Last year, I had the opportunity to go to the location my first series was set in, Castle Town, Montana. It’s a ghost town now, although it is inhabited by cattle rather than ghosts. Even so, it was fun to see it. And now I feel like I need to rewrite my series. But I won’t.
Castle Town was a small mining town back in the late 1800s. There are lots of rocks, pine trees, and hills all around it. The only buildings left standing are the foundation of the general store and another building that is actually mostly standing yet.
I loved going there to see where my characters lived, even if it wasn’t quite the way I had imagined it. It had been a dream of mine for a few years to go to Montana mainly because of my books, and I was blessed to have a husband who willingly let me fulfill that dream.
I’m sharing a few pictures with some explanations from the area around Castle Town as well as Castle Town itself.
This sign guided us to the direction we were headed. But first we went to the right because there was a cute little church over there that we couldn’t resist looking at.
This sign was outside of the town. The bottom half says, “This road was the main street of Castle, Incorporated in 1891 with a population of about 1,500 people. The first mine registered was the North Carolina Mine in 1884. In the next 7 years, 991 claims were located. The rock basement is the remains of Baker’s General Store and Post Office. Berg’s Meat Market and Kidd’s Furniture Store were across the street. On the far hillside was Minnie’s Sporting House. The silver panic of 1893 caused the town to die a rapid death.
A panorama of the town.
A closeup of the foundation.
Obviously, there are some recent updates to the church, but doesn’t this look like something from a western?
This is the road leading to Castle Town. It is a one-lane road and you can only hope no one comes barrelling around the corner toward you. It definitely fit the rustic feel of the area.
These rocks lined the road. I don’t know if they were original to the area or put there from somewhere else.
It was so peaceful out there. The only creatures around were the cattle and the only sounds were of the cattle moving and the wind in the trees. I think I need to stop talking about it before I start wanting to back again.
If you ever find yourself near Bozeman, Montana, it’s only a two-hour drive north and a little east to get there. It’s a slow drive there, but fun.
What was your favorite vacation? Why was it your favorite?
Today, I am giving away one free ebook of my book that spends the most time in Castle Town, Montana, Lily of the Valley. It is the fourth in the series, but it can be read as a standalone.
They say time flies when you’re having fun. That must be why it seemed unbelievable that last Thursday I celebrated the 10th anniversary of when I got the call from Harlequin that I’d sold my first books to them. While the first couple of books that published with Harlequin American Romance weren’t westerns, the third, Elly: Cowgirl Bride, was as part of the six-book, six-author continuity series called The Codys: The First Family of Rodeo. This series was set in northern Wyoming, a beautiful area east of Yellowstone National Park that I visited a number of years ago while on a trip out West to visit my sister.
Soon thereafter I wrote the first book set in my fictional Hill Country town of Blue Falls, Texas. At the time, I thought The Cowboy’s Secret Son was just the first of a planned trilogy about three ranching brothers that was tagged with the name The Teagues of Texas. I had no idea that I would continue to write Blue Falls stories for years and that the series would, after that initial trilogy, have a its own series name named after the town. Thus far, there have been 15 full-length novels, one e-novella and one Harlequin online read set in Blue Falls, Texas. Two more are in the pipeline. In fact, I just finished writing the first draft of the last contracted book last night (Sunday).
Yellowstone River flowing through the Paradise Valley.
As you might have heard, Harlequin is closing the Western line next June. That put me and a number of other authors at a crossroads, trying to decide what step was next in our careers. I’m happy to report that I recently signed a contract for three western romances with Tule Publishing. I’ll be able to return to the Yellowstone area again, this time to the beautiful Paradise Valley north of the park in Montana. This area sits between the Gallatin and Absaroka Mountains, and the Yellowstone River runs through the middle of the valley. This stretch of Big Sky Country is home to ranches, fly-fishing outfitters, hot springs resorts and trophy homes. Such visually stunning films as A River Runs Through It and The Horse Whisperer had scenes filmed here. I’m going to be writing about three brothers once again. This time their family not only has a large ranch but also a hot springs resort. I’m excited to dive into writing the first story soon, creating a new cast of characters and a new small town for readers to love.
Like most authors, I have an inquisitive nature. Maybe that’s why I gravitated toward writing western historical fiction. With so much lovely research to do, who could resist? A trove of little-known facts became my reward. I’m here to share some of the jewels I found with you.
Wild camels roamed the plains. The United States Camel Corps formed to help occupy desert tracts following the Mexican-American War. The first camels arrived in spring, 1856. Completion of the railroad ended the program., however The government sold some of the camels, but others escaped into the wild. The last encounter with a feral camel in America was confirmed in 1941, but unofficial sightings continue into modern times.
Credit: Courtesy of annca at pixabay.com
Everyone did not pack a gun. Guns came at a high price some couldn’t afford. Also, individual towns (including Dodge, Deadwood, and Tombstone) banned firearms.
Dance hall girls weren’t necessarily prostitutes. A lonely man would pay for the privilege of dancing with a woman. Some dance hall girls entertained men upstairs, but others simply danced.
Most men didn’t wear Stetsons. The ‘hat that won the West’ was the bowler (or derby). The iconic Stetson wasn’t introduced until 1865 and cost a lot more. The bowler predominated.
Credit: Courtesy of skeeze at pixabay.com
Buffalo never existed in the West. Settlers incorrectly referred to bison as ‘buffalo’ because they resembled the African cape buffalo and Asian water buffalo. American bison are a different species.
Indians were civilized. Native Americans engaged in agriculture, developed irrigation systems, traded with one another, and built cities. They were a far cry from ‘savages.’
A disaster few remember took more lives than the Titanic’s sinking. The steamboat Sultana went down in 1865 while overloaded with prisoners freed from a Confederate prison. More than 1,800 people died, a greater number than the 1,517 lost in the Titanic disaster. News related to the assassination of President Lincoln overshadowed the worst maritime disaster in U.S history. Few remember the ‘Titanic of the Mississippi’ today.
Men wore denim. Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss patented the first rivet-strengthened denim pants in 1871. Work clothes made from denim cloth had existed before that date.
Whiskey contained poisons. Called such things as tanglelegs, forty rod, coffin varnish, and strychnine, rotgut whiskey sold in the Wild West might include turpentine, ammonia, gunpowder, or other toxic ingredients.
Montana had a gold rush. Lesser known than the 49ers of California and sourdoughs of Alaska, Montana miners started stampeding for gold in 1862. I wrote the Montana Gold series to highlight this dramatic era in Montana history.
Hills of Nevermore
(Montana Gold, book 1)
Can a young widow hide her secret shame from the Irish circuit preacher bent on helping her survive?
In an Idaho Territory boom town, America Liberty Reed overhears circuit preacher Shane Hayes try to persuade a hotel owner to close his saloon on Sunday. Shane lands face-down in the mud for his trouble, and there’s talk of shooting him. America intervenes and finds herself in an unexpectedly personal conversation with the blue-eyed preacher. Certain she has angered God in the past, she shies away from Shane.
Addie Martin, another widow, invites America to help in her cook tent in Virginia City, the new mining town. Even with Addie’s teenage son helping with America’s baby, life is hard. Shane urges America to depart for a more civilized location. Neither Shane’s persuasions nor road agents, murder, sickness, or vigilante violence can sway America. Loyalty and ambition hold her fast until dire circumstances force her to confront everything she believes about herself, Shane, and God.
Based on actual historical events during a time of unrest in America, Hills of Nevermore explores faith, love, and courage in the wild west.
Janalyn Voigt’s lifelong love of storytelling began in childhood when she dreamed up her own bedtime stories. She grew into a precocious reader, a pastime she credits with teaching her to write. Janalyn trained formally with Christian Writers Guild. Today she is a multi-genre author and literary judge. Janalyn is represented by Wordserve Literary.
A former teacher, I come from a long line of passionate educators. My father was a history and political science professor. My brother Thom is a business professor at UNC Wilmington, and my great grandfather was a professor of refrigeration engineering at Purdue University.
With teaching in my blood, it’s a given that I’ll write a story or two about teachers (Kit Brennan in The Good Daughter teaches English at a Catholic High School in Oakland, California and Jesslyn from The Sheikh’s Chosen Queen teaches at an international school in the UAE), I’ve never written about a teacher in a one room school house…until now.
My new story, The Lost Sheenan’s Bride, which releases on Friday, July 8th, is about a young teacher taking a long-term substitute job at one-room schoolhouse in Montana. The story wasn’t about the one-room school, but you wouldn’t know it from my research. I’m fascinated by Montana history, and in particular the intrepid women who first settled there.
It’s estimated that up to 18 percent of homesteaders in Montana were unmarried women.
Passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any twenty-one-year-old head of household the right to homestead federal land. Single, widowed, and divorced women fit this description, and they crossed the country to file homestead claims of 160 acres.
Many of the homesteading women in Montana also became the state’s first teachers. Because of the Homestead Act of 1862, one-room schoolhouses were built all over the state. Historians estimate that there were once 2,600 rural schools in Montana, and those rural schools served a multitude of purposes for each community, from education to social gatherings. In America today, there are still 200 operational one-room schoolhouses, with 62 of them located in Montana.
The one room school house in Paradise Valley that inspired my story (photo courtesy Megan Crane )
Last month in early June I returned to Montana for eight days, and on my flight from Seattle to Kalispell I sat next to a woman who worked for the Swan Valley school district which still has an operational one-room school in the town of Salmon Prairie. The woman, a school clerk, loves the one-room school in Salmon Prairie and told me about the exceptional quality of education the children receive, the time teacher is able to devote with his students, the ability to individualize lessons and even better, the opportunity for a teacher to truly teach Montana—morning nature walks, visits to local parks (Glacier National Forest, Yellowstone, etc). The teacher doesn’t just teach math and reading, but hunts and fishes with his students and embraces what it means to be a Montanan. (Here is a story on the school in Salmon Prairie! Photographers document Montana’s disappearing one-room schools)
I was able to work a little of that fascinating conversation into my story, but its impossible to convey the history for Montana’s one-room schools in a 50,000 word contemporary romance, but I’ll try to share a bit more here with you since I know you’re all history and western buffs, too.
In 2013, The National Trust for Historic Preservation added Montana’s one-room schoolhouses to their list of the Nation’s 11 Most Endangered Historical Places.
Today at Montana’s Divide School, built in 1870, teacher Judy Boyle functions as teacher, principal, and guidance counselor. Grades K-8 are taught in the same room to as many as eight students. This year she had 3 students, and as there are no janitors, it is part of the kids’ responsibility to help clean the school daily.
As an American Studies major at UCLA, I focused on Frontier literature with my senior thesis on Mark Twain, and you can’t immerse yourself in Frontier lit without understanding the significance of the one-room schoolhouse scattered across vast prairies and in the snug valleys nestled between the Rockies. The schools represented hope and opportunity, and education was a big part of that opportunity. Homesteaders and miners, ranchers and railroad workers wanted their children to succeed, and the best way to succeed was by getting an education, and the sheer number of the schools still standing today are a reminder of the commitment Montanans made to their children.
Another historic school house in Paradise Valley, this one still in operation.
Many of us grew up with Little House on the Prairie, or are fans of Hallmark’s popular series, When Calls the Heart, so we can picture the one room school. There was very little variation from one school to another:
Teachers were typically male. If the teacher was a woman, she had to be single. Married teachers were not allowed.
Frequently, families in the rural towns would take turns boarding the teacher, with every family contributing towards the teacher’s salary.
Schoolhouses had only a few windows and one door. Bigger schools might have two doors for separate entrances for the boys and girls.
The teacher’s desk was located at the front of the room and the teacher wrote the lessons on a large slate board, much like chalkboards or white boards in classrooms today.
There was no bathroom or running water. Students used an outhouse.
The children sat at narrow wooden desks and/or on long wooden benches, with boys sat on one side and the girls on the other.
Schoolhouses were heated by one stove with the older students responsible for keeping the fire going.
One of my favorite books I bought in Montana several years ago, that probably also helped inspire my new story was Visions and Voices: Montana’s One-Room Schoolhouses. The pictures are worth the price of the book alone, but there are also wonderful quotes and stories from former students who were educated in these schools.
To celebrate the release of my new book, The Lost Sheenan’s Bride, featuring Jet Diekerhof, the teacher of a one-room schoolhouse in Paradise Valley, Montana, I’m giving away a signed print copy of the book, plus lots of fun reader swag. Interested? Tell me if you think you would have enjoyed attending school at a one-room school. One comment will be drawn and the winner will be announced on Wednesday, July 13th so do check back and see if that was you!
Life on the open range could be a discomforting experience, what with outlaws popping out from behind the sagebrush without the slightest provocation, nesters “accidentally” mistaking a cattleman’s range for the quarter section they’d purchased, steers stampeding wherever they pleased, and wild animals running amok in settlers’ vegetable gardens—not to mention all those Indians to keep track of.
Things weren’t much easier for townies. For one thing, outlaws didn’t confine themselves to the countryside. Drunks stumbled out of saloons with reckless abandon, ladies of questionable virtue roamed the streets at will, and barbers pulled teeth or performed surgery like they knew what they were doing. Even church socials sometimes got out of hand.
At least folks in town could count on the law to keep things somewhat under control, right?
Finding a reliable lawman was anything but easy. El Paso, Texas, discovered that when it hired Dallas Stoudenmire as city marshal. Stoudenmire, a deadly gunman with a mean temper and a fondness for strong drink, insisted on starting fights and shooting people—some of them even criminals. As a young man, famed lawman Wyatt Earp stole horses. Between gigs as a county sheriff, town marshal, and city policeman, Earp ran faro tables, owned brothels, got arrested for a number of crimes, broke out of jail, led a vigilante group, and otherwise made a nuisance of himself. Pat Garrett may have been a straight arrow legally speaking, but he was unpleasant to be around. Even his fellow officers objected to his disposition: a refreshing mixture of arrogance and surliness.
Some men found a badge to be an excellent disguise for nefarious activities. Take these guys, for example:
In 1856, at the age of 24, Plummer became the marshal of Nevada City, Calif., the third-largest settlement in the state. In 1859, the marshal killed the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair. Sentenced to ten years in San Quentin, he received parole in six months and immediately joined a gang of stagecoach robbers.
In January 1862, Plummer formed his own gang and began hijacking wagons transporting gold out of mining camps. When that enterprise petered out in January 1863, Plummer relocated to the newest gold rush in Bannack, Montana. There, he formed the Innocents, a network of road agents that numbered more than 100 men within a few short months.
In May 1863, Plummer lost a sheriff election and subsequently threatened his rival until the man high-tailed it, fearing for his life. Plummer took over the sheriff’s job and right away appointed two of his Innocents cronies as deputies. Oddly, crime dramatically increased. In about nine months, more than 100 murders occurred and robberies, assaults, and assorted other crimes reached unprecedented levels. All the while, Plummer—under the guise of cracking down on lawlessness—hanged witnesses.
On January 10, 1864, having had enough law enforcement for a while, fifty to seventy-five vigilantes rounded up Plummer and his two deputies and hanged them in the basement of a local store.
Burt Alvord and Billy Stiles
Burt Alvord, Yuma Territorial Prison, 1904
In the 1890s, Alvord and Stiles served as deputy sheriffs in Willcox, Arizona. Unsatisfied with their salaries, the two began robbing Southern Pacific Railroad trains to supplement their income. Emboldened by pulling a number of successful jobs, they undertook their most daring escapade on September 9, 1899, in what came to be known as the Cochise Train Robbery. Instead of clinging to tradition and stopping the train on a lonely stretch of track in the middle of nowhere, Alvord and Stiles had five members of their gang blow up the safe while the train was stopped in the town of Cochise. Alvord and Stiles, maintaining their law-enforcement decorum, were part of the posse that unsuccessfully attempted to apprehend the robbers in the Chiricahua Mountains.
About five months later, on February 15, 1900, the gang struck again, in broad daylight in the tiny town of Fairbank, Arizona. While the train was stopped at the station, the Alvord-Stiles gang approached the express car, guns drawn, only to find the messenger responsible for the safe unwilling to abide such rude behavior. During the gunfight that erupted, two of the five gang members were wounded and one ran away. The messenger, also wounded, hid the safe’s key before losing consciousness. Unable to find the key and without a single stick of dynamite between them, the rest of the gang vamoosed.
Fairbank, Ariz., railroad depot circa 1900
Once again, Alvord and Stiles rode with a posse to track down the outlaws, one of whom was injured so badly he had to be left behind about six miles outside town. Despite Alvord’s and Stiles’s attempts to misdirect the pursuers, they stumbled across the wounded man. Before he died, the outlaw fingered Alvord as the ringleader. Stiles confessed and turned state’s evidence, allowing him to remain comfortably outside the bars while Alvord cooled his heels inside. A short while later, Stiles broke Alvord out of the hoosegow and the two of them lit a shuck for Mexico.
The Arizona Rangers invaded Mexico and, in 1904, engaged the two now-expatriates in a gun battle. They captured Alvord, but Stiles got away. After a brief stint in the Rangers under an assumed name, Stiles was killed a few years later while working as a lawman in Nevada, also under an assumed name. Alvord did two years in Yuma Territorial Prison and took it on the lam for Panama upon his release.
Steam train, 1898
In 1898, Fort Worth, Texas, Assistant Police Chief Grunnels talked a gang of Oklahoma bank robbers out of robbing a local diamond merchant and into robbing a train in Saginaw, Texas, instead. Grunnels masterminded the operation, planning to apprehend the bandits after they made off with the money, then collect the reward and keep the loot.
The Apple Dumpling Gang might have performed the train heist with more aplomb. While crawling across the top of the coal tender to reach the engine, the gang’s leader slipped and accidentally discharged his pistol. His minions mistook the misfire as their signal to hop on the train and commence whatever mischief their roles required. Chaos ensued.
Meanwhile, Grunnels and a cadre of Fort Worth police officers not in on the plan raced to the rescue of a train that had yet to be robbed. The discombobulated robbers scrammed. The Fort Worth Police Department became suspicious when it discovered Grunnels reached the scene of the crime before the crime had been reported. Grunnels was fired and indicted, but he disappeared before trial.
The heroes in the two novellas that compose Robbing Banks, Stealing Hearts could give lessons in how to fail at outlawry to all of the compromised lawdogs above. So, here’s my question for this month: If you were going to commit a crime in the Old West, what crime do you think you could pull off? Bank or train robbery? Horse or cattle rustling? Murder for hire? Spitting on the sidewalk? Something else? I’ll give an e-book of Robbing Banks, Stealing Hearts to one of y’all who’s brave enough to expose your criminal dreams.😉
Everyone should have career at which they excel. At failing to commit crimes, nobody is better than Laredo and Tombstone Hawkins. Maybe they can bumble their way into love.
The Worst Outlaw in the West
Laredo Hawkins has one ambition: to redeem his family’s honor by pulling the first successful bank robbery in the Hawkins clan’s long, disappointing history. Spinster Prudence Barrett is desperate to save her family’s bank from her brother’s reckless investments. A chance encounter between the dime-novel bandit and the old maid may set the pair on a path to infamy…if either can find a map.
Haunted by his kin’s tradition of spectacular failure, bank robber Tombstone Hawkins is honor-bound to prove his family tree produced at least one bad apple. When carnival fortuneteller Pansy Gilchrist tries to help, she accidentally summons a pair of dishonest-to-goodness ghosts. Getting into the spirit of a crime is one thing…but how do you get the spirits out?