced with a pair of leather pull-ons, sewn into the top inside of the boot on each side, so that they extended above the tops about two inches.
Nearly all these new boots were made of black calf leather and the toe was more rounded than pointed.
Hyer Cowboy Boots
Cowboys who roped cattle on foot found the high, thin-bottomed heels dug into the ground and helped them keep their balance. The usual, forward sloping heel was about two inches high, but some boots were made with a square heel, like cavalry boots. The insoles were thin so riders could feel the stirrups.
These boots had vamps of the best quality. They fit tight around the instep and this gave the boot its primary hold.
Most boots were made in small shops that catered to cowboy trade. By 1885, however boot makers began adding intricately stitched designs, cut-outs, and color to the footwear.
Pegged boots used hardwood pegs to secure the foot portion of the boot to the sole and cost a few dollars more than sewn boots.
Cowboys who wanted custom made boots gave the boot maker a paper tracing of his foot along with his instep measurements. He could spend as much as he wanted for boots, but very few men felt the need to invest a great deal in their footwear. Some cowboys had their boots made to order, but many bought them ready-made.
Boots were usually the most expensive item in his wardrobe. Prices varied from 7.00 for ready-made, to 15.00 for made-to-measure.
For a time the cowboy boot was the most popular footwear in the West, but by the mid 1890’s the boot had been replaced in many locations with heavy-duty shoes. Cowboys were no longer willing to pay 15.00 for a pair of boots. They wanted substance instead of show and boot makers grew worried that the most popular footwear in the west would become obsolete.  

Enss, Chris, How the West Was Worn, Two Dots, Morris Book Publishing, LLC., 2006
Foster-Harris, William, The Look of the Old West, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2007
Moulton, Candy, The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West from 1840-1900, Writer’s Digest Books, 1999
Rickey, Don Jr., $Horse, $40 Saddle, Cowboy Clothing, Arms, Tools and Horse Gear of the 1880’s, The Old Army Press, 1976
Rollins, Philip Ashton, The Cowboy, His Characteristics, His Equipment, and His Part in the Development of the Old West, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2007
Kansapedia Kansas Historical Society photos used with permission from the Kansas State Historical Society

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Knights, Cowboys, and Spurs

Imagine it’s 1874 and you’re standing outside the mercantile looking through the front window. You hear the slow measured stride of boot heels against the board walk accompanied by the soft chink of spurs. Horses and wagons passing in the street can be ignored, but that subtle metallic rustle draws your attention. The sound quietly announces the approach of a man of importance, a man with confidence. You can’t help but turn your head.
A cowboy’s spurs were used not only to give gait cues to his horse or help him stay on the back of a bucking horse, they eased the loneliness as he moved about a solitary camp. When he walked around town they gave him a sense of worth which has carried forward through time from the days of medieval knights.
In my new novel, A Tarnished Knight, the first thing the heroine notices about Ryder MacKenzie’s are his spurs, in particular, the buttons which had been forged in the shape of small hearts.
Early western spurs had two buttons at the front of the u-shaped heel band. The spur leather or strap, which was cut to fit over the curve of the wearer’s instep, attached to the button at the front of the heel band. This strap came in two pieces, the long piece, or tongue, and the short piece with the buckle. On the tongue side of the strap where it connected to the button on the outside of the foot, there was often a decorative metal concho or rosette. The buckle was worn on the inside of the foot to prevent it from catching on brush. Spur leathers varied in width and were plain or stamped with intricate designs.
The second strap, or tie down strap, attached to the second button and went under the arch of the boot just in front of the heel. Sometimes heel chains would be permanently attached to the spur and would take the place of this second strap. These chains created a soft chinking noise as the cowboy walked. This second strap or chain could also be left off, leaving the spur to be held in place by the upper strap alone.
To add to the noise of the chains, some cowboys attached two small metal pieces called janglers or jingle-bobs, which were shaped like pears or bell clappers, and clinked against the rowels.
At the back center of the heel band was the shank of the spur. The shank of a western spur, usually about two inches long, curved downward. Some allowed the rowel to roll along the ground while the curve of others raised the rowel up. In front of the rowel, on top of the shank was a small, turned up hook or chap guard, which kept the leather from catching in the rowel.
Rowels were usually not more than three inches in diameter, with most two inches or less. Their shape varied from the blunt-tipped, five point star to an eighteen point sunburst.
Cowboys and vaqueros from the Southwest, Texas and California, wore spurs that had larger rowels (in the early days up to 6" and sharp), than the Northern cowboy, whose spurs were plainer than the more ornate spurs worn in California and the Southwest. Texas style spurs were heavy with the heel band about an inch wide. They were usually plain or lightly engraved. The fancier, more ornate spurs didn’t come into fashion until after the 1880’s.
At the time my story, a good pair of hand-forged spurs would have probably cost my hero ten dollars or more.    


Foster-Harris, William, The Look of the Old West—A Fully Illustrated Guide, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2007

Moulton, Candy, The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West from 1840-1900, Writers Digest Books, 1999

Rollins, Philip Ashton, The Cowboy—His Characteristics, His Equipment, and His Part in the Development of the West, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2007

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Conductors--Masters of the Train

Western History/Genealogy Dept.
Denver Public Library
In my coming-soon, historical western novel, A Tarnished Knight, the hero travels on a few trains during his quest to capture the heroine. On each trip, Ryder manages to have a run-in with the conductor.

While the various conductors in my story are minor characters, the actual conductors who rode the trains from one end of the country to the other were vital to the efficiency of the railroad.

Since my story takes place in 1874, I’d like to share a bit of the research I uncovered in order to write these interactions between the conductors and my hero, Ryder MacKenzie.

Known as “masters,” “captains,” or “chiefs” of the train, the conductor was responsible for the entire train, passengers and crew. He was also in charge during any emergency. These maritime references came from the 1830’s during the earliest days of the railroad when the first conductors had been captains on steamboats and coastal packets.

At the time of my novel, he would have worn a pocket watch on a chain which he would check constantly as it was his duty to make sure the train was on time. This would be railroad time, for each railroad line ran on its own time schedule, because prior to 1883 time hadn’t yet been standardized.

Not only did the conductor decide what time the train left the station, he decided when it was safe to leave the station and signaled the engineer when to start or stop moving the train.

In the early 1870’s the conductor probably would have worn a long, double-breasted frock coat and had a distinguished beard or moustache. On a western train he would probably be wearing a soft, dark, slouch hat. If not, he’d have had on a straight-sided pillbox type hat with a leather bill and a stiff band which ran around the base of what was referred to as a trainman’s cap. This band had a brass plate marked, “Conductor.”
Smithsonian Inst., Photo by Richard Strauss
His shirt would have a stiff, turned down collar and a bow tie with the ends tucked under.

In addition to his watch, each conductor carried a ticket punch to cancel the stub of the passenger’s ticket as well as the half of the ticket he kept. Each conductor’s punch made a different shaped hole. This way if there were any questions the conductor who cancelled the ticket could be identified.

Smithsonian Inst., Photo by Richard Strauss
Dated 1860's or 1870's
He kept these ticket stubs in a locked case with some cash for when, in an emergency, a passenger needed to purchase a ticket from him. Once the fares were collected he began his accounting.

Not only was he responsible for all the passengers’ needs, the conductor was accountable to the railroad for an accurate record of ticket income, consignment notes and shipping documents. He also kept a log of the trip.

He made sure any cargo or additional cars were picked up and dropped off. He opened and closed doors, and carried out any running repairs. There were no radios, so all signals to the engineer and fireman had to be clearly communicated.

In the early days of the railroad, collisions and derailments were common so railroad companies quickly developed a rule book with a set of standards and procedures for each member of the crew. As the conductor was responsible for the safety of the train he made sure all safety rules and practices were followed. He also had to be alert to signals and switch positions or other conditions which might affect the safe movement of the train, such as weight, rain, or ice on the tracks which would cause the wheels to slide or affect braking. He had to know what to do in the case of unscheduled stops or delays in departing stations, as there were other trains following.

His every day decisions and his capability in dealing with unique situations were based on his own skills, intuition, and judgment. The train was his responsibility and he took great pride in his ability to keep it running efficiently.

A Tarnished Knight—Coming Soon from The Wild Rose Press


Foster-Harris, William, The Look of the Old West, A Fully Illustrated Guide, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc, 2007

American History on the Move

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What Time Is It?

Railroad Time-What Time Is It?

In the old TV and movie westerns I grew up with, the conductor of the train carried a nice big watch attached to a chain. He would pull it out at various times and check it, reassuring everyone that the train was right on time. But what time was it?

Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul RR, 1874
As I typed my upcoming novel, A Tarnished Knight, the heroine, Victoria, who was fleeing her abusive husband and the bounty hunter chasing her, asked the station master what time the train left town. As I searched railroad time tables and checked the distances between stations, I discovered that during the year my novel takes place there was no  standardized measure of time.

Each community marked their local time when the sun was at its highest--noon. Some towns rang a bell, or fired a gun, and others dropped a large ball from a centrally located mast. The jeweler in town would set your watch for you, but in a town with more than one jeweler, that time might vary between jewelers by several minutes.

Before the railroad began transporting people across the country, it didn’t matter that a town a hundred miles east or west would have noon a few minutes before or after. Time was as different as the towns the train passed through.

Seth T DD railroad wall clock
So each railroad began keeping its own time table. This was usually based on the time at either its headquarters or most the important terminals. A train station in a large city might have five or six different clocks, one for each railroad running out of that station, with each railroad running on its own time. A train traveling east to west would use several different ‘noons.’ The railroad in my story, the Union Pacific, had six different time settings.  
These railroad times were posted at the stations and in the timetable booklets. To help alleviate this confusion between local time and railroad time, newspapers as well as each railroad, posted timetables converting the railroad time to local time. For each nine miles traveled, east or west, your watch lost or gained about a minute.

Another hindrance to the schedule was that trains didn’t stop at every depot along the way. However, in front of these stations was a metal pole with a large red metal ball at the top. If there was a ‘high ball,’ the engineer rode right through, but if there was a ‘low ball’ that meant the train needed to stop. Delays like this further confused an already chaotic system.

The problem was finally solved in 1883 with the standardization of time zones. England, Scotland and Wales had already standardized to Greenwich Mean Time in 1848. The need for change was taken up here in the U.S., but it wasn't until October 1883 that the railroads finally agreed to the General Time Convention and adopted the five time zones we know today.

Now when the conductor checked his watch railroad time was the same time as every watch and clock in every town.



Foster-Harris, William, The Look of the Old West, Skyhorse Publishing, 2007

Cooper, Bruce Clement, Consultant Editor, The Classic Western American Railroad Routes, Chartwell Books, Inc., 2010

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Cross Country in a Concord Coach

Mark Twain called the stage coach, “an imposing cradle on wheels.”  Some passengers felt seasick. 

California Co.'s stage leaving Virginia City for California 1866
This strange rocking motion was the result of a major design improvement which did away with the steel springs of earlier coaches and suspended the body of the coach on thoroughbraces, heavy lengths of rawhide straps, mounted on steel stanchions.  

Instead of passengers feelings each neck jarring, vertical jolt, thoroughbraces produced a steady rocking motion.  The old springs were also hard on the horses.  Every time the stage hit a rock or hole, the vibration would travel through the traces to the animals’ shoulders and necks. 

And while these newly designed coaches were built in many places, none could compare to the quality of the coach manufactured by Abbott and Downing & Co., in Concord, NH.

A typical western Concord coach was about five feet wide and eight feet long. They were heavier than the eastern coaches weighing about 3,000 lbs. with a load capacity of 4,000 lbs. Only the finest woods were used and the company was especially careful not to use screws or bolts on the wheels, which were usually the first thing to break. The outside of the coach was painted red and gold, and yellow then sanded and varnished to a high shine. Floral and vine designs decorated the coach and a landscape was painted on the door.  On the door panel or above it was printed the stage’s destination. The name of the stage company and the stage’s number were printed on the panel under the driver’s seat.

Passengers entered the coach through one of two side doors, beneath which hung steel step plates. The seat cushions were made of coiled steel springs, stuffed with horsehair and covered with brown calf leather. There were three rows of seats, each big enough for three people.  Two seats faced forward and one faced backward. Those passengers in the backward facing seat had to interlock their legs with the passengers in the middle seat. Victorian ladies of course frowned on this practice. If extra seating was needed, three people could ride on the roof, which was covered with heavy, painted waterproof duck cloth. On rare occasions twenty to twenty-three passengers were squeezed on board.

Some coaches had glass in the windows, but glass didn’t last long in the west. Otherwise there were canvas curtains which were held by leather straps when rolled up, or secured with eye and turn-buttons when rolled down. Inside the coach were tug straps the passengers next to the windows could hang on to when the going grew rough.

Most stage coaches traveled none stop, and were equipped with outside lanterns.
Their average speed was five to six miles per hour. Every ten to twenty miles the stage would stop at a swing station where a fresh team, already harnessed, quickly replaced the tired horses. Every fifty miles or so, the stage stopped at a home station.  For a dollar, passengers could purchase simple meal of crackers, potatoes, hardtack, beans, jerky and black coffee. A new driver took over the next leg of the journey. After three hundred miles the passengers and their luggage was transferred to another coach.

In an article  entitled, Hints for Plains Travelers,  which appeared in the Omaha Herald  in 1877, the author listed several suggestions to help make stage travel more pleasant, though most people were unaware or didn’t care about such courtesy.

“Don’t smoke a strong pipe inside especially in the morning, spit on the leeward side of the coach… Don’t swear, nor lop over on your neighbor when sleeping… Don’t ask how far it is to the next station until you get there… Don’t discuss politics or religion, nor point out places on the road where horrible murders have been committed, if delicate women are among the passengers… Don’t grease your hair before starting or dust will stick there in sufficient quantities to make a respectable ‘tater’ patch…”
In my newest novel, A Tarnished Knight, Ryder and Victoria spend a couple of days traveling on just such a coach. The reality of stage travel I discovered during my research was a bit different than the stage coaches pictured in the TV westerns I grew up with. Is the reality much different that what you thought?

He made her fall in love with him, then he took it all away.
Sources: Boyd, Eva Jolene, That Old Overland Stagecoaching, Woodware Publishing, Inc., 1993
               Foster-Harris, William, The Look of the Old West A Fully Illustrated Guide,  Skyhorse Publishing, 2007                   

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Stage Drivers of the Old West

Welcome to my new blog.

I am a writer of Historical Romance. As I explore the past I hope to share with you the bits of information I seek out or stumble upon as I research my novels and short stories. In my newly completed novel, A Tarnished Knight, Ryder and Victoria travel on a stage coach. Here is a bit of history on the drivers of those classic western icons.


Reinsmen and Jehus—Stage Drivers of the Old West

Nameless and usually the first to be shot in almost every western movie and novel, the Overland stage coach driver sat high on the box seat of his Concord coach and sent his team racing across the country, up and down mountains.  Day and night, he battled heat, cold, rain, bandits and Indians in his effort to get his passengers safely to their destinations--all for the sum of forty to seventy dollars a month, plus board.

 These tough and daring men came from all kinds of backgrounds.  They were known as reinsmen,  whips, and  Jehus.  The name Jehu came from II Kings 9:20.  “…and the driving is like the driving of Jehu… for he driveth furiously.” On a whole, they were shy, cheerful and polite men.

An excellent cross country time for a stage coach was 150 miles a day, or 6 miles an hour. The stage ran day and night with brief stops every 10-12 miles to change the horses or mules. These stations were known as ‘swing stations’ and in less than ten minutes the stage was underway again.

Each driver had a route of approximately fifty miles. At the beginning and end of his route was a station known as the ‘home station,’ (where passengers could also pay a dollar for a meal).  From there another driver continued the route while the first stayed  to rest up, until the return run when he would then retrace his route.  

In a six horse team the distance from the tip of the leader’s nose to the rear wheels of the Concord coach was some 50 feet. From front to rear each pair of animals was referred to as leaders, swings, and wheelers.  Off meant the right side, the near side was the left.

The driver sat with his hands in his lap. The reins for the leaders were held between the index and middle fingers; those for the swings, between the middle and third fingers; and the wheelers, between the third and little fingers.  The driver would gather each line by drawing with the fingers and let the reins out by separating his fingers just enough for the ribbons to slide through.

The whip was grasped between the thumb and forefinger with the butt cupped against the heel of the thumb and the stock held parallel to the lines. It was used mainly to intimidate wheelers.

Made of hickory, about five feet long with an eleven or twelve foot buckskin lash, the driver’s whip was a very personal thing, and he would often have it engraved or embossed with silver or gold. They never let their whip out of their sight or loaned it to even their closest friends.

Drivers never wore gloves unless they were made out of silk or the finest buckskin, even in the bitter cold.  They would risk frostbite rather than lose their ability to feel the reins.

Making a turn involved a combination of reining, slight braking, and voice.  Driver’s preferred the teams to be hitched loosely so the horses could perform individually.  A top driver could hold the wheelers steady while the leaders made the turn. The brake was not fully applied as it was better to keep the wheels rolling so they wouldn’t slide. Good coach horses knew their names and understood the driver’s tone of voice.

Drivers enjoyed showing off their skill and as they approached town, the might urge their team into a full gallop. Then as the neared the hotel, apply the brake and bring their team to stop right at the hotel steps.
Another Waltz
He made her fall in love with him, then he took it all away.