The Pioneer Merchant and General Store

The old west general store is a well worn article of the western genre.  Like the magic stores and weapons merchants in Dungeons & Dragons your characters will eventually visit a General Store with the purpose of outfitting your group for the next adventure/bank holdup.  General stores were not always called a “General Store”.  Various other names were used such as Mercantile, General Supply, Merchandise, Dry Goods, Emporium, Groceries, Exchange, Commissary (especially near an Army fort) and Trading Post or across the border you might encounter an almacén, provisión, tienda or bodega.  The proprietors were often influential members of the community and one of the wealthier townsmen (but never the wealthiest).  These stores were very dependent on the railroad and wagon trains in order to keep their shelves stocked so prices were a bit higher than what was found back east.  This also meant they were often out of stock on some items.  Merchandise ran the gambit of canned goods, dry staples (flour, oats, rice, corn meal, coffee, etc.), clothes, shoes and boots, tools, lanterns and oil, blankets, bolts of cloth, ammunition, cutlery, furniture, game traps, bottled medicine, simple jewelry, and local staples such as eggs, cheese, bread, beer, whiskey, dried beef (jerky), and that ubiquitous item found in every saddle bag–bacon.  There was often only one general store in most small towns but as populations grew so did competition and other general stores would open as well as specialty shops that sold just guns and ammunition, tools and hardware, furniture, farm implements, saddlery, and feed& forage.  The storekeeper often ran an informal post office and had several catalogs available for customers to order by mail from upstart businesses like Sears Roebuck (est. 1888) and Montgomery Ward (est. 1872).

General stores can be a big factor in an adventure that is set in a town and the proprietor can be an important NPC.  In many western novels and pulps the proprietor gets himself in too deep with the wrong side of the cattle range.  Sometimes he takes out a loan he has problems paying back or he is forced by the local thugs to sell supplies only to their ranch and nothing to the “nesters” that are encroaching on grazing land.  In some cases he is in so deep that the basement of his store serves as a meeting place for the bad guys, a storage area for stolen goods or guns and even a temporary prison.  Below is a short article from Arizona Highways magazine about the Garner store in Prescott.

Pioneer Merchant


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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

good_the_bad_and_the_uglyThe Good, the Bad and the Ugly. 1966; Directed by Sergio Leone; 177 minutes; Cast: Clint Eastwood (Man with No Name), Lee Van Cleef (Angel Eyes), and Eli Wallach (Tuco). 

I watched this movie yet again–the extended English version from beginning titles to the end titles.  This time my son wanted to see it as he somehow picked up the “western” bug as far his favorite movies go.  He even drew a stylized picture from the opening gunfight from Once Upon a Time in the West (see below).  The movie was long and I was surprised to discover that I sat and watched it uninterrupted for the entire time–not even a bathroom break.  There is something new I notice each time I watch and in the end I’m simply amazed at just how good this movie is.  I won’t attempt to review the movie here as there are many other, better written reviews found on line (Ebert, cinescene, whatculture).  I did capture some images from the movie of some interesting western themed architecture (.pdf below).

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly screenshots

The greatest thing about The Good, The Bad and the Ugly for a gamer is that it will instantly put you into the “western mood”.   The movie is firmly set in the ‘mythical west” despite the Civil War elements.  In fact, this is something I find more often in Spaghetti Westerns–that the Spanish filming locations, Italian actors and semi-European buildings only serve to reinforce the mythical west setting.  Of course the soundtrack is incredible too and should be kept ready for background enjoyment while you paint your miniatures, set up your playing table run a scenario/campaign.

img_7091So here are some wallpapers to keep you in the mood after the movie…


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I’m Back


I’m so sorry for neglecting this blog for so long.  Last year, no sooner did I have a Grand Re-Opening on 2 April, than we had a very heartbreaking death in my family.  My father got sick in mid-May and was hospitalized for several weeks before passing away on the 15th of June.  He was 89 years old and congestive heart failure eventually overtook him.  So I took some time off–away from the computer for a while.  Those weeks turned into months and those months turned into several months.  …but now I’m back and hopefully up to posting on a much more regular basis.  So tune in more frequently since there is more to come.

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Western Lairs

Fantasy role players and gamers know all about lairs when it comes to their adventures.  Abandoned dungeons usually, but also natural caves and tunnels of the “underdark”, ruined castles, lost cities, Dwarven mines, and mysterious islands.  Lairs are places where the real action takes place and where characters are killed off, become heroes or become very rich.  Well, there are plenty of lairs to be found in the Westerns of popular culture–the pulps, paperbacks, novels, movies, radio and television shows.

Westerns are often formulaic in their plots and characters and there are several recurring lairs that keep showing up.  Some examples…

1. Abandoned Mines.  These are great places for outlaw gangs and badmen to virtually disappear from sight for prolonged periods of time.  Mine shafts are also handy for keeping prisoners and even stolen cattle if the shaft is big enough.  Mine Tombstone2. Ghost Towns.  Sometimes western authors got ahead of themselves and had their fictional villains hold up in a creepy, abandoned, clapboard towns.  How these small communities fell into such rapid disrepair in a couple of years or so requires some explaining.  To me ghost towns are remnants of towns that have been abandoned and several buildings still remain standing after several decades.  But, I should not try to be too critical about the “western genre” and agree that ghost towns are great for scaring away the simpleton locals and providing shelter for men and horses for long periods of time.  Favorite buildings occupied by “residents” are the saloons and churches.

BodieSHP_Gallery_133.  Hidden Canyons.  There always seem to be a hidden canyon just outside of town that rustlers and outlaws utilize as their bases and holding areas for stolen cattle.  Posses turn up nothing in their pursuits–just tracks and prints that seem to disappear.  In some westerns there are whole communities living in a Shangri-La type of isolation within the canyon.  It may be sealed from the outside world except for a narrow passage built by Spanish gold seekers in the old days (Senorita Scorpion).

4. Cellars and Basements.  Quite often crime emerges from right underfoot.  Many pulp westerns have the bad guys plotting, storing guns & whiskey, and holding prisoners in the basements of local establishments right in town.  These lairs are often under the saloon owned by the mean, money grubbing bad men who try so hard to make their public personae reputable.

5. Indian Territory.  One quick way to lose a posse is to enter into Federal Indian Territory.  Much of the land above Texas was divided into various sections for the Cree, Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw tribes.  This area was called the Indian Territories.  To the west of this are as the Oklahoma Territory that sheltered Cheyenne-Araphaho, Kiowa, Pawnee, Shawnee and several other tribes.  Other boundaries protected encroachment onto smaller Indian Reservations in the northern states.  Local law enforcement usually ended their pursuit of outlaws at the borders of Indian reservations.  Many disreputable towns and stores and establishments cropped up along these borders to meet the illicit needs of Indian and outlaw alike.  When the law came snooping for outlaws the proprietors stalled while the wanted men rode out for the Indian side.

6. Natural Caves.  An old standby, similar to the abandoned mine shaft, the cave is also found in many stories as a base for outlaw gangs, kidnappers, and lone murderers.  They are often well concealed and only old prospectors seem to know where to find them.

7. Mexico.  South of the Border is a place often referred to in westerns as a way for rustlers and outlaws to lay low after a major crime.  They can sell their stolen cattle and horses for a good price in Mexico–usually without any questions asked.  Most often they will be found in a cantina spending their ill-gotten gains on women, cards and tequila.  Very few law enforcement organizations will pursue bandits into Mexico.  Those that do will do so secretly so as not to spook their quarry.  Sometimes the Mexican authorities are paid off by the outlaws or simply get in the way of justice by their incompetence and heavy handed ways of dealing with all “gringos” and “americanos“.

8. Ranches.  Sometimes the bad guys hide in plain sight and utilize the facilities of a well established cattle ranch to carry on their nefarious crimes.  In many cases the owner of the ranch has succumbed to his greed and ambitions, hired a bevvy of hard-case gunmen, and has initiated a series of actions designed to make him king of the local valley or owner of all local grazing land/water rights.

9.  River Boats.  There were several navigable rivers during the 1800’s besides the famous Mississippi River.  There was the Ohio, Illinois and Missouri Rivers and some of their lesser tributaries that supported river boat traffic.  Some of these boats became known mainly for gambling, prostitution and significant amounts of drinking.  They might also get you from Point A to Point B.  Many well organized criminal gangs existed on river craft.

10. Line Camps/Cabins.  A line camp provides shelter to cowboys working on the fringes of very large ranches.  These are most often log lean-to constructions although some are actually small cabins and larger shelters.  These are abandoned for most of the winter and can provide decent accommodations for up to five or six desperadoes.  If the ranch is abandoned then the camp or cabins are available to the first takers.  They are often in disrepair and require some work to make them habitable such as plugging gaps between the logs, patching the roofs, clearing varmints and building up firewood.

Abandoned Cabin Death Valley



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Fort Huachuca, Arizona

Fort_Huachuca_Plan_1906Fort Huachuca is a splendid U.S. Army base located in the far south-east corner of the state of Arizona.  It is a mere 18 kilometers from the U.S. – Mexican border and on most daysm on any high ground on post, you can see the peaks of (the Santa Cruz) mountains shimmering purple .  It is also a mere 20 miles (as the buzzard flies) to the notorious town of Tombstone (home of the OK Corral).  For the last several decades it has been an active duty Army base and headquarters of the U.S. Army Intelligence Command, 11th Signal Brigade (1966 to 2013), Electronic Proving Ground and many other organizations.

It’s history as a valued piece of military real estate goes back to 1877 when the 6th Cavalry used the mountain draws and streams as a shelter and base during their operations against the Apaches.  In 1882 it was designated a military fort and from there it quickly grew into one of the more important military posts in the southwest.  This was largely due to it’s year round water supply and relatively mild temperatures.  Other forts north and west of Fort Huachuca did not fare well and were continually harassed by the Apaches and actually deemed unhealthy and unsanitary for habitation.   Fort Buchanan, near Sonoita was abandoned in the late 1860’s.  It was rebuilt after the Civil War a half mile away and rechristened Fort Crittenden but that too was abandoned in 1873.

Fort Huachuca  is mentioned every now and then in western literature that is set in Arizona (Elmore Leonard comes to mind).  For the history buffs out there I’ve uploaded several e-books on Fort Huachuca that you might find interesting.  These provide unique insights into soldier life on the frontier and the campaign against the Apaches.  You can find these documents and more history on the fort at their official history website.  The map above came from FortWiki.

1_Army of the West, 1846

2_The Founding of Fort Huachuca

3_Garrisoning of the Southwest

4_Fort Huachuca, The Modern Era



NOTE: While in the Army I lived on Fort Huachuca for over almost five years and probably spent another year there if I added adding up the time spent attending various schools, conferences, and training events.  I think SE Arizona has the most wonderful weather in the country and the scenery is simply awe inspiring and I have cherished memories of “Old Fort Hoochie-coochie” that have been with me ever since.

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Some Western Art

Here are some paintings by one of a lesser known western artists–Charles Schreyvogel (January 4, 1861 – January 27, 1912).  Like several western fiction writers of the time he didn’t spend much time in the west.  Most of his paintings were done in his studio at Hoboken, New Jersey.

NOTE: These were found on usenet so I left the original titles as posted.


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Train and Bank Robbers of the West

HandbillI recently found this eBook on the Internet Archive and, based on the portions I’ve read, found it to be a very extensive and detailed account of the James and Younger gang and the Younger brothers.  It was written in 1882 while the memory of these bandits and killers were still fresh on the minds of the American population.  This band of outlaws ran roughshod over Missouri, Kentucky, Iowa, Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, and West Virginia.

Certainly bank and train robberies are big payoff jobs for any outlaw gang.  Portions of this book can be used almost as how-to templates for gaming purposes.  The author gets into the details of many of the robberies and hold-ups committed by these “daring outlaws”.  He also provides information on the efforts of the Pinkerton agents and other lawmen to bring the gang to justice.

I cleaned up the Google Book version of this book and the link is below.  (I just put this one on my tablet today and it looks good and is easy to read.)

Train and Bank Robbers of the West

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Old Time Catalogs

GeneralStoreInteriorEvery Role Playing Game usually involves some shopping…a magic store for the wizards, a blacksmith or sword merchant for the fighters and a gun store for the well heeled gunfighter.  Long campaigns may see player characters decide to build a ranch or fix up a recent purchase of a plot of land outside of town.  Outlaws might have to buy unique tools for a certain bank job they are planning–tools like dynamite or nitroglycerine and every well prepared hideout has to have a stock of canned goods, matches, bacon, tobacco and other essentials.  So it is inevitable that a good game master (GM) will encourage players to go shopping as a way to learn about rumors, gossip and other news as well as to deplete their cash supply and force them into some type of action.

Most (good) rules books will have price lists for a majority of the items you will need to purchase in the game such as ammo, horses, and guns.  However, to make your GM master a bit more inventive or just easier for them quote prices on some odd and unique items here are some odd catalogs I’ve found on the web.  You can find prices on everything from stove top lifters, cavalry swords, hammocks, elaborate cane handles, tents and even early push lawn mowers.  But remember, out west these items might have to be sent for by mail order.  It could take up to or over a month for a particular item to arrive.

A. Coulter & Co. Staple Goods and Novelties 1865

Armstrong Company (Military Goods) 1881

Lyon Brothers Fireworks 1904

Staple Fancy Goods 1871 (Novelties & Toys)

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The Texas Rangers (in Comics)

The Texas RangersHere are some factoids I’ve collected from various old comic books that tell the story of the legendary Texas Rangers.  Texas Rangers had their own movies of course (well over a couple hundred movies in fact), several television series, a radio series, several comic books and a dedicated pulp magazine creatively called “Texas Rangers”.  They feature prominently in western fiction–The Lone Ranger was a Texas Ranger before he became a masked avenger and the heroes of Lonesome Dove trilogy were Texas Rangers.

Also provided below are a couple of comic books (one based on the 1951 movie starring George Montgomery) and issue number 005 of the comic book called Texas Rangers in Action.  The Texas Rangers is a huge subject and there is plenty of more material on them for later.  Introducing this organization into a role playing game would be a great way to build up a formidable team of lawmen to have epic shootouts with bandit gangs and border crossing rustlers.  A team of 3-4 rangers (player characters) seeking a band of owl hoots would be the start of a great adventure.

Texas Ranger Factoids

Texas Rangers in Action No. 005

The Texas Rangers (Motion Picture Comics)

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Ghost Town Pictures

By sorting through my digital files I was able to put together a nice collection of photographs I found on the web depicting some ghost towns.  One of these is Mescal, Arizona which doubles as a movie set and I believe the other might be Bodie, California.  Both websites have more pictures and information on the towns.

Ghost towns can be great settings for western plots and adventures especially those with a supernatural twist.  With the boom and bust cycle of the old west it would not be unusual for characters to find themselves traveling through these deserted towns.  These areas would just not be so run down and weathered–just quickly abandoned and starting to fall apart.  Ghost towns also make great hideouts for bandit gangs, smugglers, kidnappers, and even rustlers (I’m thinking of a recent book that had the rustlers hiding stolen cattle in an abandoned mine shaft).

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