Thursday, July 26, 2012

Literature of the Wild West: Louis L'Amour

"I think of myself in the oral tradition--as a troubadour, a village tale-teller, the man in the shadows of the campfire. That's the way I'd like to be remembered--as a storyteller. A good storyteller." --Louis L'Amour

I have just returned from a long vacation in Colorado. I am a big fan of books on CD, and since all of my traveling is done in the American Southwest, I prefer to listen to books about the Southwest, and authors such as Zane Grey, Willa Cather, and my favorite, Louis L'Amour.

My adoration of L'Amour's writing style began when I was a child. My father used to tell me, "if you want to know what it was really like to live in the Wild West, you should read Louis L'Amour." My father is a Wild West bookworm, and he has also read most of Louis L'Amour's books. His educated opinion is that L'Amour knew his subject well and I also believe this to be true, particularly when I read L'Amour's descriptions of Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.

I am currently living in the area of New Mexico that L'Amour wrote about in The Daybreakers. When I read his descriptions of the Sandia Mountains and the watermelon appearance they take on at sunset, of the vast fields of green during monsoon season and the herds of antelope racing across the prairie, of dust storms rising out of nowhere, reaching past the clouds into the heavens, I find myself saying, "Yes, I understand!"

Louis L'Amour actually lived the western life he loved so well and wrote of in his books, though he was born in 1908, in a time when what remained of the true American Old West was generally found in traveling shows, reenacted by paid--though highly skilled--performers, such as Annie Oakley.

L'Amour was born Louis Dearborn LaMoore in Jamestown, North Dakota, the seventh child of Dr. Louis Charles LaMoore, a veterinarian, and his wife, Emily Dearborn. L'Amour's father was French and his mother was Irish. L'Amour could trace his ancestry in North America back to the early 1600s. The family moved to the Dakotas in 1882 when the Jamestown area was mostly farmland and LaMoore's large animal clinic was well-supported by the cattle and horses belonging to the local cowboys.

When he wasn't playing cowboys and Indians in his father's barn with his youngest sibling, Louis was reading. He was tutored by his educated and successful older brothers and sisters. Hard as they might try to keep him focused on his studies, though, his attention often strayed to adventure novels, a problem that would eventually pay off in a successful writing career. Louis was an avid reader of his favorite author, G.A. Henty, who wrote novels popular with young boys.

In the winter of 1923, when the economy in North Dakota took a heavy fall, the family moved to the Southwest. The boys and their father worked skinning cattle in west Texas and baling hay in New Mexico. I suspect they spent some time in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, judging from the detailed descriptions in L'Amour's novels.

When he was 15, L'Amour set off alone to start his adventurous life, working a wide variety of jobs, including time as a seaman, lumberjack, and miner. He also served in the Transportation Corp during World War II. He was shipwrecked in the West Indies and stranded in the Mojave Desert, but he somehow managed to survive. His grit and determination served him well in his next career as a pugilist--he won 51 of 59 fights as a professional boxer.

Between adventures, L'Amour also worked as a journalist and lecturer. His massive collection of vintage novels numbered close to 17,000. He used the knowledge he derived from these books, his varied experiences, and his extensive knowledge of the West to create one of the finest bodies of written work produced by an American author, with 89 novels, 250 short stories, and even poetry. He even dabbled in acting, appearing in the 1979 two-part television series of The Sacketts.

My favorite is the Sacket series, and my favorite book is The Day Breakers with its detailed descriptions of New Mexico. The book is narrated by Tyrel Sackett, a fast-shooter with a kind heart dedicated to making the world a better place for his family. The book has everything readers want from Westerns--mystery, suspense, romance, and more than one barroom shootout--but it also has sections of great humor that come to the reader unexpectedly as wonderful, laugh-out-loud moments. At one point, when he is visiting Santa Fe with his brother, Tyrel decides to take a bath. He finds a long bathing room with many tubs, disrobes, soaps up, then stares in shock as a group of young women enter the room with laundry baskets on their heads. Yep, you guessed it--he was bathing in the local Old West laundromat!

In his lifetime, L'Amour received numerous prestigious writing awards. In 1983 he became the first novelist awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the US Congress for his life's work and in 1984 he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by US President Ronald Reagan.

Louis L'Amour died on June 10, 1988 and his wife, Kathy, and children, Beau and Angelique, carried on his publishing tradition. His books have now been translated into 20 languages and more 320 million copies have sold worldwide. Every written work by Louis L'Amour is still in print, which I believe is a testament to the undying popularity of the Western novel and our undying love for the American West.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Center for Western and Cowboy Poetry, Cowboy Poetry.com, Cowboy Art

A post for those interested in contemporary cowboys: If you are not connected to these two pages I would highly recommend that you check them out--very entertaining.

A Facebook Post from the Center for Western and Cowboy Poetry Cowboy Poetry.com

All day I've faced a barren waste
without the taste of water, cool water.
Old Dan and I with throats burnt dry
and souls that cry for water,
cool, water.
..."Cool Water," by Bob Nolan, Sons of the Pioneers

Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers sing "Cool Water" here.

Hank Williams sings "Cool Water" in this YouTube video, which includes a vintage photo slideshow.

Or one of my favorites, Johnny Cash singing "Ghost Riders in the Sky."

"Straight from the Well," by renowned Cowboy Artists of America President Tim Cox (Tim Cox Fine Art) says it all about "cool water," according to Cowboy Poetry,com, which recently posted: "The impressive painting was a part of the 2012 Prix de West at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum." Cox's painting, "At His Own Pace," was selected as the 2007 Cowboy Poetry Week poster image. You can find more about Tim Cox at CowboyPoetry.com: http://www.cowboypoetry.com/timcox.htm Or, you can go directly to his website at: http://www.timcox.com/ or you can visit his Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/Tim.Cox.Cowboy.Art.

To the right, you will find a sketch by renowned Western artist Frederic Remington. For more information on the art of Frederic Remington visit the Frederic Remington Art Museum Website.

(I am currently on vacation in Colorado again preparing for a series of posts on cowboys!)

Monday, July 2, 2012

Aspen and Ashcroft, Colorado--Old West Mining Towns

Mining in the Old West was a profitable business. It was also a risky, heartbreaking business. In fact, according to The History Channel's The Real West "Boom Town to Ghost Towns," over 90% of Western mining enterprises failed, and the remains of these failed enterprises can still be seen on the mountainsides and along the winding rivers in the deep valleys of Colorado's Rocky Mountains.

In most Western ghost towns only a few structures have survived, and for those unfamiliar with the Old West the contemporary appearance of these ghost towns may give the mistaken impression that the visitor is standing on ground once occupied by a small number of people, when in truth, as soon as the word "gold" was mentioned a thriving metropolis seemed to appear overnight. The average boom town quadrupled its population within a month's time, then quadrupled that expanded number the next month. The "rush" to gold was an important part of the potential success of the miners. The first miners who arrived could pluck nuggets off the ground, but those who arrived late might hit the town in time to see a line of wagons rolling down the road, headed for the next town where someone once again shouted the word "gold."

The words "boom town" meant "profit" to many people. Miners rushed madly to the area where gold or silver was found and they were often unprepared to feed or shelter themselves, or perform the tasks needed to find the gold! This created opportunities for others who followed close behind with wagons full of shovels, tents, clothing, liquor, newspaper printing equipment--the supplies necessary to sustain a town filled with people.

Women arrived behind the miners, often providing some form of service. Mining towns attracted the best entertainers, and men literally threw nuggets of gold on the stage for these young, attractive women. The miners also had a healthy appetite after digging in the mines or panning in the rivers all day and women brought wagon loads of cooking supplies along with their cooking expertise to meet this need. Wagons filled with women also arrived to offer prostitution services.

These early mining towns often had fun, playful names, such as Rough and Ready, Hell's Delight, and Gauge Eye. Sometimes the names of these towns changed a few times before the townsfolk settled on one they liked. For instance, the mining town that started as Ute City, Colorado became Aspen, and the nearby Castle Forks City was soon changed to Chloride, and finally, Ashcroft.

Although one might wonder about the origins of some of these odd-sounding names, such as Gauge Eye, the naming of Ute City did have a logical explanation. In the winter of 1879 the local miners refused to abandon their camps and mining claims in spite of a dangerous Ute uprising nearby and pleas from Colorado's governor of the time, Frederick Pitkin, who urged the miners to return across the Continental Divide to safer grounds.

The town was renamed Aspen in 1880, which is also an appropriate name as the town is filled with quaking aspen trees, and when visitors first view these wonders of nature, it is easy to understand why the miners were reluctant to leave. In addition to the great wealth coming from the mines in this area, the men were surrounded by a natural beauty that still leaves tourists in awe. In fact, the nearby Maroon Bells, southwest of the town of Aspen, is believed to be one of the most photographed mountains in North America due to its magnificent display of colorful aspen leaves in the fall.

As for the money coming from Aspen's mines, at its peak, from 1891 to 1892, Aspen surpassed the famous town of Leadville for silver production. The value of silver exploded with the passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, which doubled the government's purchase of silver. By 1893, Aspen was more than a boom town, it was a bona fide city with numerous banks, a state-of-the-art hospital, theaters, opera houses, and electric lights!

The silver market crashed in 1893 when President Cleveland repealed the act. When the Panic of 1893 hit Aspen, the town crumbled. Within days, most of the mines were closed and the miners were unemployed, broke, and homeless. They had no choice, they had to leave. Within months, the population of Aspen dropped to 705 residents. Aspen seemed to be moving toward ghost town status until the 1930s when investors recognized its value as a ski resort. It is now one of the most popular tourist towns in Colorado, particularly to wealthy vacationers, due to its thriving ski industry, though it still only has a resident population of 6700.

Unfortunately, the nearby mining town of Ashcroft did not fare as well as Aspen, though it started out surprisingly strong. Silver was first discovered in the area in 1879 by wandering miners Charles B. Culver and W.F. Coxhead who had left the town of Leadville, which was nearly over-run with miners by this time, in search of a new silver supply in the Castle Creek Valley. By 1880, Colorado was actually the number one mining state in the country due to the mining production in Leadville, but there were so many men and women moving into the area that those who arrived late on the scene had little hope of success.

When Culver and Coxhead decided to try their luck in Castle Creek Valley, the gamble paid off. In fact, their initial claim produced 14,000 ounces of silver to the ton. Coxhead returned to Leadville to announce their success. When he returned he discovered that 23 men had already joined Culver and were busy establishing their claims. These early miners were surprisingly organized. Within weeks they had formed a Miners Protective Association, establishing a benefit fund for sick and injured miners and their families, collecting dues from what had grown to 97 miners within a matter of weeks. They built a courthouse and platted the streets for their town.

In 1882, a rich strike was announced in the Montezuma and Tam O'Shanter mines and the town was renamed Ashcroft, though my research did not uncover why this particular name was chosen. By this time, Ashcroft had a population of 2000. It also had two newspapers, which were considered vital to the success of Old West towns, six motels, 17 saloons with top-notch entertainment, a brothel, a doctor, a jail, and...a bowling alley! The town was graced with a visit from Horace and Baby Doe Tabor. Horace Tabor was famous for establishing the town of Leadville. The town of Ashcroft decided to honor Tabor's generosity to miners because he often grubstaked miners who did not have the money to stake their own claim, so the people of Ashcroft held an extravagant dinner and dance during the Tabor's visit.

In spite of its popularity and initial success, the town of Ashcroft eventually dwindled to a few hundred people. When it was discovered that the silver vein was shallow, the miners began to drift over to nearby Aspen. Within a few years, over 1900 of Ashcroft's residents had moved to Aspen. The remaining residents spent most of their time relaxing in the saloons or fishing in the nearby streams. However, like Aspen, Ashcroft was also given a second chance around the turn of the century. According to a 2010 article in National Geographic, "Volunteering in the Ghost Town," a World War II veteran, Stuart Mace, moved his family to what remained of Ashcroft in the early 1900s and offered dogsled tours of the ghost town and became the model for the 1950s television series Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. Unfortunately, the dogsled tours were not enough to sustain the town and Ashcroft became yet another Colorado ghost town.

Those few buildings that remain in Ashcroft are in surprisingly good shape as they were recently restored to attract tourism. The town still has ten restored buildings and three buildings that remain in their original condition and are open to tourists for a small fee. One of these buildings contains Mace's dogsled. Although there are no reports of lost souls wandering the streets of Ashcroft, one can still sense the ghost of a dream in the buildings that still stand in what was once a booming town in the Colorado Rockies.

Colorado's Deadliest Floods

You may have noticed fewer posts over the past year. I've been working on a history book about flooding in Colorado. Colorado...