The Secret Life of Eugene May (Part 1)

Eugene A. May was a long-time resident of of Empire, the early mining town east of Carson City. You might say he’s still a resident: his quiet grave is tucked in at the little Empire Cemetery, overlooking the valley. Little did we know when first saw his headstone — but May had a secret life!

Known to his friends as “Hank,” May moved to Nevada about 1863 and was living at Empire at the time of the 1870 Census. Around 1878 he married a young widow named Eldorado, who had a one-year-old daughter named Jennie (Eugenia). May was 47 years old at the time of their marriage and solidly middle-aged. Eldorado, on the other hand, was only about 24 — roughly half Hank’s age.

Pretty Eldorado, possibly about the time of her marriage to first husband, Michael Dunigan. (Courtesy of Alpine County Historical Society)

Their age difference would raise eyebrows today, but May/December romances weren’t all that uncommon back then. And for a widow with a young daughter it was a practical match. Eldorado’s first husband, Michael Dunigan, had died in 1877 after a fluming accident at Lake Tahoe, and women had few work options outside the home. Eldorado had young Jennie to think about.

The steam-powered Mexican Mill was built in 1861 and could process 75 tons of ore a day. Nine men worked at the Mill, including foreman Hank May.

Hank May was a skilled millwright and was the foreman of the Mexican Mill. He was a stable breadwinner, and raised young Jennie as his own. The family lived in a house near the mill, and Jennie would follow Hank to work, later recalling spending “many hours of my early life watching the mill process.”

Hank was a “strong Republican,” and ran for state Assembly in the fall of 1880, beating Democrat Samuel Longabaugh in the election. Jennie remembered visiting the Nevada legislature with her mother, Eldorado, where “we sat proudly on the Assembly floor.”

The Mexican Mill eventually closed about 1885, but Hank remained on as a caretaker and watchman. When the mill was later remodeled to process gypsum (used for making cement), Hank was again employed. With his skills as a millwright, he also was called upon to help build other mills and hoisting works along the Carson River through the years, including the power plant at Rodenbaugh’s Station (the old Power Dam at Ruhenstroth).

One morning in the winter of 1898, however, Hank May met with a tragic accident. According to Jennie, he “slipped near the dynamo and his arm was caught in a revolving wheel.” His arm was dislocated at the shoulder, and the bone was broken in three places.

Eugene May was born in 1832. His gravestone incorrectly lists his death year as 1901 (he actually died in late 1900).

Hank May lived for another two years, but never fully recovered. He died at his home in Empire in November, 1900. Rev. J.W. Durrance officiated at his funeral when Hank was laid to rest at the peaceful Empire Cemetery atop the hill overlooking the Mexican Mill where he worked for so long.

Soon after Hank’s death, however, an astonishing story came to light. Hank’s friend, B.F. Denton,  notified newspapers back in Hank’s home state of Illinois about his death, noting that his real name was not Eugene May at all!

Eugene “Hank” May, it turns out, was actually Henry Head, son of a wealthy father (whose own name might produce chuckles today: Biggar Head).

Hank aka Henry was born in Illinois in 1832, and grew up at Sand Ridge, between Edwardsville and Alton, Illinois. Biggar had evidently remarried, and Hank/Henry got into a dispute with his step-mother that led him to leave home about 1850, at the age of 18. By 1863 Hank/Henry had made his way to what would soon become Nevada; the 1870 Census shows him living in Empire. He not only left behind his home and his family, but also adopted a new name and kept his true identity a secret: he was now “Eugene A. May.” Denton, his friend since childhood, knew about the fiction but at Hank’s insistence kept mum.

Hank/Henry held tight to his family grudge for the next 50 years, refusing to contact two living brothers back east, William and Augustin Head. A half-sister sent Hank several letters about 1880, but he refused to open the envelopes, sending each of the letters back unread. He admonished life-long friend Denton that “if he ever wrote East about him, they would never again be friends.”

Even Hank’s headstone held tight to his secret; it bears the name he was known by for so many years in Empire: ‘Eugene A. May.’

Eugene May’s quiet grave at Empire Cemetery. Eldorado must have stood here, shedding tears as she buried her second husband. Little Jennie, too, must have mourned over this grave; Eugene was the only father she had ever known.
Here’s Eldorado in later life — still smiling, despite the hardships she lived through!

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE, INCLUDING A SURPRISING LINK TO ALPINE COUNTY!
Tune in next week to read the second half of this story, with more of the tale about widow Eldorado and her young daughter, Jennie!

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A giant thank-you for assistance with this story to Nevada historian Sue Silver for her amazing research on the Empire Cemetery! You’ll definitely want to check it out if you’re interested in any of the folks buried there. Her research is conveniently referenced by last name. Here is the link to her complete Empire Cemetery research online.

The other great resource we found helpful for this article was www.Newspapers.com. If you haven’t already stumbled across it, it’s a subscription site but definitely worth it for finding obituaries and other stories across the country. For this article, for example, we turned up the Alton Telegraph (Illinois), December 6, 1900, which gave fascinating additional contemporary details about Denton and May’s “secret”.

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Fatal Doctors: Medical Treatment In Days Gone By

“I do not believe in doctors,” quipped Brigham Young’s older brother, Joseph, in 1858. “I would rather call upon the Lord.”

It was a fairly common sentiment at the time, and for good reason: a wide variety of quacks were happily dispensing an equally wide variety of quack medicines.

There were “botanical” doctors; there were homeopathic physicians. There were traveling patent-medicine peddlers and newspaper ads confidently promoting “cure-all” remedies. In addition to ordinary physicians, there were “Thomsonian” doctors — followers of Samuel Thomson, a medical rebel who believed “restoring heat” was the trick for healing a patient. The harsh Thomson protocol applied an uncomfortable series of emetics, enemas and sweat baths, casually summarized as “Puke ‘em, sweat ‘em, and purge ‘em.”

Even mainstream practitioners back in the day were often dismissed by suspicious citizens as “Poison Doctors.” High doses of mercury and techniques like blood-letting were not unusual, and other quirky “remedies” seem outright bizarre by today’s standards.

Caskets like this featuring a glass face-plate offering one last view of the dear departed can still be seen in the undertaker’s parlor at Bodie.

Dr. Benjamin King approved the use of cow dung as a poultice to treat Hosea Grosch’s badly infected foot at Gold Hill in 1857, for example — a ministration that didn’t help and might have hastened Grosch’s demise. Even as late as 1892, a pneumonia sufferer in Virginia City was relieved of half a pint of his blood in a well-intended medical intervention. Ah Kee, a Botanical Physician with an office on Third Street in Carson City, claimed in his advertisements to have “cured many patients in town” — but there was also a Chinese section quietly located at Lone Mountain Cemetery.

The only ones who might have been happy about all these attempts at “curing” were the local undertakers, and those proliferated. Early practitioners of the mortuary arts in Carson Valley included M.A. Downey, George Kitzmeyer, and Samuel C. Wright.

Undertakers were evidently none too popular. Quipped the Reno Gazette Journalabout what they called the “disagreeable business”:

A horse-drawn hearse was part of the proper funeral.

[The undertaker] attends church and keenly surveys the faces of the congregation with a critical eye, . . . deftly tuck[ing] his business card under the door of the invalid. He is jolly when pneumonia gallops through a community, and howls with delight over a wholesale railroad accident. He can diagnose a case of physical degeneracy of any kind with unerring certainty at a distance of fifty feet. . .  He knows the dimensions of every man in the community and the coffins he furnishes are always guaranteed to fit, so that the defunct customer can rest without danger of contracting chafes and bunions.” [Reno Gazette Journal, June 3, 1882].

One unfortunate who landed in the undertaker’s parlor, a victim of prevailing medical wisdom and probably also malpractice, was young Harrison Shrieves.

Young Harrison Shrieves had everything going for him — good looks, a new wife, wealthy in-laws, and a job with the railroad.

A Civil War veteran (he had enlisted in the 10th Ohio Cavalry when he was about 15), Shrieves moved west after the war and landed a plum job as a conductor on the V&T Railroad. Fate continued to smile on Shrieves for the next few years. Around 1870 he married Louise Tufly, daughter of George Tufly, wealthy proprietor of Carson City’s St. Charles Hotel (and later state Treasurer).

The homeopathic remedy Nux Vomica contained traces of strychnine.

It wasn’t quite the “Ides of March” that got him, but it was close. Harrison Shrieves was given a well-intentioned dose of the homeopathic remedy “Nux Vomica” by Dr. Stephenson of Virginia City in 1873. Concocted from seeds containing strychnine, Nux Vomica was commonly used in dilute form to treat a wide range of illnesses from constipation and heartburn to flu. Harrison, however, was apparently given much too much. He suffered for months, and was just 28 when he finally succumbed on March 11, 1874 from his treatment. He is buried in Lone Mountain Cemetery.

There’s more about Shrieves, Tufly, Kitzmeyer, Wright and a great many other Carson Valley pioneers in my friend Cindy Southerland’s beautifully-illustrated book, Cemeteries of Carson City and Carson Valley (Arcadia Publishing 2010). Mark Twain himself commented that “to know a community, one must observe the style of its funerals and know what manner of men they bury with most ceremony,” as Southerland points out. This fascinating book highlights the final resting places of a wide variety of pioneers in this beautiful valley — from stagecoach drivers to governors, soldiers to desperados. Great photos and a helpful description of cemetery symbolism make this an uplifting and informative read. You can find it here through Amazon.com.

Another great book we wanted to mention, this one about early Nevada doctors and early medical remedies (including Chinese and Native American practices): The Healers of 19th-Century Nevada, by Anton P. Sohn (Univ. of Nevada, 1997). This one was a happy recent “find” for us at Morley’s Bookstore in Carson City, Nevada. If you haven’t been there, take time to stop in. Morley’s offers a fabulous assortment of local and Nevada history books plus a great “old-time bookstore” feel. Its 1864 brick building on West King Street is one of only four original stores still extant in Carson City. Be sure to check out the great historic photos on the wall showing this historic building’s evolution through time. Tell him we sent you.

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Ham’s and Cook’s Stations on the Amador-Nevada Wagon Road

Have you ever driven past Cook’s and Ham’s Stations on Highway 88, and wanted to know their stories?

Yup, these were original old “stations” along the early Amador and Nevada Wagon Road in the 1860s! Here’s the scoop:

Cook’s Station (150 years old and counting) is still a popular wayside eatery.

The “Volcano Cut-Off” had ferried travelers from the Old Emigrant Road in this direction since 1852. Then in 1862, Amador voters approved a $25,000 bond to finance a new and improved wagon road to the Amador county seat of Jackson — and it was to be a new toll road, mind you!

Happy travelers stopping at Cook’s Station about 1920, when Pete Barone was manager.

The merchants in Jackson were understandably in favor of this new enterprise, which would make it easier for traffic to reach the county seat. Yes, the new route was to be a toll road. But its advantages were substantial. For one thing it cut around the Carson Spur, allowing travelers to skip the arduous climb over West Pass. And as a new (and very expensive) roadbed, the going would be far better than the previous road. As Amador historian Larry Cenotto put it, “Roadside inns, like weeds, sprang up in anticipation” of the new wagon road’s opening!

By the summer of 1863, the new “Amador and Nevada Wagon Road” was open for business. With its start at Antelope Springs (Dewdrop), it continued east as far as Hope Valley (still part of Amador County until the following year).

The original establishment at the site now known as Cook’s Station was an inn owned by Charley Stedham (sometimes spelled Steadham), which opened as early as 1852 to serve travelers heading to Volcano. The way station went through several owners after Charley, becoming first Hipkin’s, then Wiley’s, and eventually Cook’s.

Sometime after 1905, the old way station was acquired by Louis H. Cook. A resident of Volcano, Cook served as an Amador County supervisor and also road superintendent for the section of state road west of Kirkwood’s. In addition to owning this famous wayside stop that now bears his name, Cook also was proprietor of the St. George Hotel in Volcano.

Louis H. Cook was a county supervisor and also owned the St. George Hotel in Volcano, California.

If you stop in for lunch at Cook’s Station today, be sure to check out their great old photos of this historic spot, including this one, below!

Cattle and what may be a hay wagon are waiting outside Cook’s Station circa 1900! Notice the churned-up dirt of the road.

And don’t miss the great framed letter and wedding photo on the wall near Cook’s counter! Della Reeves Gillick wrote about working at Cook’s Station circa 1891-95, when her father operated the Station. Teamsters hauling lumber with 12-mule teams from the sawmill up the road would often stop in for a bite to eat or to spend the night. She describes the dirt road out front as “shoe-top deep” in dust, churned up by passing traffic (just as you can see in the photo above!)

Letter from Della Reeves Gillick to her granddaughter, describing life at Cook’s Station when she lived there between about 1891-1895.

Gillick recalls pumping water by hand from the outside well and carrying it into the house to do cooking or laundry. “I sure done my share of pumpin’,” she recalls.

Ham’s Station, east of Cook’s on Highway 88, is another original stop along the old toll road.  Amador historian Larry Cenotto notes that this site was originally Smith’s Hotel, built in 1863, and subsequently was operated by “Tulloch, Horsley & Co.” in 1864.

This etching shows “Ham’s Station, Hotel and Ranch” as it looked in 1881 (from Thompson & West’s History of Amador County). Note the welcoming accommodations for travelers with animals.

By the 1880s, the station had been acquired by A.C. Ham and his brother, who gave it the name it bears today: “Ham’s Station.” Born in Kentucky in 1841, Ham came west in 1855 to join his father, J.C. Ham, a builder who had emigrated earlier. A.C. Ham mined for a time before taking up the hotel business. He later became “sole owner of the Modoc mine in the Pioneer district.” There, it was said, he “is familiar with all the resorts of the grizzlies . . . for persons wishing for a few days’ rural amusement.”

In later, years, Ham’s Station was owned by W.E. Proctor, who sold it in 1900 to Joseph Dufrene for the sum of $450. In the early 1900s it went through a quick succession of managers, including John Votaw, Joseph Mello, and L. Mooney.

Sadly, Ham’s Station was closed when we stopped by to snap this picture in late 2017.
From what we hear, Ham’s Station has now been sold. We look forward to its newest incarnation!

We hear that Ham’s Station has now been sold — kudo’s to whoever purchased this amazing bit of history!

A special thank-you to historian Frank Tortorich for his kind assistance with this article. We also were pleased to find great information in Larry Cenotto’s wonderful “Logan’s Alley,” Vol. V (2006, Word Dancer Press), which contains much more about the history of the Amador-Nevada Wagon Road and the pioneering Amador families!

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Old Carson Valley Creamery (Part 2)

The new Carson Valley Creamery proved a lucky thing for teamster Fritz Dangberg, who met his wife as a result of driving butter and cheese to Carson City.

Herman Scheele hauling milk cans from Fredericksburg and Centerville ranches to the Creamery. (This beautiful full-wall mural is featured in Katie’s restaurant at Carson Valley Inn in Minden.)

Other locals, too, were drivers for the Creamery. Dick Bartel collected milk from farmers in the East Fork area; Dolph Dressler picked up milk cans around Genoa; and Herman Scheele, a Fredericksburg rancher, brought in cans from the ranches between Fredericksburg and Centerville.

Although the new creamery expected a ready market for its butter in San Francisco, that niche proved surprisingly difficult to break into, at first — for a somewhat unexpected reason! Turns out the taste of butter from Carson Valley’s alfalfa-fed cows was different than San Francisco consumers were used to from milk from hay-fed critters. Thankfully, one tenacious San Francisco butter dealer “spent considerable money and time in educating the people” about the “superior quality” of Carson Valley’s butter. Those efforts evidently worked; Carson Valley Creamery won gold medals for their butter at the San Francisco mid-winter fair in 1894, 1903 and 1904.

At its height in 1897, the Creamery processed an astonishing 1 million pounds of local milk, and distributed profits of $116,000 to its shareholders. After that banner year, however, its business began to decline as additional creameries formed and jumped into the market. By 1909 there were a total of three creameries competing with each other in the valley.

The Carson Valley Creamery underwent reorganization in later years, becoming a “co-op” instead of a stock-and-shareholder organization. As the newspaper diplomatically put it, this took place “after the farmers had suffered considerable loss through [the] privately-owned concern.”

A token from the Minden Creamery.

Finally on May 1, 1914, after 22 years in business, the old creamery was forced to close its doors “simply because dairying here is not sufficient to support two creameries.” The Minden Creamery had won the lion’s share of the business. (And by 1924, the Minden Creamery was still successfully putting out 2,200 pounds of butter every day of the week.)

The Creamery’s large wooden building was later purchased by peddler Isaac Goldstein, who converted it into a general merchandise store. Today it is filled only with memories.

If you happen to visit, keep an eye out for a small house just to the north of this fascinating old structure; this dwelling was once owned by the early Henningsen ranching family. And across the road from the old Creamery once sat the home business of Adolph Rohlff, a blacksmith whose trade was said to suffer mightily from his too-frequent patronage of the Behrman saloon. But that’s another story!

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The old Creamery building is still beautiful today in its own rustic way! It’s privately-owned, so not open to the public. But to view this photogenic piece of Carson Valley history from the road, turn east on Waterloo Lane from Highway 88, then watch for the building on your right (west) just after the sweeping turn.

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