Illness sometimes provides me with time and stillness to listen to my inner self – whatever that is. At least, this spring (March-April 2014) did just that. As I lay back in my recliner recuperating from minor illness, words began to seem to float by my ears. One day after I listened to them, I jumped up and wrote them down: ‘Not every itch needs a scratch’ came the first one. Then another one came ‘Every man has his story. Some tells it and some don’t.” And another one, and another and another….
I sat in the recliner with insufficient energy to get up, as other images began to join those ‘pithy sayings’ that just kept coming. When I was a child at the Running Water Ranch in Wyoming, I helped raise a garden across the road from the house. Further across the meadow lay the railroad tracks. From time to time, a hobo – as we called them then – would walk in to the ranch asking for a handout and offering to chop some wood or a similar task. These wandering men often had an interesting story to tell as they sat on the back porch eating fried chicken and whatever else we had to share. I loved to hover nearby to listen.
Laying there in the recliner years later revisiting some of those visits and the stories, one of my own began to take place. It grew by bits and pieces, quite unlike anything else I’ve written, and I loved it. The sheer joy of a story just ‘coming to me’ was wonderful. First the beginning took shape, then the ending. Gradually, a whole series of events took place, and a plot emerged. Suddenly, it was four months from start to finish and, not just a short story emerged, but a novella of just over 10,000 words.
And best of all, I loved it. I admit that I am not sure what comes next, but this fall I will look for some place to publish this historical fiction story. It was too much fun to just toss to one side. I ran it by some writers at the Wyoming Writers’ Conference in Sheridan earlier this summer and it passed muster. I think it still needs some further editing and discussing with other writers, but that will come soon. So far I call it “The Man and The Boy” as those are the main characters. And both of them have their stories to tell.
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From home page:
The transition from traditional housewife to ‘lady of the evening’ probably came rather swiftly after Dell/then called Marie Fisher discovered that she was at least the second wife of a man already married. This can only be a good ‘guesstimate’ as there is no known fact of this event. Even her family always wondered why this came about (per great-niece Loraine Fisher).
She entered the profession about 1912, coinciding with the death of a woman in childbirth who was married to a man of the same name as her ‘husband’. At that time, she would have been ‘living in sin’ for about five to seven years and hence without skills could expect to work as a maid, housekeeper or similar lower class lower pay. However the adventurous Marie chose a socially lower class job with much higher pay and travel opportunities.
She focused on the entertainment needs of the lonely men who poured into the uncharted west to strike it rich. In 1919, the genteel and gracious Burke opened the Yellow Hotel brothel in Lusk, Wyoming, where she reigned for six decades, until 1978. Although condemned for her profession, she was beloved for her generosity and her devotion to the community. For example, during the Depression, Burke financed Lusk’s water-power system and single-handedly saved the town from going bankrupt.
Read interviewed locals, historians, and Burke descendents to present a fascinating story of a little-known entrepreneurial powerhouse.
“As a teenager in Lusk, Wyoming, I was only 16 when I first met this unique lady, Dell Burke. I still have vivid memories of a most classy courtesan. June Willson Read has accomplished a near miracle in bringing Dell back to life for all to also know and appreciate.
“You will recognize the scent of expensive French perfume and be amused at how she paid for nearly everything with carefully prepared packets of $5.00 bills. Pleasure was her business. But Dell’s pleasure was making her clients the happiest men in that part of the world.”
--George Wm. Treat Flint, Executive Director, Nevada Brothel Owner’s Association
“It is a difficult journey to discover the family history of a private person. I was happy to collaborate with June Willson Read, whose extensive research helped find some of the missing pieces of the picture of my great aunt, Dell Burke, one of the self-made women of the West. The summer of 1981 focused on the estate of one of the last madams of the West, but as you read Frontier Madam, you will learn the rest of the story.”
-- Loraine A. Fisher, great niece of Dell Burke
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I had always wondered who Great Uncle Ed Willson was and why he was not often mentioned in other stories about the building of the Running Water Ranch I grew up on. I ran into pictures of him and stories about his involvement in the Guernsey ranch in the early 1900s, in a book Cowboy Days, by Charles Guernsey. And family lore seemed to indicate Ed had a drinking problem, but somehow this did not seem a likely reason to run him off –unless there was more. Well, the MORE became much more as I read the letters.
The little one room gray wooden homestead building in the ranch orchard had some mystery, but was more in my mind a great place to play – we called it the playhouse. And in my teen years, I moved out there in the hot summers to renovate it, and enjoy some privacy with the cats. Discovering my grandmother’s plans for it in 1935 amazed me.
Observing the changes in technology fascinated me. The letters include descriptions of early use of the telephone, which began to replace letters and telegrams, the early airplanes which drew the intrigue of automobile drivers to stop and watch, how early radio was a delight, and on and on. The advent of electricity, stoves and more pleased my ancestors no end.
Letter writing was much more in use – of course, no internet with email, hand held cell phones, texting, etc., replaced this as the years passed. Letters were handwritten generally – a few were typed by a secretary type here and there – and often long and full of information. A frequent occurrence was to repeat some of what the other person had said or asked, and then to go on almost as though the conversation was right there.
I was so privileged to have access to these bits of family history – these very few members of future generations will have a similar privilege. I look forward to continuing to unravel my family’s past through the letters.
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I’ve just finished a project about pioneers in Wyoming whose interviews I conducted in 1951. This does mean that they have all died in the meantime and so the articles are ‘dated’ but are still precious bits of history of the western frontier. This booklet is a rewrite of those original interviews and contains pictures of each of the dozen or so individuals.
Titled Pages From the Past; Stories From Niobrara Homesteaders, this booklet will be published by the Niobrara County Historical Society and will be on sale at the Stagecoach Museum in Lusk, Wyoming by this summer.
I want to share some of the early adventures of these brave settlers on the frontier. Adventures that stirred my mind and may do the same for you. Most of them take place in the late 1800s or early 1900s, as homesteaders went west to find work and a new place to raise their families.
Alone in their soddy cabin, one young woman was tending her kitchen tasks when she suddenly felt eyes boring into the back of her head. Turning her head toward the one door in the single room building, she saw a large timber wolf standing on the door step staring intently at her. What thoughts crowded through her mind are awesome. They stared at each other for some time before the wolf tilted his head as though uncertain what to make of her, and then slowly turned away and left.
‘Go West Young Man, Go West’ was not an idle slogan in those days. One young man was so excited by stories his friend brought back from a trip to Wyoming, that he took all his savings and a few pieces of clothing and without telling his family or other friends, headed to Wyoming for his own adventure. He and his friend discovered that cowboys had to have their own horses and so did not get to join the roundups. Later he completed the dream.
Early attempts to make a pie or biscuits provided a challenge for some homesteaders. Lack of a good recipe book made the product inedible, but definitely a lesson in resourcefulness.
Entertainment on the frontier varied from Saturday night parties at someone’s house to hunting and fishing, as well as chokecherry picking. One man chose to collect rattlesnake rattles – from the abundant supply of snakes that were there first. After filling a large matchbox, he gave up and just kept removing these snakes to provide safety for his family.
Those early days called for hard physical labor, self-sufficiency, resourcefulness, and courage. Many people died young, especially women in childbirth, and children from various diseases. What a contrast their life was with ours today.
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When Globe Pequot Publishing informed me that I had to downsize my manuscript, the request felt catastrophic.
Deleting about 20,000 words from the original 75,000 word manuscript for Frontier Madam was both daunting and irritating, but I realized early on that these deletions could be shared here, so here’s some of the deleted material …
Burr Bryant said that somebody turned his granddad in one time, they never knew who did it.
But during the drought, land was so dry you could see any car coming on those dusty roads, and you knew it had to be the Sheriff cause he’s about the only one who had a car.
It was about a quarter of a mile of our road to the house and here we seen this car coming. Father was just ready to make a delivery on this whiskey, had it all bottled up. He seen this car coming, knew it had to be the sheriff.
And what’s he going to do with the whiskey. He had it right there.
At that time, a man named Bill Hassed was the sheriff and he came in and said, “I got a search warrant for your place.” Course old Bill was a good friend of father’s but that didn’t stop the sheriff. If he had a search warrant for you, he’d arrest you. He didn’t care how much of a friend he was.
Mother was there doing the washing. She had maybe three kids in diapers and she was washing diapers. She had this tub full of water so she just moved the diapers over and threw the whiskey in the tub and covered them over with dirty diapers.
The Sheriff come in the house and searched it, and he looked at that tub of diapers. Two or three times he reached over like he was going to reach down in there but he didn’t like them dirty diapers so he didn’t reach down in there. He left without finding any whiskey.
Then another time, there was a guy called Slim, who had some whiskey he was ready to run off. He says to Burr’s Granddad, “They’re right on my tail. They had me once and put me in jail, and they’re watching me closely. I’ve got this mash ready to run off. I can’t run it off at home cause they got their eye on my trailer day and night. If you’ll take it and run it off, I’ll give you half.”
That night Father went to the man’s place and got it. He set it up in a tent by a water hole and run it off. It took a couple three days. And one day, the sheriff come by, wanted to know what the tent was.
Father says, “Well we’re calving, and when one of the new calves gets cold we just put it in that tent and warm it up.”
The sheriff looked at the tent, but went on without even looking inside.
When Slim came back, he asked Granddad, “Did you get that mash ready?”
“Yeah. You rode right past it. Did ya see that tent down by the water hole?”
Boy, you never seen anybody run and get in their saddle as quick and get out of there as old Slim did.
Then there’s the time Fred was working for Jess. And Jess didn’t have any money to pay him, so he asked if granddad would wait for his money.
Fred said, “Yeah, I guess I’ll have to.” Then he thought of something. “I tell you what. If you put on a dance this weekend and let me use one of your bedrooms, well, after it’s over we’ll call it square.”
In those days, it was a common thing to hold a party or dance at your house of a Saturday. Good country entertainment and folks from all around came to visit.
Well, Fred had his whiskey all bottled up and he brought it in. He put it in that bedroom and sold it out the window. After the dance was over, Jess asked, “Did you come out all right?”
Fred said, “Yeah! I done all right; you don’t owe me a thing.”
Even children were drawn into bootlegging situations. One day, while five-year-old Russ Christensen and his brother were playing up in the hills north of the house they found an old bucket with copper tubing in it. They were delighted with their find and were sure they could clean it up and sell it.
When they packed it back to the house, they discovered their dad was talking with revenuers who became quite interested in their find. Thanks to the rusty condition of the bucket, they decided the tubing was not part of a still currently in operation and the Feds went on their way. The boys later sold the tubing, happily making a good profit.
Another time, the Christensen children were sent out to gather the chicken eggs. In a nest in the hay, they discovered two jugs of whiskey. Undoubtedly left by a man who had visited the day before – just before the Feds came and picked him up.
Artist Evelyn Vantrek's rendition of the Yellow Hotel
The raucous roller coaster years of Prohibition created work, excitement and above all, financial and emotional relief from the depression and issues that bore down hard.
For some country families it was the only cash crop they had during the drought filled depressed years.
Not everyone was excited about producing moonshine; there were some who objected strongly to what production and consumption of alcohol did to drinkers.
Many who produced whiskey during the Prohibition era stopped making it when the prohibition was lifted and times got better.
Works in Progress
After spending two years committing the family letters to computer I wrote several stories and was near the end of how the ranch came into being when it was interrupted by a trip to Wyoming where I planned to do further research and finish that story. However, life intervened heavily when I tripped during a conference early in June and broke my kneecap. Life seemed to shift into slow gear as I sat back to let it heal. Also I had just recently learned that Frontier Madam had gone out of print and additional copies were not available.
Needless to say the family story took a back seat as I pondered and planned what to do next. The Nuggets family story is still on a back burner, but won’t be tossed aside completely. I hope to work on it intermittently, but am not making any promises.
The upshot is that I have decided to reprint the Madam’s book with the help of a Greensboro friend – more on that as it becomes available – and to produce a companion book filled with additional interesting stories I could locate about Dell Burke as well as stories that somehow related to her times. Working title (obvious) is Legends of Dell Burke and Her Times. Had to tack ‘and Her Times’ on to accommodate the great stories I had collected originally about moonshine, its production and ducking the law as one produced moonshine.
The connection between moonshine and Dell Burke is that she served liquor in her hotel – which was about the only place a thirsty cowboy or rancher could find a drink of alcohol. Dell carefully chose her suppliers to avoid ones who were not so scrupulous about what they used to make their product.
During the presentation July 12 at the Stagecoach Museum in Lusk I was delighted to connect with a number of folks who have more stories and memories about Dell Burke. I’ve begun collecting interviews with folks who could add one more piece, and will continue to do that in person and via phone.
Such excitement. Energy. Fun. A new project. A new direction. Wait’ll you see what I do!!
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While I was in Wyoming summer 2009 promoting Frontier Madam, I gratefully picked up several boxes of family letters which dated back to 1700s, 1800s and 1900s which my sisters, Phyllis and Mary Jean, were holding. Over the next couple of years I ‘transcribed’ them onto the computer and printed out the more than 1100 pages.
As I read them, I shared the contents with my daughter, Peggy, who finally said, Mom, you need to write up your ‘aha’ moments as your next book. Many people had said to me how fortunate we were to have such a treasure as these old letters, and I could see how we were learning so much of our family history from them.
The working title has become ‘Nuggets from a Family Gold Mine’ and I have drafted about half a dozen chapters for it so far, delineating why Great Uncle Ed was the “family black sheep”, and noting other family events. As I transcribed the letters, personal memories and family stories drifted to the surface of my mind to be woven in with the history.
At this point I have no idea how much more will arise, but I would not be surprised as I reread the letters if an entire book emerges.
In the meantime, the Writers’ Group of the Triad has produced two anthologies that some of my work is included in. An excerpt from the ‘Nuggets’ about an old homestead building that sat in the ranch orchard is included in a memoir collection, You Must Remember This.
The Children’s Writers from WGOT, produced a collection of verse and stories for ages 5 through 12, entitled Doorway to Adventure, that includes two of my cat stories.
The short historical fiction stories have been laid aside for now – leaving way for the chapters of the Nuggets book. I find it hard to write on more than one book at a time.
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As a Gemini, I have a hard time doing just one thing, and at the same time, I have a hard time keeping up with all the things I say yes to.
The half dozen historical fiction short stories I started before Frontier Madam was published are still on a back burner. I began establishing the setting mid-Wyoming while I visited that state last summer.
Another project I have longed to do for some years is coming to fruition. In 1951, the Lusk, Wyoming, Lusk Herald published interviews I conducted with about a dozen pioneers. After publication that summer, the newspapers went into the archives. From time to time, I have thought about reproducing them as a booklet.
A North Carolina friend, Peggy Rooks is doing the layout for the booklet, now titled Pages From the Past; Stories from Niobrara Homesteaders. With the help of descendents and my sister, Phyllis Hahn (in Lusk), I have been able to locate pictures for all of the pioneers. Originally, there were no pictures published for several people.
This booklet will become the property of the Niobrara County Historical Society in Lusk for sale in the Stagecoach Museum by this coming summer. Artwork of a pioneer type cabin was provided by Joe Chapman, Jay Em, Wyoming.
At the same time, I have already begun a major project – the story of Running Water Ranch where I grew up. I have several boxes of old letters I am transcribing, along with account and journal records of ranch activities
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After I finished writing Frontier Madam, I decided to delve into the history of my family and the people I had interviewed and began writing short historical fiction stories.
Now I want to revise a historical fiction story, I’m calling “Back Home”. I knew it dragged along telling the story from the grandmother’s point of view and I could not seem to bring it to life.
As I talked about this story with friends I was surprised to learn how many people do not have a clear concept of what they might call back home. Some people don’t even have a ‘back home’ at all.
My ‘back home’ is based on growing up on the Running Water Ranch in eastern Wyoming. I know exactly where and what that means to me, as a backdrop to my values, my sense of background and where I come from. A deep sense of belonging to something, someone, somewhere.
In more recent times, this sense has been called into question as the land changed hands, the house was demolished, and weather made natural changes in the landscape in my absence. It has been a challenge and pleasure to deal with these issues in this story.
But shifting the story to attract readers was a challenge until one morning I awoke with it all laid out for me. I was surprised to suddenly ‘know’ exactly what had to be done, with an outline in mind. It was as though someone had put the outline in my head while I slept – my muse maybe? So where I am right now is in the revision process.
At the same time that I am revising, I am preparing presentations and schedules for Frontier Madam in two states – NC and WY. Another challenge – exciting and fulfilling.
Write from the heart. Write what you know. Write often. Read much. Read so much that you can notice what sort writing style appeals to you and notice what sort of writing bores you, and what’s poorly written. Apply that knowledge to your own writing.
Stories that interest me move me to write things that are interesting to readers. At least to readers who like the same things I do. I do not advocate writing to meet the expectations of the market, the current trends or other people’s opinions of ‘hot’ topics. By the time your work reaches an appropriate market, the ‘trends’ will have moved on by. Write to your own ‘trend’ first and foremost.
Writing is a bit like riding a bike they tell me – since I never learned to ride a bike I can’t say that from experience. However, from my observation, it seems to be true. First the rider-to-be examines the equipment, notes what skills are needed, what sort of hand-eye coordination is to be used, and then attempts to use this information. Early attempts often include a fall to the ground, just as early attempts at writing may end up on the floor or in the wastebasket.
But persistence, riding more and more, writing more and more, pays off. The other thing that helps the writer write better is to read more. Especially reading the kind of books or stories you currently want to write. Save other genres for later, as you focus on that young adult historical fiction you have in sight, and read all the young adult historical fictions you can find at the library.
Writing is like discovering a new part of yourself. It can uncover a somewhat vulnerable part you may not have realized you are sharing. Again – find a place, a group of similarly struggling writers – and get feedback on what you are doing, what your strong points are, what needs work. Hang in there. It will pay off. One day you will notice you are no longer just a wannabe writer, you are an Author!
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If I wait until everything is perfect – health, time use, local and national events – if all is in good order, I’ll never get on with writing.
Still, a quieting down of some parts of my life are necessary to make way for writing. Some of the obvious things that interfere with writing include being overtired, being very hungry, having too much on my plate (too many to dos I have collected), feeling a financial crunch, grief over losses, and other similar things and events, illness or physical issues.
Last spring I visited the Virgin Islands with my daughter. I knew ahead of time that physically I would not be able to keep pace with her as we went along, but even though I mentioned that I don’t think she realized until we actually got there and began ‘running around’ just what I meant. It was hard for me to walk; my back hurt. I was slow and sat down a lot.
Visiting our friend, Marlene Penn in Tortola, brought it all to the surface. Waving fingers in my face, these two concerned ladies impressed me that I MUST do something about my knee and physical problems when I got home. I insisted my knee was not too bad and was grateful when my Greensboro orthopedic doctor agreed, HOWEVER she did note that both of my hips were down to bone on bone and needed work.
As she said that, I knew immediately what needed to happen – two hip replacements! The first was completed October 12, 2011, and the second is scheduled for March 12. Already I am pleased that I got this done – left hip no longer hurts so much, and right one longs for the knife. I had had no surgery in past 69 years – but my body totally agreed with the diagnosis.
Why is all this important? I had not quite realized how pain can interfere with creativity. But it does. Resolution of the hip issue did not totally stop my writing, but it surely slowed it down.
So how does one clear the mind with such issues on it? Coming to terms with the reality, making concrete plans for resolution, and lots of patience as things progress. Somehow this last was or is my hardest. I like to get things done. Now! But muscle tissue does not heal instantly. Slowly, but surely, it resolves and allows the mind to dwell on other issues.
If one of the issues is having too much to do, it may be time to prioritize your activities. I think for some reason, having the hip surgery made me do this more than I had for some time. What’s important? What can I do without? I don’t really need to do everything other people want me to. I’ve bowed out of teaching – too hard to ‘run’ around campus. I’ve resigned from two groups I was in – I’m not writing children’s stories just now. I’ve resigned from writing for the WGOT newsletter – this was sad, but I just could not keep up, was not driving, and it was too hard to do just now. After about 18 years of being the major writer for that newsletter, I gave it up. Sad but relief and more time and energy for what I really want to do now.
I am a list maker – granted sometimes I follow it and sometimes I pitch it out partly finished. But the process seems to help me clear my way to getting started.
Just jumping in on the easiest chapter has helped me get on with the Nuggets book. Reviewing what I want to do next helps.
Lots of pats on the back help – now, realize most of them come from ME! No one else really knows how hard it has been for me to come back to the keyboard and start writing again. But, just jumping in and doing a little bit day by day has gotten me back to wanting to write again. And I am pleased!
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Feeling at a loss for direction? Everybody else is writing something and you want to but just can’t get started? Looking at the page and keyboard or paper and pencil and thinking I can’t do this, until you turn away and feel an itch to write?
I prefer not to label this as writers’ block, though some folks do. I prefer to simply notice it, and turn to my journal pages. Which by the way are not all labeled journal. There’s a section I can AFD pages – Anxiety, Frustration and Despair. This sums up my feelings of ‘I can’t write’ and often after I admit to myself that is where my hesitation is coming from, writing gets easier.
Exploring the AFD also gives me a chance to vent some of those feelings as well as locate the source, and consider alternative ways to resolve them, if possible. Admittedly there are some issues I can’t resolve, and those I have to commend over to a Higher Power, or someone else. But at least I can do an attitude change that permits me to proceed.
Another way to look at this would be to realize that there are some things in our lives that interfere with writing. Being hungry. Getting over tired. Having a fight with someone. Having too much on your plate – too many times you’ve said yes and more than one human can possibly do. Getting or being sick. No time available. No convenient place to write.
If any of these are interfering with your writing, it’s time to take action – a small action, but action. First, a tall glass of water, followed by sitting and looking out the window – see the trees, animals, people outside for a short while. Then, go to your writing space – or begin to make one – and write about what’s stopping you. What is it that making it difficult to write? You can write, you’ve already proven that, but this is a ‘right now’ temporary setback that can be managed.
After you have written about the issues, you may want to take a break, stop for the day, or you may be ready to star the biggest or easiest one or two, and begin considering how you can work with that. Later you can work on the others, one by one – and some will actually dissolve over time.
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What makes me think I can write a column about tips for writers? Well … I’ve been writing, learning about the writing process, and teaching writing classes for all ages of writers for at least 40 years. For the past five years I have been teaching writing nonfiction for adults and stories for children at Guilford Technical Community College.
Regardless of the length of your current writing project, or whether it is fiction or nonfiction, there are times when it is hard to get moving. I am a firm advocate of journaling; and if you are a devotee of Julia Cameron/The Artist’s Way, much of this may be redundant – or perhaps a reminder of its value.
I recommend keeping a journal daily. Three pages or half an hour would be optimum. Even if you don’t produce this much every time, this is a good goal.
What goes into the journal? Not a diary though some entries may read like one, the journal is more the repository for almost anything you want to put there. Laundry lists of things you need to do today, this week or this year. An account of the fight you had with your significant other or child. Examination of a feeling, experience or idea you might have.
Exploration of a story idea or a scene, description of a setting or character all fit into the journal. Each entry offers an opportunity to practice putting your words on paper, letting them roll off your finger tips.
What about those days when you really don’t want to journal? Well, I suggest to my students that they have a good argument with me. Such as: “I don’t want to write in this stupid journal today even though June says I should! (Use lots of exclamation points here!!) I don’t even know what to write today. I can’t think. This is dumb and it …”
As you keep writing you may notice that perseverance brings you to actually writing something more productive in time.
In addition to being an opportunity to explore pieces of a manuscript you are writing, the journal gives you a place to move past the initial hesitation of putting words on paper. Sometimes we fear getting started lest it not be perfect enough, lest it appear silly, etc., etc., but the journal is forgiving of all that. And the next time you want to really write something, your writing gears have been lubricated by the practice.
One question that often faces new writers is where do ideas come from? How do I know what to write about?
The answer is right under our noses – ideas are everywhere, whether it’ll be how to make the garden grow well in dry weather, or an imaginary trip into space based on a TV research-based show, a childhood memory or some chance remark made by a friend.
As my brother asked, why did I want to write about a prostitute? Well… I had never really hankered to write about a prostitute and that’s not the way it started.
I had always known that Dell Burke ran the Yellow Hotel ‘down that street’ past the railroad depot, but my activities almost never took me down there. And as a child growing up in the country with lots to do and think about out there, I was not overly curious about the Madam.
It took the opportunity in 1981 to tour her hotel one year after she died when her estate was on sale to pique my curiosity. Listening to people tell anecdotes about Dell, and noticing the contents of the hotel, began to bring her to life for me.
However, other events in my life took precedence as I landed my first counseling job after I completed my doctoral program in Texas. I wrote a number of non-fiction pieces for the newspaper in Worland, for distribution to our clients at the mental health center there, and occasionally my imagination would carry me away to play with other subjects (not written for clients however).
About 20 years later, I chanced onto a reminder that Dell’s story was still of interest to people and I decided to pursue the subject.
I would warn you aspiring biography writers that you will want to spend years (at least 3 or more) just researching your subject in order to locate and validate as much information as possible.
Talk with people who knew your subject. Read what other people have said about him/her. Read about the experiences of others who held similar occupations and were involved in similar activities. Go where your subject lived and worked. Talk with their family and friends if possible. Get a flavor of the surroundings that were important to your subject and why.
Consider why you would want to write this biography? Notice whether this person would be of national or regional interest – whether other people have written biographies about this person and how yours would be different.
Then dig in. And digging you will be. The deeper you dig, the more you will realize how little you really know about what went on in his/her mind.
If you continue to pursue this project – this biography – to its conclusion, you may come to feel you know this person better than anyone else in the world does, or at least that you know him/her as well as you know your own family.
In my case, Dell had been living a double life and few people in Lusk knew her family. At the same time, she had been careful to tell her family only that she ran a hotel in Lusk, but not what went on there. Known to them as Marie Fisher Law, she loved her family and stayed in close contact with several members. It was satisfying to bring the two sides of Dell Burke/Marie Fisher Law together to help her be appreciated as a whole unique person.
Recently I was asked how I conducted my research for Frontier Madam: The Life of Dell Burke, Lady of Lusk. Good question since there were no diaries, journals, or other written records kept by the discreet madam. What a treasure trove that would have been. Oh well…lacking that I went to work to find what was available.
My guiding decisions were to search for the story of the woman, not to do an exposé, or to write a pornographic piece. I wanted to write Dell Burke’s story, so I went to people who had known her and learned from them what she had told about herself.
This meant looking for folks in their 70s and 80s, especially for residents from her hometown of Lusk, WY, as well as younger ones. Hearing the same story told by contributors with different time frames helped me verify the stories and when the events occurred. Gathering so much information also added to the challenge of putting it all together.
In all, I interviewed over 100 people, of whom about two dozen chose to talk anonymously, and a few had ‘tasted the delights’ of the Yellow Hotel. Many contributors were business people who had served Dell and her girls, some were neighbors, and others had listened to tales she had told. Putting these stories together was aided when several contributors gave the same information, though perhaps they had a more exact date or details.
After I came back to Greensboro with tapes and tapes of interviews, I turned to friends who helped transcribe the contents (most for a small fee). Since the material was collected as it rolled out of memories, it required considerable sorting and selection to place it into decades and relevance.
Once that was done, the next step was deciding what to include and what to leave out, then how to tell the story. I chose to tell each event from the viewpoint of Dell herself, even though it was told by an outside person. This was a challenge, but a worthwhile one.
Even while conducting the interviews I realized that there were many unanswered questions so I searched further. Local newspapers, such as The Lusk Free Lance and The Lusk Herald (and its predecessor The Lusk Herald and Van Tassel Pioneer) yielded valuable information. Personal information about Dell was rarely reported. Even when her main man of at least 25 years died in 1955, she was not mentioned in the front-page article that described his death. Her own 1980 obituary was abbreviated.
The Lusk City Police Docket described appearance she and other madams made over the years. From these, I learned what she was fined – often $100/month – and that she was accused of “the crime or offense of maintaining a disorderly house.” On the same dates a number of girls were in court “accused of the crime or offense of being inmates in a disorderly house.” I could also tell that she stopped having to face the court monthly by the end of 1930.
Many other areas of her life were described in letters written by Dell and other documents shared by contributor Bruce Bergstrom (her CPA in the 1960s), items from the Pioneer Memorial Museum in Douglas, WY, the Stagecoach Museum in Lusk, and Loraine Fisher, Dell’s great-niece.
The Pioneer Memorial Museum has a Dell Burke Collection, which yielded information about Dell’s interests, reading and shopping habits. Loraine Fisher shared boxes of Dell’s documents and memorabilia which validated Dell’s real estate purchases and other items. An especially interesting item was a scrapbook Dell’s mother had kept of newspaper clippings, recipes and various other items, which provided interesting bits and pieces of information.
Various friends gifted me with information about or books written about brothels, madams and prostitutes in Wyoming and the west about the time the Yellow Hotel was in operation. As one friend said, “I have a most interesting library now.” Only he said pornographic library and I corrected him – for actually almost none of the books delve into pornography, but rather talk about the lives of these women.
These books helped me see why someone would enter the business, and how their lives were affected. I could better understand the conditions under which they lived, and could even more appreciate Dell’s success and reasons for implementing her personal and business behavioral rules.
Other resources included online information, encyclopedias, and books written about that era as well as about the business.
A long week-end visit (as well as numerous emails) with her family provided me with another way of seeing her. From their experience, Marie was a special, interesting, yet private woman who loved her family and did what she could for them. This was a unique view of the Lusk madam and pointed up once more how she kept the halves of her double life separate.
I will admit that in this process, I stopped thinking of Marie Fisher Law, dba Dell Burke, as a prostitute or madam. I came to see her as a well-rounded woman with family and friends, pride and shame, AND a long-lasting business that was illegal and publicly unacceptable to most people.
While I was in Wyoming this summer (2014), I made the following presentation at the Lusk Stage Coach Museum on July 12.
I couldn’t help thinking of the proverb ‘When life gives you lemons – make lemonade.’ It probably originated in 1915 when an obituary was written about a dwarf who capitalized on his condition and life to become successful.
Frontier Madam; the Life of Dell Burke, Lady of Lusk was printed in 2008 by Globe Pequot Press. I have made numerous presentations for various types of audiences over the past six years and when I planned a visit to Wyoming for this spring I fully planned to make several presentations as well as visiting family.
My lemons began falling on me early in May this spring – when the Frontier Madam book went out of print suddenly and without warning.
Then I was told there were 17 books remaining in the warehouse and I could buy them – but they disappeared and I had only ten books to bring to WY for my ‘book sales tour’ – far too few for satisfaction.
A couple weeks after I arrived in WY, I attended the Wyo Writers’ Conference – met lots of good people, attended informative speeches and interesting workshops, took third place in the children’s fiction, but on the second day, I fell and broke my left kneecap – which by the way is a pretty painful process. I attended most of the conference sessions anyway.
One conference workshop really spoke to me – when you experience serious adversity (like I had run into) Chuck Sambuchino said to admit and accept the pain – it’s real – then get up and get going! Be creative. Think outside the box.
It was time to make lemonade -- Thanks to a suggestion from my sister Phyllis Hahn, I purchased a number of books at a reasonable price from amazon.com, so I had some for sale this summer.
Next, I hastily began a research on how to produce a second edition of Frontier Madam, and began working with a friend’s daughter in Greensboro, so that a new/second edition of Frontier Madam: The Life of Dell Burke, Lady of Lusk, can come out this fall.
In addition, I began gathering more ‘stories’ about Dell and her lifetime and expect to pull in material from chapters that were tossed out of the original. This second book will include both fact based and legend, oral history and/or folk lore. I invited the folks who were attending the presentation to give me contact information of they had a Dell Burke story that could be included. A number of them did so.
I had never known or seen Dell Burke when she was alive, but when I attended her estate sale in 1981 I knew her story needed to be told. Other life events intervened and I couldn’t do it then. I came back to Wyoming to visit family in 2000 and found the story was still alive and I decided to start researching it.
When I did, one thing I discovered is the huge lemon Dell faced when she was about 24 years old. Can you imagine how you would feel if you came home one day to learn that your spouse of about 7 years had been married to someone else all that time. In addition, what if he threw YOU out?
It was about that time – in 1912 – she told her family her husband had died. However, I have copies of two marriage certificates for Stephen J. Law – one with another woman in 1903, and one for Stephen and Marie Fisher in 1905. In 1912, his first wife died in childbirth. And did not find evidence that he was dead. When I shared a photo of Marie and Stephen with the family of the first wife, their first comment was how strongly Marie resembled his first wife. No further information on the Canadian railroad conductor could be found.
To learn that your spouse was already married to someone else would be an embarrassing situation for any of us in today’s world. And in those days, it was more than just embarrassing. Marie would have been a ‘soiled dove’ simply by virtue of having lived with a man – not properly married – for about seven years. This would have marked her as low class, and her future would have been as a washerwoman, waitress, housekeeper for a widower with children, or similar. She had been a housewife during her marriage and did not have the skills to teach or nurse.
However, Marie was a pretty young woman. She was spirited and intelligent. Gutsy. Feisty. We can only guess what the steps were that took her from her married status to becoming a high paid prostitute. But in its own way, it was both rewarding and demeaning.
She loved adventure. She loved nice things. She loved travel. And she got all of those from her new occupation. She spent time in Canada, Alaska, Montana, California, and finally in Wyoming. Along with many other adventuring women, she followed the men as they took jobs in the gold fields, in copper mines and finally where oil fields attracted the lusty young men.
Over the years, she maintained a close relationship with her family and clearly cared deeply for them all. She visited them in Michigan and they came to Wyoming to see her – but she carefully made sure they met few of her fellow Luskites by having them come to the Yellow Hotel in Lusk, and then whisked them out to her ranch.
To maintain the separation of occupation and family, she lived a double life. She never shared her Dell Burke life with her family, though they occasionally wondered how she could make a living from a hotel in Lusk. They knew her only as Marie Fisher Law. And she didn’t tell her Lusk friends about her family.
I met with Dell’s sister-in-law and niece in Michigan and they were in full accord with my telling Dell’s story. I spent time with them hearing stories about her, seeing things she had accumulated in her travels, and going over documents and letters she had left in boxes. I took home a pile to copy and further peruse. They had some say about the final story told.
Sometimes people ask whether I knew Dell Burke, or if I were one of her girls, or if I was her daughters. I’ve had to smile or laugh, but I do think I came to know Dell more fully than I ever could have if I had simply met or interviewed her in Lusk.
I feel honored and delighted to help tell her story – how she overcame adversity and made a fruitful, thoughtful, active, adventurous life for herself. There were so many coincidences that contributed to the success of this book – the telling of Dell’s life story – that it almost seemed inevitable that I should write it.
She arrived in Lusk by train from Casper with a friend named Bessie in 1919, and story has it that they looked across the road from the train station and set up a tent – and went to work.
Over the next several years they purchased land and buildings and established the Yellow Hotel which remained in business until about 1978. The practice of prostitution was illegal in Wyoming, as was alcohol sale, consumption and production which caused the hotel to be closed occasionally, but it never stayed shut.
What made Dell and her business special were her business acumen and guidelines – girls must behave modestly in public, as she did herself, drunken girls and/or clients were not allowed in. She studied business potentials and made a number of excellent investments – in people, products and stocks.
In preparation to write this book, I spent several years talking with and listening to over 100 people. Sometimes stories would spin off about seemingly unrelated events – droughts, storms, other pioneer experiences. I would have loved to include more of them in the book, Frontier Madam, however after I was under contract with Globe Pequot, they told me to delete 20,000 words from the manuscript.
When I angrily asked why, the answer was quite logical – a book of 70,000 words would have to sell for $25 +/-, whereas a book of 50,000 words could sell for under $15 and hence would be a better seller. Of course, I caved – I was a new unpublished author and wanted to get this book in print.
Some of the interesting stories that got dropped were about moonshining and I plan to use most of them in the companion book I am currently working on. For example, there was a time when Fred Bryant was working for Jess Boner. And Jess didn’t have any money to pay him a debt he owed, so he asked if Fred would wait for his money.
Fred said, “Yeah, I guess I’ll have to.” Then he thought of something. “I tell you what. If you put on a dance and let me have one of your bedrooms, well, after it’s over we’ll call it square.” In those days, it was common to hold a party or dance at your house of a Saturday. Good country entertainment.
Well, Fred had his whiskey all bottled up and he brought it in and put in a bedroom and sold it out the window. After the dance was over, Jess asked, “Did you come out all right?”
Fred said, “Yeah, I done all right, you don’t owe me a thing.”
Now, even though sale, purchase and use of alcohol was prohibited, if the law had come in, it was just a party, and nothing they could do about it.
Children were sometimes drawn into bootlegging situations. One day, five-year-old Russ Christensen and his brother were playing up in the hills north of the house they found an old bucket with copper tubing in it. They were delighted with their find and were sure they could clean it up and sell it.
When they packed it back to the house, they discovered their dad was talking with revenuers who became quite interested in their find. Thanks to the rusty condition of the bucket, they decided the tubing was not part of a still currently in operation and the Feds went on their way. The boys later sold the tubing, happily making a good profit.
I am looking forward to producing the companion book for Frontier Madam – my current working title is Legends of Dell Burke and Her Times – I want to include some stories that didn’t make the cut with the first book, as well as stories about writing the first book. Like the time I tried to photograph the painting an artist had done of the photograph on this book while I was visiting Dell’s family in Michigan. Hmmm – must have moved the camera – the face and body were clear enough but there was some fuzziness around it. I took another picture. Same thing happened. I took another – and then realized that my camera was picking up something my eyes could not see. I gave up – Dell did not seem to want me to photograph the painting.