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Wagonyards

The Motel 6 of the prairies

We’re in lockdown at the moment due to the Covid-19 Virus crisis, and I’ve had to cancel several holiday bookings. I had this delightful little cottage booked by a river in the Dorset countryside (think The French Lieutenant’s Woman), where we were going to spend a long weekend catching up with friends from Canada. Oh well (sigh!). It is a privilege of our time that we can so easily find a nice getaway for a weekend or a week – a holiday home in the mountains, a cabin in the forest, a motel on a roadtrip, or a beach house by the seaside.

But where did the early homesteading pioneers stay when they traveled? They were mostly subsistence farmers, and didn’t have a lot of spare cash. But they had to travel, at least occasionally. They often lived far from commercial centers, and would have had to transport their goods to market at harvesttime. They would have needed some items that they couldn’t produce themselves: tools, seeds, fabric (although a lot of their clothes were sewn from feedsacks, also purchased at a store), candles, dishes, salt, not to mention the odd luxury.

And traveling took a lot of time. In pre-automobile days, farmers would have only been able to travel fifteen to twenty miles a day. Regional trade centers were often farther away, so where did they stay the night? Enter the wagonyard.

Wagonyard in Perry, Oklahoma

The wagonyard was usually located near the business section of town, and had camp houses attached where travelers could cook and sleep. The wagonyard itself had stalls for horses, and a supply of water and firewood. In the 1890s they typically charged around fifteen cents a day for keeping a team of horses, a fee that included use of the camp house for the family.

Wagonyards often covered large areas, up to one hundred feet of frontage on the street, and one hundred feet deep. Stalls for the animals were arranged on two or three sides of the yard, and were generally six feet wide and ten feet long, with a feed trough. The camp houses had a large room with a cook stove, a table and chairs, and several small rooms with bunk beds.

Clever wagonyard proprietors made the most of their clientele by locating a dry goods store on their premises. And many traveling salesmen set up temporary stalls to display their wares to the lodgers. Wagonyards served an important social role as well. Farming families would ask, “Which wagonyard are you staying at when you go to town?” Meeting in one of these establishments was often a highlight in the year’s calendar, where adults renewed acquaintances, children got sweet treats at the store, and everyone enjoyed the delights of a big market town.

Of course, prairie towns had hotels as well, but they were more suited to those traveling by train. After all, where would you keep your team? If hotel guests needed to go farther into the countryside than the trains allowed, they would hire a horse and cart from the livery stables, a separate enterprise from the wagonyard.

The title photo is from Enid, Oklahoma, ca. 1895, and shows the wagonyard next to the camp house, the ‘Farmers Hotel.’

Wagonyard in Tahlequah, Indian Territory, ca. 1900

2 Comments

  1. ROSALIE J NICKEL says:

    This would not have been a ‘vacation’ – having to cook your own food, take care of the family, care for the horses, etc. Thanks for info and especially the pictures.

    1. That’s for sure! I guess a change of scene would have been as much of a vacation as anyone got in those days.

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