Cafe Zack: A Foodie Find & A Hero’s Tale

It was the last day of our Ventura vacation when we wandered into Cafe Zack for lunch. You won’t find it jostling its culinary competition among the bright lights of downtown. Instead, Zack’s welcomes guests more quietly from a charming bungalow closer to midtown. A fairy-tale garden cascades beside the front steps, a tiny hint of the magic that awaited us inside.

Someone has a great eye for colors, shapes, and textures in this cascading planter — a warm welcome to Cafe Zack’s.

We’d settled in at a table by the window and were checking out the menu when our energetic host appeared. “Welcome to Cafe Zack,” he beamed. “I’m Hector Gomez, the owner. Try the passion fruit iced tea. It’s very good.” It was like a thousand-volt jolt of lightning had just entered the room.

Hector is clearly passionate about his restaurant. And he’s equally passionate about pleasing guests. Looking for something vegan? He’ll pop in the back and chat with the chef, just for you. Trying to avoid gluten? No worries; they’ll happily make your dish gluten-free.

It didn’t take us long to realize that both Hector and his cafe were totally extraordinary. The food, for one thing, was amazing. The bread was fresh; the passion fruit tea as refreshing as promised.

Refreshing passion fruit tea was a great pairing with delicate tomato soup. And oh, that fresh basil!

The tomato soup when it arrived (laden with glorious chunks of bread) was delicately-seasoned and sprinkled with fresh licorice-basil ribbons on top. Our tostada salad came piled high with grilled fresh vegetables and rested on a baked (not deep-fried, thank you) whole wheat tortilla. Yumm.

Grilled vegetable salad.

But the real treat was getting to meet Hector. When he told us he was approaching his 19th anniversary as owner of Cafe Zack, we asked where he’d come from and how he’d happened to buy this special place. So he pulled up a chair and told us.

Turns out his story is worthy of a Horatio Alger novel — a real-life fairy tale come true. The saga (and it is a saga) of how Hector became the Cafe Zack’s proud owner is a testament to both his willingness to leap and never giving up. We asked if anyone had ever written a story about him. Hector just shook his head slightly at the odd question, as if what he’s done is nothing special.

No, it’s definitely special. It’s hero’s journey worth celebrating, an ode to hard work, a message of inspiration. We’re tickled to be able to pass the wonderful story of Hector and Cafe Zack along to you.

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Hector’s arrival in the world was a tad, well, inconvenient. He was born in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to a mother who wasn’t married and an airline-executive father who was — to someone else.

When he was eleven months old, Hector’s mother went off to seek work in the States, leaving him in the arms of his grandmother. “I first met my mom ten years later, when I was eleven,” he says with a shrug. There’s no trace of animosity as he describes his parents. “They had their own lives.”

Grandmother Elia was good to him. But counting Hector, her household numbered eleven people, spanning four generations, all in one tiny house. And out of those eleven, Elia was the only breadwinner. She worked as a maid for a local family in a private residence.

By the age of 8 or 9, Hector began walking a mile after school every day to the home where Elia worked, to help his grandmother. “I would sweep floors, I learned to clean pools,” he says with a shrug. And when her usual workday was over, Elia sometimes would walk the neighborhood, knocking on doors to ask if there were clothes she could wash or iron to bring in extra money. Hector would help his grandmother carry two big metal wash buckets loaded with laundry down to the river, a mile and a half from their home. Elia would beat the clothes on rocks there to scrub them clean.

One day when he was 12, Hector announced he was going to find a job. “I want to help you,” he told his grandmother firmly. He requested permission to serve as a greeter at a local restaurant, opening taxi doors for arriving guests and offering a hand to help ladies out of the cab. “I made that my little business,” Hector smiles. “I wasn’t on the restaurant’s payroll, but sometimes guests would tip me.” A few months later, he moved up to a job as a dishwasher. He was 13 years old.

At 14, Hector begged a manager at another local hotel for a job as a busboy. The man quibbled about his age and tried twice to turn him away. “Don’t pay me,” Hector pleaded. “I just want to learn.” The man relented, and Hector spent the next year and a half as an unpaid “busboy for the busboys,” pulling silverware and cleaning ash trays. “I worked hard. Really hard,” he says. “And I did it for no pay.” There’s a far-away look in his eye, as if he’s remembering. “Sometimes I made a little in tips from the busboys. But there were also days when there were no tips at all. I’d come home cussing.”

Those were the nights his grandmother would console him. “Just remember, mijo, you are there to learn,” she told him. “Someday it will pay off. One day you’ll have your own restaurant.”

Hector finally got a real job as a busboy when he was 16. He looked up to some of the waiters at the restaurant (“my favorites”), who “dressed so beautifully and smelled so nice.” Some waiters spent half of every year working in the States, returning to Mexico to spend the other half working at the resort. Hector yearned to follow their example. He made up his mind he was going to go to the Bay area to find work when he turned 18. He spoke no English.

The following year, fortified with $100 and a backpack, Hector flew to Tijuana and eventually found his way to a Greyhound bus headed for San Francisco. But once the bus reached Ventura, Hector saw the beautiful ocean passing by on his left. “I wanted to check it out!” he says. He got off the bus and walked down Thompson Boulevard — his steps taking him past the restaurant he would someday own. It was like Fate was calling him.

Those first two nights in Ventura Hector slept in empty cardboard box near the railroad tracks. Then Fate stepped in one more time. Buying lunch the next day at a burrito stand, Hector met a man named Frederico who hailed from his home state of Jalisco. That chance meeting would shape his life.

Frederico offered to let Hector to stay at his home. “There were 29 guys there already in a four-room house; with me, it would be 30,” Hector says. But it was better than a cardboard box. Frederico’s friends at the house shared a rumor that the Elephant Bar might need a busboy. Hector applied for the job and, as he puts it, “the rest is history!” But a single job didn’t bring in enough, so Hector soon picked up a second job as well. He did room service, worked as a busboy, learned to cook, and eventually became a server for various local restaurants.

Meanwhile, his roommate Frederico had a job as a cook at the restaurant Hector had walked past on his first day in town — yes, the very same one that’s now known today as Zack’s. Hector stopped by one day to say hi, and the owners asked if he wanted to be a server. “I didn’t speak a lot of English at the time,” Hector grins. “They handed me a menu and a wine list, and that was it!” And oh yes, he kept his two other jobs, too.

Hector worked for the restaurant owners for seven years, eventually picking up both lunch and dinner shifts. That meant 14-hour days, but it also meant he was able to ditch his side jobs. In 1993 he met Frederico’s sister, Suzie, who’d arrived with her parents from Mexico. Eight months later they were married. Things were on the up-swing. The restaurant owners treated him like a son. Hector had even been talking with them about purchasing the restaurant someday.

Then in 1998, he returned from a short vacation to devastating news. The restaurant had lost its lease. Instead of offering the business to Hector without the security of a solid lease, the owner had decided to sell it instead — to the landlord’s niece.

It was a tough blow. Hector swallowed his disappointment and continued to work at the restaurant, for the new owner. It was a difficult transition, and despite her enthusiasm, the new owner struggled to make a go of it. “She was young and inexperienced,” Hector says kindly. “It wasn’t for her.” Eleven months later, on November 1, 2000, Hector was able to purchase the restaurant himself. Astonishingly, he’d saved enough over the years to pay for it in cash.

Cafe Zack’s the vibe is upscale with a foodie flair. Fresh flowers; linen tablecloths; and an imaginative menu.

“One of my best memories,” he tells us, “is when I called up my Grandma and told her I’m going to buy this place. I’ll never forget — we both cried on the phone together. She told me, ‘Remember when you used to bitch about working for no pay, and I told you that you would own your own business someday?’”

Today Hector is a U.S. citizen. He has three children, who’ll be 21, 17 and 13 this fall. He tells his oldest son to stay in school: “Life is not easy, mijo.” Grandmother Elia passed away nine years ago, but she was able to visit several times and see the restaurant. Hector has purchased a 4-plex, where his wife’s brothers and others in the extended family now live. Three family members help him in the restaurant. Still a workaholic, Hector describes the restaurant as “my life.” But he proudly adds that he never misses special occasions with his family.

Hector is a living example of the power of gratitude. “God gave me this –” he pauses to find just the right word — “this gift. I’ve always had lots of energy. I’ve been doing double shifts for the last 25 years. I’m just really thankful for all the people who helped me along the way.”

The irrepressible Hector Gomez, in one of his rare moments sitting still.

Between the great food and Hector’s outgoing personality, Cafe Zack has built a devoted following. Most of its customers are locals, a statistic Hector shares with pride. “Ninety percent of the people who come to the restaurant are repeat customers, not tourists,” he emphasizes. “We know them by name; they come to my home. They know my kids. We are like family.”

It’s easy to see why. As we leave, Hector offers us each a hug. It’s warm. It’s sincere. We may have walked into Zack’s Cafe as strangers. But we leave as friends.

Here’s Where To Find It Yourself:

Cafe Zack

1096 Thompson Blvd

Ventura CA 93001

(805) 643-9445

www.cafezack.com

 

Take a Ride on History: The Amador Central Railroad!

Our tickets called it a “Speeder Excursion.” And a delightful (if not exactly speedy) ride into history it was, bumping along on the 114-year-old rails of the  Amador Central Railroad — one of the oldest continuously-running railroad lines in the country!

We gathered at Lane’s Station — a dirt pull-out on Highway 104, about 1.5 miles south of Ione. There we watched in awe as sheer muscle-power (and a pivot) were used to turn the cars around and get them facing in the right direction.

These fully-restored “maintenance of way” cars offered the added luxury of padded seats. (Not part of the maintenance cars’ original equipment!)
Our guides turned each car the “old-fashioned” way — with pivot and muscle,

And before long we were boarding the restored and upgraded cars. All are “maintenance of way” work cars, to which comfortable seats have been added. The oldest (extensively rebuilt) was from 1937; some were World War II vintage; and one was originally in use in the 1970s. The Amador Central owns two of these beautifully restored railroad cars. The rest are privately owned by passionate railroad enthusiasts who make them available for special excursions like this.

Our host for the ride, Mark Demler, kicked off the tour with a fascinating thumbnail history of the Amador Central. Turns out its earliest roots go back to the late 1880s, when would-be founders intended to start an electric-powered railway. Eventually they realized that electricity wasn’t really practical for the route they had in mind.

And who knows just how serious they really were about creating a viable railroad, anyhow?! “Many of the 1880s and 1890s railroad corporations were actually scams,” Demler told us. “They’d set up to sell stock or take donations but then lay no actual track — and eventually declare bankruptcy. So eventually the state prohibited railroad companies from making any stock offerings until they at least made a survey of the route, first.”

It was a gorgeous journey through the Amador rolling hills.

The cows didn’t mind having company a bit.

Undaunted by their early mis-steps, backers of the new railroad managed to complete the necessary railroad survey in 1890, finally incorporating in 1904 as the Ione & Eastern. Becoming an official corporation allowed the promoters to begin selling stock. Even more important, it allowed them to start borrowing money. Short-term bonds were issued to help finance the new railroad line. Track-laying began in 1904, and a short first run took place in 1905.

But expenses were big and profits were small. When those short-term bonds came due in 1908, the company found itself unable to pay. The Ione & Eastern was in a financial mess.

Luckily, a man from Sutter Creek named Erickson stepped forward, acquiring the railroad’s right-of-way by paying off the defaulted bonds. He renamed the railroad the Amador Central. Things were looking up a bit. Erickson passed away just a few years later. But his thrifty wife, Meta, stepped in and managed to not only keep the railroad running but make it solvent.

Once we reached the far end of the journey, the cars had to be turned again.

In its early days, the railroad hauled aggregate, brick, and lumber. (Ione was known for its high-quality clay and quarry goods.) During the WWI-era, the line carried heavy mining equipment like pumps and replacement gears to the Kennedy and Argonaut mines. In the 1930-1950s, the Amador Central began hauling goods for the newly-prosperous local lumber companies. And in later years, it ferried passengers up the hill, too, becoming the “bus” taking kids to and from the local high school (a practice that ended in the late 1930s).

A local lumber mill owner acquired the railroad in the 1980s, renaming it the Amador Foothills. He kept the business name when he sold the railroad a few years later, so another name change was required for the line. And what better name than its early-day moniker, the Amador Central?! A group of passionate railroad buffs incorporated under the Amador Central name, leased the line for five years, then finally bought it in 2010 (in partnership with the Amador Historical Society) for just $1. The group successfully petitioned the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to officially change the name.

Larry Cenotto, President of the Amador Co. Historical Society, shakes hands with Larry Bowler, President of the Recreational Railroad Coalition Historical Society on October 29, 2010, celebrating purchase of the Amador Central line for $1. (Photographer: Larry Angier/Amador County Ledger Dispatch photo).

“The community has been very generous in supporting the line,” Mark Demler tells us. “Local companies donate rock and aggregate for the rail bed, and local contractors sometimes do grading for us at cost or for nothing.” When a slide occurred recently, the Jackson Rancheria casino trucked in a quarter of a million dollars of rock to help stabilize the hillside — for just the cost of paying the truck drivers!

Close-up of the original track and crushed rock base. Gaps allow for expansion and contraction, but also make for a bumpy ride in these smaller, lighter work cars!

Total length of the Amador Central’s line today, from end to end: ten miles. But, oh, this short line still boasts major bragging rights! It’s now licensed by the Federal Railway Administration as a true passenger railroad — technically, a “class one non-insular tourist railroad.” The complete route climbs over 1,200 feet in altitude in its mere ten miles, making it one of the steepest railroads in America. Several of the grades are as steep as 4 percent (a rise of 4 feet in 100 feet traveled); for most other railroads, the max is just 1.5 percent (1.5 feet in 100). For a heavy train, that’s astonishing. “In the old days, they had to stop half-way down to cool the brakes off!” Demler notes.

Our six-mile round trip through the beautiful rolling hills took just about an hour. It would be an especially fun trip for kids — though they must be 5 or older to board the cars.

Short excursions like the one we took depart the second Saturday of most months, through November, at 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m., and cost a mere $10 bucks. Longer, full-length runs are also offered three times a year. Sunscreen, closed-toed shoes and water are recommended. For more information and a flyer, visit www.amadorcentralrailroad.com.

Take your own ride into history!
“Iron Ivan,” one of the original Amador Central steam engines, can also be seen in nearby Ione.

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The Amazing Tale of Agnes Train

        She was a woman very much ahead of her time. A talented artist, author, botanist, and fossil collector, Agnes Train served as the first curator of the Nevada State Museum in 1941. And oh yes, from 1939 to 1956, she was also the owner of Genoa’s Pink House (with husband Percy), and was instrumental in preserving this landmark’s history and contents.
Despite all that, few folks have ever heard of Agnes Train. This wonderful guest blog about Agnes is written for you by Gail Allen, curator at Douglas County Historical Society and Museum. We’re so excited to share this exciting story about such an amazing and little-known woman. Hope you’ll stop in at the Museum soon to learn even more!

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Agnes Hume Scott was born in Seattle on March 24, 1905, to Margaret Hume and Walter John Scott. The family later moved to Chicago, where Agnes attended school. Her high school yearbook from 1924 shows her with a nickname of “Scotty.” Her interests at the time included art-related activities, with plans to become an “Artist Extraordinary.”

After high school, Agnes began working as a librarian in the Chicago Public Library. It was a fortuitous post, giving her skills and training she would use throughout her future life.

Agnes Train. (Photo courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society & Museum)

Using her earnings to buy two train tickets, Agnes traveled in 1926 with her mother to Seattle, to tour the area of her birth. And here fate intervened. She chanced to meet Percy Train aboard the train — a renowned fossil hunter, archeologist, mining engineer, and field representative of the Smithsonian Institute. After this chance encounter, the pair kept up a long-distance correspondence for over a year. Much to the amusement of Agnes’ co-workers Percy mailed her oddities from his travels, including a sheep fleece rolled up in a gunnysack and a dead black tarantula.

On June 7, 1928, Agnes and Percy hiked up Lone Mountain near Lovelock, where they were married at sunrise. She was 23; he was 52. They would spend much of the next eleven years together collecting fossils, minerals and plants together in the remote reaches of Nevada. Agnes used her artistic talent to sketch the specimens, and they were sent to museums across the country.

Agnes and Percy, roughly a year and a half after their marriage. (Photo courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society & Museum).

In 1937, the Trains joined a statewide project to identify and collect Nevada native plants. As part of this project, the couple interviewed of tribal members about the medicinal and other traditional uses of native plants. The results of their research were published in 1941 in a major work titled “Medicinal Uses of Plants by Indian Tribes of Nevada,” by Percy Train, et al. This groundbreaking study unexpectedly led to a breakthrough discovery in 1942 by the University of Minnesota’s pharmacological research team that helped preserve food rations in the Pacific during World War II.

Agnes on horseback on one of the couple’s specimen-collecting trips. (Photo courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society & Museum).

In April 1939, the Trains purchased the “Pink House” in Genoa with all of the Virgin/Finnegan family possessions. They lovingly preserved the furniture, clothing, housewares, trunks, saddle, papers, books, portraits and records, and also restored the house to its original pink color.

In 1941, Agnes began volunteering at the not-yet-opened Nevada State Museum. The Chairman of the Museum Board, Judge Clark J. Guild, tasked her with unpacking “pioneer treasured items brought to the Museum on loan from Carson Valley ranches.” These had been left stacked in the basement in unopened boxes since the Museum office staff thought they were too “folksy.” Six weeks later, Agnes was offered the position of Museum Curator.

This achievement was marred by the sudden death of her husband, Percy, less than two months later. But Agnes continued her work. She became a tireless promoter of the museum, writing articles and speaking to community organizations about Nevada history, museum collections and the Trains’ work. Her librarian skills proved invaluable for cataloging Nevada fossil, plant specimens, and managing the Museum’s collections.

Agnes Train with her beloved Percy. (Photo courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society & Museum).

Agnes left Nevada in June 1944 after marrying John Janssen. The Janssens were dairy farmers, land developers, and cattle ranchers in California. The couple eventually retired to Salem, Oregon, where Agnes resumed her career as a librarian. Agnes continued to own the Pink House until 1956, where her parents lived and acted as caretakers of the residence and its contents. She sold the home after her widowed mother moved to Oregon.

In 1951, Agnes began to take actions to preserve both the Percy Train collections of fossils, minerals and flowers and the Pink House artifacts. Collections of historical items were donated to Mormon Station State Park, the Nevada State Historical Society, and Carson Valley Historical Society, now Douglas County Historical Society. In a letter to the Nevada State Historical Society, Agnes explained she wanted to “place various collections where the public will have access to them for research and reference.”

In 1977, Agnes published a book of recollections, “Nevada through Rose Colored Glasses.” This is a story of her Nevada life with Percy Train.

Agnes spent the last two years of her life in Carson City. She died on July 17, 1991 at age 86, and was buried next to her beloved Percy in Genoa Cemetery. His headstone reads: “Geologist . . . Botanist,” and hers: “Librarian . . . Curator.”

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Written by Gail Allen, Curator of Douglas County Historical Society & Museum. Based on the story and background research was provided by Debbe Nye. Many thanks to both Gail and Debbe for sharing this wonderful information about the amazing Agnes Train! Featured photo (at top), showing the Trains all packed up for a collecting trip (with dog and chicken!) is courtesy of the wonderful Douglas County Historical Society & Museum.

The East Fork School in early Nevada

As early as 1876, a small schoolhouse was serving pupils in the East Fork School District, south of Gardnerville, Nevada. Parents were so unhappy with the school’s location, however, that a vote was held that year to compel its removal to “a more central” spot.

Notice of a proposal to move the early East Fork School building “to a more central point in the district,” Carson Valley News, October 6, 1876.

Back then, folks thought nothing of dismantling an entire building and  hammering back together again somewhere else. Soon, the early East Fork school had been spirited off to a new and improved location.

Now sitting just north of Wheeler’s Twelve Mile House (today’s Smoke Shop) and three miles south of Gardnerville, the reconstructed school was perched on the east side of the river, across from the Wilslef home. No bridges crossed the river there, however. And that meant that “in the spring when the water was high, there wasn’t much school,” as Peter Wilslef chuckled in an interview with the Record-Courier in 1958.

But just moving the old building to this new, more-felicitous location wasn’t enough for the ambitious East Fork school district. By July 1880, bids were being solicited to construct a spanking new school building. Miss Emma Jennison, the East Fork teacher in those days, must have been heartily pleased with her fresh classroom. As for the old, original school building? It wasn’t forgotten as a potential revenue source; the empty shell was auctioned off to the highest bidder in December, 1880. Waste not, want not.

Local parents aspired to make the East Fork School the “best schoolhouse in the county, outside of Genoa.” So after the new building was up, additional improvements quickly followed. New desks were purchased for the pupils in 1882, and a “fine Chapel organ” was acquired in 1884. Somewhere along the line, the school acquired a warm and welcoming school bell, too.

The school’s new organ, manufactured by Chappell & Co., may have looked something like this.

The school building served as a meeting place for the whole East Fork community. Sunday services were held inside its walls for decades. And when voting time rolled around, the schoolhouse was turned into a polling place. On Christmas Eve in 1884, the entire East Fork community gathered there around a communal Christmas tree at the little school to exchange presents and greet Henry Beste, all dressed up as Santa.

Enterprising teachers pulled together “programmes” for the enjoyment of the community, with students as the entertainment. Fidgeting youngsters would recite carefully-memorized pieces and sing off-key but chipper songs. Much to the delight of parents and grandparents from the “Old Country,” sometimes those memorized tunes were even sung in German. Fees for admission to these gala events (50 cents a head) went toward purchasing new books for the school’s library.

Teachers were a precious commodity, and not just for the book-learning they dispensed. Marriage-age female teachers, often from other towns, could be important additions to the local gene pool. One teacher followed the other at the East Fork School in rapid succession, typically leaving when either a husband or a better position was found. Following Miss Emma Jennison behind the teacher’s desk in the classroom were Julia McCord, Ida Pettegrew, Kate Nevin, and May Tierney. Miss Hattie Cushing, one of the longest-lasting East Fork schoolmarms, taught there from September 1893 through 1902 before moving on to teach at Mono Lake.

Competition among districts to snag the best teachers could be intense. Miss Eugenia Arnot, daughter of Alpine County judge N.D. Arnot, was lured away from her post at the Gardnerville School in July, 1902 with a can’t-refuse offer of $70 per month to teach at East Fork — a twenty-five percent increase over what she previously had been making.

Inside of the East Fork schoolroom about 1898. Gathered atop the teacher’s raised platform are teacher Harriet Cushing (top right) with students (from upper left): Emma Hussman (who later married Wm Nelson); Jennie Jacobsen (Mrs. George Fay); center: Sue Rodenbah (Mrs. Bert Selkirk). At bottom are Minnie Jacobsen (Smith) and Bertha Dangberg (who married Joe Cardinal). (Photo courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.)
Mary Eugenia Arnot in her graduation picture from UNR, 1900. (Courtesy of descendant M. Shively).

In its hey-day, East Fork School attendance ranged from roughly twenty to forty students. A list of those who learned their ‘Three R’s’ within its walls reads a bit like a “Who’s Who” of old Carson Valley: Allerman, Bartels, Berning, Frantzen, Hussman, Dangberg, Jacobsen, Robishaw, Rodenbah, Settelmeyer, Springmeyer, Syll. Kids arrived in carts and aboard wagons, on horseback, and by foot. But by 1915, the East Fork School had outlived its usefulness. Its twin doors (one for boys, one for girls) were closed for good.

Such a sturdy wooden building couldn’t be allowed to go to waste, however. Henry Elges bought the structure and moved it near the “S” bend in Gardnerville, to become Elges’ “green goods and vegetable store.” Elges was followed by John and Norma Ellis, who briefly operated their own grocery store there. By the mid-1930s the former school building had become the Gardnerville Laundry, operated by George Oka before being acquired in August, 1940 by the Nishikida family. And they continued to own the establishment for over 25 years.

Portions of the original horizontal siding are beginning to peek out from beneath the later-added vertical layer. Look carefully at the windows flanking the front door and you can still see the outlines of the original pair of doors.

Today, almost no one gives this humble wooden building a second glance. But next time you drive by, we hope you’ll remember its past. Not so very long ago, it was the pride of East Fork parents, the cheerful roof under which a community once gathered. Listen carefully and maybe, just maybe, you’ll catch the faint echo of a welcoming school bell.

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Check out our latest book, packed with 33 stories of the “old days” and forgotten tales of early Carson Valley, Nevada! Available in both paperback and Kindle on Amazon.com.

 

Battle of the Titans

Dangberg vs. Lucky Bill: One of them won the first round. The other got the last laugh.

1856 Was a Tough Year . . . . 

Where’s that “Wayback” machine when you need it?! It’s difficult to be rock-solid certain you’ve separated fact from fiction after more than 160 years have passed. But if there was one person in the world who had good reason to hate Lucky Bill Thorington, it was probably Heinrich Friedrich (“Fred”) Dangberg. And some would hint that he eventually got his revenge.

Dangberg was born September 16, 1830 in Halle, a province of Westphalia. Although today we know it as Germany, it was officially the Kingdom of Prussia at the time. Fred’s father was a farmer and stage operator. But Fred, the oldest of four sons, didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps, at least immediately. Instead, he was apprenticed to an uncle to learn the trade of operating a flour mill.

In 1845, when Fred Dangberg was just 15, his father passed away. His mother would remarry two years later, in 1847. All together this added up to a rough period in the young lad’s life. His relationship with his step-father was not a happy one and, with war looming in Europe, he faced the very real possibility of being conscripted.

Young and ambitious, Fred Dangberg was in no mood to wait for Fate to overtake him. In 1848, at the age of 18, he sailed from Germany to New Orleans. Lying ahead were not only fresh opportunities but a life on his own.

In America, Dangberg initially took a job rafting logs down the Mississippi. The following year, Dangberg and a friend, Benjamin Mast, followed the river upstream to St. Louis, where they secured work in a flour mill. And in 1850, the pair hired out as farmhands at a ranch in Illinois.

Nattily-dressed rancher H.F. Dangberg, circa 1875-1880. (Courtesy of Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park).

In the meantime, of course, the Gold Rush had begun. The lure of riches and land proved too compelling for ambitious young men like Dangberg and Mast to ignore. In the spring of 1853, the pair left St. Louis and headed west, driving 200 head of cows and oxen with them. They reached Gold Canyon on October 11, 1853, and promptly set to work panning gold.

For the next two-and-a-half years they would split their time between mining and trading, running their sluice box in the months when water was available, and trading goods to emigrants when water was scarce. They purchased wares in Placerville and Sacramento, and sold everything from flour, coffee and similar staples to simple comforts like tobacco and alcohol.

By early 1856 Dangberg had branched out into the dairy business, too, and began selling butter – more than 450 pounds of it that year alone, factoring in the weight of the small wooden barrels (firkins) that held it. Things were going so well, in fact, that he decided to abandon gold mining entirely and turn his energies to ranching instead.

Sometime that same year (1856), Dangberg settled on 320 acres of rich bottomland beside the East Fork of the Carson River, land that would later be known as the Klauber Ranch. He began building a log cabin, and set his cattle to grazing nearby. But as far as we can tell from recorded documents, Dangberg never bothered to file a formal land claim. Maybe he was working on it. Maybe he intended to hire a surveyor later, and just wanted to get his cabin up first.

Local trader and land baron, William “Lucky Bill” Thorington. (K. Dustman illustration)

But Dangberg wasn’t the only one with an eye on that same stretch of land. Returning home from a supply trip over the mountains, Dangberg found local trader and land baron Lucky Bill Thorington occupying his partly-finished cabin – armed with a gun and a group of supporters. Some say Lucky Bill taunted Dangberg, boldly declaring that he’d jumped Dangberg’s land claim and demanding “What are you going to do now, Dutchman?”

Although this may well have been Dangberg’s take on the situation, the vague descriptions and primitive title system of early land claims made it a far more nuanced matter. The intervening 160-plus years makes it doubly difficult to tell for sure, of course. But here’s one fascinating tidbit that might help explain the confrontation: these 320 acres could be the same property claimed and surveyed by Fred Heath and F.D. Clift on August 9, 1856.

Assuming it’s the same land, the big question, of course: did that Heath/Clift survey happen before or after Dangberg settled on the property? Did Dangberg perhaps even buy out Heath and Clift’s interest in an unrecorded transaction? Or did he commence building his cabin, unaware of their claim? On the other hand, could Lucky Bill have bought the Heath/Clift land claim? Or might Lucky Bill just have been friendly with Heath and Clift, and tried to help pitch out a person they felt was an intruder? We may simply never learn the truth. But it’s possible that Lucky Bill – a resident of Carson Valley since 1853 – honestly believed he or his friends had a valid right to the land.

By the time Dangberg arrived, would-be settlers were swarming into Carson Valley and land disputes with those who’d settled earlier were common. Newcomers frequently had difficulty finding unoccupied land and many bitterly resented those who’d arrived before them, believing it unfair that early settlers had tied up such huge swaths of land.

It would seem out-of-character for Lucky Bill to have taken advantage of a newcomer, especially by force. He seemed to be well-liked by at least some (though not all) in the community, with contemporaries describing him as a “merry citizen.” Tales are still told of his kindness toward unfortunate travelers. Lucky Bill certainly had no need to steal land, having already amassed a home in Genoa, an extensive ranch in Eagle Valley, and another ranch at Fredericksburg. On the other hand, Lucky Bill probably wouldn’t take it lightly if he felt that someone was trying to take advantage. So perhaps the dispute was simply an unfortunate collision between two determined individuals, both convinced they were right.

The confrontation was certainly an unequal one. Fred Dangberg was a strapping young man, and hard work had made him strong. But Lucky Bill, topping six feet, was even larger. Worse yet for Dangberg, Lucky Bill had friends standing by his side as the pair faced off at the cabin site.

Finding himself outnumbered – and perhaps aware that his own unperfected land claim might be somewhat shaky – Dangberg abandoned his partly-finished cabin and sought out other land to claim. He moved south about a mile, crossing the river and heading upstream. There, in 1857, Dangberg and partners Ben Mast and C.E. Holbrook took up 640 acres of land in the middle of the fertile Carson Valley – land that ultimately would form the nucleus of the Dangberg Home Ranch.

From a water-rights perspective, it was a canny move. Here where the East Fork and the Middle Fork separated, Dangberg had first access to the water that flowed on to downstream ranchers – including Lucky Bill. And this time, the partners made sure they did things right: they hired a surveyor and set out corner markers for their property.

The Dangberg Home Ranch — H.F. Dangberg’s second choice. (Courtesy of Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park).

But that early, ugly confrontation with Lucky Bill Thorington was one that Fred Dangberg never forgot – and probably never forgave. When Thorington was hauled up on trial in June, 1858 for his alleged complicity with murderer William Edwards, eighteen jurors were plucked from the community to hear the charge. Old-timers including Thomas Knott and Harry Hawkins would later hint that Fred Dangberg was a member of that jury. Others, however, dismiss the allegation as pure rumor.

Rumor or not, perhaps no one was happier than Fred Dangberg when Lucky Bill was dispatched into eternity on June 19, 1858 by a hangman’s noose. Some two years after the unfortunate confrontation at the cabin, Dangberg may well have felt Lucky Bill had gotten his come-uppance.

And oh yes. There was one final joyful celebration ahead for Fred Dangberg:  he finally, finally managed to purchase the Klauber Ranch in 1902.

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Unsolved murders. Brazen stage robberies. Tales of buried treasure. They’re all here in our new book, “Forgotten Tales of Carson Valley“! Get your copy at local merchants or find it on Amazon.com!

Now available on Amazon.com!