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Old Houses of the West

by Sandra Dallas

Novelist Sandra Dallas joins us to discuss the inspiration behind her latest book, Where Coyotes Howl, a vivid and deeply affecting ode to the early twentieth-century American West.

Some years ago, my daughter and I were prowling through the wreckage of a ghost-town cabin in the Colorado mountains near Breckenridge, when I picked up a wooden box among the clutter. It fell apart in my hands. On the back of one broken piece was:

Tom Earley

Middle Swan


I was so intrigued by the writing on the board that I later gave Tom Earley’s name to a character in my 1997 novel, The Diary of Mattie Spenser. I even had him live in that cabin in Middle Swan, although there was no proof that such a town ever existed.

Credit: Sandra Dallas.

I found myself thinking about the real Tom Earley. Was he a miner? Did he live in that cabin? How did he survive the terrible winters at nearly 10,000 feet?

Deserted houses scattered through the mountain ghost towns and on the barren High Plains have always intrigued me. They make me wonder about the people who built the houses. Why had they come to such desolate places? Did they live fulfilling lives? Where had they gone and why?

So it was no surprise that when I wrote Where Coyotes Howl, I began the story with two women peering through the door of a deserted Wyoming homestead. As they take in the tattered newspaper that once served at wallpaper and torn curtains blowing through the broken glass of a window, one of them asks the other about the people who lived there. And so begins the story of Coyotes, as the second woman tells of Ellen Webster and Charlie Bacon, who moved into the house in the joyous first days of their marriage.

I’m not the first writer to be intrigued with the remains of the West’s old buildings, of course. In his poem “Fort Laramie,” Colorado poet Thomas Hornsby Ferril wrote of standing at a rotting building in Wyoming as he recalled the days of the great western plainsmen:

“Skylike grew delphiniums
“Through the planking cracks in the two-inch floor.”

And in “Walls,” my friend from my first days as a writer, Belle Turnbull, wrote about the layers of paper on the walls of a deserted house:

“You long to peel the stuff
“The Flowered, the plain, the dearbought dim brocade,
“Down to the muslin…
“It will set you thinking.”
Credit: Elisabeth Dyssegaard.

For years, we’ve explored these crumbling houses and barns and outbuildings. Even on the plains, we’d see an old house stripped of paint by the wind, sagging from the weight of winter snow, and stop the car. Then conscious that rattlesnakes might be napping, we’d walk through the dry golden grasses to the structure. Doors sagged—if there were doors—and floors were broken through. Sometimes there would be a scrap of calico caught on a nail or the remains of a chair, one leg gone. Once I found a table and brought it home. It was a nice table, and I wondered why it had been left behind.

There are fewer of those deserted houses now. Time and the elements have done their work. Sod houses made of strips of prairie grass stacked one on another by early homesteaders have melted into the earth. The frame houses have been torn apart by the wind and blown across the prairie. In the mountains, heavy snows have destroyed cabins, and scavengers have ripped apart the walls of weathered buildings to use the lumber in their homes. Houses aren’t being abandoned the way they used to be. And if they were, it’s hard to imagine some future writer being inspired by the remains of a tract house or a condo.

Sandra Dallas, dubbed “a quintessential American voice” in Vogue Magazine, is the author of over a dozen novels, including Prayers for Sale and Tallgrass, many translated into a dozen languages and optioned for films. Six-time winner of the Willa Award and four-time winner of the Spur Award, Dallas was a Business Week reporter for 35 years covering the Rocky Mountain region, and began writing fiction in 1990. She has two daughters and lives with her husband in Denver and Georgetown, Colorado.