The sign on the outside used to read “Perry’s Dry Goods.” And locals today still smile when they remember Frank Perry, a short, wiry Basque known for his charming mustache and his wide range of Western wear.
But Perry, as it turns out, wasn’t actually his real name. At birth it was Yparraguirre. “Perry” was just shorter. And much easier to spell.
Even today, the tall, narrow building that once housed Perry’s Dry Goods (1448 Highway 395) still draws your eye. That high, false wooden front stretches an imposing two stories in the air — yet from the side it’s so narrow it seems half the building went missing.
In the rear, that towering front slumps down to merge with a squat, unassuming cottage. (Looks like nothing important back there, right? Spoiler alert: Its history may be even cooler than the front!)
The history of this quirky edifice — arguably Gardnerville’s coolest building — is also the story of Frank Yparraguirre (aka Perry), of course. And before him, Ole Haugner, the shopkeeper who occupied it in earlier days. Together, these two early residents peddled wares within these walls — day after day, year after year — for nearly a century.
So, read on for Frank Yparraguirre’s story. Part 2 will go back even further in time to share Haugner’s own tale. Along the way you’ll discover how this “coolest” building got its strange shape. And we’ll share two secrets about this quirky structure that almost nobody knows today!
Here’s the Backstory on Frank Perry:
Frank’s father (Francisco Yparraguirre) emigrated from Echalar, Spain at the tender age of 13, in 1876. He made his way to San Francisco, where an older brother already owned a hotel at the corner of Powell and Broadway (naturally enough, named the Yparraguirre Hotel).
Like so many young Basques, Frank Sr. found employment as a sheepherder. The succeeding years took him all over California and Nevada, from Six-Mile Canyon near Elko to Monitor Pass, California, tending sheep. Eventually about 1886, Frank and his brothers pooled their resources and purchased a section of land in the Sweetwaters. There, Frank served as proprietor of a 32-room hotel serving travelers on the road to Bodie and Aurora.
Finally secure enough to think about a family, Frank Sr. got married about 1901. And in 1903, Frank Jr. (yes, our Gardnerville “Perry”) was born at the family hotel in San Francisco.
In his early years, Frank Jr. grew up on his family’s ranch in the Sweetwaters, finally starting school in San Francisco belatedly at the age of ten. He proved to be a good student, however. He caught on quickly and graduated with his age-mates in 1921. For a time, he returned to work on the family ranch. But a pair of ranching accidents left him with a broken ankle and two broken clavicles. A recession and downturn in the sheep business also made the young man think, “Well, maybe I don’t belong on a ranch.”
Frank Jr. moved to Gardnerville about 1924. His first job was for Standard Oil Co.; then he did a seven-year stint with the Minden Merc. But finally, in August, 1939, he determined to leap into business for himself. He opened a small dry goods store in a rented building just south of the Corner Saloon (today’s Sharkey’s) — and “Perry’s” was born.
Here Fate stepped in to shuffle up the deck of Life. Ole Haugner, long-time proprietor of a shoe store just up the street, had just lost his wife in May, 1939. And that following March, 1940, Ole too gave up the ghost and, at the age of 85, followed his wife into the Great Beyond.
After more than forty years of service for Haugner’s shoe business, the tall, two-story building just up the street offered a perfect spot for the new Perry’s dry goods store. The location was well-known. And there’d be far more room for inventory.
Frank Yparraguirre cut a deal with the Haugner heirs, eventually purchasing the building in 1949. And that tall, two-story former shoe store location became what locals would know as Perry’s Dry Goods for some 49 years.
“Be “Be Practical! Give a Practical Gift!” was the caption for this Christmas ad for Perry’s Dry Goods in 1941, not long after he opened. (Record-Courier, December 12, 1941).
Cool as it was on the outside, Perry’s new dry goods building came with an even cooler history. There was the story of Ole Haugner himself, the enterprising Norwegian emigrant who arrived in Gardnerville in 1897 and spent more than 40 years making shoes right here.
And that unimpressive single-story cottage in the back? Well, here’s the first little-known “secret”: it reportedly was once the home of John Gardner (after whom the town of Gardnerville was named), and had been moved from the original Gardner Ranch to this location!
There’s way more to the story — but we’ll stop here for now. Stay tuned next time for more of the story of Haugner, Perry, and Gardnerville’s Coolest Building!
Love Carson Valley history? Check out our new book — 33 forgotten tales about people, buildings, buried treasure and more!
He always carried a Colt .45 under that natty suit jacket. “Irish-stubborn” about business, he was filled with exuberance, too. Over the years he founded half-dozen saloons and gambling halls from Kingman to the Klondike. Yet he didn’t drink or gamble (or so, at least, his family said).
Meet Thomas O’Brien, little-known proprietor of the legendary Lebec Hotel from 1913 to 1931 – and an amazing rags-to-riches-to-rags story!
Born in Ashland, Kentucky in 1869, Tom O’Brien’s life got off to a rocky start. In 1884, his father drowned while fishing in the nearby Ohio River. Tom was fifteen at the time. And his mother now had five father-less children on her hands.
Tom, the eldest, struck out on his own. He found a job on a railroad, dutifully sending part of each paycheck home to help support his younger siblings. Some say he worked his way up to become the youngest engineer on the Santa Fe Railroad. Others say that was pure puffery; he simply ran a saloon “on the side” to bring in extra money.
However he made it, the money was good. O’Brien continued on west to Bakersfield, arriving about 1899 – just as the astonishing Kern River Oil Field was discovered.
By now in his early 30s, O’Brien recognized opportunity when he saw it. With his younger brother, he invested in Elk Hills oil leases. He also opened a saloon known as “The Louvre” at 18th and K Streets, which became known for its paintings, stuffed animals, and “Orchestrion.” And oh yes, prize-fights.
Now awash in cash, O’Brien apparently financed a saloon in the booming Klondike, too.
About 1906, he tried his hand at a slightly different venture, opening the “Empire” vaudeville theater in Bakersfield. Although he didn’t know it at the time, that theater enterprise would eventually bring him a wife — in the form of Cowee Erskine, an opera singer who performed there for a time with Al Jolson.
O’Brien and Cowee Erskine were married at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco in February, 1911. Son Thomas Erskine O’Brien arrived that December.
But the high-energy O’Brien wasn’t ready to stop there. In 1913 he purchased 11,500 acres in Lebec. This remote outpost included a thick-walled adobe home and a crude store. The early dirt Ridge Route which ran by its front door wasn’t even oiled yet.
O’Brien quickly tacked on a large dining room and added 25 small cabins in the rear. And voila: the “Hotel Lebec” was open for the traveling public. Wife Cowee was said to be not thrilled when O’Brien insisted in moving there with their two-year-old son.
Situated some 82 miles from Los Angeles and 42 miles away from Bakersfield, the site wasn’t exactly convenient to anything – hence the need for a hotel, he reasoned. O’Brien touted local hunting and fishing opportunities, and claimed to offer “every service.” To attract tourists, he advertised Sunday chicken dinners. He also ran cattle on his large ranch nearby.
By 1915 the Ridge Route had finally been oiled, and in 1919, it had been sturdily paved in concrete. The traveling public could reach O’Brien’s mountaintop resort much more easily. And soon he was working on even bigger ideas, adding a general store, lunch room and garage.
Even that wasn’t enough dreaming for the high-spirited O’Brien, however. By spring of 1920, there were reports of a planned “Class A” hotel. Thanks to financing provided by the Durant family, it was to be called the Hotel Durant. (Russell “Cliff” Durant was nominally involved, but the deep pocket actually belonged to his father, auto magnate W.C. Durant.) Thomas O’Brien, of course, was a partner in the new hotel venture.
A blazing headline in the Bakersfield Morning Echo of October, 1920 noted an astonishing $200,000 price tag for the “fireproof” hotel project. A giant barbecue was held for the laying of the cornerstone that November. The hotel’s split-wing design was said to be the creation of Maury I. Diggs, a brilliant but scandal-dogged San Francisco architect who would later design the Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields racetracks.
O’Brien, as always, spun magnificent plans. There would be an “aviation field,” a man-made lake for fishing and boating, a golf course, and of course hunting in the nearby hills – creating a “mountain resort with its own amusements.”
The design for the hotel included 80 guest rooms, plus a ballroom and billiard room. Drapes were sky-blue. There was a “modern” electric plant, plus steam heat. And oh yes, telephones in every room. Out back were 24 separate bungalows, each with cooking facilities.
The hotel opened with a bang. But by the following year, 1922, trouble was already brewing. The national Teapot Dome scandal wiped out O’Brien’s oil interests. And his hotel partnership with “Cliff” Durant quickly fell apart.
In October, 1922, Durant’s hotel interest was bought out by Foster Curry, of Yosemite fame. Curry also purchased the store, restaurant and garage from O’Brien. The hotel was now “Curry’s Lebec Lodge.”
But a year later, a fresh disaster appeared. This time it was a devastating fire, which on November 4, 1923 wiped out the garage, store, restaurant, and several cabins. Some say the flames broke out in the restaurant; others say it was a grease fire that started in the shop. Either way, O’Brien is rumored to have blamed Curry for not preventing it. The only lucky part of the whole ordeal: the hotel itself managed to escape unscathed.
By the following June (1924) O’Brien and Curry were duking out their differences in court. O’Brien claimed Curry owed him $150,000 worth of payments on O’Brien’s mortgage. Curry claimed O’Brien had induced him to undertake the mortgage by fraud.
Yet another investor now arrived for the game of musical chairs: Jack Wooley, a saloon owner from Oakland, acquired Curry’s interest as part of a settlement agreement with Curry in December, 1924. The name of the hotel would be changed once again, back to “Hotel Lebec.”
One year after the fire, and mere days after the Curry lawsuit was settled, a third disaster struck: O’Brien’s wife Cowee was killed December 21, 1924 while on a Christmas shopping expedition with two lady friends from Lebec. According to the family, the driver of the big touring car was unable to brake in time at a railroad crossing. The car went into a skid and struck a ditch; Cowee was thrown out and landed on the tracks. She died instantly.
Somehow, Thomas O’Brien persevered. He rebuilt the burned-down buildings, this time a rock structure known for years as the Lebec Coffee Shop. Included were a bar, post office, store, and a Richfield gas station/garage.
Despite the many tragedies that O’Brien endured, the ‘20s were good years financially for the hotel. Movies were being made in the nearby hills, with cast and crew from Los Angeles putting up at the hotel. It’s said that movie stars would sometimes sneak away from Los Angeles, too, for a quiet weekend rendezvous.
Prohibition – lasting from January 1920 until he end of 1933 – may have been good for hotel business, too. Just before the new dry laws went into effect, Tom O’Brien is said to have sent a truck all the way to San Francisco to to pick up a huge supply of liquor from a brother-in-law. Forty cases of that liquor disappeared in August, 1925, however, when purported “government agents” arrived at the hotel and “held up” partner Wooley.
New partner Wooley had had enough; he sold his interest in the hotel that same week to O’Brien for about $50,000.
Two years after losing Cowee, O’Brien married Gemma Ann Martina on Christmas Day, 1926. Son Thomas E. was sent off to a private school in Carpinteria – riding over the mountains on horseback with a cowboy, to get there!
O’Brien was able to find a new buyer for his hotel and adjacent land in November, 1927 – this time for the mind-boggling sum of $400,000. The purchaser was an L.A. corporation known as Sales Development Company. Things were looking rosy again.
And then, the Great Depression hit.
O’Brien was unable to make his payments on a debt to Richfield Oil. Meanwhile Richfield was in financial turmoil of its own, with a president/general manager indicted for embezzlement. The company called in O’Brien’s note.
The O’Brien family was forced to leave Lebec in 1931. Son Thomas E.’s final poignant glimpse was captured in a photo he snapped from the back window of the car, showing his pet horse “Dick” grazing on the pasture in front of the hotel.
O’Brien and his family settled in a grand old Victorian house at 2028 – 17th Street, Bakersfield. He hadn’t quite lost everything; son Thomas E. remembered a Steinway grand piano that adorned the formal front room. Family members helped Thomas to purchase a restaurant on the west side of Chester, between 18th and 19th. But perhaps his heart was no longer in it. The restaurant venture didn’t last too long. By 1933 O’Brien had been forced to declare bankruptcy.
As for the Lebec Hotel, it changed hands multiple times in the years after O’Brien had left. In 1936, the hotel, coffee shop and 2,000 acres were sold for just $79,000. In 1938 the hotel changed hands again, this time for $100,000. In 1948, it was sold for $190,000, then $300,000 in 1955.
The Lebec Hotel closed its doors for good in March, 1969. Now empty, the once-grand hotel became an attractive nuisance with uninvited visitors starting warming fires. It was finally burned to the ground by then-owner Tejon Ranch on April 27, 1971.
And what became of the O’Briens? Well, the exuberant, tenacious Thomas O’Brien died of a stroke at 1117 “H” Street, Bakersfield on March 14, 1942 at age 73. He is buried at Bakersfield’s Union Cemetery.
“He was stubborn. Perhaps if he’d been a bit more humble, he might have made out better,” his grandson would later say. “He died without a cent in his pockets.”
And son Thomas E., the little boy in the photograph? He became a welder, helping to build Liberty Ships at Terminal Island during W.W. II. Like his mother Cowee, he loved to sing. In later years, he joined barbershop choruses. He especially loved singing “vintage” arrangements like the ones he had heard as a child at the old Lebec Hotel.
Family information for this story was provided in June, 1993 by grandson Michael O’Brien (son of Thomas E.) and cousins Buzz and Jean Laird. Michael O’Brien died on April 2, 1998 just five years after I had the privilege of interviewing him.
Today, Silver Mountain City is a ghost of a ghost town. An army of pines has invaded the town’s cross streets, and only the traces of hand-dug cellars and rock foundations remain where noisy saloons and thriving businesses once stood. The old stone jail, once a proud centerpiece of town, is a jumble of broken blocks.
But from 1862 to about 1876, this rocky flat beside Silver Creek was home to literally thousands of citizens: miners and merchants, murderers and mothers. For those few, heady years, Silver Mountain was an incarnation of greed and muscle, silver and seduction – in short, a quintessential silver mining town.
No sooner was work commenced in the croppings [in the summer of 1861], than the richest description of Ruby Silver ore revealed itself, and as a matter of course, created one of those “excitements” once so common in this Country. Eager prospectors covered the mountain sides, swarmed in the immediate vicinity of the pioneer discovery, and almost before the year expired, nothing was left in the shape of a ledge or stain or outcrop to locate, the same ledge taken up two or three times over by a rude Notice on some of its spurs or angles, and all found a place in the Records of the then-formed “Silver Mining District.”
A general rush from Virginia [City] and other mining camps was made to the new El Dorado, buildings of all kinds were erected in anxious haste, saloons drove a rushing trade, corner lots ruled high.
—Lewis Chalmers, 1871
But in its own ghostly way, the town of Silver Mountain never really died. Its people and their stories remain etched in microfilm and photographs and hand-scrawled documents. With a bit of puzzling, visitors can still visit the spot where the Fiske Hotel once stood, pay a call to the site of Sauquet’s Store, or stop by Davidson’s Saloon. Close your eyes as you stand beside Main Street, and you can almost hear the clink of glasses in the saloons and feel the earth tremble as Giant Powder explodes deep inside the mines.
Silver Mountain City’s legacy also lives on in Alpine County itself. For without the energy of this amazing town, California’s 46th county might never have been formed.
We hope you’ll share our excitement about this amazing community and will help us preserve its history!
We usually do a Walking Tour of Silver Mountain in September each year. If you’d like to join us for the next Walking Tour, please contact the Alpine County Historical Society at (530) 694-2317 or firstname.lastname@example.org, to find out how to sign up.
— Rick & Karen Dustman
Need directions to Silver Mountain? Here you go!
Coming from Woodfords: From Highway 88, turn south onto Highway 89 towards Markleeville at the flashing light. Continue on Highway 89 approximately 6.3 miles to Markleeville. Then follow directions below.
Coming from Markleeville: Go south through Markleeville on Highway 89, and set your odometer as you cross over the little bridge at the south end of town. About 4.8 miles south of Markleeville, Highway 89 forks to the east (the Monitor Pass turn-off). Do not take this turn; continue straight on what is now Highway 4. At odometer reading 7.2, you will pass Wolf Creek Road, and at 8.7, you’ll see a tall brick chimney on your right (Chalmers’ Mansion).
At 10.3 miles south of Markleeville, you will cross the bridge over Silver Creek. Slow down and watch for a brown Forest Service sign on your left, marking the old jail site at Silver Mountain City (odometer reading 10.5). You’ll also see a tall, blocky concrete historical marker. You’ve arrived!
Coming from the West: The easiest route over the mountains is generally Hwy 88 (not Hwy 4, unless you are already close to Hwy 4 . . . then see below). Take Hwy 88 east to Woodfords, then follow the directions above.
Coming from Murphys: Take Hwy 4 east over the mountain. The road is twisty and eventually comes down the mountain on the other side of the crest. When the road widens again and has a painted centerline, slow down. That straightaway (about a mile long) is the town’s former Main Street, and nearly all that’s left of Old Silver Mountain! Watch on your right (about half-way down the straightaway) for a brown Forest Service sign and blocky, grey concrete marker. Pull in there, and you’ll see a chain link fence enclosing what’s left of the old jail. You’ve arrived! (If you see a tall brick chimney on your left, you’ve gone too far!)
Imagine being just a few yards away from the World Trade Center the morning of September 11, 2001. Hearing the first of two planes fly directly over your head. Running for your life as pieces of concrete and other building materials rained down around you.
Author Jodi Graber Pratt takes you there, in her new memoir: In Its Shadow: A 9/11 Memoir. It’s anguishing to feel it yourself, through Jodi’s clear prose. But it’s also a surprisingly hopeful book. Because from her own struggles to make sense of such a life-altering experience, Jodi asks us to think about what we as a country can learn from the 9/11 tragedy — and how we can build on America’s most positive traits and values.
Jodi kindly agreed to share her memoir-writing journey with other would-be memoir writers here! Hope it’s fuel for your fire — to encourage you to finish your own memoir!
1. What was process you went through to write a book about your experiences? Did you start journaling about the experience right away?
Actually, I didn’t intend to write a book initially. It wasn’t until a couple of years after 9/11 that I started writing about it, as therapy to help me reclaim full-function of my brain. At first, it was just random flashes that I tried to capture, which helped me start to process the experience. Over the course of several years, they evolved into a journal. Then the journal became an example of my writing style for a writing seminar instructor, who encouraged me to develop it into a book for publication.
2. What hurdles did you face in writing your book, and how did you overcome them? Was the experience itself something that was hard to write about, at first? What kept you from quitting when it got hard?
Initially, trying to allow the memories to come to the surface was difficult; I had been beating them down so viciously for the first two years, they were shy in exposing themselves again. And I didn’t have a regular writing schedule; career and personal obligations did not allow for much uninterrupted quiet time. That’s partly the reason it took so long to get to the journal stage; it was often months between quality writing sessions.
But writing comes naturally to me; when asked to communicate, I’d rather write than talk. That’s not to say the perfect words fall in precisely the right order as soon as my fingers touch the keypad; I usually find myself writing and rewriting many drafts before I’m satisfied to share a draft with anyone, even for a first review. But I enjoy the process, so I never felt like quitting. Nevertheless, I often felt very frustrated that I couldn’t write faster. I was anxious to get to that stage where I started feeling good about it.
3. Did you have a specific reader in mind for your book? Are you taking any specific marketing steps to reach your readers that could be helpful for other writers to think about?
I didn’t have a specific audience in mind at first; it was just for me, to help me – finally! – process what I had witnessed and come to terms with it. Once it had become a journal and I decided I was going to share it with friends and family, I wanted it to be as accurate and honest as I could possibly make it. I wanted the reader to be able to feel like they had been in my shoes, experiencing it first-hand. I was pleased when some of my beta-reader comments included, “Your experience is now indelibly linked with mine,” “I was right there with you,” and “It had me in tears but I couldn’t stop reading.” That told me I had found the right words.
Since this is my first writing effort, I’m only now developing my author’s platform,” which I’m learning is extremely important. As a more introverted person, my approach leans heavily on written opportunities (e.g., blogging, trying to reach influential people for reviews that can be “flaunted” for PR purposes, applying to award programs (with fingers crossed), trying to place op-ed pieces, doing book giveaways). And reaching out to my state and federal public servants is definitely on my short list for marketing purposes. I hope to help to contribute to the effort to raise awareness of the importance of voting mindfully, looking for ethical, wise and capable candidates who understand and value our founding ideals and will model how to fulfill them, both domestically and nationally. And, of course, make it a priority to cast your own vote, no matter what the polls are saying.
4. You’ve said that you hope your book contributes to a discussion of ways to “nourish both prosperity and morality for all.” How is your book a vehicle for that?
In recent decades, I believe we have returned to old, aristocratic economic models, where only a small fraction of the population enjoys great wealth and the benefits that come with it. At the same time, less and less of our combined profits “trickle down” to the hundreds of millions of people whose efforts – while individually small – together keep this country among the most creative, productive and successful in the world.
Our founders have left so us much information to learn from. On this issue, my favorite (so far) is Benjamin Franklin, born into a poor family (15th of 17 children from his father) in the early 1700s. He had to work hard to become successful. And when he felt he had earned “enough,” he turned his excess resources to encouraging and enabling others, and investing his time and money in improving America socially and politically. He wasn’t a perfect man, but he held himself accountable for his mistakes and took responsibility for them (e.g., recognizing and providing for an illegitimate child). Sharing generously from his bounty made him no less able to enjoy the comforts of life until his death.
That’s a great model for American Capitalism. I believe our most privileged citizens should be expected to share a portion of their bounty with society. Each generation needs to be responsible to prepare for the next, always nurturing and encouraging talent no matter where in society it exists, giving it wide berth to fully develop for the benefit of all society.
5. What do you hope readers will take away from your book the most?
No matter how “civilized” and past barbarism we think we are, the veil between peace and disaster is razor-thin. The only thing protecting us is the vigilance, dedication, intelligence, wisdom and vision of our leaders. When our government loses its focus on its most important function – to keep America safe and at peace, within itself and with all other nations – the “American Experiment” (i.e., our democratic system) fails.
We choose our leaders through our votes and our voices. We are responsible to select the best, brightest, most wise, most disciplined and most ethical individuals among us to represent and serve us, and we must hold them accountable to honor our trust in them.
6. What advice can you give other memoir writers? What helped you that might be surprising, for example?
Naps. Learn the value of taking naps. When I’ve been struggling with particularly challenging section for a while that I just can’t seem to get a handle on, I take a nap. When I wake up, a clear direction usually pops into my mind. I think it has something to do with releasing the “creative” part of our brains from the filtering of the “logical” part of our brains,which happens through sleep. This book represents a huge number of naps!
So there you go! Hope Jodi’s kind words encourage you to finish your own memoir!
It was a couple of weeks before Christmas, 1886 – December 3rd, to be exact. “Colonel” Alonzo Winfield Scott Smith was out exploring the back country of eastern Ventura County, near the confluence of Piru and Lockwood Creeks.
And some might say it was a Christmas miracle: Voilà! Smith stumbled across a “lost” gold mine. Or maybe it was a silver mine. Maybe it was both.
In any event, as Col. Smith gleefully told the tale, this “lost” (now found) mine had been dug by the Spanish padres. The mine’s entrance (he said) was cleverly concealed, hidden by cottonwoods deliberately planted to hide the tunnel’s mouth. Bolstering the seriousness of his discovery (so he claimed) were remnants of an old mining smelter. And for those who might still be dubious, Smith turned up a “silver brick” – or, as later stories would describe it, a one-pound “ancient Jesuit silver spike.” (Spikes made out silver? Well, who knows. Perhaps silver spikes were a “thing” back then.)
The Piru Mining District, where Smith claimed to have made these astonishing discoveries, had long been the focus of “lost mine” tales. There were indeed rumors, even before Smith, that the Spanish padres once mined there. Assorted tales were spun about an elderly Native American named Tecuya who’d worked in the mine for the padres and supposedly spilled pieces of the tale – despite a vow of secrecy and a deadly curse on anyone who shared the mine’s location. Some described ingots stacked up like cordwood. An unnamed prospector once arrived at Fort Tejon (it was said) with a “sack” full of gold. How could you not love such fables?!
Long before Col. Smith put in his appearance, traces of placer gold actually had been found in the Piru Creek area. Some sources even claimed gold was found at Piru 11 years earlier than John Marshall’s famous mill-race discovery! In 1871, a good 15 years before Smith wandered out there, a heap of ore at Piru was thought to include both silver and gold – though a later investigation debunked the report. Apparently there was enough substance to the rumors of placer gold, however, that a four-mile ditch was completed in May, 1876 to bring water to would-be Piru miners.
And then Col. Smith arrived on the scene in the winter of 1886. Some described Col. Smith as “affable”; the Kern County Echo (perhaps a bit more honestly) called him a “queer character.” But Smith was just the type you’d expect to be intrigued by “lost mine” tales.
“[T]horoughly conversant with the mines of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado,” as one newspaper put it, Smith claimed he hade 14 years of mining experience under his belt. His previous mining travels reportedly had taken him as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico, Chile, and Peru. In addition to whatever mining chops he may have accrued, Smith may also have picked up tips for a mining scam or two. As recently as June, 1886 (less than six months before his miraculous mine “discovery” at Piru), A.W. Smith “of Campo” was exhibiting a sample of ore from a newly-discovered mine in San Diego – one which Smith’s buddy enthusiastically claimed “will astonish the unbelievers.”
Following the happy December discovery of his latest “lost” mine at Piru, Smith rushed to file five mining claims. These included the Exchange; the Esperanza (Spanish for “hope”); and the Matchless (according to Smith, the “mother lead of the world”). News of the find traveled quickly. By February 7, 1887, there were already 150 men in camp. Soon, Santa Maria surveyor J.V. Jesse was busily engaged in laying out an entire town there at Lockwood Flat, to be known as “Lexington.”
Thanks to the surveyor’s work, some 148 blocks were created – on paper, at least. Each block measured 300 x 162 feet, and included 24 individual building lots, each 25 x 75 feet. Newly-arriving miners could secure a town lot for $10 — or $15 for a more desireable corner lot.
That probably sounded pretty appealing, at the time. The new townsite of Lexington was a “wild and beautiful” place and, except for its remoteness, offered a good spot to build. The ground here was nearly level. And the waters of the creek were conveniently just 50 feet away. A few log cabins were thrown up. Other miners took up residence in tents or simply slept out under the stars.
Early newspaper reports helped fan the initial mining excitement. Ventura’s Free Press reported enthusiastically on March 17 that the Exchange claim was “bigger than the Comstock and possibly as rich.” Perhaps not surprisingly, DeMoss Bowers, son of the Free Press‘s publisher, was a part-owner in the Lexington townsite.
By late March, a log store was under construction, and a restaurant and boarding house were being planned. By mid-April, hoisting machinery had been purchased for the Esperanza, and a 50-stamp mill and a sawmill were predicted soon. A small arrastra was built of upright logs and a crossbeam, driven by mule-power. “Well-known mining expert” R.B. Harper purchased the Esperanza, and was said to be in negotiations to acquire a second mine as well. Soon even more miners had heard the exciting news. “The camp is becoming lively, and prospectors are arriving every day,” noted the Mining & Scientific Press in early April.
The Brown claim boasted a 75-foot tunnel and a 68-foot shaft. The Golconda, a 30-foot vein of silver and gold, had its own tunnel stretching 150 feet. The General Lee, Double Standard, Smith & Grover,Exchange, and Matchless were also making progress. A miner named Newton Nunn claimed to have located a quartz vein three feet thick, and rich in free gold. And those were just the hardrock claims.
Men engaged in placer mining were said to be pulling out $5 per day per man. Nuggets worth from $5 to $100 reportedly had been found.
For those eager to join the rush to Lexington, the trip from Ventura took three days by wagon. Directions were helpfully provided by the newspaper, as follows:
Take the stage road and turn off three or four miles this side of Newhall, up the San Francisquito canyon, to Elizabeth Lake; thence to Gorman’s Station; thence to John F. Cuddy’s, and ten miles farther to Lexington.]
Or, if you preferred to arrive by “trail” (which presumably meant on foot or astride a horse or mule), you could take the Matilija Trail to “Mart[in] Beekman’s, and the next day to Lexington by [way of] Samuel Snedden’s.”
By early April a new wagon road had been opened from Gorman’s Station to Lexington. But even that route was only “passably fair” at first. Wagons remained impractical through the early spring as long as snow lay on the ground. But walking was still possible.
With the snow finally melted, things at Lexington became livelier than ever by May, 1887. Enough would-be miners had arrived that formal miners’ meeting was called for May 8th. A newspaper correspondent was living on site (presumably DeMoss Bowers, whose father published the Ventura Free Press). A post office was said to be planned.
Eager for publicity, promoters shipped off a sample of ore in early July to the offices of the L.A. Times for inspection.
But by summer’s end, 1887, interest in Lexington’s mines was waning. Well, all except for DeMoss Bowers. Still a believer in the mines’ potential, Bowers purchased the Carbonate Prince, Carbonate Queen, Carbonate King, and Matchless claims plus a mill site and five acres of land from Alonzo Smith on September 24, 1887, for real money: $12,500. About this same time, Smith had “just concluded negotiations” with an English syndicate to sell the Exchange claim for a whopping $60,000.
On October 6, two weeks after the sale to the ever-hopeful Bowers, the L.A. Times reported: “Lexington is dead; not a man in it.” Even the usual “bar-room mining” had ceased.
The trouble? The news column put it down to “that pile of rock brought down to Los Angeles.” The “rich sample” they’d sent to the Times apparently wasn’t quite so rich, after all. And before long, the town of Lexington itself had disappeared.
So what became of Col. Smith? Well, he didn’t hang around long, either. By October, 1887, Smith had left the wilds of Ventura County and was snugly ensconced in the far more comfortable digs of the St. Charles Hotel in Los Angeles. Remember, he’d just raked in at least $12,500 – possibly $72,500 if his deal with the “English syndicate” actually went through. Either way, he was sitting pretty.
The year 1892 found Smith in Utah, working as manager for a mining company and doing what he did best: rounding up investors. And by November, 1894 he was in Reno, touting a “rich ore discovery” in a “new district” south of Eureka.
But there the trail of Col. Alonzo Winfield Scott Smith goes cold. Someone named “Al.” Smith passed away in January, 1898 and was buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery at Fresno. But so far we’ve found nothing that would confirm this was our Col. Smith.
The “Lost Padres” mine itself dropped out of sight again. For a while, at least.
Then in January, 1915, a Bakersfield paper reported two gentlemen had shown up in town with an “old Spanish map” pointing the way to an old silver mine located somewhere in the San Emigdio district. Wrapped first in silk and then buckskin, encased in a tin, and finally snugged into a protective cover of rawhide, the tantalizing map bore the date 1828. The two gents claimed it once belonged to a great-grandmother – and of course it was for sale.
The world is never short on willing believers. So this “ancient” map was purchased by three hopeful Bakersfield treasure-hunters for $500 – and that was pretty much the end of that fool’s errand.
And now, before you dismiss the legend of the Lost Padres Mine as total bunkum, consider this: In May 1976, a writer for the Mountain Enterprise newspaper claimed she personally had seen a tarnished silver ingot, presented for her inspection “a few years ago” by a stranger named Ben Clark. A metal detecting buff, Clark claimed the bar was just one of 29 silver ingots he’d found in a hollow tree near – yes, Lockwood Flat, the former site of Lexington. Stamped on each bar was the image of a lamb carrying a banner – said to be the mark of an asistencia (extension) of the San Emigdio Mission.
So, who knows. Perhaps the good padres really did once have a silver mine in Piru. Maybe, just maybe, Col. Alonzo Smith was onto something.
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This year, a modest house on Centerville Lane will celebrate its 100thbirthday (or so the assessment records say). And ironically, the word “birthday” holds a very special meaning for this old home. Think 159 of them . . . .
Options for pregnant mothers were limited in Gardnerville during the World War II years. You could have your baby the old-fashioned way, at home. But if you opted instead for a high-speed run to reach the hospital in Reno or Carson City, you took your chances on getting there in time.
After a few “hair-raising experiences” involving babies delivered by the side of the road, local doctor Ernest Hand figured there had to be a better way. He prevailed upon Mrs. Frieda Pitts to open a maternity home right here in Gardnerville in 1943.
That plan sounded great to Frieda Pitts. A widow, Mrs. Pitts had lost her husband, William, to kidney disease in March, 1940. Never mind that she had no formal training as a nurse. Or that the “maternity home” facility would consist of just two beds in her own house here on Centerville Lane – a home that initially had no indoor bathroom and no furnace.
Mrs. Pitts devoted her living room and a bedroom to the cause. Neighbor Lizzie Etherton assisted with laundry, courtesy of her wringer washer. And Dr. Hand taught Frieda all about labor, delivery, and maternity care.
And that’s how, you might say, Mrs. Pitts’ Maternity Home was born. When it opened in March, 1943, the facility was a welcome addition for Valley mothers indeed. Over the next eleven years, some 159 babies would enter the world there. Dr. Hand was just a phone call away.
Sometimes mothers would come to stay with Mrs. Pitts before the baby arrived. But “generally you would go to Mrs. Pitts when your contractions started,” a long-time Valley resident recalled. “You’d leave home with your little satchel and then you would stay there at Mrs. Pitts’s for eleven days. They wanted to make sure the baby had a good start. So that was considered the proper length of time to see if the baby did well and if you did well. And they kept you in bed for those eleven days. You didn’t get up and run around.”
Mrs. Pitts not only cooked meals for her patients, she also changed diapers, prepared formula, and cared for the babies at night so their mothers got a good night’s sleep.
Pitts Maternity Home became so popular that Frieda added an addition to her house in September, 1944. It must not have been a large one, however; as late as July, 1952, the facility offered only two beds. In a pinch, however, it was able to accommodate a small “baby boom.” The largest: five babies in a single week.
Babies of all sizes made their debut at Mrs. Pitts’ home. One of the smallest, a 4-pound daughter, was born to Mr. and Mrs. Andres Ortiz in 1948. For tiny preemies like this one, Mrs. Pitts created a make-shift incubator that was lined with flannel and heated with hot water bottles. At the other end of the spectrum, one baby boy tipped the scales at 10 pounds, 4 ounces! At least one set of twins was delivered at Mrs. Pitts’ home. And one impatient baby didn’t even make it in the front door, instead making its debut at her front gate! But of all those 159 children born at Mrs. Pitts’ home, not a single baby was lost.
The Record-Courier once noted that the names of those who gave birth at Mrs. Pitts’ home “reads quite a lot like the old Carson Valley telephone book.” But it wasn’t just Valley children born here. A few mothers came from Markleeville. And even a few moms-to-be who were just “passing through” availed themselves of Mrs. Pitts’ kind services.
So, who was Frieda Pitts, the kindly soul who tended to all these moms and babies? Well, she was oldest of the eight children of Fritz and Marie Sarman, born October 22, 1906. The Sarman family owned the “Ladies Best” flour mill south of Gardnerville, and Frieda was raised there. Frieda’s siblings included brothers Edwin and John; and sisters Mabel Marie (Mrs. James Perry) of Smith Valley, Mrs. Aldon Arigoni of Reno, and Edna Araujo.
Frieda married William Pitts in 1925, when she was fresh out of high school. He was 39 at the time; she was just 18.
Despite her lack of formal nursing training, Mrs. Pitts became a fine nurse, midwife, and caregiver. When Douglas County began registering all the registered and practical nurses in Douglas County in 1956 for “civil defense and disaster planning” purposes, Mrs. Pitts was the one they put in charge of the nursing registration effort.
But in 1954, state regulations changed. Hospital births began to be required, essentially putting Mrs. Pitts out of business. But she never stopped caring for others. Various younger siblings and nephews from Smith Valley lived with her over the years so they could attend Douglas High School. Dr. Hand’s granddaughter, Debbie Lambert, lived with Frieda for a while. She cared for her father when he became ill, and her mother eventually came to live in the house with her. Frieda was also in great demand as a local babysitter. Locals still remember the fine homemade bread and cookies she would bake.
Frieda Pitts died in 1991, and is buried at Garden Cemetery in Gardnerville. Although she never had any children of her own, she always said she felt a special kinship with every one of those 159 babies she helped bring into the world.