A memoir leaves a legacy like nothing else. We’ve helped produce dozens of oral histories. But we wanted a way to help people eager to write their own memoir — or perhaps finish one that’s been languishing in a box or a desk drawer!
And voila, our latest book was born.
“Writing a Memoir: From Stuck to Finished!” by Karen Dustman is filled with practical tips, helpful exercises and suggestions, warm encouragement, and most of all, the voice of experience from someone who’s “been there and done that.” The goal is simple: to help you finish that oral history or memoir you’ve been dreaming of!
Here are 7 Top Quotes from the book:
“That time, that place, those people all were magical in some way. And sad but true: unless you take steps to preserve the story that’s tugging at your heartstrings, it will be lost. And that’s why recording it is so important.”
“Your magnum opus probably won’t come out sounding like Hemingway wrote it. And for some people, that’s a huge discouragement. They want whatever they produce to be “good,” to be “right,” to be “perfect” writing, in some abstract way. “I’m not a writer,” they tell themself. “I’m not a Hemingway.” Actually, I hope whatever you write doesn’t come out sounding like Hemingway! Because it wouldn’t be your voice if it did. And it’s your voice people want to hear.”
“Please ditch the notion that you can ̶ or should ̶ write an excellent, charming, and thoughtful memoir “quickly.” Thirty days? Nuh-uh. Won’t happen. Sixty? Ditto: please forget it. How about finishing a memoir in 365 days ̶ a full year? Now we’re getting a little warmer. But why create an artificial deadline only to torture yourself?”
“Stop waiting for perfect. See each of those hurdles (and pretty much any other ones) for just what they really are. Usually, it’s only fear talking.”
“Stuck in ‘I can’t think of a thing to say’ writer’s block? Try a work-around instead: find another spot in your story that sparks your excitement and jump in there, even if it isn’t chronological. Let the sticking point continue to percolate in the back of your head and come back to it later.”
“The most important ingredient in all of this? You! Only you have lived your special life. Only you can share tell your story the way you want it to be told.”
“If your head is filled with your dream – if your gut is aflame with desire – and if you’ve grabbed a healthy dose of patience in both fists, I’m confident you CAN reach the finish line and hold a memoir in your hands! (And oh, that fabulous end result!)”
There was a certain “ambivalence” toward prostitution in Carson City’s early days, notes historian Peter Mires. Everyone knew it was happening, but — talking about it? That was a no-no!
And some fascinating history was made by what didn’t quite make it into the record books!
Practice of the world’s oldest profession in Carson City was hardly a secret. An 1875 ordinance even helpfully set aside a three-block stretch along today’s Curry Street (between Second and Fifth Streets) for “bawdy houses” or “Houses of Ill Fame” — which evidently were thriving there. (The thriving went on for decades . . . several brothels, notes Mires, continued to operate a mere two blocks from the Capitol building until finally closed at last in 1942 by “federal order.”)
Carson City wasn’t alone, of course. When census takers made door-to-door visits through Nevada in June, 1870, one home was found to include 17 women, all tactfully identified by the census-taker as employed “keeping house.” (This particular house also included a single male occupant who, as historian Raymond Smith charmingly expressed it, “must have been happy, indeed.”)
Other census-takers were less discreet, however. Some forthrightly noted the presence of Chinese prostitutes and “hurdy” houses. When those census notes were shipped off to Washington, a delicate dilemma was raised: exactly what category of employment should be used to account for these not-so-domestic women?
According to Smith, the question was gently finessed: “prostitutes, courtesans, harlots, etc.” were simply added to the job classification for ‘cotton and woolen mill operatives.’
A different euphemism similarly came to the rescue when detailed maps of the streets in Carson City’s red light district were prepared for the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company in 1885. During the mapping, some area brothels were conveniently disguised by the accurate but vague legend: “Dw’g” (dwelling).
At least one larger structure of the day, however, bears the mysterious label: “Palace.”
Located at the southwest corner of West Fourth and Curry Streets (then Ormsby), this building was owned in 1885 by Mary Ann Phillips, who had purchased it in 1874. According to Mires, the term Palace “can only mean one thing — a high-end brothel.” A palace of sorts it must have been indeed to warrant the distinction!
And a fine bit of history to keep in mind the next time you study a Sanborn map.
Many thanks to historian Peter Mires for the inspiration for this fine story! The tale of the “Palace” (and many other fascinating bits of history) can be found in his new book, “Lost Carson City“! Check it out on Amazon.com here !
Genoa, Nevada has weathered its share of disasters: earthquakes, high winds, and of course the Great Fire that nearly wiped out the town in 1910. But did you know Genoa once was struck by an avalanche?
The time was 5:30 a.m. on March 16, 1882. Residents who happened to be awake at that early hour heard a terrible warning rumble, akin to an oncoming freight train.
It was indeed a train of sorts; an avalanche of terrifying proportions came cascading down Genoa Canyon, sweeping along everything it encountered. Directly in its path was the home of Nimrod Bowers. When the snowslide finally stopped, the bodies of Bowers and his wife were found lifeless amid the snow and debris. With epic bad timing, two relatives from Germany had just arrived to visit them the previous evening. Both relatives luckily managed to escape alive, although one suffered a broken shoulder.
The crushed remains of Bowers’ barn and house came to rest in William Daniel Gray’s kitchen just below, “heaped in a confusing mass,” mixed liberally with hay from Gray’s own mangled barn.
A native of Ohio, William Gray was one of the earliest citizens of Genoa, arriving in 1862, finding work initially as a blacksmith for Henry Van Sickle. Before long, Gray had his own blacksmith shop and was building buggies, spring wagons and heavy wagons across the street from the Genoa courthouse. Gray and his wife, an Irish lass named Anna, had a house on Main Street, right next door to the lovely brick home once owned by Lucky Bill Thorington.
Gray was an early riser, and on that fateful March morning in 1882 he was already up and shoveling snow away from his back door when he heard the approaching torrent. He yelled to his wife, and they both managed to run toward the front of the house before the mass of snow struck, crushing the kitchen into (as the Genoa Courier put it) “a shapeless mass.”
Miracle of miracles, not only did the Grays survive but their children also were spared. The kids’ bedroom off the kitchen was seriously damaged, with snow coming “within a foot or two of their bed.” As old-timers today tell the tale, the children had gotten cold during the night and moved into the main portion of the house to sleep by a woodstove. Talk about lucky!
Old-timers also claim at least one animal miraculously survived the onslaught: when the gigantic pile of snow finally ceased moving, one lucky horse was discovered standing right on top of the heaped-up mound!
Next door to the Grays, Judge Virgin’s sturdy brick home survived the devastation largely intact, although his orchard, barn and outbuildings were flattened. But the Boerlin home on the other side of the Grays was completely demolished. Mr. Boerlin, one son, and two other occupants came through unscathed. Mrs. Boerlin was also discovered alive, still in bed, some distance away from where her house once stood, although she’d been “nearly suffocated” under broken timbers and debris. Sadly, she was clutching the lifeless body of her little daughter, Paulina, in her arms.
Hardest hit of all was a structure farther south, occupied by several Washoe Indian families. This “Long house” (as the Courier described it) was completely destroyed by the snow slide. At least seven Native Americans tragically lost their lives in the disaster.
Surprisingly, as workers were clearing away debris from one of the homes two weeks later, they discovered a dog beneath the broken timbers and snow. “Although it had lain cramped up for 14 days,” the newspaper happily reported, “the little animal was still alive and is likely to entirely recover.”
______________________________ Hope you enjoyed this story! And if you’re a fan of Genoa history, you’ll be happy to know our next book about the Genoa Cemetery is nearly done! (Small pause for happy dance!!) This will be Book #2, filled with more great stories about fascinating people buried at Genoa. We’re hoping to finish it up by December!! Just drop us an email if you’d like to be among the first to know when the new book comes out!
Clark Gable was a true gentleman. And we have that on the very best authority: straight from Minden’s own early Justice of the Peace, Walt Fisher. One of Fisher’s very first acts as JP was to perform the 1955 marriage of the much-married Gable to actress Kay Williams.
The Douglas County Clerk pulled a bit of a fast one when Gable and Williams showed up to apply for a marriage license. It was after hours, so she dialed up Judge Fisher and asked if a couple could come to his home to be married. “Fine,” he said. “Send them over.” The clerk didn’t bother to mention who she was sending. So imagine Fisher’s surprise when he opened the door!
The couple had brought their own witnesses with them, so there was no need to call Fisher’s wife from the other room. Gable was quiet — a true gentleman, Judge Fisher later recalled. The service was quickly over, and Gable tucked $500 in the judge’s hand as the newlyweds departed. The judge’s wife didn’t learn who had been in her house until several minutes after they’d left (an omission for which the judge, it was said, later paid dearly!)
It was Gable’s fifth marriage, and Kay’s third. Perhaps it was Judge Fisher’s special touch; this marriage stuck, lasting until Gable died in 1960.
And as for Judge Fisher’s own story, that’s a fun tale in itself!
Walt Fisher was born in 1885, on a Colorado ranch adjoining the famous Calgary Ranch. Walt’s father was killed in a tragic ranching accident when Walt was just a boy, leaving his mother a widow — and a pregnant one at that. Next-door rancher Calgary had recently lost his own wife in childbirth, so the solution was obvious: Calgary and Mrs. Fisher were soon married, combining households, ranches and children.
This new arrangement was tough on Walt, however; his step-father, he felt, was “too much of a disciplinarian.” So at 16 Walt struck out on his own, working his way west as a hired hand on cattle and sheep drives. Walt and a brother eventually arrived in Virginia City about 1906. There they opened a bakery together — an occupation that Walt continued to love all his life. His grandchildren still remember his homemade sourdough bread, biscuits and pancakes.
Mining in Virginia City hit a downturn, and Walt moved to Carson City. There he found employment as a freight engineer for the V&T Railroad at the Carson Station, beginning in 1910. And there he also found — love.
In Carson, Walt met pretty Alice Taylor, a young seamstress. Alice had come west by wagon from Illinois with her widowed mother and three sisters as a teenager, and together they had opened a tailoring shop in Carson City about 1910.
Alice and Walt met when he came into her shop — and were married in 1913.
Walt continued to work for the V&T and in 1924, secured a position as the new Minden stationmaster. The small wooden terminal at Minden included a branch post office, a pot-bellied stove, and a large pickle jar. Local ranchers would come in to get their mail, hang around the woodstove, and (of course) talk. Walt soon knew everyone in town.
But around 1950, word came that the Minden station was going to be shut down. Walt had worked for the V&T for a total of over 40 years, and was ready for something new.
Walt had once rescued a young Basque being beaten by local thugs, earning him the respect of the local Basque community. Hearing that Walt was about to retire, the Basques approached Walt to offer support if he would run for local Justice of the Peace. And the rest, as they say, is history. Walt ran successfully for the office in 1954, and eventually served four consecutive terms in office as East Fork Justice of the Peace.
Walt and Alice lived on Mono Avenue, across from the old brick Elementary School in Minden. It’s the modest home where Gable and Williams arrived in 1955 to be married. It’s also where one very drunk woman driver was hauled by arresting officers at 4:30 in the morning, after backing her vehicle from a bar into a parked car. Given the wee hour, Judge Fisher answered the door clad in a black bathrobe.
There stood the arresting officers with the inebriated woman — so inebriated she mistook Fisher in his black bathrobe for a Catholic priest. Once assured that the judge was not a priest, she berated him for impersonating a priest. The woman proved too tipsy to face the legal music even hours later, when court began. As the Record-Courier reported, the ever-patient Judge Fisher simply ordered “another 24 hours free lodging in the calaboose.” And with that plus a $100 fine, justice was served.
Walt’s wife, Alice, passed away in December, 1960, after a lengthy illness. Walt continued to serve on the bench until poor health finally forced his retirement in 1961. He passed away in 1963.
Walt and Alice are buried at Lone Mountain Cemetery in Carson City, their simple joint stone a sweet reminder of their fascinating lives.
* * * * * * * ** *
Many thanks to Walt Fisher’s granddaughter Teri Balfour for photos and family history for this story!
Photographer John Calvin Scripture captured this haunting image of a mysterious lake about 1874. The hand-lettered caption calls it “Summit Lake,” and confirms the location as Alpine County, California. So where was this 140+ year-old picture taken?
There is, of course, a “Summit Lake” in Alpine County not far from today’s tiny airport, and another (on some maps, at least) in the wilds southeast of Blue Lakes. But neither lake a likely match for the one captured by Scripture in his old photo.
So where was the lake in this 1874 photo taken? Ah, and that turned into a hunt to solve not one but two mysteries!
We put our heads together with noted Sierra historian Frank Tortorich, who tendered Mosquito Lake as a possibility: a small lake near the crest of Pacific Grade, on today’s Highway 4. That would indeed make it a true “summit” lake! And its location along Highway 4 — once the old Big Tree Road — makes it a great fit for Scripture’s “Big Trees” series.
Check out these images — Mosquito Lake sure looks like a match to us!
So our first “Summit Lake” mystery — apparently solved! But, as we were researching, we found a second Summit Lake image that posed even more of a challenge!
This one’s an 1861 sketch by Edward Vischer, a Bavarian artist who traveled widely in early California and Nevada. It’s officially titled: “Lake near the summit of the East Range, on the Big Tree Road,” and was printed several years later in Vischer’s book, Pictorial of California Landscape, Trees and Forest Scenes.
Here’s the view Vischer captured in 1861:
And take a close look — those are camels in the foreground!
Camels, on the Big Tree Road?! Yup. As annotations to the book explain, Vischer accompanied a caravan of nine Bactrian camels over the Big Tree Route in 1861, headed for the Washoe silver mines. The camels, it was hoped, would be useful for carrying salt and other goods to the Virginia City mines from the Walker River District. (If you haven’t already read about this great camel experiment, there’s lots more information just a quick Google search away! That’s another fascinating tale!)
The caption to the Vischer sketch confirms that this “Summit Lake” also was somewherealong the Big Tree Road. But it’s clearly not the same lake as Scripture’s photo. Vischer’s rocky cliffs more nearly resemble the outcrops near today’s Kinney Reservoir. And that would certainly fit as a “summit” lake on the East Range; Kinney is near the top of Ebbett’s Pass, an easterly sister to Mosquito Lake on nearby Pacific Summit.
Perhaps the camels were taking an afternoon snooze beside the (smaller) original lake that morphed into Kinney Reservoir once the dam went in. On first glance at least, that looked like a good guess! Check out this photo of Kinney Reservoir today.
Only one big problem with the Kinney Lake theory: there was no actual road over Ebbett’s Pass (and Kinney Lakes) in 1861 — just a rough pack trail. The trail was improved into a wagon road three years later, an extension of the Big Tree Road to serve Silver Mountain City. But the good wagon road wasn’t finished until 1864.
So, would camels have been herded along a mere pack trail to reach the lake at Kinney? Wouldn’t the camel train instead have followed the more-established Border Ruffian wagon road north through Hope Valley, and continued east on the old Carson Emigrant Route?
After scratching our heads for a while, we realized that Vischer’s party might actually have preferred the unimproved trail over Ebbett’s to the better-traveled Border Ruffian wagon route. For two reasons:
First: The Border Ruffian Road connected with the old Carson Emigrant road, which would have required a steep and rocky descent through Woodfords Canyon — perhaps not such an appealing prospect with camel hooves.
And Second: Horses and mules had a tendency to panic at the sight of the unfamiliar camels. Perhaps the camel party preferred the quieter pack trail to the potential chaos of the busier Big Tree wagon road.
So, while we don’t know for sure, our bet is that Vischer’s camels were resting near the original small mountain lake that’s now become Kinney Reservoir. Take a look at the photos above, and let us know what you think!
Discover long-forgotten Alpine County sites for yourself: With this guided historic tour of Snowshoe Thompson’s Diamond Valley, early Woodfords, and Fredericksburg’s pioneer ranches!
Grab your copy here: http://www.Clairitage.com
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He died over half a century ago. But tales live on about Earl Lessley, the “flying cowboy”!
Earl Lessley was born in 1889 in Drytown, California. His parents, Mary and Samuel Lessley, had crossed the plains from Missouri by covered wagon. Even after they arrived in California, the family evidently moved around a bit; a second son, Ray, was born in 1892 in nearby Volcano.
Just how Lessley happened to mosey east to Carson Valley is unknown. But by 1918 he began working for Dangberg Land and Livestock. He would become a “veteran and respected employee” for the next 37 years. (Younger brother, Ray, may have had something to do with the move to Carson Valley; he, too, worked for Dangberg, beginning in 1919, moving on in 1937 to work for George “Bim” Koenig at the Swauger Ranch at Topaz.)
Earl’s prowess as a horseman was legendary. Astride a spirited horse named “Fighting,” Lessley took first prize for best rider in the finals at the American Legion rodeo in Carson Valley in June, 1928. As the years went by he would become a well-known “old vaquero” at Vaquero Cow Camp, the summer range for Dangberg cattle in Bagley Valley.
But what Lessley was mostfamous for was his passion for airplanes! Given the difficulty of accessing Bagley Valley, he decided to fly in with John Dangberg one winter, using a rented WWI biplane. Lessley had carefully cleared a primitive landing strip on a low ridge south of the camp. But when he attempted to maneuver in for a landing on his fresh dirt strip, the plane careened down nose-first. (Luckily, Lessley and his famous passenger both survived!)
Despite this inauspicious beginning, the landing strip at Vaquero Camp continued to be used — though not always successfully. When a second plane also crashed, the practical Lessley happily scavenged parts from the wreck to reuse on the ranch. A third pilot, too, is said to have crashed, escaping with only a broken arm.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, Earl continued to fly in, owning several airplanes of his own throughout the years. He evidently learned from his early mistakes as a pilot; his obituary noted that Lessley “frequently had accomplished the [difficult] feat of landing and taking off from Bagley Valley.”
Other near-apocryphal tales about Lessley paint a picture of a grizzled outdoorsman. Like many of his generation he disdained doctors; developing “foot trouble” (possibly frostbite or gangrene), Lessley simply lopped off part of his own toes with an axe.
He also enjoyed a frontiersman’s wicked sense of humor. Lessley once pranked local fishermen by stuffing the hind-quarters of a dead bear into a pair of old Levis then half-buried the carcass in a river bank where he knew they would find it!
In 1952, Lessley suffered a concussion in Carson Valley when a horse fell on him. He told his coworkers to leave him there, saying he was content to die in camp. His fellow cowboys didn’t listen, however, successfully carting him out on a stretcher for medical treatment.
Lessley’s end came three years later — and a rather ironic end it was for an old cowboy. It was April 17, 1955, and the spring winds through Carson Valley were strong and gusty. Lessley was working on his car at the Klauber Ranch, and had jacked up the vehicle and crawled underneath. The car slipped off the jack, possibly from the gusty wind. The rear axle landed on Lessley’s chest. His body was discovered the next day by Hans Dunwebber, a fellow employee. If there was any happy news in the tragedy, it was that Lessley was said to have died instantaneously. He was 66 years old.
Earl Lessley was laid to rest near his parents in his family’s plot at Shenandoah Valley Cemetery in Plymouth, California, in a grave shared with his younger brother, Ray. (Ray died in 1962; it is unclear where their sister, Edith Lessley Waters, is buried.)
Prominent locals Bill Hellwinkel and Otto Heise traveled all the way from Carson Valley to Jackson to pay their respects at Earl’s funeral — a touching indicator of the extremely high regard in which he was held by his community.
____________ For additional information about Earl Lessley and the vaqueros at Bagley Valley, check out Judy Wickwire’s wonderful book, “Land Use Patterns in Bagley and Silver King Valleys” (Clear Water Publishing, 2017) — available at the Alpine County Museum in Markleeville! Contact the Museum at: (530) 694-2317.
Here’s the fascinating tale about how Snowshoe’s grave got capped with concrete — and who’s sleeping in the long-forgotten grave next to him!
Snowshoe Thompson, you may remember, exited this life on May 15, 1876 at his ranch in Diamond Valley, California. Just 49 years old, this giant of a man was likely felled by an opponent he couldn’t fight: a burst appendix.
It took nine long years before Snowshoe’s widow, Agnes, was able to have a tombstone placed on his grave. But when she finally did, the headstone was a thing of beauty. Carved of white marble, it features a carved pair of miniature skis, crossed in silent mourning.
But though Snowshoe’s grave was now properly marked, it became something of a mess. Agnes died in 1915, and Snowshoe’s only son passed away just two years after his father. With no one left to care for the family plot, the ever-present sagebrush and weeds began taking over.
Until Decoration Day, 1924, that is. (Never heard of Decoration Day? A predecessor of Memorial Day, Decoration Day was started to honor the Civil War dead, and expanded after World War I to include those killed while serving in any war.)
On that fateful 1924 Decoration Day, a thoughtful little girl from Gardnerville decided Snowshoe’s grave deserved a champion. A “self-appointed guardian angel,” she pulled the weeds and laid flowers on Snowshoe’s nearly-forgotten grave that year — and for years to come. Even though Snowshoe hadn’t died in a war, she felt he merited that special remembrance.
Years passed, and eventually other school children took up the cause. Hearing that “persons unknown” had callously attempted to steal Snowshoe’s headstone (unsuccessfully, thank goodness!), children in Genoa began raising funds to anchor his stone firmly in concrete.
And thanks to their efforts, by the end of May, 1948 (now known as Memorial Day), the Thompson family plot had been covered over in two feet of heavy concrete. (They were taking no chances!) Public-spirited Genoans Carl Falcke, Sr., Arnold Juchtzer, and Joe Gossi pitched in to do the heavy labor.
Thompson’s headstone was happily safeguarded from thieves, and his family plot protected from encroaching sagebrush. It’s a great tale of community involvement, and local generosity. Once unkempt, Snowshoe’s grave is now such a point of pride that special signs mark the way for eager pilgrims.
Next time you pay a visit to Snowshoe’s marble marker, take a brief look around for the long-forgotten grave of John Sauquet next door. Today, nobody even knows Sauquet’s name. But back in Snowshoe’s time, he was a “honcho” in tiny Alpine County.
Born in France about 1818, Sauquet was well over forty when he made his way to the mining boomtown of Silver Mountain City. He opened a general merchandise store there about 1865, selling groceries, provisions, mining supplies — and, of course, wines! (He was, after all, a Frenchman!) Sauquet did so well that between 1865 and 1870 the value of his inventory jumped from $800 to $2,000 — not an easy feat, in a town where mining busts typically followed the short booms.
Sauquet tried his own hand at mining speculation, becoming a trustee (director) of the Mountain Mine. And when mining entrepreneur Lewis Chalmers racked up an unpaid bill approaching $4,000, Sauquet took title to the Imperial Silver Quarries mine as a way to satisfy his judgment.
By February, 1881, however, Sauquet (now in his early 60s) had become ill. He ventured as far as San Francisco to consult a doctor, and in October, 1883, left Silver Mountain behind entirely, moving his merchandise from the now-nearly-abandoned town to the tiny settlement just below at Silver Creek. Sauquet hung on two more years, finally passing away September 27, 1885.
And here’s the fascinating connection to Snowshoe Thompson: Sauquet drew his last breath in Diamond Valley at the home of Agnes (Thompson) Scossa. Snowshoe’s widow and her new husband (John Scossa) took care of Sauquet in his final illness. As a token of his gratitude, Sauquet’s will left everything he owned to John Scossa — assets that included real property in San Francisco as well as in Alpine.
All those old Alpiners knew each other. And Snowshoe Thompson — even though he’s buried in Genoa — was truly an Alpiner, too.
And P.S. — Look closely at Snowshoe’s headstone — the “P” in Thompson is missing! Exactly why remains a mystery. But some say either Agnes or John Scossa may have accidentally given that misspelling to the stone-carver.
Like to read more of the stories, legends and amazing true tales about Snowshoe Thompson, Silver Mountain City, and Alpine’s wild and crazy silver mines? Jump in and grab a copy– you’re in for a wild ride!
Julia Bulette was a beloved Virginia City prostitute who tended the sick and was a darling of local firefighters — and her murder on January 20, 1867 outraged this tough mining town (though a few high-society matrons were said to be relieved!).
A Frenchman named John Millian paid the ultimate price for Julia’s heinous murder: he was hung. But was Millian really guilty? And how did Julia become a prostitute in the first place?
We asked Kim Harris, the talented Chautauquan who brings Julia to life in her sizzling performances around Carson Valley. Here’s what she shared with us about Julia’s life and death — including details about Julia Bulette’s story you may not have heard!
Did John Millian really do it?
KH: “Julia had previously helped send a murderer to prison with her testimony. About a week before she was murdered, Julia heard that that murderer was back in Nevada. So it’s quite possible he was the one who actually murdered her. John Millian might just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“It’s true that they found some of Julia’s jewelry in Millian’s trunk. A few months after the killing Millian tried to sell some of her dress patterns to a lady in Gold Hill. John Millian also admitted being there outside her house on D Street on the night of the killing; he said he was just acting as the look-out.
“But I think there was a rush to judgment; everyone wanted somebody to pay for the crime. Millian was a French-speaking foreigner; he didn’t understand English well. He had come to the U.S. after serving in the Crimean War, which takes its own toll on a person, and did odd jobs to eke out a living. I believe he became a scapegoat.
“Millian’s court-appointed attorney, Charles DeLong, believed his client was innocent and managed to hold off his execution for a year. The case went all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court — but still he lost, and Millian was hung. Ironically, John Millian was buried just a few feet away from Julia, at the Flowery Hill Cemetery — where the prostitutes and criminals were buried.”
How did Julia wind up becoming a prostitute?
KH: “Julia was what was known back then as a quadroon — one-quarter African-American. Her father was born in France, and after he arrived in the States, he had a plantation in New Orleans. He met Julia’s mother there, who was a well-respected African-American, and Julia was born in Moorehouse Parish. She had brothers and sisters. Their mother died when Julia was two.
“In quadroon society, Julia’s fate was picking cotton and raising her orphaned siblings and cousins. And she didn’t want that. Her Uncle Jules (her father’s brother) would come up from New Orleans to visit and he’d take her on riverboat trips. She’d see these women on board who were beautifully dressed, escorted by gentleman, and ask — who are they?
“‘Well,’ he’d explain, ‘they are courtesans; they entertain gentlemen.’ Julia saw that these women got to travel, to dress well, and go places. When she was 16, she told her uncle, ‘That’s what I want to do!’ So he set her up in business. She had her own apartment; she never worked out of a brothel. Julia was well-read; she could talk about literature and music. Her uncle was like her business manager. He made the arrangements with wealthy gentlemen who wanted company when they were in New Orleans. She was a high-priced courtesan.
“During the Gold Rush Julia came to San Francisco with her uncle and her cousin Paul. But she arrived in San Francisco at the wrong time. There were so many prostitutes she found she couldn’t charge the same as she had been in New Orleans. And the men were filthy and dirty. She and her cousin, Paul, who by then was managing her business, moved on to Sacramento and the nearby gold fields, then eventually to Carson City — and ultimately Virginia City.”
Why did the firefighters love her?
KH: “Julia was the darling of the firefighters because she was so charitable. She did what she could to help the community. She wasn’t wealthy; she was an independent operator, not a madam. Julia had lived in San Francisco, where there were fires and earthquakes, and she became enamored with the fire department there for their heroic work. They were the rock stars!
“At Virginia City the prostitutes would throw parties — they called them balls — basically fundraisers, to help widows and orphans. And Julia and other prostitutes took care of people suffering from smallpox or diphtheria. Wealthy women might donate money to treat sufferers in the hospital, but they wouldn’t actually touch the people themselves. Julia did.”
“Julia had met Thomas Peasley, the love of her life, in Carson City. He was the one who convinced Julia to move to Virginia City. He was the first fire chief; he formed Virginia Company Number One.”
How does it feel to play Julia?
KH: “By the time of Julia’s death, her life had taken several tragic turns. The love of her life, Thomas Peasley, had been murdered at the Ormsby House in Carson City by another firefighter. Her cousin Paul, actually more like a brother to her, was killed in a cave-in at the Ophir Mine.
“She was 34 years old, which was getting up in years for a prostitute, and she couldn’t charge as much any more. She was taking laudanum and drinking. She had been seeing the doctor twice a week; he was trying to convince her to leave Virginia City and go home to her people in New Orleans. She had liquor bills and doctor bills and debts for entertaining. She was very depressed; things were not good.
“Even so, she did what she wanted. She was not wealthy, but she dressed very well and had expensive jewelry — half of it was taken in payment from customers. To play her, I do my best impression of a New Orleans accent. I try to play her with dignity and respect and understanding — she chose that profession, and a lot of women still do. In my chautauqua speech I say, ‘What is wealth? To me, it’s an abundance of the things I desire: friends and admirers. Pretty gowns. I may not live in the grandest of homes, but I enjoy attending operas and balls.’
“She had the largest funeral turnout Virginia City had ever seen up until that time. It was a cold, windy, rainy day; everyone didn’t go all the way to her gravesite. But in town, her funeral was huge. The society women stayed home; but the men in town and Julia’s friends and prostitutes all turned out.
“I’m fascinated and drawn to the stories of women in the Victorian era. The options women didn’t have — we can’t blame them for their choices! You see how life forced them one way or another. You have to understand the position society placed them in.
“I don’t think Julia would have wanted us to feel sorry for her. Here’s how my chautauqua speech as Julia ends: ‘Queen of the Comstock? No, I want to be remembered as Queen of Good Times!’”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * Special thanks to the astonishingly-talented Kim Harris for her research and insight into Julia’s life! Learn more about Kim at her website: http://www.WesternHistoryAlive.com.
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The true “pioneers” of Alpine County were the native Washoe. But little was written about them in the early days. So it was a real treat to stumble across a 1927 Record-Courier article detailing the life of Markleeville resident “Lame Tom.”
In the early 1900s, Lame Tom (his real name was Assu) lived in a wickiup just below the old wooden schoolhouse on Schoolhouse Hill. By then, he was an elderly gentleman. He shared his humble abode with a friend with the euphonious name of Zon-ha-gen-mal-anay, popularly known as “Squealing Aleck.”
Lame Tom was a son of Chief Possic (or Possuk), a Washoe captain living near the Hot Springs who was said to have been a guide in the early days for John Fremont’s party. Noted basketmaker Dat-So-La-Lee married into their family.
In his youth, Lame Tom was acclaimed as a hunter. But tragedy struck one night while he camped out alone. A large, heavy log rolled off his campfire and onto his leg while he slept, and the burning wood pinned him “like a vise.”
The brave young man did the unthinkable: he amputated his own leg with a hunting knife to free himself, and “crawled many miles home” to his camp.
Amazingly, he survived. But Lame Tom could no longer hunt. Instead took up the art of arrowhead-making — soon becoming one of the “most proficient of all the arrowhead makers.” He would shape a flake of obsidian by cradling it in his palm with buckskin, then striking the edge of the stone with a piece of buckhorn (antler) lashed to a length of greasewood. The only person who could equal him was noted arrowhead-maker Poker Charlie (Tillebow Behang), another son of Chief Possic. (A little family rivalry, perhaps!)
Lame Tom also crafted bows made of cedar and sinew, and would sell a bow and arrow set to local lads for “two bits” (25 cents). He also taught them how to weave snowshoes.
Due to his injury, Lame Tom was permitted to marry two wives, an important form of social support. Both wives were employed in or near Markleeville: Maley worked for the Musser family, while Susie was employed by Harriet Grover. Interestingly enough, Squealing Aleck (Lame Tom’s friend) had three wives, and an astonishing ten daughters.
Lame Tom passed away in 1910. So it’s a delight to be able to connect this photograph from the Alpine County Museum with his story, thanks to the old Record-Courier article from 1927.
Stop in at the Museum next time you visit Markleeville: there’s more great information here about the local Washoe heritage, including this stunning collection of local arrowheads. Who knows, perhaps some of these might even have been crafted by Lame Tom (Assu) or his talented brother, Poker Charlie.
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* Special thanks to the Alpine County Museum for permission to share the photo of Lame Tom. Visit the Museum at the top of Schoolhouse Hill in Markleeville Thursday through Sunday from late May through October, summer hours 10-4.
The sign on the tall, blue house in Virginia City caught our eye as we whizzed past one recent afternoon: “The Chapin House.” It’s an unusual last name — and one we recognized from old letters in Alpine County.
So, just who was Samuel A. Chapin? We tracked down a few pieces of his life story puzzle — and what a life he had!
Born in Northbridge, Massachusetts on September 2, 1811, Samuel Austin Chapin was the fifth (out of eight) children of Henry and Abigail Chapin. His family moved to Michigan Territory in the spring of 1830, and Samuel’s early adulthood was spent in White Pidgeon. He would later recount “startling and amusing” tales of “roughing it” there, and serving as sheriff of St. Joseph County, Michigan.
Samuel joined other Michigan volunteers during the Black Hawk War of 1832, quickly rising to the rank of Brigadier General with the Michigan State Militia. In 1840, he went on to serve as a member of the Michigan House of Representatives for one session.
Exciting as all that must have been, nothing could quite rival the excitement of finding gold! Chapin eagerly joined some of the earliest Gold Rush crowds to California, though exactly when he arrived there is unclear. He once claimed to plainly remember the day that “we of ’49” arrived at San Francisco Bay. Other accounts, however, peg the actual date of his arrival as May 20, 1850. Even so, that date still puts him among the earliest eager Argonauts.
Chapin’s adventurous journey included a “rough passage” aboard the vessel Empire City; a “raging fever” on the Chagres River; and an unexpected hiccup in Panama when the expected continuation vessel Sarah Sereds failed to arrive. Chapin and his companions managed to book substitute passage aboard the steamship Oregon for $500 a head — procuring a berth in steerage along with a thousand other eager travelers.
Once aboard ship again, Chapin was said to have “organized a mess” with fellow passengers William Smith, former governor of Virginia, and L.B. Benchley, of San Francisco — political connections that helped render the rest of his passage “comparatively comfortable.”
During his earliest days in California, Chapin operated a hardware business. He also managed to become a member of the San Francisco Board of Education, helping select property upon which to build future schools, and made friends with the influential editor of the Evening Bulletin.
By 1860 the Gold Rush had largely petered out — but the Silver Rush now was on! And once again, Chapin was in the forefront of adventurous pioneers.
Chapin acquired a mill site on the Carson River, four miles from Silver City, in July, 1860. That same month he had a survey done on land in Steamboat Valley — property that included not only a mill site but also valuable timber and water rights. And his political instincts evidently remained as sharp as ever; Chapin soon was tapped to serve as a member of the two Constitutional Conventions working to frame Nevada’s state constitution.
Naturally, Chapin had a finger in several early mining pies. He acquired interest in the quartz mines of Mariposa County. His name appears in May, 1863 among the list of incorporators of the Buckeye No. 2 Gold & Silver Mine in Scandinavian Canyon (soon to become Alpine County). And he also acquired an interest in mines on the Comstock. In 1865, Chapin issued a “report” extolling the merits of his “Gold Hill Front Lodes” at Gold Hill, Nevada — two parallel claims happily situated between the Yellow Jacket and the Justice Mines. This “report” (actually a sales brochure) was, of course, heavily leavened with “affirmations and statements from various persons” about the value of these two mines.
Letters show that not all was sweetness and light in Chapin’s mining business, however. In 1869, Ahnarin B. Paul wrote Alpine County mine promoter O.F. Thornton: “I saw Chapin to-day — he can’t get the [ore-processing] settler to produce the electricity which must be had for precipitating the mercury.” And by 1872 Chapin was back in San Francisco, still trying to sell his mining claims. He wrote to Thornton offering a mining claim near Devil’s Gate for a hefty $100,000 (likely the same two Gold Hill Front lodes), touting his “great expectations” for the property. But his “Hope Mining Co.” at Silver City, he acknowledged, had recently become “embarrassed” and (as he put it) “went to the wall.”
Chapin’s stately 15-room house at 311 South “C” Street was constructed in 1862, during Virginia City’s mining heyday, and may originally have been built for him as a private residence. But by 1880, Chapin House had been converted into a boarding house, with a Mrs. Cavanaugh acting as the proprietor.
Meanwhile, back east, one of Chapin’s sisters had married a Wheaton, and was living in Norton, Massachusetts. Samuel was apparently her favorite brother. In 1884, Samuel and his wife retired and moved back to Massachusetts to live with the sister. There, he would serve as a Trustee of Wheaton College from 1889-1890.
By now 78 years old, Chapin conceived the notion of revisiting “scenes of his early life,” and eagerly joined a group of fellow pioneers for a trip back to California. It would be his last big adventure.
Chapin died suddenly of a heart attack while in San Bernardino, California on April 17, 1890. Stopping there with his fellow pioneers on their way to San Francisco, Chapin had just finished delivering a rousing address to the crowd at a reception. The last words to fall from his lips were: “God bless the noble State and the dear people of California!”
Chapin’s body was placed in an “elegant coffin,” said to be identical to the one in which General Grant had been buried. It lay in state briefly in San Bernardino, with solemnities conducted by the Native Sons of the Golden West and the San Bernardino Pioneers, before being loaded on a train for return to Boston. Both Chapin Hall at Wheaton College and Chapin Street in Alameda, California would later be named in his honor.
As for Chapin House, it continues to keep its silent vigil, looking down over the town of Virginia City from its lofty perch on “C” Street.
And here’s the last, fun snippet to this story: boardinghouse-keeper Mrs. Cavanaugh — or perhaps even Samuel himself — may not entirely have vacated the premises. Visitors have been said to “complain of an uneasy feeling,” as if there’s a ghost in the house!
Like to read more silver mining history from the Comstock Era in nearby Alpine County?