Shops and businesses on the streets away from the center of town were laid out willy-nilly; some with entries facing alleyways. Boarding houses and private homes were seemingly dropped at random, as if tossed like dice from a gambler’s hand. –from my WIP, Stop the Wedding (book #1 Shotgun Brides)
I’m working on a new 3-book series that takes place in the fictional town of Haywire, Texas. Before I could begin writing, it was necessary to map out my town. Fans of western movies might think that’s a bit strange. When a town is only one street wide and a block long, what’s to map out? Well, for one thing, western movie sets are generally much smaller than a real town ever was, and less spread out.
The town in my book was built prior to the Civil War. That’s important to know, because towns founded before the war generally sprang-up along wandering cow paths. If you ever got lost in parts of Boston, as I once did, you’d know how confusing such towns can be.
Fortunately, after the war, town founders hired surveyors to plat grids oriented to railroad specifications. This practice came too late to help the poor residents of Haywire—or my hero who gets lost while chasing a bad guy through town.
Since business taxes in the Old West were calculated on width, shops and saloons were built long and narrow. What was generally called Outhouse Alley ran behind the buildings, parallel to the main thoroughfare.
Some buildings did double-duty. Schools often shared space with the Oddfellows or Masons, and shopkeepers lived over shops.
My town’s main street is T-shaped which runs into the railroad. On the other end of Main, the town is split in two by a hundred-foot wide cross street. A street like this was known in many western towns as the Dead Line, the purpose of which was to separate moral businesses from those beyond the pale.
Dead Line streets were wide enough so that anyone who accidentally ventured into the wrong side of town, occupied by saloons, bordellos and in Haywire’s case, the barbershop, could easily turn horse and wagon around. Thus delicate constitutions were saved and reputations left intact.
Typically, the bank would be built next to the sheriff or marshal’s office, which explains why bank robberies in the Old West were rare. Only the most daring outlaw would attempt a bank robbery. It was much easier to rob stages—and a whole lot healthier.
Movies do get some things right. For example, buildings in many towns were mostly wood with false fronts. These fake facades were added to make hastily-built buildings look more impressive and provide a place for signage. Some towns, especially in the south-west where few trees could be found, were built mostly from adobe.
Speaking of movies, what western would be complete without having the hero barge through a saloon’s bat-wing doors? In reality, not every saloon had such doors. In some parts of the country, it was too cold or windy and too much dust would blow inside. Saloons that did have café doors also had standard doors that could be shut and locked when necessary. A tour guide at Universal Studios explained that movie sets had saloon doors of different sizes: an extra-large one to make the heroine appear small and demure, and an extra-small door to make the hero appear taller and more imposing.
Another thing that frontier towns had that you won’t see in most western movies is a sign telling visitors to check their guns. Now that’s one area where Hollywood and Haywire can agree.
Have you ever visited a western ghost town or movie lot?