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Early Cuchara: Not shabby chic, just….

by Nancy Christofferson
CUCHARA- Living in the old Cuchara Camps was a far different proposition than living in the new Cuchara. For one thing, many homes featured not shabby chic, but just plain shabby.
Wood floors, nowadays preferred over carpet, were a given. Not hardwood floors, mind you, but pine or aspen, because there was just so darned much of it to be had cheaply. Some housewives upgraded to linoleum in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Linoleum was also handy for kitchen counters. If one had wall to wall carpet, it was just because when they pulled up their carpeting back in the city, it just happened to fit in the cabin.
Probably because of the forests surrounding the Camps, men and boys were struck with Paul Bunyan Syndrome and hauled their axes into the woods in search of firewood and building supplies. More than one cabin sported various “rustic” stools, benches, wood boxes, tables and other furniture executed in paroxysms of DIYness, and that one short leg was propped up with shims – who cared? The only ones who minded were the ones dumped on the floor when someone at the other end of the homemade bench stood up. A favorite project was a basic Deacon’s bench. These could be easily converted to a wood box used as seating when the cabin got crowded, to storage with seating, to a banquette for seating by the kitchen table (who had a dining room?) or whatever was needed.
Cabins were small, and every inch had to be dedicated to something useful. That empty spot under the steps begged for a tiny built-in bed for visiting children (and could be used for seating). Bunk beds, homemade or store bought, were popular. Most other beds were built on platforms so there was storage underneath.
The early cabins came complete with absolutely no closets. This necessitated the homeowner’s having to construct some kind of shelves, hooks and racks. Many of these were built of just-cut aspen, so the following summer, when the family returned, the now warped shelf had emptied itself onto the floor.
Lighting was a challenge. In the 1930s electricity was iffy, and all cabins had numerous kerosene lanterns. Wicks were for sale in the commissary/store, as was fuel. With the advent of electricity, every cabin was fitted with the trusty electric box full of fuses. This was great, and radio listening became more popular (of course, the only station was KCSJ out of Pueblo, or KOMA at night). Unfortunately, if you had the radio and a light on, and decided to plug in the iron, all went dark. Fuses were for sale in the store, too.
Furniture might match. Say, for instance, a cabin owner had the previous winter purchased a new suite of living room stuff to replace the old, so the whole room might be emptied into a U-Haul and dragged to the cabin. There it would join the homemade things to create a truly haphazard look. The hole the cat made in the couch was hidden under an artfully draped 40-year old Indian blanket which itself had holes. Odd assortments of outgrown, stained and chipped furniture were common. After all, who would pay good money for fancy things that would, in an unheated cabin, spend most of the winter frozen?
The stained and chipped furniture also matched the dishes. Full sets of matching dinnerware were rare, unless some of it had cracks. And the dishes matched the cookware. Whatever old pot had outlived its beauty but was still functional, well, perfect for the cabin! After all, it wasn’t going to look too good after being used for a few weeks on a wood stove anyway.
The one thing in a kitchen that demanded a housewife’s full attention was her canisters, or the old glass coffee or family sized butter peanut jars used as such. Otherwise, the mice made off with the bread, cornmeal, crackers, etc., etc. Most homeowners liberally spread D-Con around the house before closing it for the winter, and come their return, the first day was dedicated to sweeping out lots of little desiccated bodies. And then the new crop moved in.
A lot of the older cabins had been modernized with what was known as “Jim Keeling plumbing.” Jim did a lot of excellent construction and repair work for cabin owners, but he had his own way of plumbing. It was perfectly functional, but the hot water handle was always on the right side of the sink.
One thing cabin owners enjoyed was a lot of fresh air. Most of it was right inside with them, having snuck in through the same holes the mice used. People LOVED that fresh air, inside and out. Summer residents spent a large percentage of their time outdoors taking advantage of the scenery and pine-scented breezes, basking in the dry climate so different from the humidity of the Midwest.
Is it a wonder that they came back year after year?

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