Frontier Teacher In Tonto Basin

Chapter 15: How to build Aa Pole House


By the first week of November 1880, Angie had 23 pupils squeezed into a structure that was 10-feet-by-12-feet, with a dirt floor, no door, and sides made of brush. There were seats for only 12 students, and how the others were able to do their work she did not say.

Suddenly she remembers “that I have never described the style of architecture adopted for “our” mansion — so I’ll do it now.”

In a lengthy diary passage she provides a detailed description of the “pole house” the Tonto Basin families had built for their teacher and a number of her students. This ancient form of construction seems to have been popular in the early days of Tonto Basin settlement. They were not only quite sturdy, they were made of materials at hand and the cost lay primarily in the manual labor. Since this construction in the early settlements was popular, it is worth allowing teacher Angie Mitchell to record for posterity the building process.

“A space is cleared on the ground from brush, and leveled. Then poles, mesquite in this case, about as large as a medium size fence post, and 8 1/2 feet long, are set into the ground for a depth of 2 feet. The poles on two sides & one end are two feet apart, but on one end a space of nearly 4 ft is left &, again, the rest of that end has poles 2 ft apart. The bark is always peeled off of all the posts and poles

“Another pole of the length of the house (or perhaps 2 poles are required to make the desired length) smaller around than those set in the ground, is fastened on top of the row of poles. This is repeated till the four sides are made. Then two big posts are set at equal distances from those forming the ends, midway between the sides & it looks from above about like this.

At this point she draws a rectangle with two dots for posts, one in each half.

“Our house is 14 feet wide by 18 feet long. Then a row of poles about a foot apart is set for a partition between the rooms and covered with slips of canvas, leaving a door 2 1/2 feet wide near the middle of the partition. The two rooms thus formed are respectively 14x12 and 12x6. 

“Now across the top poles are laid, stout ones extending from the end of the house to the middle posts and to the middle posts. These middle posts are 10 inches through and are cut so as to leave a crotch at the top. [She draws a “Y”]  In this house there are two such ridge poles. The middle posts are 4 inches higher than those at the sides, which since they were set 2 ft in the ground are only 6 1/2 feet high. 

“Next smaller poles 3 or 4 inches through are nailed from the ridge pole to side poles — 2 ft apart. Then brush and yucca plant leaves and tules are usually woven thru and secured. In our case they are only lain on top of the poles and fastened. Then mud, the regular adobe clay kind, is plastered several inches thick over the outside of the tule on the roof.


Courtesy of Stan Brown

The sketch, showing how to build a pole house, came from the diary of Angie Mitchell.

“The next thing is to fill in the 2 ft. spaces at the sides and ends. This is done by weaving masses of arrow weed thru them till they are thick enough to suit. Wherever a window is desired a space is left open. The floor is dirt & kept “walkable” by frequent sprinkling & brushing. We have no door & no window curtains.”

Having pictured the basic construction, Angie now turns her description to the interior of the house.

“A chimney is built in our parlor with a fireplace of rough rocks laid up in mud. In our kitchen is a similar fireplace which is all tumbled down except the fireplace part. Mrs. Harer has set her No 7 stove, and the pipe extends up 3 joints, then has an elbow and joint, and is secured by wires extending to the roof. On the side is a space that is a foot wide or more, close to the fireplace, where she has fastened a kind of canvas curtain. This is always up in the daytime to admit air and light. It was through there that Alice made her escape when the Indians came.

“Our furniture consists of a bed stead which extends across the end of the “kitchen” (6 ft) and is 5 1/4 ft wide, coming within inches of the doorway between the rooms. The bed stead is made of rough brushes, with a solid bottom in place of slats. A stool and the stove are all the furniture there except 3 boxes of clothes under the bed. The bed itself is of loose hay with a piece of canvas thrown over it & tucked in around it, with plenty of quilts & good pillows.

[Here she includes a small sketch of the rectangular floor plan.]

“Our parlor has a table 5 ft. long & 4 wide (for our dining & a table) which stands in the corner. It extends close to the door, opposite is my bed and anyone who sleeps with me. Mrs. H. explained in the beginning that that was the ‘school ma’ms’ bed and she desired it distinctively understood that whomever I chose for my ‘room mate’ was my own affair. As the bed is big and I am satisfied with any of them, it has been easy to adjust matters satisfactorily to us all. This bed is left long and is 4 1/2 feet wide. It has a good straw bed, and a husk mattress on top of it and has slats, lots of quilts, and a pair of nice soft pillows. My trunk stands nearby. Mrs. H. makes her bed down at the foot of mine sometimes, but lately has put it over by the table opposite, and close to the fireplace. There are 6 home made stools and 1 chair, and a kind of box cupboard is in the kitchen which I forgot to mention, which holds our dishes. Nails are driven up in the side poles at intervals and we hang our clothes on them. That’s all except a little tin ware, a skillet, baking pan or two, box on which the flour sack sets and cans for sugar, coffee and tea etc. There is a ft. square looking glass which somebody cracked the other day and now it gives the one brave enough to look in it the appearance of having their face split in the middle lengthwise, one side an inch higher than the other. It is ugly enough to give a person a fit!

“There’s a rough shelf over the fireplace made by driving pieces of a broken ramrod into the mud between the stones at the ends. And a hewn, wedge shaped stick in the middle, flat on the top is driven in the same way. Placing a clean rough board 10 inches wide on these supports forms the mantel.

“We have had two tablecloths but one disappeared with my skirt & Alice’s drawers and Clara’s chemise the night of the stampede, so we’ve only one.”

The teacher now provides some insight into their diet.

“Mrs. Harer is a good cook but has little to do with. We have however good solid grub and lots of it and could eat six meals a day if we wished for all she would care. Our usual fare is coffee strong & clear, hot biscuit, bacon, gravy or stewed jerky, molasses (not syrup) and potatoes in some shape for breakfast, with milk one of the children gets from Vineyard’s. For dinners to carry to school she loads our bucket with bread or biscuit, some with molasses on, some without, cookies or molasses cake, which is always light and nice, sauce of dried apples or peaches and a huge bottle of milk. Supper is tea, cold loaf bread — salt rising — cake or cookies or pie of dried fruit or sauce. Beans sometimes, cabbage sometimes, gravy of some sort and potatoes always. Once in awhile cooked onions. Occasionally she has been able to get a small piece of beef, and three or four times chickens. But she has neither eggs or butter. Now that is much plainer living than most of our country folks in Yavapai have, but it is always so well cooked and so neatly served that it is ample and I don’t care for more variety. I don’t eat bacon, nor beans and rarely care for dried apples in any form, but I wouldn’t tell her I never eat them for anything.”

Next: A Gila Monster comes to school


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