Monday, January 13, 2014

Life in an Old West Boardinghouse

By Miralee Ferrill

     I’ve always been fascinated by stories depicting cowboys, pioneers and the rugged individuals who helped tame the West. The American frontier, or the Old West, as it came to be known, drew adventurers from all over the world.          They came hoping to find a new life, whether that meant staking out a homestead, mining for gold, finding a husband, or starting a business. Whether it was a family, single men or women, a miner, gambler, or cowboy, the same thing captivated each one—the chance at a fresh start. Beyond that, they all had one need in common—a place to live when they arrived.
I’d never really thought about that aspect before—until I started writing and digging into the research aspect of telling a story. Where did they all go when they arrived out West? Most people didn’t have the means to buy land and build a home, as the trip across the country often took most of their funds.

For some, like the cowboys, it was simple. They slept on a bedroll under the stars, their horse picketed close by. Others slept in a bunkhouse, often with thin bat-and-board siding barely covering the walls, allowing the wind to whistle through the cracks or the knot holes, but always with a cozy wood stove nearby.


My current historical romance series, Love Blossoms in Oregon, is centered around a boardinghouse and the interesting characters who reside there. In the 1880s there was more than one type of boardinghouse, and each catered to different kind of folks. The home operated by my heroine, Katherine, rented rooms to the more genteel type of client looking for more than a one or two night stay. A boardinghouse/combo hotel in Last Chance, CA (pictured here and featured in my book, Love Finds You in Last Chance, CA) only took men, and they all slept in a common room on the second floor, reached exclusively by a ladder.

        Saloons often offered accommodations as well, as they were sometimes attached to or housed within a hotel. Even the independent saloons provided rooms to travelers who wanted drinks, a meal and a bed. Many saloons provided a free lunch with the purchase of a drink, with the hope the traveler would decide to imbibe a bit longer and possibly spend the night. The Crystal Palace and The Oriental Saloon, both built in the last 1870s in Tombstone, AZ, (and featured in my novel, Love Finds You in Tombstone, AZ) provided more than drinks.


       Of course, no decent lady or family would consider such accommodations, as their reputation would most certainly be ruined. Only ladies of ill repute frequented saloons, so the more genteel women chose a hotel, or a boardinghouse for a longer stay.

The average boardinghouse was different than a single family home, often having a large number of bedrooms, a common washroom, a good-sized dining room and a cozy parlor made available to the boarders. Of course, a bathroom as we understand it didn’t exist in the 1800s, at least not in homes in the Old West. Most boardinghouses provided a wash bowl, towels, and a pitcher of fresh water per room, along with a chamber pot. In very rare cases you might find some type of rustic indoor plumbing, but typically a bath was drawn by heating and carrying buckets of water to a wooden or tin tub in a wash room.  
Breakfast was almost always included, and oftentimes supper, with some hostesses occasionally offering laundry service as well. Boarders could share a room, and often did, but the more wealthy patrons could choose to room alone. The least expensive rooms tended to be in the top floor, including smaller attic rooms, as heat rises and made sleeping uncomfortable. For the poor, cheap lodging houses provided basic accommodations for low prices. In San Francisco over a century ago, the majority of people frequenting a hotel were either working class or poor, and a passable room might cost 35 cents a night ($8 in today’s currency). Some rooms were more like dorms with multiple beds shoved close together and with very poor ventilation.

Old Boardinghouse in Texas
Life at a nicer boardinghouse could be almost like home, especially to a lonely widow or single woman struggling to make it on her own. In fact, many boardinghouses in the Old West were owned and operated by women, as it was a respectable way to make a living while keeping your children close by. Warm fires in the parlor and kitchen, reading books or newspapers in the parlor or playing games in the evening, along with story-telling and sharing the happenings of the day, were all common entertainment for the residents.
I’ve always had a fascination for the Old West, and the historical research for my novels has become one of my favorite parts of writing. Life was varied in the 1800’s, and often extremely challenging. The more glimpses I get of the strong men and women who made up the West, the more I’m compelled to share their stories.

If you’d like to contact me or see pictures of the settings for several of my historical novels, I’d love to have you stop by my website or my blog, or subscribe to my newsletter at www.miraleeferrell.com--click on the blog tab.

Miralee Ferrell's newest historical romance, Wishing on Buttercups, releases Feb. 1 and is set in a boardinghouse in 1881, Baker City, Oregon. 

Quiet, shy Beth Roberts has dreams bigger than anyone can imagine.
But will the secrets of her past keep her from having the courage to fulfill them?

Late August, 1880
Only a handful of people in Baker City, Oregon, know Beth Roberts, so she shouldn’t fear discovery. Yet she knows that one day someone will unravel the threads of her past . . . and the secrets of her budding profession.

Jeffery Tucker, a twenty-six-year-old writer, has kept his own secrets since arriving in the West. He doesn’t have a right to pry into Beth’s affairs but finds himself strangely drawn to her and intrigued by the whiff of mystery surrounding her.

As shadowy memories surface, Beth sketches the scenes she sees and is shocked by what—and who—her illustrations reveal. Dare she risk her heart with any man again?

15 comments:

  1. Miralee, I love historical novels also and am in the process of writing one. Thanks for the great info about boarding houses, since my heroine lives in one in my WIP.

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    1. Hi Patti, how fun that you're also writing about a boardinghouse setting! Thanks so much for taking the time to read my post.

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  2. I wondered why newcomers chose a boardinghouse over an apartment. But housework and cooking took up so much time, it would be impossible to work the longer 19th century hours and keep house, too. Besides, with cooking and heating requiring a fire, having someone home to tend it was necessary. Labor saving devices and new methods of staying warm allowed people to live alone.

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    1. Cathy, I don't think there were any apartments, per se, in the Old West. Either they built their own home, or found an abandoned cabin, or in some cities, might have found a house to rent, but the concept of apartments didn't come until a little later. Good thoughts about heating and cooking!

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  3. Good morning Miralee, thanks for the post today on boardinghouses, loved reading your comments. I like reading about this time period and will be looking for this book. In Savannah Ga there was a place called Ms Wilkes Boarding house that started out that way many years ago then changed into a resturant where many important people visited and ate. I am sure there were many stories to be told when it was a boarding house. Savannah is quite a historical place and have read many stories set there.
    thanks for sharing today

    Paula O

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    1. Thanks, Paula! I'd be so tickled if you picked up a copy of Blowing on Dandelions (the first in the series). Mrs. Wilkes' boardinghouse sounds like it could have some fascinating stories, I love those old historical places. I've only driven through your state one time, but we didn't have time to stop. I'd love to, someday!

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  4. Thank you Mirallee, I really enjoyed your post on boardinghouses. They appear so frequently in books that it is nice to have a better image of them.
    Your new book sounds wonderful and it is added to my TBR list. Congratulations on it,

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    1. Thank you, Jackie, I'm thrilled you added my book to your TBR pile! Be sure you start with book 1, Blowing on Dandelions, before you move on to book 2. I appreciate you taking time to stop and read my post!

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  5. Hi, Miralee! I enjoyed this fascinating post and I love Katherine's boardinghouse in the Love Blossoms in Oregon series!

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    1. Hi Britney, I so appreciate your support of my first book in this series. Thank you for taking the time to stop by and leave a comment!

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  6. Miracle, your post was so interesting. I believe there was a boarding house back in the 1800's in the San Juan mountains near Silverton, Co. Very interesting!

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    1. Melanie, what a COOL mistake you made on my name! I LOVE it! Please don't feel bad about it, as I've never been called a miracle before. Colorado and CA, as well as other places, had lots of boardinghouses to serve the miners coming to search for gold and silver. Those are some fascinating areas to research and discover. I'm hoping to set a book in Colorado one day. Thank you so much for stopping by to visit and leave a comment, I appreciate it very much.

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    2. Oh Miralee, I have a terrible habit of writing furiously and not going back for a "once over". Sometimes I just shake my head, this is one of those times. Thank you for understanding.

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  7. Very interesting on boarding houses, and I've read several fiction books where boarding houses were used. Me, I'd go for the nicer home. I'd have to take in laundry to pay for it! Loved the post. sharon, wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

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  8. Sharon, I hear you on going for the nicer home, me too!! Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment.

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