Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Samuel H. Nickels: prolific pulp fiction writer and creator of Wild West Weekly's "Hungry and Rusty"

Recently I received an email from a woman named Sue Appleberry, who told me that her grandfather was Samuel H. Nickels, who had been a pulp fiction writer during the Great Depression and a regular contributor to Wild West Weekly. I looked up her grandfather and found that he was the author of the “Hungry and Rusty” stories that ran for almost the entire duration of the magazine. Mr. Nickels wrote the Hungry and Rusty stories under his own name. In addition he wrote under other pseudonyms that were “house” pen names owned by Wild West Weekly. I looked on Larry Estep’s WWW CD and counted a total of 234 stories attributed to Nickels. He also wrote the Billy the Kid stories attributed to Kent Bennett.

Sue and her family were kind enough to send this short memoir that her grandfather wrote. In addition, Sue has some recollections of her grandfather and her mother’s role in his pulp writing career; those are posted after Mr. Nickels' story.

I found Mr. Nickels’ story very interesting. Like other pulp writers, Mr. Nickels had a very wide and varied past and fell into pulp writing almost by accident. Makes for great reading. Here it is, unedited and in its entirety. This is a long post, so grab that cup of cocoa, sit in your favorite chair, and enjoy a good story.

P.S. Sue is looking to rebuild her family's collection of Wild West Weekly's that include her grandfather's stories. If you know where she can obtain some, please post it in the comments. Thanks.

(1883 – 1950)

I was born January 19, 1883 in Whitesburg, Kentucky, then the heart of Kentucky’s moonshine and feud belt. I am of old Colonial Scotch-Irish ancestry, so I guess you’d say my nationality was de-cidely American.

Well, since the stork wished me on my unfortunate parents back in that little Blue Ridge Mountain village so many hectic years ago, I’ve been a great many places and into a little of everything. I’ve been everything from cornetist and band leader with a circus to a plain ornery cowpuncher. I’ve been saw filer in a sawmill, black-smith, tinner, carpenter, farmer, worked on a steamboat, been a traveling salesman for wholesale clothing house, trapper, amateur lightweight boxer – darn it, I’ve even beat a bass drum and played the zamora for a hootchee-coochee dancer in a side show and been end-man in a minstrel, doubling in brass on the street.

I’ve been in New Mexico twenty-four years, living practically all of that time on a ranch in Lincoln County. This is why I confine my writing entirely to western stories. I’ve been away from the East so long that I am really more of a Western man than an Easterner. I’ve been here so long and have associated only with ranch people so many years I can’t even think as an Easterner any more.

I started writing many, many years ago, but never made any attempt to sell my stuff. Until about ten or twelve years ago, the thought of my making a business of writing never entered my head. I have written every since I was a boy in knee trousers, but did so entirely for my own amusement and, the pleasure I derived from it. When alone on the ranch I would take a pencil and paper and write story after story, work them over and polish them, then burn them. Like most cowboys will sit down of an evening to play solitaire, or smoke or read, I would pass away my idle moments writing a story. But I only wrote them for the stove.

The turn came when I was pretty badly hurt roping a wild steer from a green horse on the side of Tucson Mountain near Carrizozo. I was laid up for a long, long time. A cowboy amigo was sitting by my bed talking to me one afternoon when Carl Elmo Freeman drove past in a new car. The cowboy waved at Freeman, then laughed and turned back to me. “These shinny new cars don’t give a hoot who drives them, do they?” he chuckled. I said, “Who was that hombre?” “Why that was Doc Freeman,” he replied. “He’s a writer. He writes stories for magazines. I seen a story by him in the Country Gentlemen just a few days ago.”

Well, for a moment I was thunderstruck. I stared at my amigo without hardly seeing him. I was thinking of the stacks of stories I had burned up. At least it had begun to filter through my thick head that people sold that sort of stuff – that editors actually paid money for it – and people read it. Gosh!

I hardly knew when that cowboy left me. When he forked his horse and rode away, I had my wife bring me a tablet and pencil. Right there in bed, propped up by pillows and a cob pipe fogging between my teeth, Samuel H. Nickels went to work. And did I work! I’ll say I did! With a wife and three tiny children to think of, who wouldn’t? Of course, my wife was teaching a little country school, but who ever heard of a school teacher having any money? Besides, it was near vacation time. Darn it, I had to help. I had to write something that would sell.

I wrote story after story, and got my wife to copy them off at night with pen and ink, and that’s the way I sent them out. I had no typewriter, and didn’t even know I needed such a tool. No, but believe it or not, poor old Al Sessions read my first miserable yarn and wrote me a long letter about it, telling me to keep right on. Well, he needn’t have told me that. The Devil himself couldn’t have stopped me. I always had written with never a thought of profit, and I’d keep it up whether I ever sold anything or not. You can’t stop a guy like that – unless you shoot ‘im.

Well, I kept plugging away, sending out dud after dud, and getting letters from editors everywhere – not just rejection slips. (I got plenty of those, too.) This went on for about a year, then the doctors let me get out of bed. I spent that summer in Las Vegas while my wife was attending the Normal there. My wife got a job teaching in the Carrizozo school that winter, so we moved to town early in the fall.

It was there that I finally became acquainted with Carl Elmo Freeman. My wife went out to see his wife about some Eastern Star business, and I tagged along. While the women folks were talking, I confessed to the Doctor that I was “plumb took down with a bad spell o’ writin’.” That I maybe had all the symptoms, includin’ the itch to write, but without any of the success that should accompany it.

Freeman at once took me in hand. He told me for the love of Pete to get a typewriter. He then read some of my stuff and made suggestions. In short, he started me on the right road. And I will pause here to state that I’ll never forget him for it. I’ll say that he is certainly one prince of a fine fellow, and I only wish that more of the writing fraternity of New Mexico could know him as I do.

Well, my wife and I skimped and bought an old second-hand typewriter. I started taking a course in writing from the Author & Journalist of Denver, and I worked hard all winter, but sold nothing. Oh, I got plenty of letters of encouragement, but no checks.I even got a nice letter from The Saturday Evening Post. Yes, and Liberty wrote No that they had just bought a story by another author that was very much like the one I sent them, and that they would have used mine were the two not so close together. I ran my old typewriter until long past midnight that night.

That summer, the wife went up to attend the Normal at Vegas alone. I stayed at home, looked after the children and wrote, wrote, wrote. One day, I got a story back from Ronald Oliphant of Wild West Weekly, and with it came a long letter suggesting certain changes on the last few pages. I made those changes and had the story back in the mail that night. A week went by, and then the unbelievable happened. I had a nice check from Street & Smith. Hooray! The ice was broken!

Maybe I didn’t need that money! Yes, I needed it badly, but I didn’t cash it. No, sir! I wanted the little wife to see it. I didn’t even let her know I had it until she came home, then I presented it to her. Yes, and woman-like, she had to take a good cry over it.

Since then, I’ve sold to Ace-High Magazine, Adventure, Wild West Weekly, Triple-X Western, High Spot, Excitement, etc. I have been running the “Hungry and Rusty” series in Wild West Weekly for a long, long time. The stories of Billy the Kid in the same publication under the nom de plume of Kent Bennett are also mine. Others of mine appear in Wild West under the house nom de plumes of Nels Anderson and Philip F. Doors. [note from LP: the correct names are Nelse Anderson and Philip F. Deere.]

I have been thinking of bringing out those stories of Billy the Kid in book form one of these days, and I may do the same with the “Hungry and Rusty” yarns. I already have enough of both on hand to fill a few volumes, and still retain my book rights on them.

I have about stopped cow punching. I am so busy with my writing that I seldom every get on a horse any more. We have a ranch and cattle on the west side of Carrizozo Mountain near Carrizozo, but I keep men employed to do my riding. I merely oversee things and help some at branding time.

Here are some of Sue’s recollections of her grandfather:

Sam Nickels left Ft. Thomas / Covington, Kentucky for his health. He had one bad bout of pneumonia after another -- the last one the doctor diagnosed as typhoid pneumonia and by that time he only had half lung to get by on. Later on, he would lose his hearing and develop what doctors told him was tuberculosis of the spine and spent much of his time in severe pain. He did, however, outlive the same doctors who told him he had only 6 months to live by about 30 years. And it didn’t stop him from being a prolific writer.

Sam Nickels took the train to Tularosa, NM, where he "rented" a cabin from an Uncle whose last name was Horsely. He began his life in the west with a great sense of adventure; as an avid hunter, his evening meals consisted of whatever game he brought home that day. I don’t know how long he lived there, but he soon began to fit into the local community and earned money by various means, including metalworking.

We have some other early Sam Nickels history, but it's in storage. However, many of the stories he wrote were based on the history he absorbed during the time he was a "traveling salesman" in New Mexico. He traveled by wagon to many of the little country stores in the New Mexico Mountains with samples of the material the storekeepers could use for selecting in their clothing purchases. Because there were few if any hotels in the little villages, he stayed in the homes of the local people, many of whom did not speak English. His hosts usually sat around after the evening meal and told stories to entertain their guest. Many of these were tales about Billy the Kid, as the Hispanics were great friends of Billy.

Now, when Sam Nickels started out, he didn’t speak Spanish -- it's not a popular language in the Kentucky / Virginia / Ohio area. However, he soon became fluent in it and used the information that was so generously shared with him in his stories and was considered the foremost expert on this outlaw for quite some time. He was one of the most talented men ever known – he was very artistic, played almost every instrument available, taught music lessons when he wasn't writing stories, and made little chairs for his grandchildren and told them stories of Ali Baba, Peter Rabbit and other fairy tales. The census lady who came to my door in Phoenix in 1983 had taken trumpet lessons from him.

Now Sam’s wife, Bernice, is an unsung heroine in this adventure – she and Sam had 3 children, William Henderson, Marjorie Elaine and Dorothy Louise, my Mother. She not only taught school to many children, sometimes all 8 grades, made Christmas stockings for each child’s brothers and sisters every year, walked to school when the roads were closed by bad weather, washed her own family’s clothes on a scrub board and went to summer school to get her college degree, but she did everything she possibly could to help her husband achieve his dreams. …. When I was about 12 years old I was really excited when I found copies of some of the old stories on the back porch. As I showed my “treasures” to my Grandmother, she said, “If it weren’t for me he would never have published any of them.”

“He wouldn't ?” I asked. “No”, she said, “You have no idea how discouraged he used to get. I really had to work to make him see how talented he was. I often had to keep after him not to give up.” With all her other work, both at home and at school, until my Mother was able to type, she also copied all of his stories by hand or typed them so he could send them to the publishers. Not many wives could or would do this.

But one of the favorite legends in our family is the time Sam thought his wife was an intruder. To give you a little background information, their house was very close to the railroad. The trains usually slowed down enough near the road to their house so men riding the rails would jump off and walk up to the house for a meal. So my Grandfather usually had a gun nearby, because my Grandfather is deaf and hampered by the damage to his spine, not to mention the fact that he was born in the Appalachians, where guns were always in the house and used when necessary. The following incident is my personal recollection from what my Grandmother told me.

My Grandmother milked the cow and fed the chickens and the horses every evening, and came back into the kitchen at the front of the house to put the milk into the refrigerator. Well, for reasons, that I can no longer recall, on this particular evening she changed her nightly routine. Not only did she come back to the house much later than usual when it was almost dark, but she came in the back to the living room. On the other side of the living room my Grandfather was resting in their bedroom, totally unaware that she was not in the kitchen.

As she opened the door, the doorstep vibrated and the pail on the bucket rattled. As she stepped into the room, she noticed a piece of paper on the floor, and leaned over to pick it up. Just as she did, there was a loud bang and a bullet whizzed past her head – right in front of her eyes! She shrieked and dropped the milk bucket; milk went everywhere!

When her heart started beating again, she hollered at her husband to see if he was okay. When he said he was, she flew through the bedroom door to find out what in the world was the matter with him. He, of course, was just as upset. He thought she was in the kitchen and a stranger was trying to get in the back door.

Total damage for the evening a bullet hole in a mirror frame, a large, large hole in the wall behind it, spilt milk and a good case of nerves for my Grandmother and the shakes for my Grandfather. They patched the wall and hung a picture over it. If she had stepped inside the door and been a half an inch closer that bullet wouldn’t have missed. Sam was a crack shot, wall or no wall, so it’s lucky he had a neat little wife. But Sam also had a mad wife on his hands for a few minutes that night.

But, all in all, the two of them were an amazing couple. My mother and my aunt used to laugh about the fact that they were thirty years ahead of their time. Their dad stayed home with the kids and their mom went to work.

Mr. Nickels’ essay and Sue Appleberry’s recollections are posted here with Sue’s permission.
If you have any questions regarding Mr. Nickels’ career as a pulp writer, please post them as a comment here. Thanks.


Ray said...

A very absorbing and interesting story. Thanks for sharing this.

Matthew P. Mayo said...

Hi Laurie,
What a fantastic story. Thanks for posting it. I hope she'll be able to share it with a wider audience, perhaps bundled with some of her grandfather's stories. I bet there's an audience!



It's great reading about these guys - the more information unearthed the more interesting it all becomes. I'll keep an eye out for some of those mags in the sales and book fairs I attend - if I get any with Nickels in I'll pass them on.

Laurie Powers said...

That would be great, Gary. Do you ever come across any of the Wild West Weekly magazines in your part of the world?


4Peace4Love said...

I have about seven issues. One features a story on the cover by Samuel H Nickels, "Trail of the Junglebobs", a Billy the Kid adventure. I found this site while trying to determine what to sell them for.