Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Home Sweet Tent

For many of us, when we think of homes in the frontier, particularly in the wooded mountains, we think of cabins constructed of logs. A portion of an early 1850’s lithograph of Columbia, California, the locality of my Christmas novella, Too Old for Christmas, shows log cabins with stone fireplaces for homes around the city.

Many are probably fairly similar to this preserved cabin on Jackass Hill where Mark Twain and a few of his associates spent the winter of 1864-65. As a point on interest, this cabin in size and structure would have been similar to what Sean Flood in Too Old for Christmas was in the process of building, except he opted to buy a cast iron stove and save the shale fireplace for a future brick addition to the house.

 Whether on the plains or in the mountains, often the first homes were constructed of canvas over logs. Those pioneers who traveled by covered wagon, once they were ready to move out of that wagon box to something that didn’t roll, they didn’t let that big, heavy piece of thick canvas go to waste.

My Christmas novella, Too Old for Christmas, is set in 1854. It is well documented in the histories of that community that the first “structures” were constructed of canvas and board (or log). Even the first recorded store owner, Charles Bassett, in 1850 set up a saloon and a supply store, on Bassett Alley/Lane first constructed out of canvas. As often happened in the mining camps and towns of California, fire destroyed the city twice: once in 1854, just months before the time period of this novel, and again in 1857. Both times, canvas and log tents were erected until more permanent structures could be built. The triangular design may have been lived in by those miners actively working their claims.

However, for the town-dwellers, those canvas and wood tents probably more resembled these:

And these (In the background of the miners working:

A decade later, canvas tents were used in the Civil War for winter quarters situations, complete with fireplaces.

Brandy Station, Virginia - Winter Quarters
By the 1850’s there were some cast iron stoves that had been transported to California, probably by ship rather than overland. Even with the stovepipes high in the air, I imagine sparks falling on a canvas roof would have been a concern. I know even in this day and age, since we burn wood, we felt much more secure about our chimney once we replaced our shake roof with composition. In Too Old for Christmas, Ona McNair has a small box stove in her canvas and pole home.

Here are some more examples of canvas and pole structures. These are still used today. I live not far from Yosemite National Park, and some of the campground areas feature tent houses complete with wood foundations.

Yosemite National park - Curry Village
Notice the rain fly. In Too Old for Christmas, I made mention of a rain fly on Ona McNair’s home, not because I believe they were considered standard when such structures were first assembled. She had been living in the canvas and pole home for several years and struggled with tears and splits from the canvas rubbing against the poles and spark holes from her wood stove. If she was unable to afford all new canvas for her wooden frame, to me it made sense she would at least buy a rain fly to go over the roof in an attempt to keep the inside of her home as dry as possible. Since the story starts during a November rain storm, the condition of her home was a factor.

Yosemite National Park - Curry Village
Some of the modern canvas and pole tents are pretty nice and roomy. Give me a nearby flushy instead of the necessary of the type used in Too Old for Christmas or almost everywhere in the 1800’s until indoor plumbing was developed, and I would happily spend a few summer weeks in one set up in the mountains.

About the Author:

Zina Abbott is the pen name used by Robyn Echols for her historical novels. 
The author currently lives with her husband in California near the “Gateway to Yosemite.” She is a member of Women Writing the West, American Night Writers Association, and Modesto Writers Meet Up. She enjoys any kind of history including family history. When she is not piecing together novel plots, she pieces together quilt blocks.

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