This past week, while working on a scene set in a general store, I got to wondering when cash registers might have been found in the Old West. I was surprised to discover that the cash register (called a Cashier at the time) was invented in 1879 by a saloon owner.
James Ritty (public domain)
James Jacob Ritty, owner of the popular Pony House Saloon in Dayton, Ohio, knew something was wrong. Buffalo Bill and John Dillinger were among his many customers and business was booming. Still he saw no profit. He was suspicious that his bartenders were dipping into the till but couldn’t prove it.
The problem was very much on his mind during a sailing trip to Europe. While studying the ship’s mechanics, particularly the counting mechanism that recorded the propeller’s revolutions, he got an idea; why not invent a device that would record a shop’s sales?
Upon returning to the states, he ran his idea by his brother, John, and after a couple of false starts, the two patented what became known as Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier.
Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier 1879. public domain
The machine had a clock-like feature that rang up sales, but no cash drawer. During each sale, a paper tape was punched with holes so that the merchant could keep track of sales. At the end of the day, the merchant could add up the holes. This was no easy task. Even though the machine was designed to record daily sales no greater than $12.99, the tally could be as long as twenty feet.
Their invention worked and Ritty’s profits rose, but it wasn’t fool proof. Without a cash drawer, money still turned up in the wrong pockets.
The brothers later added a cash drawer and the Cha-Ching sound that shop owners love to hear. (It’s thought that merchants came up with odd prices like forty-nine or ninety-nine cents, so cashiers would have to open the till to make change. This helped insure that all sales were recorded.)
The brothers opened a factory above the saloon. Running two businesses soon proved too much for James, and he sold his cashier business to a group of investors. Eventually, the company sold to John H. Patterson who renamed it the National Cash Register Corporation.
The Thief Catcher
By the 1880s, cash registers could be found in retail shops across the country. Though the new and improved registers aided bookkeeping and inventory chores, they were resented by clerks. It’s easy to understand why; the machines were called “thief catchers.” Honest clerks resented the implication and dishonest clerks missed the extra income.
But then, as now, enterprising thieves always found a way.
Speaking of thieves, do you always ask for receipts, even at fast food outlets? If not, you should. Dishonest clerks can do a lot with unclaimed receipts–and none of it good!
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.
Gold Hills, Nevada
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?
Welcome to Two-Time, Texas
There’s a new sheriff in town and she almost always gets her man!
Though it’s hard to imagine the likes of Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson bowling, this was actually a popular sport in the Old West. According to True West magazine, one of the strangest bowling alleys was built in California in 1866. After felling a majestic Redwood, miners turned the flat, heavily-waxed surface into a bowling alley.
Speaking of sports, baseball was also a popular sport in the Old West. Even Wild Bill Hickok was a baseball fan and reportedly umpired a game wearing a pair of six-shooters.
We think of the old West as wild, but it pales in comparison to what’s going on in some cities today. From the 1850s to the 1890s, Texas held the title as the most gun-fighting state. But during that forty-year span, the state logged in only 160 shootouts.
The number of Old West bank robberies were also greatly exaggerated. During this same forty-year period, only eight bank robberies were recorded in the entire frontier. Today, yearly bank robberies number in the thousands. California and Texas have the highest number of bank robberies. At long last, the west lives up to its reputation.
Some cowboys were real swingers. Yep, they even played golf.
It breaks my heart to say this, but some of the phrases associated with the Old West weren’t actually coined until the 1900s, which means I can’t use them in a book. These include “Stick em up” and “hightail.”
The one thing outlaws feared was dying with their boots on. To “die with your boots on” was a term that meant “to be hanged.” Outlaws often pleaded with the sheriff to take their boots off so their mothers would never know the truth of how they died.
Before the days of GPS, it was the chuck wagon cook’s job to keep the cattle drives heading in the right direction. Before retiring, his last chore of the day was to place the tongue of the chuck wagon facing the North Star. This was so the trail master would know which direction to move the herd in the morning.
It might be hard to believe, but most cowboys didn’t carry guns while riding. Carrying a gun was a nuisance to the riders and firing it would scare cattle and horses.
Of the 45000 cowboys working during the heyday of cattle drives, some 5000 were African-American.
The tradition of spreading sawdust on saloon floors supposedly started in Deadwood, South Dakota. The sawdust was used to hide the gold dust that fell out of customer pockets, and was swept up at the end of the night.
So what Old West fact did you find most surprising or interesting?
There’s a new sheriff in town and she almost always gets her man!
In my story The Texan’s One-Night Standoff, we first meet Ruby Lopez and Brooks Newport at the C’mon Inn in the small town of Cool Springs, Texas. Ruby catches Brooks’ eye immediately as he sips a drink at the rustic bar, watching her dazzle her opponent with expert billiard skills. When a drunken man approaches her with unwanted and persistent advances, Brooks is off his chair ready to come to her rescue, but the feisty capable woman tosses the guy over her petite shoulders, laying him out flat.
The scene could’ve been written in an old time western saloon as well, where men imbibed far too much whiskey, otherwise known as bottled courage, bug juice, coffin varnish, dynamite, joy juice, neck oil, nose paint and fire water.
The first place that was actually called a saloon, rather than cantina (found mostly in Taos, Santa Fe and New Mexico) was in Brown’s Hole, near the Wyoming, Utah, Colorado border. The saloon, known as Brown’s Saloon was established in 1822 and catered to mostly trappers during the peak of the fur trapping era.
Though in our mind’s eye our image of an old time Western saloon would be set on the main street of town with a wooden sidewalk, hitching post, swinging doors and a shining polished long bar, the first saloons were actually lean-tos or tents where a cowboy, soldier or fur trader could quench his parched throat.
As well in the 1920’s, Bent’s Fort in Colorado was among the earlier saloons catering to soldiers, where others were constructed in Dodge City and Kansas where cowboys would wind up after a long cattle drive. By the time the gold rush hit in California, a settlement housing one cantina, soon entertained 30 saloons. In the early 1880’s the town of Livingston, Montana, population 3,000, had 33 saloons.
In those early days, the whiskey was made up of burnt sugar, raw alcohol with a touch of chewing tobacco. Ugh. There were other concoctions as well and some barkeeps would
cut 100 proof with turpentine, ammonia or cayenne. I can’t imagine! Out West, and as time went on the whiskey became more refined and a shot of bourbon or rye was expected to be downed in one big gulp.
Personally, I am a “frilly drinker”. Give me a strawberry or mango margarita, a pina colada or a Bailey’s coffee and I’m happy. I’ve never enjoyed the benefit of hard liquor, but it’s a booming industry keeping many of our bars and saloons happy in big cities and small towns, like at the fictional C’mon Inn. But surely, we can all agree it’s a place where men and women come together and sometimes, if the stars align and the bubbly sparkles, romance can be found!
Your thoughts? Do you enjoy a drink now and then? Wine, beer, cocktails or the hard stuff? Any fun saloon/bar stories you can tell in public? Ha! Post a comment and one lucky blogger will be picked at random to receive a $10 Amazon gift card! Be sure to check back by the end of the day for the prize winner announcement!
Available on AMAZON and all online and print bookstores.
Did you know who Miss Kitty of Gunsmoke was created from? If you said the lady gambler, Lottie Deno, you’d be correct. She was one of the most interesting women on the American frontier. She was born Carlotta Thompkins on April 21, 1844 on a Kentucky plantation.
Her parents were very well-to-do and Lottie didn’t want for anything. At her birth, she was assigned a nanny from among the slaves—Mary Poindexter. She was a giant of a woman—7 ft. tall—and she accompanied Lottie everywhere she went. Nobody messed with big Mary.
Lottie’s father taught her to play cards and she became an expert. When he was killed in the Civil War, Lottie played cards to support her mother and younger sister. For a while, Lottie worked on the riverboats and gambling houses along the Mississippi. She was a vivacious redhead with sparkling brown eyes and could charm the pants off any man—and his wallet too. LOL Which she did every chance she got.
In 1865 Lottie arrived in San Antonio and a year later was offered a job dealing cards at the University Club. She fell in love there with a half-Cherokee gambler named Frank Thurmond. He left town suddenly after killing a man and Lottie soon followed. I don’t know about you, but he sure wasn’t anything to look at. She could’ve done far better.
She was a bold woman and rode into the rough, lawless town of Fort Griffin, Texas on the top of a stagecoach like a fairy princess. She sat out in the open right on the very top like a fairy princess where she could see everything. With her flame-colored hair shining in the sun and a wide smile flashing, she caused quite a stir. It didn’t take long to get a job at the Bee Hive Saloon. One night she and Doc Holliday played cards all night long and by morning she’d won thirty thousand dollars of Doc’s money. She also played with legendary Wyatt Earp and many other notables of the old West.
It was in Fort Griffin where Lottie got the Deno part of her name. One of the gamblers who’d lost to her hollered out, “Honey, the way you play your name should be Lotta Dinero.”
During a gunfight when all the others fled the saloon, she got under a table and stayed. When they asked why, she said she wasn’t about to leave her money and besides they weren’t shooting very straight.
She separated herself from the violent population of Ft. Griffin by taking a shanty in what they called The Flats on the Clear Fork of the Brazos. She only left it only to visit the local mercantile and to go to work. But Lottie lost her heart to Frank Thurmond and followed him to Silver City, New Mexico where they married and opened two saloons, a restaurant and a hotel.
Lottie got involved in charity work, feeding newly released prisoners and giving them a place to stay.
She and Frank eventually moved on to Deming, New Mexico where they got out of the gambling business and settled down to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Frank became vice president of the Deming National Bank and helped found the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.
In 1908, after forty years of marriage, Frank passed away. Lottie outlived him by 26 years until she, too, died and was buried next to Frank. Those who knew her said she maintained her laugh and good cheer to the end. I’d love to have met her. She was a colorful character.
She and Frank became models for characters in a series of books by Alfred Henry Lewis. Miss Kitty of Gunsmoke fame owed everything about her characterization to Lottie Deno.
Okay, how many of you watched Gunsmoke? Do you think Matt and Miss Kitty should’ve gotten hitched? If you can remember that far back, did you have a favorite episode? I liked the one where Miss Kitty got kidnapped and Matt searched everywhere for her.
After living for almost 17 years in Greater Seattle, during the summer of 2012 I moved with my crew down to Southern California to the most charming of laid-back little beach towns. I absolutely adore being in San Clemente (it still has its original main street–called Del Mar–with angled parking) but the move was hard on my kids who were true Seattlites and I missed all my friends. By February, I really wanted to do a fun project with some of my close author friends and I made some calls and sent off some emails, asking if three of them would like to create a series together, something set in Montana, something with cowboys and featuring the beautiful rugged Montana landscape.
My three author friends–Lilian Darcy from Australia, CJ Carmichael from Canada, Megan Crane from California–agreed and we decided to make a girls roadtrip to Montana to brainstorm our books and series. I thought it’d be fun to share how Montana Born from Tule Publishing came about, using the words of Lilian Darcy, one of the founding authors.
This is how Marietta, Montana, our beloved fictional Western town, came to be!
Founding authors in downtown Livingston, MT: (from left to right) CJ Carmichael, Megan Crane, Lilian Darcy and Jane Porter
In Lilian Darcy’s words:
It began in February…
Milestone #1—The phone call
Jane Porter calls me from California. Jane is a good friend, so I’m smiling when I hear her voice. ‘I want to have a writers retreat to plot a joint series’, she says. ‘Are you in?’
I think I’m in before she even gets to the word. We talk on the phone until my ear turns blue and I have to seek medical attention.
The plan is ambitious. This will be a real publishing company, not simply a group of like-minded authors publishing independently with some linked stories and branding (although, hey, that would be great, too). We will bring in experienced professionals in publishing, editing and marketing, as well as authors whose attitude and quality of work we can count on.
Honestly, I think my whole world feels different after this one phone call.
Milestone #2—The preparation
‘I want you to come over here’, Jane says in a follow-up email. ‘I have Megan Crane and CJ Carmichael on board, and we all need to get together to talk about our story ideas, and about how this is going to work.’
Did I mention that Jane is a good friend? She has frequent flyer miles that she actually gives me to cover the airline ticket. We decide May will be the best time, so I naturally go straight to the most vital pieces of preparation—crossing the days off a calendar and shopping for clothes.
We do also brainstorm a lot via email about stories during these two months. We decide to create the Montana Born Books imprint, and to set our first few series of books in our fictional town of Marietta, Montana.
(Because Montana is cool. I’ve been there now, and I know.)
Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley
We each throw in a bunch of ideas.
Megan comes up with a big, single title mini-series about three sisters who’ve grown up with the difficult parenting of their saloon-owner and Vietnam vet father, Jason Grey, after their mother left town.
CJ creates a traditional ranching family, the Carrigans, while Jane also creates a ranching family, the Sheenans, on the adjacent property.
I have a major women’s fiction trilogy in mind, following the lives of characters who’ve all been changed by what happened at the Marietta High School Prom in 1996.
Milestone #3—The brainstorming
May 1st arrives, and I fly across the Pacific to California. Jane meets me at LAX and nearly drives off the road about nine times on the way down to her house in San Clemente because we’re so busy talking.
Three days later, we fly to Kalispell, Montana, where CJ picks us up, after collecting Megan earlier in the day, and we drive to her cottage on Flathead Lake.
Now, some of you may have seen the pictures on Facebook, but I want to stress that we actually do work quite hard, despite appearances to the contrary.
First, we talk for a whole day, building our fictional universe. Where exactly is our town located? What’s the population? What’s its history? What stores and other buildings are there in Main Street? Who owns them? (Hint: When you read the books, watch out for mentions of a Jane Austen–inspired character, who’s a bit of a gossip-monger.)
Elegant neighborhoods in Bozeman inspired Marietta’s Bramble Lane
Our pencil-sketch map of Marietta came to life as we plotted the town layout.
We go to bed very satisfied with our first day’s work, and then the next morning when we get up CJ says, ‘You know what? I don’t think our planned stories are closely enough linked.’
She’s right, we realize at once. We’ve each gone off on our own tangent, with the Carrigans, the Greys, the Sheenans and my tragic 1996 prom night. For our launch, we need something that knits our characters more closely together and celebrates our fictional town in a more vibrant way.
Handsome Livingston, Montana with its turn-of-the-century brick buildings inspired our beloved Marietta
Milestone #4—The stories
‘How about a rodeo?’ I think this is CJ, too. She is so great at cutting to the heart of the problem and coming up with the right idea.
‘No, how about a novella each?’
As writers, you tend to know something is right when the sparks immediately catch fire. Within an hour, this morning, we’ve each come up with the basic bones for a story.
The Title Fairy pays us a visit, which is close to being a Montana Miracle. She is a pretty temperamental creature, that one, and can withhold her creativity for months, sometimes.
Armed with titles, story ideas, linking threads and a whole lot of detail on our fictional world, we begin writing that very day…
Look for more about the making of Marietta, Montana and the results of our efforts with the release of our Montana Born stories in April!
If you’ve enjoyed this inside look, do leave a comment for a chance to win a print copy of our four rodeo stories that created Montana Born, Love Me, Cowboy plus fun Montana Born reader swag!
(Portions of Lilian Darcy’s story first appeared in the September 2013 issue of the Australian Romance Readers Association newsletter.)
Some real-life episodes in the Old West read like fictional adventures. Some read like tragedies. Some read like romances.
The life stories of a few non-fictional characters—like Kitty LeRoy—combine all three.
“…Kitty LeRoy was what a real man would call a starry beauty,” one of her contemporaries noted in a book with a ridiculously long title*. “Her brow was low and her brown hair thick and curling; she had five husbands, seven revolvers, a dozen bowie-knives and always went armed to the teeth, which latter were like pearls set in coral.”
From all reports, LeRoy was a stunning beauty with a sparkling personality that had men—including both notorious outlaws and iconic officers of the law—throwing themselves at her feet. She was proficient in the arts of flirtation and seduction, and she didn’t hesitate to employ her feminine wiles to get what she wanted.
Often, what she wanted was the pot in a game of chance. One of the most accomplished poker players of her time, LeRoy spent much of her short life in gambling establishments. Eventually, she opened her own in one of the most notorious dens of iniquity the West has ever known: Deadwood, South Dakota. With spectacular diamonds at ears, neck, wrists, and fingers glittering bright enough to blind her customers every night, it’s no wonder LeRoy’s Mint Gambling Saloon prospered.
With her reputation as an expert markswoman, there was very little trouble…at least at the tables.
LeRoy was born in 1850, although no one is sure where. Some say Texas; others, Michigan. One thing is certain: By the age of ten, she was performing on the stage. Working in dancehalls and saloons, she either picked up or augmented an innate ability to manipulate, along with gambling and weaponry skills that would serve her well for most of her life. According to local lore, at fifteen she married her first husband because he was the only man in Bay City, Michigan, who would let her shoot apples off his head while she galloped past on horseback.
Lower Main Street, Deadwood, SD, 1877
A long attention span apparently was not among the skills LeRoy cultivated. Shortly after her marriage, she left her husband and infant son behind and headed for Texas. By the age of twenty, she had reached the pinnacle of popularity at Johnny Thompson’s Variety Theatre in Dallas, only to leave entertaining behind, too.
Instead, she tried her hand as a faro dealer. Ah, now there was a career that suited. Excitement, money, men…and extravagant costumes. Players never knew what character they would face until she appeared. A man? A sophisticate? A gypsy?
Texas soon bored LeRoy, but no matter. With a new saloonkeeper husband in tow, she headed for San Francisco—only to discover the streets were not paved with gold, as she had heard. While muddling through that conundrum, she somehow misplaced husband number two, which undoubtedly made it easier for her to engage in the sorts of promiscuous shenanigans for which she rapidly gained a reputation.
Although the reputation didn’t hurt her at the gaming tables, it did create a certain amount of unwanted attention. One too-ardent admirer persisted to such an extent that LeRoy challenged him to a duel. The man demurred, reportedly not wishing to take advantage of a woman. Never one to let a little thing like gender stand in her way, LeRoy changed into men’s clothes, returned, and challenged her suitor again. When he refused to draw a second time, she shot him anyway. Then, reportedly overcome with guilt, she called a minister and married husband number three as he breathed his last.
Now a widow, LeRoy hopped a wagon train with Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane and headed for the thriving boomtown of Deadwood. They arrived in July 1876, and LeRoy became an instant success by entertaining adoring prospectors nightly at Al Swearengen’s notorious Gem Theatre. Within a few months, she had earned enough money to open her own establishment: the Mint. There, she met and married husband number four, a German who had struck it rich in Black Hills gold. When the prospector’s fortune ran out, so did LeRoy’s interest. She hit him over the head with a bottle and kicked him to the curb—literally.
Gem Theatre, Deadwood, SD, 1878
Meanwhile, thanks to LeRoy’s mystique—and allegedly no little fooling around with the customers—the Mint became a thriving operation. LeRoy reportedly “entertained” legendary characters as diverse as Hickock and Sam Bass. But it was 35-year-old card shark Samuel R. Curley who finally claimed her heart. Curley, besotted himself, became husband number five on June 11, 1877.
Shortly thereafter, Curley learned LeRoy hadn’t divorced her first husband. The bigamy realization, combined with rumors about LeRoy’s continued promiscuity, proved too much for the usually peaceful gambler. He stormed out of the Mint and didn’t stop until he reached Denver, Colorado.
Folks who knew LeRoy said she changed after Curley’s departure. Despite nights during which she raked in as much as $8,000 with a single turn of the cards, she grew cold and suspicious.
Her grief seemed to dissipate a bit when an old lover showed up in Deadwood. LeRoy rented rooms above the Lone Star Saloon, and the two moved in together.
By then, Curley was dealing faro in a posh Cheyenne, Wyoming, saloon. When word of LeRoy’s new relationship reached him, he flew into a jealous rage. Determined to confront his wife and her lover, he returned to Deadwood December 6, 1877. When the lover refused to see him, Curley told a Lone Star employee he’d kill them both.
LeRoy, reportedly still pining for her husband, agreed to meet Curley in her rooms at the Lone Star. Not long after she ascended the stairs, patrons below reported hearing a scream and two gunshots.
Deadwood, SD, 1878
The following day, the Black Hills Daily Times reported the gruesome scene: LeRoy lay on her back, her eyes closed. Except for the bullet hole in her chest, the 27-year-old looked as though she were asleep. Curley lay face down, his skull destroyed by a bullet from the Smith & Wesson still gripped in his right hand.
“Suspended upon the wall, a pretty picture of Kitty, taken when the bloom and vigor of youth gazed down upon the tenements of clay, as if to enable the visitor to contrast a happy past with a most wretched present,” the newspaper report stated. “The pool of blood rested upon the floor; blood stains were upon the door and walls…”
An understated funeral took place in the room where Curley killed his wife and then took his own life. Their caskets were buried in the same grave in the city’s Ingleside Cemetery and later moved to an unmarked plot in the more noteworthy Mount Moriah.
The happiness the couple could not find together in life, apparently they did in death. Within a month of the funeral, Lone Star patrons began to report seeing apparitions “recline in a loving embrace and finally melt away in the shadows of the night.” The sightings became so frequent, the editor of the Black Hills Daily Times investigated the matter himself. His report appeared in the paper February 28, 1878:
…[W]e simply give the following, as it appeared to us, and leave the reader to draw their own conclusions as to the phenomena witnessed by ourselves and many others. It is an oft repeated tale, but one which in this case is lent more than ordinary interest by the tragic events surrounding the actors.
To tell our tale briefly and simply, is to repeat a story old and well known — the reappearance, in spirit form, of departed humanity. In this case it is the shadow of a woman, comely, if not beautiful, and always following her footsteps, the tread and form of the man who was the cause of their double death. In the still watches of the night, the double phantoms are seen to tread the stairs where once they reclined in the flesh and linger o’er places where once they reclined in loving embrace, and finally to melt away in the shadows of the night as peacefully as their bodies’ souls seem to have done when the fatal bullets brought death and the grave to each.
Whatever may have been the vices and virtues of the ill-starred and ill-mated couple, we trust their spirits may find a happier camping ground than the hills and gulches of the Black Hills, and that tho’ infelicity reigned with them here, happiness may blossom in a fairer climate.
What would you do if you entered a restaurant and found the ceiling crawling with spiders?
One thing I like about reading historical romance is learning real history along with a great story. While doing research for my newest book I came across this “fun” fact that I just had to include in The Gunslinger and the Heiress.
Tillman Augustus Burnes, an Irishman known for his larger-than-life personality, grew up in San Francisco. There he came to appreciate the infamous Cobweb Palace at the end of Meiggs’ Wharf where spiders had transformed the saloon with swags of cobwebs decorating the ceiling and upper walls.
When ‘Till’ came south to San Diego for health reasons he got his first job at the Last Chance Saloon on 5th Street. He saved up his money until he could buy his own saloon, naming it The Phoenix, located just one block from the docks. He opened his doors for business in 1875 and started collecting spiders to decorate his new place. He also hunted and trapped small animals and birds in southern California to display in cages, and bought exotic animals off sailors coming from South America. At one time, his menagerie housed a coyote, a bear, an anteater, and a monkey, along with exotic birds.
Early San Diego Train Station – featured in book
The bear, Bruin, caused a few incidences quite honorable to a bear, but not appreciated by humans. Till chained him outside the saloon to a tree. One particularly hot day, a group of children taunted Bruin by poking him with sticks. Aroused from his nap and angered, the bear broke loose of his chain, scaring the children and creating havoc until a few men lassoed him. After that, Till had an iron cage built and brought the bear inside the saloon. That worked for a while, until a customer who liked Bruin and regularly let the bear lick the beer off his face fell out of favor with the bear and had the tip of his nose bit off. After that (and the ensuing lawsuit,) Bruin retired to Till’s home, far away from people who would bother him (and visa versa.)
Despite all the animals and spiders, Till prided himself on keeping a clean establishment. By 1885 the spiders had built a respectable foot-thick wall of webbing over the ceiling. Visitors came from far and wide to see the amazing zoo, stuffed animals, and the spiders at work. The Phoenix was a city landmark and sailors and captains alike made sure to stop there frequently. While running the saloon, Till started other ventures—a stage line down to Mexico and personally escorted tours into the back country.
Before one of these tours, his bartender became sick. Till learned of a bartender vacationing in the city and hired him on the spot and then left quickly on the scheduled tour. Ten days later he returned only to find the industrious man had cleaned out every last cobweb in the place, destroying his endeavor of ten years.
Of course nowadays the health commissioner would frown on such a place. But how about you? What is the most unusual sight you have come across in your travels?
Comment for a chance to win Kathryn’s newest book The Gunslinger and the Heiress. She’ll be giving away three copies today. (With apologies, but Continental United States only.)
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From her first breath, Kathryn Albright has had a passion for stories that celebrate the goodness in people. She combines her love of history and her love of a good story to write novels of inspiration, endurance, and hope. Visit her at www.kathrynalbright.com, on Facebook , Twitter, or Goodreads.