Most of my earlier stories are set in Regency England, but, the last few years, I have enjoyed writing about other portions of the 19th century, both in location and time. When I first read Renee Ryan’s Stand-In Rancher Daddy, the first in the Lone Star Cowboy League: The Founding Series set of stories (out now), I was intrigued to see her place two businesses along Main Street that I wouldn’t have thought to include in my book, A Rancher of Convenience, which finishes the set in September. What were these businesses?
I’d heard the term, but I had to do research (yes, any excuse to do research J) on what they actually did and why they would be so sorely needed in a Wild West town.
Coopers make barrels, casks, tubs, hogsheads, and other things that carry liquids and dry goods safely over great distances or store them for long time periods. They can also make wooden pails and tubs for daily use in households. They cut, dress, and curl staves of the correct size for whatever application, arrange them in a circle, then drive wooden (perhaps hazel or ash) or iron rings over the ends to form the correct shape, including adding a bottom and top as needed. They can also drill holes to add a spigot or to hook in a metal handle.
The cooper’s barrels, in particular, were highly important crossing the ocean. According to the Book of English Trades, barrels full of coarse wool or hats were sent from England to the West Indies and returned full of rum or sugar. The records at Fort Nisqually in Washington Territory indicate that barrels of molasses were used to cushion panes of glass sent from England to the Pacific Coast for windows. The worker charged with cleaning the glass when it arrived got a bonus—he could keep the molasses he scraped off!
I could see why coopers would be needed in Little Horn, Texas, in 1896. Ranchers would need barrels to hold supplies being taken on cattle drives. Farmers would need barrels to store goods or transport them to market farther East. Then there are the pails and tubs needed to hold water for various purposes on the frontier.
Today the cooper’s work is in high demand in the wine industry. As wine is now a key export of Washington State, there might end up being two such businesses in some of our towns as well.