Murder & Suicide 1888

“Murder and Suicide,” the 1888 headline blared! The Reno Gazette-Journal made no bones about its feelings toward a “long and rather unfavorably known” Carson Valley ranch hand named Zack Field.

Community distaste had begun several years earlier with Zack’s poorly-received romance with 17-year-old Mary Gray, pretty daughter of Genoa blacksmith W.D. Gray. Courting a teenager wasn’t all that unusual at the time, but Zack’s age certainly was: he was sixty years old when he induced Mary to run off with him to Carson to be married in 1882.

Note the skull-and-crossbones — strychnine was serious stuff!

Then came the awful rumors about strychnine. In February, 1888, Zack’s father-in-law had noticed an odd taste in his water cup. Suspicious crystals found in the bottom of his glass were tested by two local doctors, who both “pronounced it strychnine.”

Zack’s name, of course, immediately sprang to mind; he had “been acting strangely for some time,”  the newspaper hinted. (The fact that Mary’s parents recently had tried to induce her to leave her “wretched” husband also raised suspicions.)

It wasn’t the first time Zack had been suspected of foul play involving strychnine. Zack and Mary had moved in with the Hawkins family shortly after their marriage — and shortly after that, the entire household came down with strychnine poisoning. Fingers also had been pointed in Zack’s direction when rancher John Cronkite was found dead in with a “big wound in his head” — and “cattle money” missing from his pocket.

After the tainted water-glass episode, Zack and Mary high-tailed it out of Carson Valley, taking up a residence (aka hiding out) in Scott’s Valley, California. But only a few months later, things came to an unhappy head yet again.

Zack’s rifle might have looked something like one of these.

On August 13, 1888, in what the newspaper poetically called a “case of marital infelicity and pistol practice,” Zack shot poor Mary square in the chest with a Winchester rifle.

Thoughtfully saving the justice system the bother of a trial, Zack then used the remaining charge to “blow the top of his [own] head off.”

No words of sympathy were wasted by the newspaper on Zack. But despite the awful headline deeming it “murder,” readers making it to the last sentence of the column would discover that Mary actually had not actually died yet.

Although her life was “despaired of” initially, she did eventually recover. And in one of those weird twists of fate, Mary went on to marry another man named Field — thankfully no relation to the “long and unfavorably known” Zack.

Help Us Get These Great Photos Back Home!

Several years ago I bought some old photos — which arrived with a huge packet of other snapshots I hadn’t expected.  These black-and-white “bonus” pictures obviously  came from a family album of the 1920s, and are now nearly a century old. And that was the start of trying to unlock their mystery!

Most of these old photos were unlabeled, but a few names were sprinkled here and there. One cryptic caption in particular became the starting point for my hunt to learn more about these great images: “Grandma [and] Grandpa Spielvogel.” There’s Grandma, looking a little frail  — and a good bit out of focus. And there in the background stands Grandpa in his suspenders, still hale and hearty though perhaps in his 80s.

And then there was this nostalgic scene — evidently Grandma and Grandpa Spielvogel’s family farm. This one, at least, was marked with a location: Prescott, Michigan. (And you’ve got to love that car!)

There were other pictures, too, with partial names as tantalizing clues. Here is a fascinating image of Aunt Anna and Uncle Otto. Between them is Harley, roughly ten years old  and leading a horse. And there’s an affectionate Paul and Mildred, big grins on their faces and holding pails as if they were just out for blackberries.

Such a wonderful picture! But what was their story?

Spielvogel is a lovely German last name meaning “songbird.” But these photos definitely weren’t singing much information about their original owners!

I tried reaching out on the internet to every modern Spielvogel whose email address I could find — with zero success. A few photos mentioned sites in Ontario, so I tried local historical societies and even an Ontario genealogical group, but came up equally empty-handed. Finally, a friend plugged the Spielvogel name into Ancestry.com– and BINGO!! Finally, we have Grandma and Grandpa Spielvogel’s first names!

Grandma & Grandpa Spielvogels’ grave in Mich.

He was Paul Spielvogel, born in Germany in 1856. And his wife is Paulina Newbower Spielvogel, born in 1858, also in Germany. Paul and Paulina were the proud parents of four children: Elizabeth, Paul, Anna, and a girl named Bartlair. Grandma Paulina, it seems, was indeed frail; she died in 1929, just a few years after her picture was taken. Grandpa must have missed her terribly; he died in 1930, the very next year after Paulina passed away. Both are buried in the Catholic Cemetery in Whittemer, Iosco County, Michigan.

And with that small beginning, the story behind the photos began to come together! “Aunt Anna” was one of Paul and Paulina’s children, born in 1882. Otto was Anna’s husband — Otto Charles Fuerst.  And Harley was Anna’s and Otto’s son.

But exactly which  Spielvogel descendant once owned all these wonderful photos? We still don’t know for sure.

Son Paul married Mildred Alstrom, and they seem to have ended up in Detroit. Daughter Elizabeth married a fellow named Wayne. Bartlair doesn’t seem to be in the later picture. So if Anna was an aunt, the mystery photographer was likely a son of either Paul or Elizabeth — but who was he?

We know he liked to travel; there are snapshots of the U.S. Capitol and Pennsylvania Avenue in 1925 (then a wide-open street lined with Tin Lizzies). There are references to Mt. Vernon, Virginia and Lexington Avenue, New York. And there are photos taken in Vancouver and Bay City, Belle Isle and Island Lake.

Lillian Tuckey

A few more names are scrawled as possible clues: There’s Lillian Tuckey and what might be her sister, Florence. There’s a smiling Ruby and her beau, a young gent named Claire. There’s Leo with a hunting rifle.There’s a dapper lad with glasses named Lou. And here’s the best clue of all: a photo of “Herb and myself.”

The best clue of all: Herb and “myself”! But who was he??

But who exactly was the mysterious photographer who once owned these wonderful family photos?  And most important, does he have any descendants who would love to have them back?

They say that there are just six degrees of separation in this world — between friends, family, and friends-of-friends, we’re all connected. So we are reaching out to ask for YOUR help!! Do you know any Spielvogels? Anyone named Fuerst, or perhaps a contact near Prescott, Michigan? To someone, these nearly-one-hundred-year-old family photos would be a priceless legacy.

We’d love to find a way to get them back home!! Please let us know if you can help — and feel free to forward this post to anyone else who might know!

Ancient Survivor

We were driving home through the mountains recently when Rick suddenly swung the car around. “Look at that!!” he exclaimed, pointing.

“That” turned out to be the largest sugar pine either of us had ever seen, towering 150 to 200 feet in the air.

What a survivor! Rick estimates this ancient  tree at over 300 years old. That means it was already growing right here when the first shots of the Revolutionary War were being fired back east in 1776. It would have witnessed the early wagons heading for Jackson over the newly-graded Amador Wagon Road in the 1860s. And it greeted innumerable travelers over the various reincarnations of the road in the next 150 years.

Somehow this stately tree managed to avoid being converted into a campfire or a cabin during its early years. (Sugar pine wood makes marvelous shakes; Jacob Marklee, the founder of Markleeville, is said to have covered his entire cabin in 1861 with shingles made from sugar pine!)

Despite growing bigger and bigger with each passing decade, this giant tree also escaped the avaricious attention of loggers over the past century. (Modern lumberjacks are still eager to chop down huge trees like this. For woodsmen, a tree this size is an exciting challenge. But for those of us who love gigantic old trees, seeing them fall is infinitely sad. If you have a strong stomach, check out this YouTube video called “Jacking a Big Sugar Pine.”)

Whether from sheer good luck or perhaps respect for its obvious age, this gigantic sugar pine has now become a stately “Father of the Forest,” surrounded by a ring of its own strapping offspring.

A blaze mark, nearly grown over, shows evidence of ax marks and fire.

But the huge tree hasn’t been completely overlooked by man. Someone chopped a blaze mark in its trunk perhaps a century ago, a scar that’s now nearly grown over. Sometime after that, the tree must also have survived a brush with fire, as the inside of the scar is charred black.

The sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana) is not only the tallest of the pine trees, it also has the longest cone. Perhaps because of the tree’s giant size and long life, the species plays a part in at least one Native American creation myth. As the tree’s name implies, the sugar pine’s resin is sweet. The Washo Indians called this pine sugar “nanomba” and used it to sweeten their food.

Huge as this particular tree is, it’s by no means a world’s record. The tallest sugar pine ever recorded was discovered in Yosemite National Park only a few years ago — in 2015. That tree reportedly towers nearly 274 feet in height, taller than a 20-story building! Little wonder that naturalist John Muir dubbed the sugar pine “king of the conifers.”

Surrounded by its own strapping offspring, this “King of the Forest” still towers above!

We discovered this amazing tree off Highway 88, in Amador County. But we hope you’ll pardon us if we don’t tell you exactly how to find it. This towering tree is a survivor; we hope it stays that way.

Leek Spring: Where the Wagons Rested

If you’re a fan of Calif. Highway 88, you’ve probably seen the sign for Iron Mountain Road. It’s a pleasant back-country drive — and also a route with a great bit of history.

As the road’s alternate name (“Mormon Emigrant Trail”) implies, this was roughly the route blazed by the Mormon Battalion in 1848 on their return trip to Salt Lake. For the early eager gold-seekers of the 1850s, this became the way to Placerville.

Just over two miles after you turn onto Iron Mountain Road, watch for an Emigrant Trail T-marker on your right. (These metal markers have been helpfully posted by TrailsWest.) This was the site known as Leek Spring, and the T-marker is inscribed with an excerpt from the diary of Mendall Jewett, who camped here in July, 1850.

The upper meadow near Leek Spring.

Just as today, the spot was a beautiful little valley surrounded by large pine & fir trees. Jewett dubbed it “the most romantic spot we have camped upon.”

 

Jewett wasn’t alone  in recording his stop here at Leek Spring; other emigrant diaries mention both Leek Spring and the valley below, sometimes called “Onion Valley.” With its water, grass for the draft animals, and the abundance of wild onions (a real treat for the emigrants after months on the trail!), it’s no wonder that this became a popular camping spot.

It was, in fact, so popular with emigrants that enterprising early traders quickly set up shop here, knowing they would have ready customers.

Here are several trading posts, on account of it being a great camping place,” wrote John Wood in his diary of September 13, 1850. A fellow emigrant named George Hegelstein observed in August, 1850 how pleased he was to be able to add to his provisions here, finding flour at the amazing price of “only fifty cents a pound” — and celebrated by purchasing a pint of whiskey “to refresh ourselves.”

The lower valley, sometimes called Onion Valley.

One slightly later guidebook for emigrants confirmed that this was a “favorite camping place.” But it warned would-be travelers that, late in the season, “the grass will all be eaten off about here.” (Hosea Horn’s Overland Guide of 1852).

On your drive home, take a minute to ponder how closely today’s modern roads follow the path originally blazed by the first Mormon’s wagons. The same miles that today take us mere minutes to zip over in comfort required days of arduous travel for those hardy pioneers.

Veterans’ Day

In honor of Veterans’ Day, here are the true stories of two nearly-forgotten veterans! Both are buried at the historic Fredericksburg Cemetery, just off Highway 88.

Tucked beneath a shady smoke tree (roughly in the center of the photo) is the grave of Kermit Neddenriep. When we first began researching, we knew nothing about Kermit beyond the brief military information on his headstone:

PFC, 351 Infantry, Nevada
World War II
April 5, 1910 – July 26, 1944

This is Kermit’s grave, tucked beneath a sheltering tree. (Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire.)

But with a little digging, we  were able to learn his tragic story.

Son of a prominent Nevada ranching family, Kermit enlisted in the Army on December 7, 1942, exactly one year after the deadly Pearl Harbor attack that launched World War II. He  quickly was sent overseas to the European Theater as part of the Fifth Army, 351st Infantry, 88th Division, under General Clark, and for more than five months, was embroiled in active combat.

On July 26, 1944, Kermit’s company launched an attack on the town of San Romano, Italy. “Fighting in the streets was exceedingly fierce,” wrote the company chaplain afterwards, “and during the advance [Kermit] was struck by enemy sniper fire.”

Kermit died there in the streets of San Romano. His parents received a sad telegram notifying them of his death — and also received a letter in the mail that same day from Kermit himself, written six days before his fatal battle.

But Kermit’s story wouldn’t end there. Although he was killed in 1944, his body was finally returned and buried here at Fredericksburg five years later, in 1949. Services were held for him first in Smith Valley, where Kermit had attended high school. Then a full military service was conducted here at graveside, complete with color guard, a three-volley salute fired over the casket, and the mournful playing of “Taps.” In Kermit’s honor, new VFW Post #8084 was established in Smith Valley, and post members served as his pallbearers. Kermit was just 34 years old at the time of his death — his young life cut short in service to his country.

Sgt. Thomas Armstrong Chambers.

And there’s yet one more nearly-forgotten war veteran at Fredericksburg Cemetery we wanted to tell you about–

A native of New York, Chambers served in the Civil War. Although he survived that brutal conflict, he didn’t emerge unscathed. “They said you could hear the entire company coughing,” a descendant tells us. By the time he was discharged from the service, Chambers had contracted “consumption” — or in today’s language, tuberculosis. He eventually was granted a military pension of $12  a month as a result of his illness.


The headstone of Sgt. Thomas Chambers at Fredericksburg Cemetery. (Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire).

Chambers went on to play a lasting role in Alpine history. In 1891, he became a founding member (and first president) of the Fredericksburg Cemetery Society, and helped with the purchase of its land. And in 1892, he homesteaded a 160-acre tract just east of Highway 88 (and east of the Cemetery). Among Chambers’ nine children were twins, Myron and Byron, who later became well-known ranchers in Smith Valley and Carson Valley. And the road near his homestead still bears his name: Chambers Lane.

We hope you will remember both these brave veterans in your thoughts this Veterans Day, and that you’ll seek them out the next time you visit the historic Fredericksburg Cemetery.

Interested in learning more about the lives of people buried at Fredericksburg Cemetery? Check out this self-guided walking tour.

It’s available here:
http://www.clairitage.com/books.html