Did you know that Labor Day got its start in 1894? It was a “workingman’s holiday,” back when a typical job meant 12-hour days, 7 days a week. Ugh. Just think of that.
But jobs or occupations can make a great entry point for a memoir!
So, what did your ancestors do for a living? Many times, you’ll know the answer to that right off the top; it’s the kind of detail that’s often handed down in the family. But if you don’t know, census data can often help fill in that important blank.
In this fascinating example above from the 1880 Census in Virginia City, for example, we see an accountant, a butcher, a bartender, a watchman, a mill worker, and even a “tailoress”!
Women’s occupational opportunities were often pretty limited a century ago, but might include teaching, sewing, milliner (hat-maker), and occasionally medicine. And many women, of course, were considered to have no formal profession. Instead, they were said to be simply “keeping house.”
But what did that mean? Chances are, they weren’t languishing in the parlor doing needlepoint all day. There was laundry and house-keeping; cooking and baking; tending gardens and mending clothes; and of course all the hard work of raising children. Some women also brought in extra money for the household by raising chickens and selling eggs, or taking in laundry.
My own great-grandmother a talented seamstress. That meant following the latest fashions and sewing beautiful clothes – often without a pattern.
My grandfather was a carpenter in the early 1900s. His skills were put to use not just building houses; he also hammered together wooden crates for a tomato-packing shed in early Florida.
So, how about the folks you’re writing about in your memoir? A little bit of research can give you a fresh perspective on what their daily lives were like!
Here’s a fun memoir exercise, just for Labor Day:
* Do a bit of research about your ancestor’s occupation. A simple Google search like “what was a farmer’s life like in the 1800s” can pull up a wealth of information. (Did you know that winter was often just as busy a time for farmers as the summer growing season? Or that many farmers also did work for friends and relatives?)
* See if you can locate family photos, old magazine illustrations, or other images that help show that profession. What tools might your family member have used, like the old-fashioned sewing machine or carpenter’s plane, above?
* Imagine what the “fruits of their labor” meant, in terms of the time your ancestors spent. How long would it have taken to sew a new dress? How many months did it take to build a house? What hours would an average work-day have spanned for a dairy farmer?
These real-life work details can be so fascinating, I really hope you’ll share what you find out!
And if you’d like to learn a little more about the origins of this great holiday honoring workers, here’s a bit of history just about Labor Day: https://tinyurl.com/yxgqc4g6
Everyone in Carson Valley knew “Bad Man” Sam Brown back in 1861. He was, after all, a pretty hard guy to miss.
Heavy-set and quarrelsome, Sam walked with a swagger. Besides his handy pistol, he kept a nasty-looking Bowie knife strapped to his belt. Sam didn’t hesitate to use that knife, either. He reportedly “carved a man to pieces” with it in 1860. Before another year passed, Sam had killed half-a-dozen men. No one – including local peace officers – was terribly eager to try to stop him.
Unfortunately for the sake of local peace and quiet, Sam was prone to drinking. And when he drank he’d get meaner than ever. Sam’s ugly ways weren’t confined to folks his own size or gender, either. His wife back in California, one Clementine Parsons, reportedly won a divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty.
But July 6, 1861 was Sam’s birthday. And luckily for Carson Valley, that birthday would be Sam’s last.
You’ve probably already heard the story how Sam showed up at Henry Van Sickle’s station for a drink, pulled a gun, and started shooting. Tired of the chaos, Van Sickle grabbed his own gun, ran out the back, and chased after Brown on horseback.
A galloping gun battle ensued. When the pair reached the settlement we now know as Mottsville, Sam was in the lead. He leaped off his horse and forced his way in the home of Israel and Eliza Mott. From just inside the doorway, he squeezed off a few more shots at his pursuer.
By now dusk was beginning to fall, and Van Sickle was fresh out of ammunition. He gave up for the moment, heading back to Genoa for bullets and reinforcements.
Israel Mott wasn’t home when Sam Brown barged in the door. But his sister, Louisa Mott Keyser, was, and some of his children. According to Louisa’s later recollections, the family had just finished eating their supper when Sam put in his unwelcome appearance, and Louisa was clearing away the supper dishes. Even though she recognized Sam, Louisa stood her ground.
Luckily, Sam realized Van Sickle would soon return, so he’d better skeedaddle while the skeedaddling was good. He was about to mount his horse and ride off when he spied a man’s hat hanging on the wall. Sam had lost his own hat during the galloping pursuit, so he reached out to grab this handy replacement.
But Louisa wasn’t putting up with any funny business. That was her husband’s best hat, she protested! Sam tried to strike a bargain, offering a gold pocket watch in exchange. But Louisa was adamant. She wasn’t about to make a deal with this devil. Finally, Sam finally pulled a gold ring off his finger and threw that on the table as payment before making off with the hat.
Louisa may not have saved her husband’s hat. But she’d stood up to the bad man. Even more important, she’d delayed him a few minutes. And those few minutes just might have tilted the odds against Sam.
You already know how Sam’s birthday ended, right? Van Sickle had figured out where Sam Brown would go next, and managed to arrive there before him. When he heard Sam’s spurs a-jingling, Van Sickle stepped out from behind the barn door near Lute Olds’ hotel. “I’ve got you this time,” Van Sickle declared.
Both barrels of his double-barreled shotgun went off. And that was the end of Sam Brown’s last and most unlucky birthday.
Two days later, a coroner’s jury refused to call the shooting murder. Brown’s death, they concluded, was “a just dispensation of an all-wise Providence.” Henry Van Sickle was required to pay for Brown’s burial, including a new suit of clothes for the body and a marker for his grave at the early cemetery at the top of Nixon Street. Although we have no eye-witness reports about Brown’s funeral, it can safely be said that he was buried without a great deal of mourning.
Over the next thirty-odd years, many of the burials in that original old cemetery were exhumed and moved to the newer cemetery north of Genoa. But not Sam Brown’s. At least two old-timers reported that his body was deliberately left behind to languish in obscurity. And the grave marker that Van Sickle had to pay for — which by my guess would’ve been the cheapest wooden plank Van Sickle could find — has long since turned to dust.
As for the second feisty female in Sam Brown’s life, his ex-wife Clementine: she was so happy to hear of Sam’s demise that she tried to buy the shotgun that’d been used to dispatch him. Van Sickle, gentleman that he was, insisted on making a gift of it to her instead.
And Clementine, they say, kept that gun hanging prominently in her home for years to come.
* * * Many thanks to local historian Cindy Southerland for the suggestion to write this fun story! And thanks also to the W.D. Keyser family for preserving Louisa Mott Keyser’s amazing family history and recollections. This story has been passed down in the Keyser family for over 100 years. Based on near-contemporary sources, it seems clear that Sam Brown did indeed barge into the home of Israel and Eliza Mott during his flight. Other sources suggest, however, that the feisty woman who confronted Sam might actually have been Eliza Mott, Israel’s wife and Louisa’s sister-in-law.
They weren’t trucking cattle up to summer pasture when Wally Adams was a kid.
Nah. For over 30 years, Wally helped drive cattle the hard way, saddling up at 2 a.m. to get the herd to the top of Old Kingsbury Grade before nightfall. That meant long, dusty days on horseback. But it’s what you did to help a neighbor out.
The roots of Wally’s life are tangled deep with traditions from a century and more ago. And the Adams family’s roots, too, run deep here in northwestern Nevada. John Quincy Adams (Wally’s great-grandfather) and his brother Rufus settled in Carson Valley in 1853, a full decade before Nevada became a state. They bought 640 acres of land in September that year a mile north of Mormon Station (today’s Genoa), a handwritten deed that’s now part of Nevada’s “First Records.”
Their land was the subject of one of the earliest property disputes, with none other than Judge Orson Hyde claiming title to the same land in 1855. Luckily the newly-created county court upheld the bulk of the Adams brothers’ claim.
Trained as brick-makers in their home state of Illinois, the Adams brothers built a brick kiln on their new ranch. Adams brick quickly became a popular building material, finding its way into some of the earliest structures in Carson Valley including the Genoa courthouse, and the U.S. Mint and Glen Eagles restaurant in Carson City.
The family home, too, was constructed of brick. An astonishing 6,000 square feet in size, it featured 21 rooms, including a ballroom on the second floor. The dusty Emigrant Trail passed right by the front steps, and the Adamses opened their house to travelers, selling rooms, meals and liquor as well as hay and barley to passing emigrants through about 1860. John Quincy Adams once called those the “happiest days of his life.”
A fourth-generation Adams, Wally still spots bits and pieces of his family’s history sprinkled throughout Carson Valley, from old brick buildings to family artifacts donated to the local museum. But despite his family’s deep local roots, the Adams story has rarely been shared.
“We’re a quiet family,” explains Wally. “We stuck to ourselves and never got involved in politics or stuck our noses in anybody’s business. My dad was just busy trying to make a living and run the ranch.”
There’s no pretense, either, as Wally shares what it was like to grow up as part of such a historic clan, with one foot still firmly planted in century-and-a-half-old ways. Take the house where he grew up, for instance, built of homemade brick fired right there on the Adams ranch. “We had one heater in the house when I was a boy, and that was the kitchen stove,” he smiles. “That was one of my chores, to chop and bring in the firewood. The rest of the house didn’t have heat, so we lived mostly in the kitchen in wintertime.”
Remnants from the emigrant days were still in the house a century later, when Wally was a boy – and remain in family hands today. The home’s twin parlors (one for gents, one for ladies) still contained their original formal, horsehair-stuffed sofas. Also left over from the home’s first days: a 30-foot long wooden table with matching wooden chairs, where travelers once sat down to supper. Until about 1950 the house lacked both electricity and indoor plumbing.
Even today, drinking water for the old house is gravity-fed from a spring two miles up the mountain, ferried through two-inch riveted steel pipe salvaged from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. “They didn’t have much money,” Wally explains, “so they did what they could do. They went over with a horse and wagon and brought it back in 20-foot sections. I’ve still got some of that old pipe for when I have to make repairs.”
By the time Wally came along, the Adams family’s original 640-acre ranch had roughly doubled in size.
The best part of his inheritance: old ways and old-fashioned know-how. “By the time I was five, I was driving a tractor. I would cut wood, cut hay in summer. I helped Dad irrigate, wean calves,” he says. Hay had to be hand-pitched into the barn for storage, from bales stacked six high. “That top layer – it’s not so hard to throw. But when you got down to the bottom layer – well. That’s why I gotta have a total shoulder replacement now,” Wally chuckles.
There was plenty of old-fashioned penny-pinching. “One time my grandfather had a belt on a drill press that was slipping. He told me to go ask Grandma for some syrup or honey. He pours that on the belt — makes it sticky. He couldn’t afford belt dressing,” Wally remembers with a smile.
An all-around ranch mom, Wally’s mother, Elsie, served as “caregiver, nanny, referee, seamstress, knitter, crocheter, needle-pointer, excellent ranch hand and family cook, canner, avid gardener, tractor driver, hay hauler, and whatever it took to make it happen,” as her obituary put it when she passed in 2008. Even with all those duties, Elsie took on the job as postmistress at Genoa for about a decade, and volunteered to help with the Candy Dance and PTA.
Wally’s dad, Rufus William Adams, too, served the community as a school trustee, a founding member of the Genoa Cemetery Association, and fire chief for the local volunteer fire department. During World War II, Rufus would forward messages received on his ham radio to local families from sons stationed overseas. He imparted not only his love of ranching but also his ham radio skills to Wally.
By the time he was 14, Wally was driving a school bus. At 16, he became volunteer fire chief in Genoa – a post he would hold for the next 20 years. “They didn’t have all the fancy rules and regulations then,” he acknowledges. “If someone’s house was on fire, we responded and tried to put it out.”
To make a little extra money, Wally began working as brand inspector for Douglas County NV in August, 1974. “They started me out at $3.10 an hour and 13 cents a mile. I put 80,000 miles on my pickup in the first two years,” he remembers.
Now with 38 years under his belt inspecting brands, Wally’s earned his share of stories. “It could be scary sometimes when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, out of radio range,” he says. “I always carried my ‘girlfriend’ – that’s a sawed-off .12 gauge. And I had a sidearm.” But inspecting also had its fun side: Wally got to meet actor Red Skelton once – “nicest guy you can imagine.” And he was introduced to a sheik from Saudi Arabia, who’d just flown into Reno in a brand-new 747 to pick up a horse. Big money was involved. “Can I talk you out of $5 for my brand inspection?” was all Wally wanted to know.
There were new-to-the-country folk, calling to demand that Wally come get the wild mustangs out of their yards. (His polite response: “If you don’t want ’em in your yard, fence ’em out.”) And one pure-bred city slicker burned up his phone, irate about a cow delivering a calf within viewing distance of her four-year-old daughter.
“I told her that’s part of Mother Nature, and she hung up on me. Twenty minutes later she called me back: ‘That cow is being abusive to the calf. She’s licking it off and now the calf fell over. I think it’s got a brain concussion!’” Wally chuckles. “Then she asked if she could go get the calf. I said, ‘Well, it’s probably on private property. And by the way, how fast can you run?’ The lady didn’t get it. ‘What do you mean?’ she asked me. I had to explain, well, if you go get the calf, that momma cow’s going to be coming after you!”
Then there was a memorable encounter with a judge. A man had pled guilty to stealing a calf, and the judge was imposing just a fine. Wally had to speak up. “I told him he should’ve put the man in jail. ‘It’s only a $400 calf,’ the judge responded. ‘I can’t make him a hard-core criminal over that.’ Well, that ain’t the point, I told the judge. That’s the rancher’s livelihood.”
Wally finally quit inspecting for Nevada in 2012. “I found myself living out in romantic downtown Gerlach or Tonopah or Coyote Camp and those places, and was gone from home most of the time. It’s not 9 to 5; you’re on-call eight days a week, 48 hours a day. I wanted some time to myself,” he sighs. Even so, he just couldn’t quit entirely. Wally continues to inspect brands for California – including 3,000 head for Centennial Livestock every year.
Like so many historic ranches, the Adams Ranch has shrunk in size over the years, as economic forces and family needs required that portions be sold off. Even so, Wally hopes that his family’s traditional way of life will continue – and will inspire future generations to appreciate Nevada’s ranching heritage.
“As a kid, I had the freedom other kids don’t have,” Wally reminisces. “I’d take my .22 with me everywhere and I’d go hunting when I wanted to. Ranching life is a good life. It’s a hard life. But if everyone had a chance to do it, it would change their attitudes about where food comes from. Today, they go to the grocery store and see a carton of milk or a package of meat, and don’t realize the work that went into it.”
*A longer version of this story first appeared in Range Magazine (Fall 2020 issue).