NSS 75th Anniversary Convention

Buckaroo: Views of a Western Way of Life


Bunkhouses and Line Camp Cabins

Bunkhouses shelter buckaroos. The same shelter may be called by different names, depending on location and use: bunkhouse, cabin, line camp, buckaroo camp, cow camp. A bunkhouse is usually thought of as a small house on the home ranch that serves as a permanent home for employees, whether buckaroos or hands. With one or more rooms, there is space for cooking, eating, sleeping, and storing horsegear and equipment. Ranch hands and buckaroos call this dwelling home for the duration of their employment. Temporary shelters are also placed strategically at great distances from the home ranch and in the privately owned fields enclosed in BLM or Forest Service grazing lands. These are the line camps, buckaroo camps, or cow camps where men stay for short periods of time while tending cattle through the government grazing allotments "on the mountain." Line camp refers to both the building and the place. Some line camps are canvas wall tents right on the ground, same are wall tents with raised wood platform floors and frames, and some are beautifully constructed granite buildings made with more care than many modern homes in Winnemucca.

Few bunkhouses or line camps were built and used by the early pioneers, since in the beginning few extra employees were kept by the family ranchers. Most ranchers had large families, and with the help of neighbors during seasons of peak activity—calving, branding, haying round-up, shipping—they could marshal sufficient hands to get the work done. As ranchers gradually built up the range cattle industry and their herds grew in size, itinerant buckaroos began staying beyond particular seasons and required special housing both on the home ranch and in the desert and mountain grazing areas. Paradise Valley was settled in the 1860s, and the first special-purpose bunkhouses were like the one built on Aaron Denio's homestead of adobe bricks in about 1870, on property now used as a "hay camp" on the Stewart ranch. The early Italian masons built no stone bunkhouses or camps at first. Their energies went into the main house, horse barns, and granaries and into developing their agricultural and cattle-raising enterprises. They found time to build stone bunkhouses when their first responsibilities were met and when changing work patterns in later years made the construction of bunkhouses necessary.

Specialists who study traditional architecture spend more time and effort documenting the buildings' details and history and less on trying to place them in styles or periods of architecture. Unlike academic architecture, folk buildings are the result of generations of experiment, use, and custom and pay less attention to popular trends and fashions. Like ballads, or legends of Butch Cassidy's escape from Winnemucca, or ways to make biscuits over a sagebrush fire, folk buildings are expressions of the region and the people's heritage, as settlers carve out shelters in the new landscape. Architecture specialists study four aspects of a building (in addition to history): form, construction, use, and decoration. Dimensions and floorplan (form) place folk buildings in a classification of similar types, which can show regional distribution and traditionality. Construction methods indicate not only the builder's origins and craftsmanship but his way of coping with the new land and its possibilities for creating architecture. Understanding the function of a building helps us know more about the people who built it, and details of ornament or decoration indicate the effect that some period of national taste or style has had in the region or community.

The dwellings and temporary shelters of working cowboys fall into different categories of traditional structures. There are three types of bunkhouses and buckaroo camps in northern Nevada--two house types well known in other parts of North America, and one type introduced into this region by Alpine Italian masons.

The first of the three types of dwellings represents the modern continuation of a house form known for hundreds of years in Europe, the single-pen house. Built either square or slightly rectangular, it developed in its present size and shape in the Middle Ages and was brought from the British Isles to the American colonies in the East by the first settlers. It is found all over the United States, constructed of various materials: heavy timber in New England, red brick in the Chesapeake-Tidewater, stone in Pennsylvania, round logs in the Deep South, hewn logs in the Midwest, light frame everywhere. In Nevada this venerable house type is found built in sod and adobe by the first pioneers and in stone and frame by later ranchers. The single-pen house type is exemplified by the cabin at the Little Owyhee line camp ("the Circle A" ), the bunkhouse at the Bradshaw-Cerri-Wallace place, and the house from the Mill Ranch that has been reconstructed as part of the "Buckaroo" exhibit at the National Museum of History and Technology.

This house form is the basic building block for most American folk house types. Its prime features are its one-room square or rectangular shape with the door in a long side and a gable roof. Though scholars call this house a "single-pen" house, the people who make and use them just call them cabins or houses.

The second type of bunkhouse is actually a version of the single-pen house, but the house plan has been turned and the door placed in the gable end rather than in one of the long sides. The placement of the door in the gable may reflect Greek Revival and carpenter Gothic styles of the late nineteenth century in the West. There are numerous examples of this end-opening single-pen house type; good ones include the Stewart ranch bunkhouse, the Ferrara-Zatica/Gavica-Cassinelli bunkhouse, and the cabin on the Boggio property. Bunkhouses of this form are usually frame, but the Boggio cabin (on property leased to the Klaumanns) was built by Italian stonemasons of sawn sandstone. Both of the single-pen forms (side-opening and end-opening) are often divided into two small rooms inside, but the general rule calls for one open room. Sometimes the second type is added onto for more sleeping rooms, as with the Stewart and Schwartz bunkhouses.

Line-camp cabins may be either of those two main forms. On the 96 Ranch property there are several line-camp cabins in both frame and stone. The Bradshaw field cabin and the Hartscrabble cabin are made of granite, and both were built by Italian stonemason Antone Ramasco about 1920. They are single-pen houses of the first type, but with shed roofs rather than gable roofs. At Cold Springs camp and Black Ridge camp, Les Stewart built frame cabins for the buckaroos; Cold Springs is of the second type (end-opening) and Black Ridge is of the first (door in the long side).

The third type of bunkhouse consists of two-level buildings of stone designed and built by immigrant masons from the foot of the Italian Alps. Several outstanding examples are in use today in Paradise. The first floor is partly underground and houses a cellar or meat room, and the buckaroos and ranch hands live in the second story, reached by an outdoor staircase. They are roughly square with thick rock walls, generally have a hip roof, and were built by several specialists in the Ferrarro, Recanzone, and Ramasco families. The best of the Ramasco masons, Antone Ramasco, was the acknowledged master of stone-masonry in the valley, though other Italians like Steve Boggio and Virgil Pasquale did important work, too. Rather than convert to a rancher or businessman like other Italians, Antone Ramasco remained a builder all his life, and his expertise and personal mortaring style are evident on many buildings in Humboldt County today. The sandstone bunkhouse at the Bull Head Ranch is a masterpiece, as are the two huge granite horse barns at the 96 Ranch, built by Ramasco with his brother-in-law Charlie Zorio. The Italian masons got their soft sandstone (easily cut with a hand saw or special hatchet) from a quarry site on the east edge of the valley on the desert's apron, while the granite came (with considerably more effort) from a quarry up Lamance Creek at the western edge where the Santa Rosa Range rises.

The bunkhouse in the exhibition was acquired from Bob Cassinelli, whose family has operated the Mill Ranch for some years. It was built for John Schneider in about 1921. Schneider was an immigrant German trapper who came to the ranch in the 1920s and stayed on as a ranch hand and jack-of-all-trades. Called "Coyote John" or "Hans," Schneider was well-known in the county in his later years working for Lorenzo Recanzone at the Mill Ranch.

Schneider became an informal member of the Recanzone family, who found in him a stout worker and loyal friend who was able to protect the Recanzone women and children when the men were working away from the ranch. Carlo Recanzone remembers from his childhood at the Mill Ranch when Schneider chased a threatening stranger away with his trusty "thirty-thirty" Winchester.

And when Lorenzo Recanzone took the whole family back to Italy and France in 1919 to deliver a deceased relative to the old country, Schneider was put in charge of the ranch. A substantial amount of money was put in the bank in Winnemucca in Schneider's name, to be used as needed. When the family returned to Paradise not one dollar had been spent. Trustworthy men like Schneider had a strong role in rearing the youngsters and passing on knowledge of the ranch life and work. Carlo and his sister Angie Recanzone Genasci fondly recall "old Hans." As Carlo put it, "Old John was a grand ole guy for us." Schneider died in 1932 at the age of ninety and is buried in the Paradise community cemetery near the Recanzone family plots.

The dwelling typifies the form of bunkhouses and line camps across the West. It was built in a distinctive mode common for small frame buildings in some sections of the nineteenth-century West. Called "single-wall construction" by people in Nevada, this framing technique uses no vertical bracing but depends instead on a strong wall of large vertical boards made rigid by the roof system. Second and third layers of battens, horizontal boards, and interior insulation are usually added. Recanzone hired a carpenter named Teddy Weller to build the house for Schneider, who had been living in a wall tent with a board floor--a chilly dwelling in wintertime. It was built on wooden skids or runners so that the building could be dragged to different parts of the ranch according to Schneider's duties of the season or year.

In the building's later history at the Mill Ranch, it served as a bunkhouse and as a store room for fence materials, tools, branding irons, and other supplies kept under lock and key.

Most buckaroos today live in modern mobile homes or prefabricated houses on the home ranches, provided by the ranchers mainly because there are so many married men needing separate dwellings. Most of the old bunkhouses where several single buckaroos lived together are now vacant and used as saddle rooms or storage sheds. But on the larger outfits like Nevada Vaca, Nevada Garvey, and the 96 Ranch, the traditional bunkhouses are maintained and in use both on the home ranch and out on the summer range--at line camps many miles from the ranch headquarters.

John Schneider's bunkhouse is at the heart of the buckaroo exhibition. It is a tangible artifact that exemplifies an important mode of wooden carpentry in the West. It is a traditional dwelling rooted in the cultural landscape on a family ranch and represents the way many cowmen and ranch hands live, yesterday and today. Numbered in the catalog, it is an exhibit artifact of larger dimension and of major significance both as an individual sample of folk housing and as a reconstructed context for a constellation of other artifacts from northern Nevada.

This essay originally appeared in Buckaroos in Paradise: Cowboy Life in Northern Nevada, published by the Library of Congress in 1980 and republished as a Bison Book by the University of Nebraska Press in 1981. The book marked the midpoint of the Paradise Valley Folklife Project and accompanied an exhibition mounted at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in 1980.