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  • Lezlie Sterling / lsterling

    Nonfiction writer Chris Enss works on a new book in her home office in Grass Valley. She and her husband have made the home a comfortably appropriate place for her style.

  • Lezlie Sterling /

    Chris Enss has a display of Western-themed lunchboxes in her office. Two are from the "Roy Rogers and Dale Evans" and "Have Gun, Will Travel" TV shows. "Notice that the Roy Rogers Thermos has an actual metal top (cup)," she said. "The Thermos, combined with the lunchbox, makes them collectors' items. You might find a Roy Rogers Thermos, but it won't have a metal top. You just don't see the two together."

  • Lezlie Sterling /

    "This is my most prized possession," said Enss of a faded, hand-formed brick, below, partially scorched and smelling vaguely of smoke. She carefully removed it from a cloth drawstring pouch. "It's from the remains of the original Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, Kan., which was destroyed by fire in the 1890s. If this brick could talk, it would tell you everything (lawmen) Bat Masterson and Bill Tilghman did there. It was their haunt. Tilghman was the greatest lawman ever, and co-owner of the Long Branch. Masterson hung out there with his (lawman) brother, Ed." The dramatic centerpiece of the living room is a dark wood bar with a branding iron on top. "This bar is a replica of a segment of the bar that was once in the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, Kan., and – like that one – has a metal foot rest," Enss said. "The original bar extended across the entire saloon." In a 2009 ceremony, Enss was named an Honorary Miss Kitty (showgirl) of the Long Branch Saloon by the Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City. She has received other awards in appreciation of her efforts to preserve the spirit of the Old West.

  • Lezlie Sterling /

    On a wall by the master bedroom door is this eye-catching artwork, a clear-plastic shadowbox with a 3-D effect. It combines a print of a painting by cowboy-turned-artist Charles M. Russell with a flock of origami birds crafted by Grass Valley artist Daniel Brooks. "This is a piece my best friend gave me for Christmas," Enss said. "It's from a famous painting by Russell, showing Indians attacking a stagecoach. The origami birds make it pop."

  • Lezlie Sterling /

    A handmade Old West "ghost town" is a highlight in Enss' office, her favorite room in the house. "My dad made this for me out of beat-up shingles from old buildings in Norborne, Mo., where he lives," she said. "There's a bank, a church, a general store, a saloon, a jail and an outhouse, all of which you would have found in any town in the Old West. He made it look like a ghost town. It's falling apart, but it's supposed to be falling apart."

Author Chris Enss' Grass Valley home keeps her in the Old West

Published: Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 4CALIFORNIA LIFE
Last Modified: Friday, May. 31, 2013 - 11:14 pm

Appropriately, the road to writer Chris Enss' home on the outskirts of Grass Valley takes a visitor along the Overland Emigrant Trail, past Ponderosa Pines Way and Lone Star Road, and on two streets named after rattlesnakes.

Parked in the three-car garage of the 3,000-square-foot-plus house is her ride – a Ford pickup truck.

Enss is a screenwriter and author of 27 nonfiction Westerns about the unheralded folks who lived, loved and died in the Old West – mail-order brides, prospectors, nurses, entertainers, soldiers. She writes mostly about pioneering women, both the innocent ("Frontier Teachers," "The Doctor Wore Petticoats") and the not-so-much ("Bedside Book of Bad Girls," "Pistol Packin' Madams").

She also has written books about some of the Old West's folk heroes – William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Annie Oakley, Gen. George Custer – and less genuine but more recent Western-centric icons – Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, John Wayne.

"I'm an observer of history who retells what is there," she said modestly. She's also a former stand-up comedian, displayed by her quick wit.

The three-bedroom, 2 1/2- bath house perches on a rise in a hilly grove of oaks and firs, above a stream. Inside is a mini-museum of artifacts and memorabilia, an homage to the Old West.

It's a fascinating array that she and her husband, John Parry, have collected in antiques and mercantile stores during their travels through the Western states, largely during Enss' book- research forays.

How to explain such a passion?

"My family lived near Tombstone, Ariz., and I hung out there when I was a kid," Enss said. "I got hooked on the Old West and what it represents – the adventurous spirit of the people who ventured out to tame a rugged land."

A house tour is revealing. Floods of natural light illuminate framed movie posters decorating the walls throughout. Among them are "Silverado" and the remake of "True Grit."

Enss can quote dialogue from "3:10 to Yuma" and "Once Upon a Time in the West," her favorite Western.

"(In it) the bad guys get their comeuppance right away," she said. "That sense of justice is what has inspired me to write Westerns. It was the one time in history when the bad were severely punished for the bad they had done. They didn't get three strikes."

Every room in the house holds treasures. Over here are saddlebags and spurs, over there are vintage photos of movie sets in Lone Pine, once the location for many Hollywood Westerns. Mini-saddle candleholders decorate a kitchen window sill. Old whiskey bottles are clustered atop the wet bar.

In her office, Enss pushed a button on her answering machine to play a message from director-producer Walter "The Long Riders" Hill. He's finishing the screenplay for Enss' book "Thunder Over the Prairie," co-written with movie producer Howard Kazanjian. It's about the 1878 posse made up of Dodge City's legendary lawmen – Charlie Bassett, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp and Bill Tilghman – and how they tracked a murderer across desolate country.

"I've finished the first draft and sent it to my agent," Hill's voice said. "Hope you like it."

"How many people get a voice message from Walter Hill?" Enss said. "I'm never going to take it off."

One last thing: If Enss were to write an epitaph for herself, what would it be?

"Hmm," she mulled. "Something like, 'Born 170 years too late.' " She paused with a comedian's timing and added, "Except I like modern plumbing."

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Framed and glassed hand-drawn movie posters by artist B.J. Walken decorate the half-bath. The works were purchased at the Tucson Western Film Festival. "This one is from 'Barbarosa' with Willie Nelson and Gary Busey," Enss said. "Notice that the gun Nelson is holding will follow you around. Whatever your perspective, you're looking down its barrel. The other drawing is of 'Missouri Breaks' with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando, from the novel by Thomas McGuane. I don't think the filmmakers did justice to the book."

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Read more articles by Allen Pierleoni

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