A Home By Any Other Name
Can you imagine living, cooking and raising children in a hole in the ground? Bugs, spiders, dirt falling into your food? No windows to let in the light of day or allow for a glimpse of blue sky?
According to Wikipedia, a “dugout or dug-out, also known as a pit-house, earth lodge, mud hut, is a shelter for humans or domesticated animals and livestock based on a hole or depression dug into the ground. Dugouts can be fully recessed into the earth, with a flat roof covered by ground, or dug into a hillside. They can also be semi-recessed, with a constructed wood or sod roof standing out.”
My mother called them dirt-pits, or sometimes hell-holes. Her father was a farmer, the best around when he worked for someone else, but Grandfather wanted to farm his own land. Trouble was, without someone to tell him what to do when, he tended to not get anything done. The result was near starvation at times.
As the oldest of twelve children, Mother left home quite early to work as a live-in maid in other people’s homes. But in her years with the family, she never once lived in a home the family owned. They lived with relatives, rented, or most often, moved into abandoned homes. Often these were dugouts. The children had no beds, only thin, straw-stuffed mattresses on the floor, which they shared, four to a bed. Only their parents slept in a bed. These dugouts had generally been dug out of side hills and had only one room, with a roof of boards covered with dirt and sod. Many pioneers started out with dugouts or sod houses, moving out as soon as a real house could be built, after which the dugout was abandoned or used for cold storage. My grandmother would line the walls and ceiling with newspaper to limit the amount of dirt filtering down onto every surface.
But not even newspaper could keep out all the critters. The ones my grandfather hated most were the centipedes. They measured 4-7” long and had a poisonous bite. Frequently, too much so for Grandfather’s comfort, these insects found their way out of the ground and onto the paper lining the ceiling. The scratching noises made by hundreds of tiny feet kept the family awake at night and drove my grandfather insane.
I used this fun little feature in my book, To Have And To Hold, a western historical romance about a widow, Tempest Whitney, who had two small children and whose house had been washed away by a flashflood. Her not-too-reliable husband, Skeet, went to town to buy materials to build them a new shelter, lost the money in a faro game, and tried to solve the dilemma by stealing an army payroll. A posse shot and killed him, leaving my heroine to figure out alone how to house and feed her babies. Without money for lumber, her only option was to deepen a hollow in the side of a hill with her only tool, a shovel with a broken handle. By the time the hero came along, her new home had been made semi-comfortable, but her troubles had been compounded by a neighboring rancher who wanted her land. He bought up her IOUs and gave her a choice—marry him or get out. She was more shocked than anyone when the wedding was interrupted by a dark-haired stranger who claimed to be her supposedly dead husband.
Buck Maddux was a drifter, newly released from a Utah prison after spending two years hard labor for being wrongly convicted of helping Tempest’s husband steal that payroll. Actually, Buck happened upon Skeet after the thief had been shot and stayed so the man wouldn’t have to die alone. No sooner had the thief closed his eyes for the final time when the army caught up and assumed Buck was Skeet’s partner in crime. Naturally, Buck wasn’t too fond of Skeet’s memory, but before the man died, Buck had promised to make sure Skeet’s family was okay. To Buck’s mind, Tempest marrying a lowdown, black-mailing rancher who treated women worse than he treated his horse was not “okay.” What else could he do but claim to be Skeet Whitney himself?
The centipedes was only one of the stories my mother told me about life in a dugout that I used in To Have And To Hold. Such details added a richness to the tale it wouldn’t had otherwise, and made writing the book more fun for me. I’ve seen a few dugouts, been inside one I will never forget, and I can tell you I would NOT like living in one. Almost makes a person feel claustrophobic just thinking about it.
Oh, and there were the snakes, too. Rattlers loved to crawl behind the wood stove and into the wood box. Of course, they also liked warm beds.
Most of this adventure of my mother’s took place in the dust bowl capital, the Oklahoma panhandle. I don’t even want to think about dwelling in a dirt house, buried every few weeks by dust from a dust storm. Keeping the dust out was impossible. The family slept in it, breathed it, ate it in their food, wore it in their cleanest clothes.
How do you think you would have fared living in similar conditions? Have any stories of dugouts or sod houses you’d like to share?
Charlene Raddon has been writing western historical romance novels for well over thirty years. Her second completed book, Tender Touch, was a golden Heart Finalist under the title Brianna. This brought her an agent and, soon, a three-book contract with Zebra Books, an imprint of Kensington Books. She had five books published by Zebra Books. The third, Forever Mine, received a Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award Nomination. All of her books were well received with high ratings. Tender Touch and Forever Mine are already available in electronic format. The e-book of To Have And To Hold will be released January 31, 2013 by Tirgearr Publishing.
Readers can find an excerpt from Chapter One of To Have And To Hold on her webpage, www.charleneraddon.com.
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