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!

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The Story of Kermit Neddenriep

Put July 26th on your calendar. Three-quarters of a century ago on that same date, our community lost a local son.

The year was 1944. The place: somewhere near San Romano, Italy. Europe was convulsing in the final, ugly months of World War II.

Kermit Neddenriep had been cooped up in a foxhole for several days with his unit, the 88th Division of the 351st Infantry. And while there, he’d been thinking of the folks back home. “You seem to get used to the big guns going off and all the excitement,” he wrote his parents on July 20th from his uncomfortable quarters in the trench. He tried to add a reassuring touch:  “There are planes zooming back and forth over our heads all the time, but mostly all ours.”

Kermit had just celebrated his 34th birthday three months earlier. Born April 5, 1910 in Diamond Valley, (Alpine County), he was the second son of Henry Dolf Neddenriep, Jr. and Eugenia (“Gene”) Harvey. His siblings included an older brother, Virgil (Ripp), and two younger sisters, Louise and Gloria. Louise, too, had enlisted when the War broke out, joining the WACs.

Claus and Anna E. Neddenriep, probably taken in Germany.

The Neddenriep family’s roots ran deep in Carson Valley. Kermit’s father, Henry (Jr.), was one of the ten children of Henry Neddenriep (Sr.). His father, the senior Henry, had made his way here in 1869 with a cousin, by stowing away aboard ship. And Henry Sr.’s parents, Claus and Anna Neddenriep, soon followed their son across the ocean, arriving in 1872. The land that Claus and Anna purchased would eventually form the nucleus of the 900-acre Neddenriep Home Ranch in Carson Valley.

Although officially an Alpiner by birth, Kermit moved with his family to Carson Valley when he was three years old. About 1929 the family moved again, this time to Smith Valley, and Kermit graduated from Smith Valley High. After graduation he joined his father in working the family ranch and also was employed by L.L. Wedertz of Wellington.

And then World War II broke out. For a time, ranchers were exempted from military service, their work considered critical to the home front. But as the war ground on, that changed. In November, 1942, Kermit Neddenriep received his draft notice greeting from Uncle Sam. He enlisted in the Army on November 30, 1942, and was assigned to the Fifth Army, 351st Infantry, 88th Division, under the command of General Clark. And a year and a half later, he found himself in that foxhole in Italy.

Kermit’s last letter to his parents, six days before he died.

On July 26, 1944, Kermit’s unit staged an attack on the town of San Romano. “Fighting in the streets was exceedingly fierce,” the Army chaplain would later write to Kermit’s parents. “During the advance he was struck by enemy sniper fire.” Kermit died there on the streets of a town more than 5,800 miles from home. The letter he’d written his parents from a trench just six days earlier, assuring them “I am O.K.,” arrived the same day as the telegram announcing his death.

Kermit’s grave at Fredericksburg Cemetery has always had a special place in my heart, even before I learned his story. Tucked into a quiet, shady corner beneath an overhanging tree, it just has a sense of peacefulness about it. But how this grave came to be here is a story in itself — a tale of a family’s abiding love and a community’s deep respect.

Grave of Kermit Neddenriep at Fredericksburg Cemetery, Alpine County. (Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire)

You see, Kermit wasn’t buried here initially. Like so many servicemen killed overseas, his body was laid to rest close to the place where he died. After a family friend located Kermit’s grave in Italy, the Neddenriep family began the process of seeking to return his remains. And eventually they were successful.

On November 17, 1949, over five years after he passed away, Kermit’s body was finally laid to rest here in Alpine County, where he’d been born. In the intervening years a VFW post had been established in Smith Valley in Kermit’s honor: the “Kermit H. Neddenriep VFW Post 8084.” Members of this new post served as pallbearers at his funeral, and ensured he was given full military honors for the observance, including the playing of taps and a 3-rifle salute. And this Post (later re-established in Yerington, NV) now maintains his gravesite.

Banner of the Kermit H. Neddenriep VFW Post No. 8084 (courtesy of Post Historian Charlene La Belle).

This year, July 26, 2019, will mark exactly 75 years from the day Kermit Neddenriep was killed in action, so far away from home. I hope you will join me in remembering him.

Fredericksburg Cemetery, Alpine County. (Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire).

 

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Just released! Our new book, “Forgotten Tales of Carson Valley.” 33 great tales, including stagecoach robberies, murders, buried treasure, and even a romance or two! Read about the couple who eloped on horseback and the folks who searched for robbers’ loot with a dowsing rod.

Brand new — available in paperback and Kindle version here!

 

 

 

 

The Old Ferris Ranch House

Just one lonely image, captured by Juanita Schubert in the 1940s. That was all that was left of the old Ferris House in Carson Valley. Or so we thought.

But wait! Locals informed us the old Ferris home still exists — the house was moved in the 1940s, and now sits off Stockyard Road, a few miles east of its original location! So naturally we went “off on the hunt” to find it.

Back in its day, the house stood in a fairly remote location, at the crossroads of two early roads and about four miles east of Genoa. . From the west, the Boyd Toll Road meandered in from Genoa before heading southeast across the valley. And from the north, the Cradlebaugh Road headed down the valley from Carson City and continued on south.

Close-up of the two-story Ferris Ranch House, from Juanita Schubert’s picture. (Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society & Museum).

In terms of today’s geography, that translates into north of Muller Lane, on the west side of Hwy 395. And there’s a great landmark that can help you find the right spot today: the old house once sat just below the prominent Douglas County “D” on the side of the hill. (Look closely at the top photo above, and you can make out the white “D”!)

The Ferris family arrived in Carson Valley in September, 1864, after crossing the plains by wagon train from Galesburg, Illinois — George W.G. Ferris, his wife Martha, and eight of their ten children. (Son Fred was a soldier in the Civil War at the time; and daughter Harriet had died as a baby in 1849).

This actually wasn’t the first trip west for George Ferris Sr.; back in 1851 he’d spent seven months in California seeking Gold Rush riches with relative Chauncey Noteware. Although Noteware remained in the west (later becoming Nevada’s first Secretary of State), Ferris had quickly realized there were more lucrative opportunities for him at home, and returned to Galesburg. But he never stopped dreaming of returning. And so in 1864, George Ferris and his family finally made the long, hard overland haul in 1864 by wagon, heading (they originally thought) for San Jose.

Perhaps it was sheer economics that led Ferris to abandon San Jose as a destination and determine to settle in Carson Valley instead. Perhaps the beautiful scenery won him over. Or perhaps relative Chauncey Noteware (by then living in Carson City) had some hand in the decision. However it happened, once here, the Ferrises decided to stay.

Back in Illinois, George Ferris Sr. had been a well-to-do farmer. He’d realized a handsome sum by selling his Illinois farm — some say as much as $60,000. But he had taken his profits in greenbacks. To his dismay, he found that here in Carson Valley, greenbacks were disfavored and he was forced to pay for his new land in gold. He would later tell listeners that he’d lost $10,000 to $12,000 by the conversion; descendants told an even worse tale, saying he’d realized a mere fifty cents on each greenback dollar.

They promptly set about building a home, and by 1865 they had what one later biographer called a “rudimentary ranch house” in Carson Valley. Great-granddaughter Grace Dangberg would later say that the home was constructed “with nails hammered out on the anvils of Henry Van Sickle.” The plaster on its interior walls was mixed with horsehair for strength, she tells us (a common building technique at the time). And the parlor featured a fancy fireplace with a marble face. Not quite so “rudimentary,” after all!

George Washington Gale Ferris, Sr. — aka G.W.G. Ferris, circa 1889. (Photo courtesy of Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park.)

In years to come, the Ferris house would be the scene of many happy memories — and several tragic ones, as well.

One of the happiest events took place in March, 1866, when Margaret Gale Ferris (oldest living daughter of George Ferris Sr. and an older sister of Ferris Wheel inventor, G.W.G. Ferris, Jr.) married prominent rancher H.F. Dangberg, here in this house. She was just 17 at the time, while Dangberg was in his middle-30s — twice her age. Margaret lived thereafter on the Dangberg Home Ranch, and raised her children there.

Daughter Margaret Gale Ferris, who married H.F. Dangberg. This photo is circa 1880s. (Courtesy of Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park.)

Although the house would continue to be referred to as “the Ferris house” for many years, the family actually didn’t live here for long. In 1868, George Ferris, Sr. purchased a nearly-new home in Carson City from Gregory A. Sears. The “Sears-Ferris House” had just been built in 1863, and it still stands today at 311 West Third Street.

Just why the family left Carson Valley and moved to Carson City is a matter of some dispute. One story has it that the family feared the local Washoe Indians after an accidental shooting raised hard feelings. But as historian Richard G. Weingardt put it, George Sr. was simply “tired of living on an isolated ranch.” Carson City probably offered a more citified existence and greater social and cultural activities for the well-heeled family.

Whatever the precipitating reason was, in 1868, just four years after arriving in Nevada, the Ferris family moved to Carson City. There George Sr. continued his passion for farming as a “gentleman farmer.” And he also did his best to beautify his new hometown; it’s Ferris who is credited with planting hickory, black walnuts and chestnut trees on the grounds of Nevada’s Capitol building. He would eventually sell the Sears-Ferris House in Carson to his daughter, Mary, in 1890.

The Sears-Ferris House in Carson City, at 311 West Third Street. (Wikipedia photo).

As for the Ferris Ranch in Carson Valley, Grace Dangberg tells us that the family eventually sold it to Margaret’s husband, H.F. Dangberg, who leased it to tenant farmers. So over the coming decades, the Ferris house didn’t stay empty.

And here’s where the tale turns tragic. German immigrants Anna and Fritz Sarman arrived with their family in May, 1882, and took up residence in the former Ferris House. The Sarman family continued to live peacefully in the home for the next dozen years. Then on May 8, 1895, Anna was brutally murdered inside the house — struck in the head with a hatchet.

Suspicions focused at first on Anna’s husband, Fritz, who claimed to have been out in the fields at the time. But he and other supporters contended the culprit must have been a passing tramp. It was true that drifters along the nearby roads would often stop in at the house for a meal, and one had just eaten breakfast there the day Anna was killed. Sadly, Anna’s murder is still a mystery that’s never been solved.

The grave of Anna Sarman at Genoa Cemetery. (Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire).

The Ferris house would become the scene of yet another sad event some eight years later, in 1903, while newlyweds Henry and Viola Berning were living in the old Ferris home. The young couple had just tied the knot on Christmas Day, 1902 in Gardnerville. Young Viola soon found herself pregnant with triplets — a nearly unheard-of medical event for the day. About October 17, 1903, Viola successfully gave birth to three tiny girls: Nina, Ina, and Mina. Baby Nina died shortly after birth. And just nine days later, mother Viola, too, died here at the Ferris house (October 26, 1903).

The old Ferris house no longer stands in the fields where Juanita Schubert snapped its picture. But traces of the former occupants still turn up  occasionally near the site. An early dime, a silver-plated pocket watch, and parts from various agricultural implements have been found over the years.

View toward the site where the Ferris home once stood, with the old fence line still in place. (Rick Dustman photo).

And where did everyone go? Mother Viola Berning and baby Nina are both buried (in unmarked graves) at Genoa Cemetery. Viola’s remaining two triplets both survived, and lived on into their 70s. George Ferris, Sr. moved to Riverside, California in 1881, passing away there in April, 1895. George Ferris, Jr. died in Pittsburgh, PA in 1896, at the entirely-too-young age of 37. Fritz Sarman died in May, 1900, almost exactly five years after his wife’s murder. Margaret Ferris Dangberg passed away in 1946 and rests at Lone Mountain Cemetery.

As for the old Ferris house itself — it was moved to the sheep camp on Stockyard Road about 1942. A subsequent owner had the house significantly remodeled, and used it as a second home when he and his wife came down from Reno. In recent years the old house become part of the Bently holdings, serving as a ranch manager’s home.

It’s so amazing this piece of history is still here, square nails and all! For all the tragedies this old house has seen, how lovely to know that it’s still a survivor.

The Ferris house, as it looks today. (Rick Dustman photo).

Top image (Juanita Schubert photo): Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society & Museum.

We hope you’ll visit Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park to learn more about the Ferris family, the Dangberg family — and Carson Valley’s wonderful history! Many thanks for help with this article to both Mark Jensen of Dangberg Home Ranch and a certain kind and generous researcher who’s too shy to see her name in print.

Peters Station on Old Kingsbury Grade

Halfway up Kingsbury Grade once stood an early hotel known as Peters Station. If you were a teamster, this was the place to stop!

Situated on a flat spot at a big bend in the trail, Peters Station was a welcome oasis where men and animals alike could eat, drink, and rest from their labors ferrying goods up and down the dusty track.

We’ve never found a photo of Peters Station. (If you find one, please let us know!) But other writers have suggested it may have looked something like Friday’s Station, shown in this Lawrence & Houseworth photo. The freight wagons that stopped there would have looked much like these. (Amazingly, Friday’s is still there on Hwy 50, at Stateline NV!)

Not all the teamsters who stopped here would cram into Peters’ three-story hotel to sleep at night, of course. Many were content to simply roll up in their blankets in the bed of their wagons or stretch out on the ground. At one time, the hotel was said to employ five Chinese cooks and five waitresses, and as many as 300 wagons could be found tied up at Peters Flat overnight. And it wasn’t just teamsters who stopped at Peters Station, of course. Travelers headed east or west would have paused here for water. The Pony Express, too, paid quick visits during its brief period of operation over Kingsbury Grade from spring 1860 through October, 1861.

So just who was the “Peters” of Peters Station? Born in Virginia in 1804, Richard Peters had been a mule-skinner himself before morphing into a station owner. Richard, his wife, Elizabeth Elvira (Enlow), and their seven children had crossed the plains in 1850 at the height of the Gold Rush, settling initially in Fremont, Yolo County. Perhaps lured by fresh mining strikes, the Peters family moved on to Grass Valley in 1851.

About 1860 the Peters family moved once again. This time they picked a small spot located about halfway down the fresh Kingsbury Toll Road to set their roots, a site that soon became known as Peters Flat. The ground here was relatively level and timber abundant. Nearby springs afforded them water. The family planted a garden in a meadow close by and raised staples like corn, beans, potatoes, beets and tomatoes for the hotel’s table. Although perched at an elevation of 6,400 feet, their gardening efforts proved a splendid success. The family would later claim that their vegetables ripened two weeks before crops in Carson Valley.

Richard Peters’ timing to launch his new station was auspicious — and probably not coincidental. Kingsbury & McDonald officially opened their new wagon road in August, 1860 (and it actually had been in use for several months earlier). The new toll road quickly become the preferred route for teamsters hauling goods to Genoa or Virginia City, not only shortening the distance but also cutting travel time from Placerville to Carson Valley by a full day.

But the early Kingsbury dirt roadway was steep and difficult to navigate. A pause to rest at the halfway point made splendid sense. Other settlers began to appear about the same time along this downward stretch, too. By 1861, a “grog shop” was in full swing just west of Peters’ Station, while yet another settler had built a house a bit down the canyon.

This reproduction of Lt. Ives’ 1861 map shows not only the home of Richard Peters but also Alex Robb’s “house and grog shop” slightly farther west, and a third house to the east.
Ives’ survey shows R. Peters’ way station tucked in a big bend of the Kingsbury road.

Young Richard M. Peters, the eldest son of the family, had been born in Missouri in November, 1839. That made him about 21 years old when the family first opened their station, and he soon began to cast his eye around for a wife. Options for a marriage mate must have been slim pickings indeed at the Peters outpost on the side of a mountain. But not far away was Lake Tahoe and the growing settlement at South Lake.

On September 22, 1863, wedding bells were ringing. Richard M. Peters and Miss Frances Marion Lapham, a Tahoe girl, tied the knot right there at the Peters family hotel. Richard was not quite 24 years old at the time; France was a mere 14. Despite her youth, Frances would have been no stranger to the hard work of running a hotel. She was the daughter of “Capt. Billie” (William W.) Lapham, a former hotel proprietor himself at Calaveras Big Trees and, more recently, a hotel and commercial fishing boat operator at South Lake Tahoe. Frances and Richard would go on to have nine children together.

Wedding certificate for R.M. Peters and his wife, Frances M. Lapham, wed September 22, 1863 at Peters Station. Richard’s sister, Clara, was a witness. (Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society).

But patriarch Richard Peters did not get to enjoy his new station for long. He died there at Peters Flat on February 19, 1866. It was “the dead of winter,” and the roadway would have been covered in snow. Somehow, his body was ferried up Kingsbury Grade and buried “at Rowland’s Station in Lake Valley” (now known as the Pioneer Cemetery at Al Tahoe). Peters was 61 years old. His wife, Elizabeth, would live on for another 25 years, finally passing away in Ely on December 17, 1891.

The grave of family patriarch Richard Peters at Al Tahoe. (Born in Virginia, Dec. 2, 1804; died at Peters Flat, Feb. 19, 1866.)

After his father passed away, Richard M. and other members of the family continued to run Peters Station for a time. Timber was abundant and, according to family lore, they added logging to supplement their hotel income. In later years a sawmill was said to be operating at Peters Flat. One brief newspaper mention confirms that as late as 1892, two trips a day were still being made from Peters Station to Hobart using horse-drawn teams to haul cedar posts .

Eventually, however, Richard M. sold Peters Station (some say it was bought by Peter Van Sickle), and moved away. Family history says he went on to try his hand at mining in Ward, Nevada (south of Ely) and other sites in Central Nevada. He died on June 6, 1915 in San Francisco, and is buried at Cypress Lawn Cemetery.

The hotel itself is long gone, though as late as the 1980s a few surviving fruit trees still marked the site of Peters Station. Today, the spot where Richard Peters and his family once welcomed hundreds of teamsters is part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

U.S. Forest Service map showing the winding white line of present-day Kingsbury; a dashed red line for the old Kingsbury Toll Road; and the site of Peters Flat (#14).

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Family information for this story comes from materials kindly contributed by Dr. Perry Close (a Peters family descendant) to the Van Sickle Research Room at Douglas County Historical Society & Museum about 1992. Many to DCHS for the marriage certificate and first map shown above. Special thanks are also due to historian Sue Silver for her wonderful input, research and encouragement for this article, and especially for sharing the 1861 Ives map.  

Stories of the Fairview School – Part 2

We left off last time with the story of a funny Halloween prank played on old-time rancher Abednego John. (If you missed it, you can find that tale in Part 1, here!)

The original Fairview School, as you’ll remember, sat at the mouth of Fay-Luther canyon. But roughly twenty years later, a new and improved, second Fairview school was built about a mile to the south. Was this new spot just a more convenient site? Or were there other reasons for starting over?

That question’s a mystery. But we do know that well-known local builder John Cress was chosen as the contractor, and the new schoolhouse quickly sprouted at the corner of today’s Fairview and Fredericksburg Roads in the summer of 1893 . When school began again that fall, the teacher at the new one-room Fairview school was a Miss Lloyd. Just imagine how she must have felt, moving into the freshly-built quarters!

Could this the first day of school in the brand-new Fairview School building, in the fall of 1893? That would be my bet! For one thing, there are no trees visible around the new school (the trees didn’t arrive until 1894). If so, that’s probably Miss Layne in the far-back right, with her 24 students. See this rare photo for yourself at Douglas County Historical Society in a charming exhibit (downstairs). The exhibit includes a child’s antique alphabet-block (just visible at lower left in this photo). (Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire.)

The following spring, Miss Lloyd had a grand idea to beautify the rather barren school grounds. In honor of Arbor Day, 1894 (the last Friday in April), Miss Lloyd put her students to work planting trees around their new schoolhouse. Then each student took on the responsibility of watering the tree they had planted.

“We hope the trees will live and flourish,” enthused the Genoa Weekly Courier on April 27, 1894, “and that the teacher and pupils will be able to enjoy their shade for many years.” That happy wish that would come true — and not just for Miss Lloyd’s helpful students, but for generations of Carson Valley residents to come. Many of those early saplings still adorn the site today!

Genoa Weekly Courier, April 27, 1894.

A further upgrade for the new school arrived in January, 1901, when Allen & Dake bored a new well. The school’s fortuitous location in the bottomlands made this a relatively easy task; they only had to go 40 feet deep. The new well probably helped greatly with keeping the trees watered. And how many thirsty students must have paused to get a drink from the school’s handy new “pump well”?!

The number of pupils attending Fairview School seems to have stayed fairly constant, at least for a time: 29 students were in attendance in 1881, and 25 occupied its desks in 1901. But Fairview was said to have been one of the roughest posts for teachers. “The Dresslers and the Bohlmans and the Ruhenstroths were all tough boys,” remembered one long-time Valley resident. “They would put skunks in the girls’ billy [outhouse]. So the teacher made the boys use the girls’ outhouse!”

Perhaps those rowdy kids help explain why Fairview teachers seemed to come and go with great rapidity. Mr. Spencer, the school’s first educator, was replaced by Mrs. Layne in 1876. By 1883 Katie Taylor had taken over, only to be replaced by Miss Belle Leslie in 1888 and Mrs. Mary Field in 1889. None other than Ellen Virgin (daughter of the Genoa judge) was engaged to teach at Fairview for the term beginning fall 1890. The tree-planting Miss Lloyd presided stuck it out for a few terms from 1894 to 1897 before returning to her home in Empire. 1898 featured a Miss Lamb from Washoe County as the teacher, while Nellie M. Cavanaugh was in charge for the 1899 and 1900 terms, before departing to take the post of principal at the Oak Grove School in Santa Clara County, California. In 1904 the Fairview School District secured its next teacher, J. Novacovich, from Reno. And that’s not an exhaustive list; there were likely a few other teachers as well!

The Fairview School circa 1908, at the southeast corner of Fairview and Fredericksburg Roads. By now its saplings were mature trees. (Scossa family photo).

But it’s hard to fight progress. As with so many small school districts, economics eventually forced the tiny Fairview School to close. Fairview’s School District was merged with Minden’s School District in the spring of 1929. The old Fairview schoolhouse was auctioned off that same year, with Charles Mapes becoming the successful bidder. About 1939 the old building was moved up the road to the Crosby Ranch (later Ahern Ranch), where some say it was converted to a bunkhouse and others say it became an office. Today all traces of the old school seem to be gone, however; local researchers say they have tried to locate it, without success.

Those Arbor Day trees planted by the students and their thoughtful teacher back in April, 1894? Some of those are now giants!  These tenacious survivors have continued to offer graceful shade and shelter for 125 years — and still counting. Miss Lloyd must be smiling at her handiwork indeed.

Site of the second Fairview School, looking south, with its 125-year-old trees. A private residence now occupies this parcel.(Rick Dustman photo).
Looking east from the corner at Fredericksburg and Fairview toward the spot where the Fairview School once stood. (Rick Dustman photo).
Discover the history of nearby Fredericksburg CA in this fun book – and walk its historic cemetery to “meet” local  pioneers! The book’s available right on this site, on the “Books” tab. Let us know and we’ll gladly sign your copy, too!

 

Stories of the Fairview School

We still don’t know exactly when the first schoolhouse was built at Fairview, Nevada. But it had to be sometime before 1875 — because that’s the year teacher Ella S. Lane became known as the “Heroine of Fairview School District”! And a well-deserved honor it was. Here’s the tale:

Like most buildings of the day, the Fairview School featured a handy woodstove to help ward off winter’s chill. Teachers’ duties would often include arriving early to light the stove before students arrived.

All was well until one chilly day when, in the midst of her lesson, Miss Lane happened to glance up. Quickly altering her plans, she seated herself at the school organ and commenced a rousing rendition of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” This was the students’ cue to march outside for a recess. No one (except the teacher) realized that the woodstove chimney had caught the loft on fire until the children had all made it safely outside the burning building. A heroine she was, indeed!

We’ve never seen an image of the very first Fairview School. This is the second school building at Fairview, ca. 1908, at the southeast corner of Fairview and Fredericksburg Roads. The earlier building stood at the head of the canyon a mile or so north. (Photo courtesy of Scossa family).
A pot-bellied stove was a common central feature in early schoolhouses. (c) K. Dustman

A few more tidbits about the early days of the Fairview School have been handed down to us courtesy of old-timer Owen E. Jones, who set pen to paper in 1925 to record his recollections. Fairview was the “first schoolhouse built in [this end of] Carson Valley,” Jones assures us. Its very first teacher? A Mr. Spencer. And the school itself moved around a bit; the first building initially sat at the mouth of the canyon, about a mile “west” [probably really northwest] of the spot where the second incarnation of the school later materialized.

A public building like a school was, after all, a public building; so the community embraced the Fairview schoolhouse for other needs as well. Following its week-day service as a one-room schoolhouse, the building wore a new role on Sundays as a place to hold church. Separation of church and state? No one evidently bothered their heads about such things, back in the day.

And there’s a hilarious story about one of those religious gatherings in the Fairview School, again preserved for us courtesy of Owen E. Jones. It seems that Abednego Johns, a pioneer Jacks Valley rancher, had arranged for two distinguished LDS ministers to come and preach at the schoolhouse one Sunday in late October during the 1880s. Mr. Johns, his wife, and the two visiting ministers — all “heavy-weighted persons” — clambered aboard Abednego’s wagon and rode south for the event. The Fairview school building was filled with neighbors, eagerly awaiting the out-of-town preachers. And then Mr. Johns stood up to introduce his guests.

Now, Mr. Johns was a “very splendid old gentleman,” Owen Jones tells us, whose “only fault was that, when he got to talking religion, he never knew when to stop.” So after beginning his introduction of the two visiting Mormon ministers, Mr. Johns just kept on talking! By the time he finally ceded the floor, most of the assembled crowd had given up and left the building. The two preachers were forced to simply bid the stragglers good-bye and call it a night.

Farm wagon.

And that wasn’t entirely the end of Mr. Johns’ rather unfortunate evening, either. While his “fillibuster” droned on, some wag had played a Halloween joke. Slipping outside, the prankster swapped the front and back wheels of Johns’ wagon, then added a heavy sack of wet sand beneath the driver’s seat and tied another to the rear axle. When the non-preaching event finally was over, Johns and his guests boarded their wagon, only to endure an excruciatingly slow journey home in the dark. They were mystified about why the team was so exhausted — until, hours later, they finally made it home to Jacks Valley and discovered the prank.

But wait! There’s more! Tune in next time for “Part 2” of this story — including who planted the trees around the old Fairview School, and where (more than a hundred years later) you can see them!

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Unsung Heroes: Mary Shaw Shorb and Vitamin B12

She’s probably one of the most interesting women you never read about. And long after her death, she may have just solved a friend’s puzzling health problem.

Her name was Mary Shaw Shorb, and she was born in the wilds of North Dakota on a blustery winter day, January 7, 1907. Women weren’t allowed to vote at the time. And although that, at least, had changed by the time Mary reached her twenties, job opportunities for women were pretty slim. You could be a teacher, a seamstress, a cook, a nurse, or a mom. Women in any other occupations were rare indeed.

Mary Shaw (Shorb), about the time she graduated from college (courtesy of the family).

But Mary Shaw wanted wider horizons than that. A family friend had taught her to recognize wildflowers and edible mushrooms as a child, and Mary was fascinated by botany. And as luck would have it, this same family friend had been one of the founders of the College of Idaho. Mary enrolled there in 1924, graduating four years later with a B.S. degree in Biology — and, just in case, a minor in Home Ec.

Mary’s older brother was studying to be a doctor at Johns Hopkins University and before long Mary enrolled there as well, earning her Doctor of Science degree (Sc.D.) in immunology in 1933. For her dissertation she developed an antigen that proved so successful it became one of the front-line treatments for pneumonia until sulfa drugs came along.

By now Mary was married to fellow grad student Doys Shorb, whom she’d known since kindergarten. Their first child arrived in 1936, followed by two additional children in 1938 and 1942. For a time, Mary stayed home with the kids.

But during the War years, determined to do what she could to help, Mary accepted a technical job with the Bureau of Dairy Industries: culturing a bacillus known as “LLD” used to make yogurt and other milk products. It was a mundane, routine kind of job. But Mary became fascinated when she heard about a well-known quirk in the industry: For some strange reason, in order to properly culture LLD the growth medium had to include a special extract made from liver.

Why was that? What did liver have to do with making these organisms grow? No one could tell her. Then in 1946, even that mundane job evaporated — the employee who’d previously held the position was now back from the war.

But Mary’s curiosity had been piqued. There was something in that liver extract– and it didn’t just help LLD to grow properly. Liver was also the only known remedy at the time for treating pernicious anemia, an often-fatal ailment that had already killed Mary’s father-in-law.

Unappetizing as it sounds, raw liver had indeed proven beneficial for anemia victims. But the treatment required taking nearly a pound of raw liver a day. And so far, the mysterious “active ingredient” in liver had never been isolated and standardized.

Fresh out of a job, Mary was able to wangle lab space at the University of Maryland as an unpaid “research position.” A Merck Company researcher came through with a $400 company grant to fund the upstart young scientist’s efforts. Her brilliantly simple approach: if LLD only grew in the presence of this unknown liver factor, then measuring its growth rate should help pinpoint this mysterious X-factor.

Mary Shaw Shorb

Mary developed a “bio-assay” protocol — and it worked. In just three months, the Merck scientific team was able to isolate the first red crystals of this special active ingredient from liver extract– now known as Vitamin B12. It was a stunning breakthrough, and produced astonishing results for victims of pernicious anemia.

Asked about this breakthrough in a 1954 Idaho newspaper, Mary was her  usual humble, retiring self. “It was such a gradual discovery it’s hard to express my feeling when it was proved the vitamin did cure anemia,” she confessed. “But I will admit that it was a thrill and quite a wonderful experience.”

A tiny dynamo standing just four feet eleven inches tall, Mary was granted a full research professorship at the University of Maryland. Over her lengthy scientific career, she authored or co-authored 58 papers for scientific journals before finally retiring in 1972. Ironically, she passed away at the age of 83 in 1990 from complications of pneumonia, the same illness she’d helped treat with her dissertation.

And how did Mary Shaw Shorb manage to help rectify my friend’s health problem, long after Mary’s own death? Actually, it was her discovery of B12 that did it.

It all started out with a wonky blood result. My friend, a long-time vegetarian, had had chronically low white blood counts for well over a decade. Recently, though,  her WBC number dipped into the “what’s going on” crazy-zone. Her doctor was ready to send her to an oncologist. That’s right: they thought it might be cancer.

My friend thought otherwise. She’d read that vegetarians tend to have lower WBC numbers anyhow. And there were a few hints that B12 might be helpful for improving both red and white blood counts. For three weeks, she took a daily B12 supplement and added nutritional yeast (a B-vitamin source) to her coffee.

And that crazy-low WBC number? It jumped by two full points. She’s back in the “normal” range for the first time in ten years. And she credits it all to Mary Shaw Shorb and her amazing B12.

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(Caution/Caveat/Disclaimer: This anecdotal health story is shared just for reading interest; it’s not intended as medical advice of any kind. Please talk to your own doctor before trying any home remedies or self-treatment!)