Carson Valley’s First Settler Wedding

The year was 1854 when two young riders pulled up outside Henry Van Sickle’s blacksmith shop, astride a single horse.

Their arrival at Van Sickle’s station wasn’t all that unusual — “Van” (as locals knew him) was an in-demand blacksmith and wheelwright, and his trading station had become a popular stopping place for passing-through emigrants.

What was unusual, however, was the mission of the two riders. Young David R. Jones and his even younger companion, Frances Angeline Williams, weren’t interested in Van’s assistance as a blacksmith, but rather his help as Justice of the Peace. They’d just eloped together on horseback, and wanted “Van” to marry them.

Frances was a native of Pennsylvania who’d come west with her family in a wagon train, arriving in Carson Valley during the fall of 1853. David had been born in Wales in 1830, emigrating initially as a child with his family to Wisconsin. David, too, had followed his dreams west to Carson Valley in 1853 as a member of the same wagon train as the Williams family, and was now living and working on the ranch owned by Frances’ father*, William T. “Billy” Williams.

Henry Van Sickle.

David was 25 years old when he rode up to Van Sickle’s blacksmith shop that fateful day. Frances, on the other hand, was just 15. And they hadn’t asked her parents’ permission to get married.

As later writers have recounted the tale, “Van” was hard at work at his forge when the eager young couple rushed in. Still clad in his leather blacksmith’s apron and rolled-up shirtsleeves, Van Sickle obliged with the briefest of ceremonies. Clapping one meaty hand on David’s shoulder and the other on Frances’, he solemnly proclaimed: “As Justice of the Peace of this township, I pronounce you man and wife under the law of the Territory of Utah.”

That was it. They were married.

Henry Van Sickle didn’t bother to take off his rough blacksmith’s apron for the marriage. Photos below of David R. Jones and Frances (Williams) Jones are courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society & Museum.

It was the first settler marriage ever performed in Carson Valley, at least according to local legend. (Small pause for a word of caution: when it comes to “firsts” like marriages and babies, there can often be room for dispute! But that’s how local legend tells it.) And the wedding wouldn’t be Van Sickle’s last. In August, 1857, Van Sickle also “stopped branding cattle long enough to perform the marriage” for Elzy Knott and Mary Harris.

There’s just one small factual hiccup giving later historians pause about the long-ago Jones wedding story: Henry Van Sickle probably wasn’t actually a J.P. yet in 1854. It wasn’t until Carson County, Utah Territory was formed in September, 1855 by Orson Hyde that Henry officially became a judge, as nearly as we can tell. Prior to that, although J.P.’s did exist, their authority was limited to handling court cases. With no authority for anyone at the time to perform weddings, emigrant marriages were sometimes accomplished by written “contract” or by stretching the fictitious jurisdiction of an eastern J.P.

Still, the story of the Jones’ wedding is so detailed there’s likely some truth to the tale. Perhaps the young couple thought Van Sickle had the power to marry them, and Van simply tried to oblige. Maybe later tellings got the year wrong and the marriage took place in 1855, after Henry really was a Justice of the Peace.  Or maybe the well-respected Van Sickle was simply the closest thing anyone had to a J.P. in those early days, and local folk never questioned the well-intentioned marriage attempt.

However it happened, if the oft-repeated story about the early wedding is true, newlyweds David and Frances must have had quite an interesting conversation with her family when they finally returned home to the Williams ranch! But any hard feelings were apparently soon forgiven. David would later purchase the Williams ranch in 1857.

Over the years, the couple prospered. David was (or at least, as he claimed to be) the first to plow the ground with an ox team near Genoa, and he soon began hauling hay and grain to Virginia City. But the early years of their marriage were filled with the dangers and difficulties of early pioneers. He would later recall: “We hid in the willows at night, [my] wife and I, because the Indians were hostile in those days and we feared for our lives.”

The Jones Ranch, as it appeared about 1881.

The couple’s first son, John R. Jones, born in 1855, was reportedly the first white male child born in Carson Valley. All told, David and Frances would go on to have a total of eleven children. One of those children, daughter Sarah, grew up to marry Lorenzo Smith of Washoe City, a tale recounted in this earlier story. (Daughter Sarah was laid to rest at the Washoe City Cemetery in early 1894.)

The Jones ranch grew, and by 1882 was valued for tax purposes at $3,500. David also evidently developed a passion for fine horses. In 1878, the newspaper reported the price for breeding services from his “noble-looking” stallion, Westfork.

D.R. Jones’ “noble” stallion, Westfork, was mentioned in the Carson Valley News of April 12, 1878.

David Jones was an active member of the local community, officiating as a judge of elections at the Mottsville Precinct in 1880, and serving as a Douglas County commissioner in the 1890s. According to some accounts Jones also became a prominent  and well-respected member of the Mormon Church — although in actuality, he’d broken ties with the LDS church. Instead, Jones may have been affiliated with the Re-organized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when that movement emerged in the 1870s, though even the nature of his association with that group remains unclear.  In any event, Jones was listed as a “minister” at the marriage of John Boston and Nettie Jones in March, 1872, and was kindly referred to as “Rev. Jones” in February, 1898 when he officiated at the funeral of Mrs. Mary Gilman.

Frances passed away in 1909, with seven of her 11 children still surviving her. Five years later, David was applauded as the oldest still-living Nevada pioneer at the state’s 50thanniversary celebration. He died that same year, 1914, at the age of 85. David and Frances Jones are both buried in the historic Genoa Cemetery.

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     * William T. Williams is identified as Frances’ father in Sam P. Davis’s later History of Nevada (Vol. II), but according to letters in the possession of descendants, her real father was actually David Williams. It’s possible that William T. Williams was an uncle.
Special thanks also to the Douglas County Historical Society for the wonderful pair of photos of Frances and David Jones for this story, and the account of their elopement from the reminiscences of Robert A. Trimmer, a typescript in the Historical Society’s Van Sickle Library collection. A similar story about the Jones wedding was told by Owen E. Jones in the 
Record-Courier of September 4, 1925. David Jones’ account of hiding in the willows was reported in the Record-Courier of February 5, 1909, and his land purchase from “Bully [probably Billy] Williams” was in the Genoa Courier, December 19, 1902. The account of “Rev.” Jones conducting the funeral of Mrs. Gilman is from Genoa Weekly Courier, February 11, 1898.
And just a quick acknowledgment: I am so thankful for the help of local historians who know so much more and so freely share!  So, many thanks to one local historian in particular (who prefers to remain nameless) for the great information about the date of Van Sickle’s election as Justice of the Peace, various early marriage hurdles and work-arounds, and David Jones’ still-not-quite-clear connection with the Re-organized Mormon Church.

The Kingsbury Grade Story (Part 2)

Even before the Kingsbury & McDonald toll road was completed, the quasi-passable track began to attract attention. A telegraph line for the Humboldt & Salt Lake Telegraph Co. was strung along this route in late 1858, connecting Genoa with Placerville. And beginning in April or May, 1860, Pony Express riders began following the Kingsbury Grade trail, before completion of telegraph lines a few months later made their work obsolete.

When Kingsbury & McDonald’s new wagon road was officially completed in August, 1860, it was seven miles long but reportedly chopped the distance from Genoa to Placerville by some 15 miles, saving travelers a precious day’s travel.

Writer Richard Allen marveled at the workmanship of the new road, describing it as a “most excellent road” winding over “seemingly impassable heights.” A reporter for the Sacramento Daily Union similarly effused in June, 1860: “The road-building by McDonald & Kingsbury through Daggett’s Pass is pronounced by those we have seen who have passed over it, the best on the Pacific coast.”

The roadway of the new Kingsbury route averaged a luxurious sixteen feet in width — a vast improvement over portions of the Placerville road in El Dorado County, where sharp turns planked to a width of just eight feet made it difficult for six-mule teams to “keep the wheels on the timber.”

Kingsbury and McDonald received a Territorial franchise for their toll road in 1861. The initial toll for a wagon drawn by four horses making a round-trip from Shingle Springs to Van Sickle Station at the foot of old Kingsbury was $17.50. That hefty sum represented more than four days’ wages for a humble miner. Even so, writer Richard Allen dubbed the new toll rate “reasonable.”

The Kingsbury route soon drew away many of the westward-bound travelers who had previously crossed through Hope Valley and over Luther Pass. In addition, with Virginia City at its height, pack train operators bringing supplies eastward for the Comstock mines found the route profitable in the early 1860s. Some of those early packers settled in and became Nevada notables. Bob Fulstone, for example, a well-known dairy rancher near Carson City, recalled “packing mules” over Daggett Pass as a teenager. And A. Schwarz, cheerful proprietor of the popular Genoa Brewery, once ran a pack train from Sacramento to Virginia City in his younger days, also probably following the Kingsbury route over Daggett Pass.

Henry Van Sickle was the first toll-keeper on the Kingsbury & McDonald toll road.

At the very foot of the new Kingbsbury trail, Henry Van Sickle already had an existing station that he’d erected in 1857. This offered several amenities for emigrants and teamsters: a bar, a hotel, a blacksmith/wheelwright shop, and a store.  Van Sickle quickly embraced the new Kingsbury route as good for business. He not only helped finance the new road but also served as its first toll-master. Although we don’t know much about the original toll house, we do know it had a brick chimney, as that fell down during an earthquake in June, 1887.

About halfway up the grade, travelers could also find another way-station, called “Peters Station.” Here Richard Peters and his wife, Elizabeth, kept a three-story hotel where teamsters could enjoy a good, hot dinner and get a restful night’s sleep for themselves and their horses before attempting the rest of the climb.

The new Kingsbury toll road didn’t keep its competitive advantage for long, however. In November, 1863, the Lake Bigler Road was completed and began siphoning off traffic. This new road ran from Friday’s Station (then “Small & Burke’s”) on the south shore of the lake through Spooner’s Station and down Kings Canyon to Carson City. It not only crossed the Sierra some 200 feet lower than the Kingsbury-McDonald route but, more importantly, reportedly offered a slightly shorter trek to the Placerville road.

Some adventurous souls tried riding the flume.

That didn’t mean that all travelers abandoned the new Kingsbury route, of course. And in 1866, J.W. Haines found yet another helpful use for it, building a mile-long box-flume to channel water down Kingsbury Canyon, later upgrading its original overlapping joints to an “abutting joint” model in 1868.

All told, the new Kingsbury & McDonald toll road cost its founders an astonishing $585,000 to build. And in 1863, after the Kings Canyon route opened as competition, Kingsbury generated only $190,000 in tolls. Even so, the new Kingsbury toll road continued to operate. By 1881, the History of Nevada would grandly claim that the Kingsbury toll road had “annually returned double its cost.”

Perhaps this was pure puffery. Financial woes eventually forced Van Sickle, who had helped to finance the road, to foreclose on his mortgage and he wound up becoming its owner. For a time, it continued to operate as the Van Sickle Toll Road. But in 1889, Van Sickle sold the roadway to Douglas County for just $1,000. It now became a free road; the local newspaper happily advised readers that “no toll will be collected in the future.”

Genoa Weekly Courier, October 11, 1889.

The lack of tolls made a big difference for commerce over the Grade. In February, 1890, for example, ranchers in Carson Valley were able to supply Folsom’s logging camp at Lake Tahoe with beef, which they “hauled over the Kingsbury grade on hand-sleds.” And in 1894, a Sacramento hauler estimated the cost of delivery at a mere one cent per pound, compared with $1.25 per pound when the previous toll over Kingsbury was $22.

Given the road’s unpaved surface, maintenance needs were constant. In summer, horsedrawn carts would sprinkle water along the roadway to settle the dust. In winter, sleds were used to pack the snow down as a roadway.

Horrific accidents on the steep grade were also common. In June, 1890, a man named Green lost his brake while descending Kingsbury grade with a 6-horse team. Although the incident made the news, the Genoa Weekly Courier just calmly reported: “the wagon ran off the grade, causing quite a smash-up.” The following year, teamster Louis Lenwick was bringing a load of shingles down Kingsbury grade from Hobart with a 4-horse team when he hit an icy spot at the “first bridge above the Farmers’ Mill.” Luckily Louis got off with just a broken rib and a dunking in the creek.

Albert Bohlman grading Kingsbury’s dirt roadway in the 1930s, using an official Douglas County grader. (Photo courtesy of Dale Bohlman)

Then in May, 1892, someone made the bad decision to continue tugging an engine up Kingsbury Grade with a 12-horse team during a heavy snowstorm. The engine was destined for use at a logging camp near Meyers, but wound up being dumped off onto its side when the wagon’s wheels “dropped into a hole that was covered with snow.” The team and driver came out alright, but the engine later had to be rescued.

*Hope you enjoyed the story so far…  To read Part 1, click here. We plan to add Part 3 to the story later!

Header photo (used courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society – thank you!) is Old Kingsbury Grade, circa 1895. Note what appears to be a flume at right center of that photo. 

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Here are a few great personal memories of old Kingsbury Grade “back in the day,” from our readers

“My mom said they made movies on that road. I remember the hairpin turn punctuated by the lone pine tree.”

“I can remember traveling up the grade, scared to death that my father would get close to the edge on a sharp turn with a corduroy surface, and we’d all go over the edge! And I remember how relieved we were to make it to the ‘piped’ spring [where we could] refill the boiled-out radiator.”

“Many of the young men (my brother and my husband among them) who belonged to Carson Valley’s 20-30 Club would go up to the Lake after their meeting, and they’d talk about coming home in the early morning via Kingsbury with the sun in their eyes.”

“The lookout point was constructed by the local Kiwanis Club, I think. It became more of a ‘necking stop’ than an actual scenic look-out.”

“When I was in high school, the road was still dirt and people from California driving Kingsbury Grade would hug the side that is against the mountain and you would have to go around them on the wrong side because they were scared to go near the edge.”

“I remember in winter they would close the road with just a couple of saw horses and a board. If the snow was not too deep we would just move the saw horses aside and just use it anyway.”

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The Legacy of Roy Thran

A ten-year-old boy. A small box of his most prized possessions. And 83 years later — a very special legacy shared.

Father Dietrich (Dick) Thran, daughter Marichen, and youngest child Roy, in front of the Thran house on Dressler Lane circa 1927. (Photo courtesy of the family.)
Roy with his mother, Marie Thran, circa summer 1927, in the front yard of their beautiful home. (Photo courtesy of the family.)

Born June 10, 1925, Roy Thran was the last of five surviving children of Dick and Marie Thran. (You may remember our story a few weeks ago about the beautiful Thran House.) Roy’s mother, Marie was 48 years old when he was born, and had already lost three other intervening children. So Roy’s arrival must have been a time of great rejoicing. He was christened in the Lutheran Church on Sunday, June 21, 1925.

Roy did his lessons on a slate at the Minden School. He caught butterflies, played with metal trucks, dabbled with paints, and enjoyed games of marbles and Tiddledy Winks with friends. Someone (perhaps his father) carved him his very own wooden baseball bat. No doubt he had chores to do at the family’s dairy ranch on Dressler Lane. And even as a ten-year-old, he kept a stained and much-battered stuffed toy he’d carried in his toddler days.

Roy’s aviator’s cap, school slate (with his handwriting still on it), and a cigar box that held marbles and other toys. His childhood stuffed animal is at top.

Smitten with the great aviators of the day, Roy joined the Jimmy Allen Flying Club for kids, receiving an official acceptance letter, a silver pilot’s bracelet, and a bronze pin with “flying cadet” wings. Roy even owned his own pint-sized version of the aviator cap worn by Charles Lindbergh on his history-making solo across the Atlantic in 1927.

Roy celebrated his tenth birthday that summer of 1935. His beloved Tante Behrman, his mother’s sister, wished him “more fun than a circus” in a cheerful birthday card. But according to a story handed down through the family, Roy’s mother, Marie, had an awful premonition. As she glanced at Roy one day, chilling words formed across his forehead: “I won’t be here long.” And not long after the vision, Roy’s family was attending his funeral at the same Lutheran Church where he’d been christened.

On August 6, Roy had gone to visit a childhood chum. They took a leisurely ride on a horse, and grabbed a late lunch, and decided to take a dip in the West Fork in the late afternoon. They rode out to a spot at a dam near the Schwake Ranch. The water was deep, and neither boy could swim. Roy stepped off the bank into the cool water — and disappeared.

Roy’s young friend rode quickly for help. But by the time Roy’s body was recovered, it was too late. Two doctors tried in vain for several hours to revive him.

Roy’s birthday card from “Onkel & Tanta Behrman.”

Imagine Marie’s grief: her premonition had come true. Carefully, she packed away all of Roy’s treasures: his aviator cap, his school books, his slingshot, his birthday card. A butterfly pressed in the leaves of a book. It all was gently tucked in a special box, handed down through the family for the last 83 years.

And now, with the family’s permission, Roy’s treasures will be shared with the community in a very special exhibit at the Carson Valley Museum. Two glass cases will display the loves of a ten-year-old boy growing up in 1935, preserved just as he left them. It’s an amazing snapshot in time.

“So many people were touched with sadness back then, and now this journey will come full-circle,” notes Krista Jenkins, a Thran descendant. “The sadness will be different now. Memories have softened with the passing of time, and it’s nice to know that this journey of the ‘Boy In A Box’ will now be told again to a different generation.”

Metal trucks; marbles; hand-carved baseball bat and sling-shot, animated butterfly, and much, much more from Roy’s special box are now on display at Carson Valley Historical Society & Museum.

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Come View Roy’s Special Legacy:   The Roy Thran exhibit will be on display at Carson Valley Historical Society & Museum through the end of 2019, in the “Women’s History” room, located on the second floor. We hope you’ll stop by to see Roy’s legacy!

Special thanks to Krista Jenkins and the Thran and Cordes families for sharing Roy’s amazing legacy. Top photo: Roy Thran from Minden School photo in October, 1931 courtesy of Carson Valley Historical Society & Museum. 

Lost in World War I

It was going to be the “War to End All Wars.” But when America entered the dreaded conflict overseas in 1917, local draft boards all across the nation were forced to make awful decisions: choosing which of their community’s young men should be sent off to fight.

Here in Douglas County, Nevada, local County Clerk Hans C. Jepsen became one of the men tasked with service on the Draft Board. They did it the fairest way possible: a lottery was organized, so the men to be drafted would be chosen at random.

Hans C. Jepsen, Douglas County Clerk

Imagine Jepsen’s horror when the name that he picked was that of his own son, Earl.

Two other men were in the room when Earl’s name was drawn. According to family lore, they both urged Hans to simply put his son’s name back and draw again. Perhaps they knew that Earl wasn’t a likely candidate for the military because his eyesight wasn’t good. Or perhaps they sympathized with a father’s guilt in sending his own son off to war.

Whatever their reasoning, the honorable Hans C. Jepsen refused. His son Earl’s name had been chosen, and that was that.

The Army, however, wasn’t so sure. Earl’s poor eyesight was indeed a stumbling block, and they repeatedly refused to induct him. But Earl kept presenting himself. He wanted to serve his country, he said. And eventually, the Army relented.

Earl F. Jepsen in his military uniform, 1918.

Earl enlisted on June 26, 1918 and was assigned to the Infantry, and by August had been sent overseas to the war zone in France. In late September, he was assigned to Company B of the 308th Infantry (part of the 77th Division), just in time to march with them into the Battle of the Argonne Forest. During this lengthy battle, Earl’s company became separated from the rest of the Allied forces and was surrounded by German forces. (The 554 men in these units would later become known as the “Lost Battalion.”)

Earl F. Jepsen’s headstone in San Francisco. (There’s a bit of conflict on his date of death; other sources say he was killed October 5, 1918.)

Earl was assigned as a runner to the battalion’s field headquarters, a job so dangerous it was considered a suicide mission. Earl was killed by sniper fire October 5, 1918, while on patrol. Just five weeks later, on November 11, the Armistice was signed, ending the war.

Earl was 26 years old when he fell on the battlefield. His body was buried initially in France, along with other American casualties. Some three years later, thanks to funds raised here at home, his remains were brought home again to the States. He now rests at the Presidio in San Francisco.

Plaque honoring WWI Veterans at the old Courthouse in Minden, Nevada. The star by Earl F. Jepsen’s name signifies that he died during the war. (Photo courtesy of Harold Jepsen)

At the old Courthouse in Minden is a brass plaque, honoring those from Douglas County who served during World War I. And as you will see if you visit, Earl isn’t the only Jepsen to have served during this “War to End All Wars”: his brother, Hans R., and cousin, Hans  J., also are honored on the plaque. A simple bronze star beside Earl’s name signifies that he gave his life for duty.

This Veteran’s Day, we hope you will remember him — a local boy who did what he felt he must to serve his country.

Tale of the Thran House — and an Old Trunk

“I’m going to build you a grand house in Carson Valley, like we have in Germany!” promised Dietrich Thran.

The beautiful home built by Dietrich Thran.

And a “grand house” Thran built for his wife, indeed! Completed about 1910 to 1911, the house featured stained glass over the front door, stately pillars out front, and a gigantic room upstairs for dancing.

Thran was born in Germany July 15, 1864, and arrived in Carson Valley when he was 17 years old. He applied for naturalization, becoming an American citizen in October, 1886. After working for other ranchers and saving his pennies, at age 30 Thran was ready to find himself a wife. In late 1894, Thran returned to the Old Country and in May, 1895, came back to Carson Valley — bringing with him seven other Germans, one of whom was his new a fiancee!

Marie Dieckhoff, Dietrich’s intended, was all of 16 years old. They wasted no time — just one month after Marie set foot in Carson Valley, she and Dietrich were saying their “I do’s.” They were married on Saturday, June 29, 1895 at the home of Herman Thran, Dietrich’s brother. Dietrich presented her with a beautiful horse and buggy all her own as a wedding gift. (He really knew how to charm a gal!)

Dietrich (known locally as “Dick”) rented the Tucke Ranch that summer, and he and a friend purchased an expensive California thresher together. Just one year later, Dick became a dad for the first time: little Emma Thran joined the family on November 2, 1896. Baby Richard followed a year later, in December, 1897.

The original stained glass is still here over the front door of the Thran House.

Dick continued to do well financially, and by fall, 1897, he had purchased the 160-acre Marsh Ranch for $6,000, at the corner of today’s Highway 88 and Dressler Lane. The Thrans took possession of their new ranch the following spring.

The Thran family — and their four children — originally lived in this small building — today a tractor shed.

Though the acreage was large, their living accommodations were anything but. Dick, Marie, and their growing family moved into a house so small that today it is used as a tractor shed. And “growing” their family was: their third child, Carl, arrived in September 1899, and little Marieken (who would grow up to marry Chris Cordes) followed two years later, in 1901.

The barn — built in 1908, probably by noted barn-building Henry Hanke — before the family residence was constructed!

In 1908, Dick had a large barn constructed on his ranch (by noted barn-builder Henry Hanke, it’s believed), complete with  concrete floor for the milking side. But the Thran family continued to reside in the small shed-like structure. (Ranching priorities, you know!)

Finally, in April, 1910, the Thran family went back to Germany for a four-month visit. Seeing the large and beautiful German homes, Dick promised his wife, Marie, he would build a similar home for her in Carson Valley. And true to his word, he did! Their graceful two-story home on Dressler Lane was constructed about 1911 (possibly also by Hanke).

The Thrans’ dairy operation continued to thrive. Eventually the family was milking some 65 cows. They also raised pigs and chickens, and sold eggs. The shed the family had lived in for over ten years was converted to a house for the separators, and later, a chicken coop.

Dick Thran passed away in 1937 and Marie in 1946, and the family home was passed down to their three boys. Son Carl never married, and continued to live in the house all his life. After Carl’s death in 1980, the property was purchased by Jack and Marie Martin, who still live there today. But oh, the deferred maintenance they discovered when they took over!

“When I first walked through the old house, I cried,” said Maria. “I said, ‘We’re living here?’” The beautiful front columns were rotted and infested with bees. The roof was so decayed blue sky showed through. And inside walls were soot-covered from the coal-burning stove. “One of the workers was out on the balcony and put his foot through the balcony floor,” recalls Maria.

The large upstairs room, once used for dances, was cluttered with — well, stuff. “Over the years, when they had something they didn’t know what to do with, they just put it upstairs,” explains Maria.

But one special treasure was discovered in the original old shed. All dirty and greasy, it was a steamer trunk, filled with old auto parts. Maria rescued it from the trash pile, and made sure it was saved, cleaned and refurbished.

This old trunk has now been lovingly restored. (Photo courtesy Judy Wickwire)

It just might be the same trunk that accompanied 16-year-old Marie Dieckhoff all the way from Germany to her new life in America.

* * * * * * * * *
NEWS:  Check out our latest short video HERE and discover some cool Hidden History in Markleeville!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gMuqHwLDKjI

AND MORE NEWS:  We’re thrilled to let you know our latest book in the Genoa Cemetery series is nearly done!!  Find out why a bucking mule made the Walker family settle in Genoa. Discover why George Herman, his fiancee, and an unrelated shoemaker all share a common plot. Hear what became of the Berning triplets, born in 1903 (can you imagine, triplets in 1903?!) And learn who built the famous Kinsey Mansion and why! (Hint: It’s a name you probably know; and it involves a wedding!!) All these great tales and more are told in Volume 2 of the Genoa Cemetery series!

Like to be the FIRST TO KNOW when the new book is out?  Just drop us an email here!

Carson City’s “Palace”

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!

Portion of Carson City’s red-light district in 1885. Business establishments included a cobbler, meat market, and dress maker, plus multiple “Dw’gs” (dwellings).

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.’

Problem solved.

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.”

The “Palace” at the southwest corner of West Fourth and Curry (map rotated to show legend).

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.

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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’s Avalanche of 1882

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.

Main Street in early Genoa, looking north.

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.

William Daniel Gray’s advertisement for his blacksmith shop, from the Genoa Weekly Courier of 1882.

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!

Behind the hedge is the Genoa home that once belonged to W.D. Gray and his wife. A corner of Judge Virgin’s brick home (formerly owned by Lucky Bill) is just visible at right.

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.”

A dog somehow managed to survive in the rubble for two weeks!

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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!
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Minden’s Old-Time Judge

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.

G.W. “Walt” Fisher, East Fork Justice of the Peace. (Photo courtesy of granddaughter Teri Balfour)

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.

An early view of the V&T Station in Carson City, where Walt Fisher began his 40-year career with the railroad.

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 Fisher with their two children, Lois and Franklin. (Photo courtesy of granddaughter Teri Balfour).

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.

The early depot at Minden. To the right is the stationmaster’s home. (Photo courtesy of Teri Balfour).

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.

The Fisher home on Mono Avenue. The sign over the door says “Justice.”

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.

Alice and Walt’s headstone at Lone Mountain Cemetery, Carson City, Nevada.

Walt and Alice are buried at Lone Mountain Cemetery in Carson City, their simple joint stone a sweet reminder of their fascinating lives.

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Many thanks to Walt Fisher’s granddaughter Teri Balfour for photos and family history for this story!

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Enjoyed this story? Check out our great history books at http://www.Clairitage.com!

 

Earl Lessley: The Flying Cowboy

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 Lessley (left) on a cattle drive with George Koenig. (Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire).

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.

Vaquero Cow Camp in Bagley Valley, Alpine County, California. (Courtesy of Judy Wickwire).
Earl Lessley (left) with unknown friend in the bunkhouse at Vaquero Camp. (Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire).

But what Lessley was most famous 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.

Earl Lessley’s infamous biplane. (Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire.)

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’s grave, shared with his brother, Ray.

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.

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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.

Snowshoe Thompson’s Headstone — Stolen??

Well, almost!! 

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!

John A. “Snowshoe” Thompson, as he looked about 1870.

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.

Erected by Snowshoe’s widow in 1885, Thompson’s headstone features a pair of crossed skis.

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.

Snowshoe Thompson’s family plot is now neatly protected by a concrete cap — paid for by funds raised by Genoa school children.

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.

John Sauquet’s grave near Snowshoe’s, in Genoa Cemetery. The weeping willow is a symbol of mourning.

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!

A fascinating treasure, enjoy, read and re-read!  http://www.Clairitage.com