Living on the Tall Grass Prairie

Where I live in Wichita County in North Texas the land is rolling hills, arid, and for the most part, barren. I can’t imagine what the early settlers must’ve thought when they first laid eyes on it. It doesn’t even remotely look like a fertile place in which to make a home. There’s just not much to recommend it so I have no idea what the attraction was.

Other than a few trees that grew along the streams and rivers, wood was a scarce commodity. So when pioneers came west and settled here, they had nothing except dirt from which to make a home. They grabbed a shovel and set to work. The early settlers carved dugouts into the sides of hills around here. Also, the dugouts were actually warmer in winter and cooler in summer than other types of houses.

But they were nothing to write home about. They were dark inside with only a door to allow light and the floors in most all of them was nothing but dirt. Can you imagine trying to keep things clean?

Or keep the creepy crawly things out.

Or for the pioneer woman to see to do the sewing, cooking or reading.

It must’ve been miserable even though they were lucky to have the shelter.

According to the Wichita Falls Museum of North Texas History here, one of the early families to make friends with the Wichita Indians and set up housekeeping on the tall grass prairie was the W. T. Bunton family. He carved a dugout from a hill that is near our present day downtown area and lived in it with his wife and two boys. Several more children were born to them there. I’m sure cramped wasn’t the word for the tight quarters.

Another family to settle here was Monroe Dodson with his wife and children. He too carved a dugout from a bluff.

Here’s an excerpt from a young adult nonfiction book titled “In the Land of the Wichitas” by Dorothy Crowder that describes the Dodson dugout:

“Other than a few cowboys from the Samuel Burk Burnett 6666 Ranch, there were no other white neighbors of the Dodson family. Let us go near the dugout which serves as the family home. It is carved from the red earth of the river’s bluff. It is 14 x 14 and houses the entire family and the hunting dog. Mr. Dodson has carved a fireplace into the south side of the dugout. The chimney does not draw well, and the tiny room is filled with smoke…. The children are tumbled in piles of fur, which form their beds….”

                                             

Oh, lovely! The pioneers paid a handsome price for adventure, cheap land, and wide open spaces.

The book doesn’t mention what kind of fuel the Dodson’s used in their fireplace but I’m sure it was mostly dried buffalo chips or something like that. Thousands of buffalo roamed this area until the buffalo hunters killed them all off.

The museum has an exhibit currently on display called “A Texas Christmas on the Frontier.” The exhibit features a replica of the Dodson dugout and I loved getting a feel of what life must’ve been like living in one. One of the striking things about the display is how cramped the dugout actually was and how dark and dreary it was inside.

At Christmas the pioneers brought in a tumbleweed if they wanted to celebrate the holiday since a tree wasn’t to be had, not even mesquite until the cattle drives got in full swing. This one in the dugout exhibit is decorated with a single string of popcorn.

Sort of reminds me of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

Do you think you would’ve been desperate enough to drag in a tumbleweed and try to make it look festive? To what lengths do you go to celebrate the holidays? Do you go all out or keep things simple and to a minimum?

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!
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36 thoughts on “Living on the Tall Grass Prairie”

  1. wow-that really fascinates me!!!

    I truely think that I would have been desperate enough to drag a tumbleweed in and decorate it! I mean-ya know-it cant hurt the looks of the place! LOL

    Seriously though-Any little thing back then, that was beyond the every day sort of occurance-was a blessing and something to be thankful for. Im sure the children who would sit around the fire and make that popcorn string or some other small decoration-felt ….I dont know-perhaps giddy and excited, and over such a small thing! As mothers and wives, Im sure the women back then did all they could to bring some festivity into their homes, no matter how small, cramped and dreary it was! As most of us still do today-we do what we can to make life enjoyable for our families!

    As for decorating my home for the holidays-I am not one to go all out and get crazy with it…I really have not been able to do that with children-as it is, Im lucky my tree is still erect and I have a few decoratios left on it.. LOL!

    I dont stress out over these things-I let myself go with the flow! I let my girls pretty much decorate the tree by themselves this year (ages 7 and 2)…so-it’s not fancy and it’s not perfect-but, what matters the most is that they will remember being able do that and have happy memories from their childhood!

    I hope you have a very wonderful Christmas Linda!!!

    P.S. Im forcing my husband to endure that book I mentioned in my last email…Im reading it outloud to him..LOL we are going at snail speed-no more than 1 chapter a day and it’s driving me insane! Perhaps we’ll be done by next Christmas! 😉 😉 😉

  2. I would of absolutely have brought in a tumbleweed just to have something to decorate…of course, if a tree was not available! 🙂
    I go all out for Christmas! Lights and decorations everywhere with the smell of cookies baking constantly in the kitchen!

  3. My grandmother, who grew up in southern Arizona in the late 1920’s/early 1930’s — my great-grandfather being in the US Army stationed at Fort Huachuca (an Italian immigrant who wanted so badly to “American” that he joined the US Army straightaway) — and she used to say that she and her three siblings would tramp around the desert to find and bring in a creosote bush, then decorate it — and that was their Christmas Tree! Like Charlie Brown’s tree, it’s all about the spirit.

    Like my grandma — who lives on in my heart — I’d certainly decorate tumbleweed, or a creosote bush, or even a twig, for Christmas.

  4. Merry Christmas, Melissa!

    That’s too funny! Your poor husband. I can see him making faces at you while you read. Men can make really good faces. 🙂

    I think it’s wonderful that you let your two girls decorate the tree pretty much all by themselves. That makes it seem more like it belongs to them. What great memories you’re making for them. I can’t think of a better gift to give your children.

    Yes, I think we do what we can to make Christmas a season of the heart. I’d have been like those pioneers.

    Hope you have a day filled with lots of laughter!

  5. Wow. . . fourteen by fourteen feet for an entire family! Hard to imagine. But I truly love the Christmas tumbleweed. It’s all about the spirit of Christmas.

  6. Linda I LOVE those pictures. I found a guy who took pictures like this and I think these are his. He has about 3000 pictures of dug outs and pioneers in the LIbrary of Congress.

    What a treasure trove of history this man created as he wandered the west with his camera.

  7. In Calico Canyon, I have the Reeves family living in a sort of modified cave. They’ve rigged a door and a pot bellied stove in it. I felt like I went to far with it, making it tiny and dark and inhospitable.
    But whoa, 14 x 14. I think mine was 12 x 12 in the book. I wasn’t far off.

  8. Kathleen,

    You’re a lady after my own heart. I love Christmas–the smell, the sounds, the excitement in the air and the cold nip at your nose. It’s just really special. I think I’d have to decorate my little “cave” with something or other. I’m just glad I never had to live in a dugout!! 🙂

  9. Hi Wanda Sue,

    Your grandmother had a real pioneer spirit. Those creosote bushes aren’t much to look at. But, anything works in a pinch when you’re desperate. lol

    Hope you have more than a twig to decorate. 🙂 And keep Christmas alive in your heart however you have to do it!

  10. Hi Pat,

    Glad you enjoyed my blog. It was an eye-opener for me. Seeing all the trees around here now, it’s hard to imagine there weren’t any way back in the beginning. Someone really worked hard to beautify this part of the country.

    Merry Christmas, my sister Filly!!

  11. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live with so many people in such a small place. My husband and I often wondered how they managed to produce more kids in the first place. I would personally be mortified to do any “bed-creaking” in such a small room with my kids in there. Was their mindset just different back then? Or maybe I am just too modest? It would have been so quiet in one of those dugouts…

    My grandparents always decorated whatever was easiest to chop down off their property. It was never a traditional tree…in fact, it always looked more like a bush. Pretty though.

  12. Good morning, Mary!

    Brrr! It’s cold here today. I’m shaking and shivering. I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like living in a dugout in the middle of winter with the wind and coyotes howling, fit to wake the dead!

    Glad you enjoyed my blog and happy I could confirm your dugout in Calico Canyon. Yep, those dugouts were really small. And usually the families tended to be large. I’d hate to share a 14 x 14 foot space with a bunch of other people. Most definitely wouldn’t have been pleasant!

    I didn’t know The Library of Congress has over 3000 pictures of dugouts. That’s amazing but really interesting!

    Merry Christmas, Mary!! 🙂

  13. I love decorating trees and love a live one, the bigger the better. My kids always wanted a Charlie Brown Christmas tree so one year we got this branch about 2 feet high and set it in plaster and my one daughter takes it out every year and decorates it with homemade ornaments or little toys. She’s moved to her own place while away at college and the tree is going with her!

  14. Mary,

    I forgot to say that I have Calico Canyon but I haven’t had time to read it yet. I did read Petticoat Ranch and loved it! What an excellent opening to the story. Sophie and her daughters living in that tumble-down house in a thicket sure fired my imagination. Those little girls were so funny too. I love the way you write and your characters are wonderful! 🙂

  15. Hi Stephanie,

    An interesting question. I have no idea how those pioneers managed to have so many children, living in such a small space as they did. The children couldn’t have helped but hear everything that went on in the bed. And, a lot of times the husband and wife had some of the smaller children sleeping in the bed with them. I’d have died of sheer mortification!!

    I’m glad your grandparents kept the spirit of Christmas alive with their unconventional trees. That’s what really matters–not what the tree actually looks like. It’s that they went to the trouble to put one up. I’m sure you have their spirit imbedded in you.

    Have a wonderful Christmas! 🙂

  16. Hi Jeanne,

    Great to see you here today. I too like live trees better, but I have major allergies to pine so I have to use artificial. I do miss the fragrant scent of real trees that fills the whole house and the lushness of the branches. I don’t miss the needles on the carpet though. They sure do hurt when you step on them with your bare feet. Ouch!

    A Charlie Brown Christmas tree always brings a lump in my throat. There’s something about the simplicity and the desperate need to decorate whatever you can get. Yea for your daughter! I’m glad she’s hanging on to those memories and the need to keep the tradition alive.

    Here’s wishing you the best Christmas ever! 🙂

  17. Merry Christmas, Linda. What a great post. The humble little decorated tumbleweed almost brought a tear to my eye.

    When I was a room mother for my son, his class drew “American Christmas” –each grade got a different country and had to find out customs and make food. We learned that prairie pioneers sometimes found a tree branch and covered it with white cotton batting and stuck handmade deco on it for their Christmas tree. So we did the same. The pioneers saved theirs and used it year after year.

    Whew, 14 x 14. I sometimes felt my mom’s family–parents and six kids living in a two-bedroom one-bath California bungalow were stuck in the stone age–not the 1930’s!! That would be a palace!

    oxoxoxox

  18. Hi Tanya,

    Glad you enjoyed my post and that it brought back memories of that tree you made with your son. I think that’s neat. You can sure learn a lot from history! I wonder if your son remembers that?

    Yeah, 14 x 14 would’ve been really tiny. Sometimes we don’t appreciate what we have until we see how some of the pioneers lived. They made do with so little by scratching and clawing to get through life. Sure makes you appreciate the luxuries we have now. At least it does me.

    Merry Christmas to you and your family!

  19. Well the way I see it, a tumbleweed was a plant at one time, so why not? There is no shortage of them where I live, anyway.

    We have a half wall basement under the older part of our farmhouse so I can relate to the creepy crawly things…I don’t even what to go there today…

    I go all out at this time of year which is why we started decorating 2 wks ago and aren’t done yet. I’ve to establish Christmas as a magical place to come home to for the holidays. We know that Christ’s birthday is why we celebrate, but I’ve been of the mind that if I instill the ‘magic’ of Christmas to my kids when they’re young, they’ll want to bring their children back here.

    So, I have angels that sing, Santa’s that snore, trains that go round the tree, angels that turn on the tree, a Christmas clock with soldiers that march out to a different carol every hour…how long have you got?

    I think I’ve succeeded because my eldest is 30 and she flies home on Fri to spend the holidays with us until New Years. The other 3 are still at home and almost broke into fist-i-cuffs this year while deciding who’d unbox and put what up.

    I love Christmas.

  20. Interesting topic, Linda! I’ve always been very intrigued by those dug-outs. Maybe I’ll put one into a book one day. 🙂
    As far as decorations, I would’ve brought a tumbleweed into the house, for sure, but I would’ve loved how simple everything was. Wish Christmas still was that simple–although we do try to keep it as simple as possible around here anyway. Thanks for sharing the museum exhibit with us! A reminder of how much we have today.

  21. Hi Anita Mae,

    I think you must definitely be kin to jolly old St. Nick. Is he any relation? lol You really celebrate Christmas in a huge way!! Angels and snoring Santas and soldiers and clocks–can’t think of anything you don’t have. It says so much that your children fight over who gets to unpack which box. You’ve done your job well, my dear. You’ve done more than instill the spirit of Christmas in them.

    In the pioneer days your house would’ve been the one EVERYONE would’ve flocked to.

    I’d hate to see your basement if it reminds you of one of these dugouts. Can’t imagine what kind of crawly things you have living down there.

    Merry Christmas to you!

  22. Hi Kate,

    I too like simple rather than ostentatious. One lone bulb or red bow or a string of popcorn on any kind of tree is so sweet and humbling. I guess that’s why I love stories about people who don’t have a lot of money. They show the depth of their hearts in such a big way. It’s what’s inside that really counts, not how much money a person has.

    I’m glad you enjoyed my dugout blog. Yes, maybe you’ll put one in a story. That would be great.

    Merry Christmas, my Filly sister!

  23. Hi Linda
    Would you call those dug out homes soddies? (sp?) Or are they different?
    I read a book about a family who lived in one and I shivered at the thought. I’ve been camping, couldn’t keep my kids clean at all. With no plumbing, I can only imagine how dirty everything was. Yes, I’d bring a tumbleweed in to decorate. Anything to liven up a place like that.
    Aren’t you glad we live in this century? 🙂

    Great info today!

  24. WOW! I’m a Texan, born and bred, but I’m not sure
    how a dugout would have gone over with my family !
    One set of parents and 9 children !

    As for decorating, since it’s just Honey and I, we
    don’t do as much as in past years. Although we did have an unusual decoration once upon a time. Two of the children “adopted” a kitten and when Christmas came around, we would find him in the tree every morning!

    Pat Cochran

  25. I would have got a tumbleweed to decorate if there were no trees. I don’t go all out decorating anymore. I just put up a tree now. When my son was young we went all out. We put lights up outside and everything but we don’t anymore.

  26. Check out the picture with the horse and wagon on the roof. I count four kids.

    Now think about it.

    If you can force yourself too.

    Assuming they didn’t move into the dugout after all the kids were born…and maybe they did.

    But somehow, in that 14 x 14 space………….

    …………………….
    Mom was …………….you might say……………………………..
    ………………………………………………………………..coming up with…………..
    ………………………………more babies…………………………..

    I am so not …….. enthused……… by the………..

    ………………romance……… of that……………

  27. Thanks for the informative blog, Linda. The Christmas novella I just finished is set in north Texas about 1870 and I have the people living in a small house, with some hills within riding distance where they can ride to get wood and a Christmas tree. Hope I didn’t blow it–may need a few revisions. When was the area settled? FWIW, my grandpa was born in a dugout in Southern Utah in the early 1880s. His parents had just emigrated from Scotland and that was all they had.

  28. Hi Charlene,

    To answer your question, soddies weren’t dug into the hillside. They were more like regular cabins were except they were made of blocks of sod. At least that’s my understanding from this museum here. Hope this helps.

    Yes, I’m so glad I live in this modern age where we have the conveniences. I’d have hated to live in a dugout.

    Merry Christmas!

  29. Hi Pat,

    That’s too funny about the kitten! I guess the little critter liked Christmas trees. He probably thought you put that up just for him. Bet he made a mess of the decorations. Thanks for sharing that.

    Merry Christmas!

  30. Hi Quilt Lady,

    Glad you stopped by. I think as we get older, we have less energy to go all out for Christmas. I know I just don’t have the stamina for decorating that I used to. Not that I’m saying I’m old or anything. LOL 🙂

    Wishing you a great Christmas!

  31. Mary,

    Yes, there certainly wouldn’t have been any privacy at all. I can’t imagine that being romantic. The kids must’ve heard everything. Goodness gracious! And I’m sure it was really quiet in the dugout after the lamp was put out. 🙂

  32. Hi Elizabeth,

    It depends on wherebouts in North Texas you set your story. If it’s north of the Dallas area (say somewhere near Gainesville) and eastward along the Oklahoma line, you’re okay. There’s plenty of trees and wood that direction. Just not here or to the west of us. We’re pretty barren except along creek and river beds. Or maybe you could have your characters go to the creek or river to find wood. That’d fix it too. Hope this helps.

    The area where I live (Wichita County) began being settled as early as 1860. But Wichita Falls wasn’t incorporated as a town until 1880. That’s when the railroad came through here.

    Have you been to a website called the Handbook of Texas online? It’s at http://www.tshaonline.org You can put almost anything in the search and find out information. It’s a huge site. Really good for research.

    Merry Christmas, Elizabeth!

  33. Thanks, Linda. I was pretty vague about the location, and the town is fictional, so hopefully it’ll be ok. I’ll make note of the website. Wish I’d asked you sooner.
    🙂

  34. Linda…great post! I definitely would have been one to drag a tumbleweed in and decorate it some kind of way. I have no idea why but I’ve had a fascination for tumbleweeds forever. One time I begged somebody I knew who was driving to Hayes, KS to bring me back one (to VA) but the git wimped out. I was very disappointed.

    It seems I can go from one extreme to the other when it comes to decorating a Christmas tree. I can either spend two solid days decorating it or I can just as easily whip my two foot tree out of the shopping bag where I store it (that I decorated once with very tiny ornaments and leave on the tree from year to year), plop it on the dining room table and call my decorating finished.

    Actually this year I thought about doing the full monty but a girlfriend snagged me to help her decorate her very large tree…two of us three hours later…both of us aching and moaning made up my mind in a hurry about which choice I would be making this year:)

    I could be wrong but I’m thinking that sexual relations back in the that time were a slam, bam, thank you ma’am since it wasn’t until the 1960’s and the sexual revolution when the majority of women finally became aware of what was what. I envision, crowded room or not, a quick 10 or 15 minutes, minimal sounds (perhaps one manly grunt) and that was that. Not the romance we want to read about (by the way *grin*) but I think back to my own ignorance as a young woman and I shutter. Are we to believe that our sister women in the 1800’s knew about wild monkey sex and experienced equal pleasure and satisfaction? Some how I doubt it but I find it interesting to think about….Nancy:)

  35. I’m thrilled to find a blog where I can feel right at home. There are so many posts here that it’s tough to decide where to start so I’m jumping right in. Your blog is now a regular stop!

    Merry Christmas,

    Natalie Acres

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