Cowboys and pioneers—and even I—lived inspiring lives in tiny houses before they were a pop-culture phenomenon.
Story and photos by Jennifer Denison
For the first 18 years of my life, my family lived in a small mountain cabin nestled in the pines, with a fenced backyard and two old railroad cars off to the side where we processed meat and hides we harvested. There was nothing fancy about the cabin, but it had everything we needed: a roof over our heads, a decent-sized living room and kitchen, two small bedrooms, a tiny bathroom and a back porch with an old potbelly stove filled with coal that heated the entire house. Built in the early 1900s, our home was originally insulated with newspaper, and each winter we battled frozen pipes, often on Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve. Floors rotted because there wasn’t a concrete foundation. Mice scurried through the smallest openings and taunted my mom and dog. My friends, many of who lived in modern subdivision homes, enjoyed coming to our humble abode, because we could genuinely pretend to be characters from Little House on the Prairie or The Boxcar Children series of books.
I didn’t always think fondly of this modest dwelling and all of its quirks, dreaming instead of living in a house with a wraparound porch, dishwasher, floral wallpaper and stairs. Today, however, I drive by it nearly every day and can’t help but recall warm, loving memories that shaped my life, and sometimes I long to live there again. From the road, I can see the current owners have updated the interior, but I wonder if they ever noticed the crude carvings I made in the kitchen cabinets with my dad’s pocketknife, or my growth chart penciled on a trim board.
On a recent road trip for the magazine, I visited two ranches with cabins—one in Utah and one in northeastern Nevada—that were vastly different, yet reminded me of my first home. One evening, I thought about how cabins have long been associated with developing strong-minded, self-sufficient, soulful people like Abraham Lincoln, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry David Thoreau. And don’t forget legendary cowboys like Will James, who carved their names and brands into the walls of ramshackle line cabins that still stand on ranches today.
My first stop of the nine-day road trip was the Three Sevens Ranch in Ferron, Utah. The family-owned cow-calf operation has facilities where faith-based youth horse camps and horsemanship clinics for riders of all ages are held. Owner Rick Benson and his family put me up for the night in one of the log cabins newly built for visitors. Simple yet luxurious, the cabin had no television or other distractions and just enough amenities to be comfortable, like a log bed built by hand from salvaged timber, a warm shower, and a sink with counter made from a stone slab moved from one of the deep sandstone canyons near the ranch. I enjoyed the solace of the cabin, as well as the views from the front porch of spectacular mountains, canyon rims and plateaus.
A couple of days later, I visited a crew of four young working cowboys staying in a remote cow-camp cabin north of Elko, Nevada, on the Idaho line. When I showed up in the late afternoon, clouds were building and it looked like a storm was headed toward the hills where the cabin lay. Written on a page in a pocket notebook secured in the screen door was a note that read, “Truck broke down in canyon; we’ll be a little late.” The door was open and I was fixing to get rained on, so like Goldilocks in The Story of the Three Bears, I entered the cabin. The interior was a stark contrast to the Three Sevens’ and even the Three Bears’ quarters. It had a weathered wooden floor, two old rickety beds, a table, propane stove and lantern, and a bundle of canned goods stacked in the center of the floor. There was no plumbing or running water, but a landline was recently installed. Built in the early 1900s, the cabin was constructed of aspen logs crudely chinked together with exterior stuccoing and a tin roof. For these cowboys, who spend most of their hours outside, the cabin is all they need: a place to eat, tell a few stories and sleep before getting up before dawn and starting all over again. They wouldn’t want to stay anywhere else.
As the tiny-house movement rises, overburdened urban dwellers exhausted by consumerism are purging, shrinking their footprint and going back to the garden. When you think about it, the settlers and cowboys were the original tiny-house dwellers. They never had a need for anything more, and that mindset continues on ranches throughout the West.