Gone With the Winter Wind

“The cattle business became a fad–a fashion. Rich men’s sons, college and university graduates, foreign investors in France, England and Scotland put their money in the business.” (Bartlett, History of Wyoming, Vol. 1)

The Cheyenne Club opened its doors in 1881. It was three stories tall with a kitchen and wine room in the basement. Servants trained in the East poured the finest liquors, which were brought in by train. Two vaults for the expensive wines. Caviar.

Members enjoyed a billiards room and a reading room with magazines and newspapers from the East. The club was decorated with paintings and thick carpets.

While the cattlemen dined in luxury, the cattle were left to fend for themselves during the winter, to find grass and unfrozen water or die. Even at the time, other people pitied the distressed animals.

The harsh winter of 1886-7 killed more cattle than usual, and the investors lost money. That spelled the end of their Cheyenne Club. Here’s a photograph of their grand building.

References:

Bartlett, I.S., ed. History of Wyoming, Vol. 1. Chicago, S.J .Clark, 1918

Dary, David. Seeking Pleasure in the Old West. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Larson, T.A. History of Wyoming. University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

The Old West: The Cowboys. New York, Time-Life Books, 1973.

 

 

A Cheating Set with a Surprise

Autry National Center of the American West, Los Angeles. Photo by Pamela Tartaglio.
Autry National Center of the American West, Los Angeles. Photo by Pamela Tartaglio.

The implements of a cheating gambler fit inside this box. Because he was serious about winning at any cost, he was probably a roving gambler.

The large pin with the ace is a “bug.” The ends are sharp and could spear the underside of the table and hold the card.

The other card is in a card trimmer. It looks like a miniature paper cutter.

The drills and metal guide are to load dice. Cheating gamblers drilled holes on the black dots of one side and filled them with a heavy metal such as gold. They painted a new black dot on top of each one they altered. When rolled, the dice were more likely to land with the heavy side down.

A gambler’s opponents were often armed with a derringer or dagger, so it astonishes me that the owner of this cheating set had his initials put on the box, along with the year (JMD 1867). The box does not lock.

It has a simple hook latch, and might fall open if dropped, and it could be opened by anyone, such as someone who just lost a bundle to Mr. JMD. He could have marked his box discreetly, like he did cards and dice, to tell it apart from boxes of other gamblers.

He risked getting shot by having his initials put on this. He liked taking a big risk, and he was one cocky son of a gun.

Gamblers of the Old West

There were two kinds of professionals, the gamblers who stayed in one town for months or years, and itinerant gamblers who traveled so they could play opponents they might never see again. Guess which type cheated more often.

Resident gamblers made their home in a town or city. They often worked in boomtowns, where a gold or silver strike or the coming of the railroad had caused a “boom” in population. Resident gamblers, like all good Victorian-era Americans, guarded their reputations. These men were seen as upright members of the community, men with a skilled profession, even though they may have worked in raucous saloons and gambling halls.  They were called “square dealers.” Square meant fair, honest, and straightforward. We still say “square deal.” Some resident gamblers were women.

They were skilled at the games, and they made a good living without cheating. Many of them probably cheated occasionally, for instance, they might if they realized an opponent was cheating them (The Gamblers, Time-Life Books).

Roulette Table. After 1900. Roulette Table. After 1900.
A portable roulette game from the 1860s. A portable roulette game from the 1860s.

 

The roulette table above is heavy, with the layout, the area where people placed their chips, painted on the table. By contrast, the roulette setup at right has a separate wheel and the layout is enameled canvas, which the itinerant gambler could roll up for travel, great when he needed to make a quick getaway.

Roulette wheels were sometimes rigged.

Itinerant gamblers liked playing travelers on the great Mississippi riverboats, river towns and trains. Travel was slow compared to today, so travelers had time, they carried money, and many had come west looking for fortune and adventure. Camps of miners and prospectors were prime territory for itinerant gamblers. Prospectors hoped to get lucky and strike it rich by finding silver or gold, or at a game of chance. The cheating, fly-by-night gambler was happy to play them.

The Birdcage Theater’s “Basement Bordello”

 

Wild times at the Bird Cage Theater in the silver boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona.

DSCN0327 (1280x730)
Tombstone was the site of the O.K. Corral, where Wyatt Earp and his brothers, along with Doc Holliday, had a gunfight with a gang.

The Bird Cage Theater website proudly quotes the NY Times from 1882, when the Bird Cage Theater was new:  “The wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast.” That’s New Orleans to San Francisco, quite a ways.

At the Bird Cage Theater, stairs backstage lead down to one of the wicked areas. There are some bedrooms where prostitutes entertained customers, and they are right beside poker tables. The poker players must have heard a lot of embarrassing noises from behind the prostitutes’ doors a couple yards away from their card game.

The poker games went round the clock. You’d sign up and have to wait a day or so for your spot to open. Someone would go and find you when it was your turn.

This basement is shown in two small photos on the home page, on the right. They are not labelled, but here’s how to find them: where the text reads: “recently, six more rooms …” the photo beside it shows one of the prostitutes’ bedrooms. Below it, you can see a table and chairs where men, and maybe women, played poker. Wild and wicked, indeed.

Roller Skating in the Old West

In History of Wyoming, T.A. Larson writes that roller skating rinks operated in Wyoming cities in the 1880s. They were popular with adults as well as youngsters, and in the eastern U.S. as well. I suppose most rinks in Wyoming had wooden floors, the same as most sidewalks of the 1880s.

Wyoming has cold winters, but the plains have few ponds for ice skating.  Indoor roller skating rinks provided fun all winter long. Imagine — cowboys roller skating on their trips to town.

Buried Treasure from 1856 America: Part Two

The discovery of the buried 1856 riverboat Arabia and its 200 tons of cargo began with a house call to repair the refrigerator of “some old character” whose name has been forgotten. Refrigeration company co-owner David Hawley showed up for that repair in the 1980s and recently told me the man had three walls covered with newspaper and magazine clippings: one wall of UFOs, another of Bigfoot or something similar, and a third wall with clippings about sunken steamships. This last was the only one he “could get into,” he said with a smile during my visit to the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

David Hawley read old newspapers and maps to find the nearby Arabia. He was joined in his treasure hunt by his father Bob, brother Greg and family friends Jerry Mackey and David Luttrell.

In 1987, they visited the owner of a farm, a retired judge, and told them they believed there was an old steamboat filled with cargo deep below his field, a half-mile from the Missourri River. (The river shifted course after the steamboat sank.) To their surprise, Judge Sortor said he knew, and that his ancestor Elijah Sortor had known when he bought the land in 1860. The story, and the exact location, had been passed down through the generations.

The next step, said one discoverer, was like playing the board game Battleship. Test drillings encountered the hull, and to find the perimeter of the boat, the men used a magnetometer and planted orange flags in the soil.

Farm field with outline of the 171-foot-long buried boat.

The water table was only ten feet below ground, thirty-five feet above the main deck. Massive pumping was required so that the hole would not fill with water.

20,000 gallons of groundwater per minute were pumped out.

First, they found wood from the ship, then a shoe. The contents of the first barrel dazzled them. It was packed with beautiful china.

 

Arabia Steamboat Museum

Arabia Steamboat Museum
One discoverer recounted in the museum’s film that the family went home and stayed up late into the night, thrilled. They knew they would find 200 tons of cargo from 1856. He said on that night he realized that this collection should not be sold piecemeal or broken up. Judge Sortor, the owner of the land, agreed.

The treasure included everything a frontier settler, rich or poor, might expect to find in a store. My previous post describes the find, some of which is on display at the Arabia Steamboat Museum.

Once unearthed, the artifacts needed to be preserved, and quickly. The discoverers, some of whom owned a refrigeration company, installed huge coolers in caves. Some dug a hole (80x20x10 feet), put in artifacts, and kept a garden hose turned on for two and a half years while they contacted museums for advice. The solution was polyethylene glycol.

How much did all this cost? A cool million.

One discoverer described this project as a joy for the family and friends. I visited the museum twice, and each time the lights came up after the movie, a member of the Hawley family stood in front to welcome us and answer any questions. That’s how I got to chat with David Hawley and ask him about the day he learned about sunken steamboats and buried treasure.

Fashion Plates are Pages!

Scarlett O’Hara scandalized polite society a few times in Gone With The Wind.  She opened her own lumber mill and later staffed it with convicts from a local prison.   Money was scarce in war-torn Atlanta, but proper ladies had proper jobs, like painting china at home and selling it.  Scarlett pooh-poohed that.

Magazines were very popular entertainment in the days before television.  Illustrations in were often printed on smooth, heavy paper, called plates.  (Does anyone remember books with Plate 1 and Plate 2, instead of Fig. 1 and Fig. 2?)

Fashion plates were illustrations showing the latest styles, and often showed well-dressed women in (ladylike) action.

This hand-tinted fashion plate from "Les Modes Parisiennes:  Peterson's Magazine," includes a bride. 1866.
This hand-tinted fashion plate from “Les Modes Parisiennes: Peterson’s Magazine,” includes a bride. 1866.

This was printed as a black outline and dropped off at a woman’s house, and she added the color with paintbrushes.  This was a way women could work at home, because it was not considered acceptable for a woman to work in an office with men.

Later, the term “fashion plate” came to mean a woman who wore stylish clothes.