There’s More to the Lillian Virgin Finnegan Story!

Sure, you’ve probably heard of Lillian Virgin Finnegan — one of the founders of the famous Genoa Candy Dance! But here are a few things you probably haven’t heard about this hometown Genoa gal.

Lillian was born in Genoa on October 6, 1878, to parents Daniel W. Virgin and the former Mary Raycraft. Older brother William had arrived in 1871, and sister Ellen in 1873. So when Lillian put in an appearance five years later, she was the “baby” of the Virgin family.

Wedding photo of Judge Virgin and his wife, Mary. (Picture of the original framed photo, at Mormon Station State Park.)

Lillian’s father was known to just about everyone as “Judge” Virgin. But here’s a tidbit of history I didn’t know: the good Judge wasn’t actually a judge for most of his long legal career! Sure, he served as the first elected judge in Douglas County, from 1865-66. But the vast majority of his career was actually spent as District Attorney. Virgin served in that capacity in Nevada’s Territorial days (from June 2, 1863 until Statehood arrived in 1864); and went on to serve an amazing eleven non-continuous two-year terms as D.A. beginning in 1874 and ending in 1910. (And by the way, Judge Virgin was no quitter; he actually sought re-election to the post of D.A. four more times after 1910, losing each time to F.E. Brockliss.)

As an attorney, Virgin had a hand in some of the most prominent legal battles of his day. Remember the famous 1870s water-rights case in which Henry Van Sickle sued J.W. Haines over the water rights to Daggett Creek? Representing Haines in that epic battle was none other than Daniel Virgin, whose vigorous defense propelled Haines to victory in 1872 before the Nevada Supreme Court, based on the doctrine of riparian rights. (It would be a short-lived precedent, however, quickly reversed in favor of the “doctrine of prior appropriation.”)

Advertisement for Virgin’s law practice in Carson Valley News, May 15, 1875.

Lillian grew up in Genoa’s Pink House, purchased by her father from merchant J.R. Johnson in April, 1884, when Lillian was about five years old. Johnson himself hadn’t built the Pink House (at least most of it); the central two-story portion is thought to have been built back in 1855 by Martin Gaige for John Reese, near Reese’s grist mill on Mill Street. (Judge Hyde himself is said to have met assembled Genoans in this same house when he arrived to organize the first local government!)

In 1870, Johnson purchased the former Reese house and had it moved to its current location on Genoa Lane. And Johnson, it’s said, was also the one who first had the house adorned with its signature “pink” paint. And finally, in 1884, Judge Virgin bought the Pink House from Johnson.

Judge Virgin’s purchase of the Pink House was noted in the paper in 1884. (Genoa Weekly Courier, April 4, 1884).
The Pink House, purchased by the Virgins in 1884. (Dustman photo).

Prior to acquiring the Pink House, Judge Virgin and his family had been living in a sturdy brick house on Main Street that Virgin had owned since March, 1869 (the very same brick house, by the way, that had formerly been owned by the ultra-unlucky Lucky Bill Thorington). We don’t know exactly why the Virgins decided to move in 1884. But we can hazard a good guess! One gigantic hint: the Avalanche in the winter of 1882 had swept away two houses located just above the Virgins’ brick home, depositing a pile of rubble and debris in their back yard. That likely unnerved Mary Virgin just a tad, and might have helped prompt the family’s search for new quarters.

According to local legend, Lillian and her aunt, Jane Raycraft Campbell, were the original brain-storming pair who came up with the concept for the fundraising Candy Dance in 1919. But it turns out the truth may be a bit more nuanced.

Some say Genoa already enjoyed a traditional fall Harvest Dance every year — locally known as a “Thrashers Ball.” At least one local claimed the initial idea for a fundraising dance was the brainchild of the “Hot Stove League,” a group of local men who passed the time at the General Store. Still others say that Lillian herself had the idea, inspired by a dance she attended on a cruise ship, where silver trays of candy were passed around among the dancers.

However the idea for the dance originated, locally-made candy was indeed a treat at Lillian and Jane’s initial fundraising dance in 1919 — though it was not the advertised focus of the event. But after Lillian and Jane began treating guests to tasty treats crafted by the local ladies of the town, it didn’t take long for the name “Candy Dance” to emerge. Genoa historian Billie Rightmire believes the name was officially bestowed sometime about 1923.

Nobody ever talks much about Lillian’s husband, Louis Serratt Finnegan. They were married in 1907, when Lillian was 28 years old and Louis Finnegan a good twenty years older. Finnegan is sometimes described as a wealthy miner from Goldfield and Tonopah. But as his obituary put it, he actually “made and lost several fortunes” over his lifetime. Louis and his bride settled down in Genoa for a few years, then made their home in Southern Nevada for a few years more, before eventually returning home to Lillian’s beloved Genoa. In later life Louis gravitated to Texas, where he was said to be “engaged in the contracting business” as a mining middleman.

Lillian’s mother, Mary Virgin, passed away in 1918. Judge Virgin was getting on in years, and Lillian returned to live at the Pink House to care for him. Then in 1926, Lillian’s husband Louis died suddenly in Texas. Her father, Judge Virgin, passed away two years later, in 1928, at the age of 93. Lillian herself lived another decade. Too ill to attend one last Candy Dance in 1937, she passed away in February, 1938 at just 59 years of age. Lillian, her parents, and her husband all are buried in the Virgin family plot at the Genoa Cemetery.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of that first special Candy Dance in 1919. And oh, Lillian would have loved the Centennial attention for the event she helped to start so many years ago! 

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DON’T MISS THIS FUN NEW BOOK!
     Genoa Historian Billie Rightmire has just written “Genoa Candy Dance: The First 100 Years (1919-2019).” You can find the book at Candy Dance this year (Sept 28 and 29, 2019), or look for the book at local merchants in Genoa!

Cafe Zack: A Foodie Find & A Hero’s Tale

It was the last day of our Ventura vacation when we wandered into Cafe Zack for lunch. You won’t find it jostling its culinary competition among the bright lights of downtown. Instead, Zack’s welcomes guests more quietly from a charming bungalow closer to midtown. A fairy-tale garden cascades beside the front steps, a tiny hint of the magic that awaited us inside.

Someone has a great eye for colors, shapes, and textures in this cascading planter — a warm welcome to Cafe Zack’s.

We’d settled in at a table by the window and were checking out the menu when our energetic host appeared. “Welcome to Cafe Zack,” he beamed. “I’m Hector Gomez, the owner. Try the passion fruit iced tea. It’s very good.” It was like a thousand-volt jolt of lightning had just entered the room.

Hector is clearly passionate about his restaurant. And he’s equally passionate about pleasing guests. Looking for something vegan? He’ll pop in the back and chat with the chef, just for you. Trying to avoid gluten? No worries; they’ll happily make your dish gluten-free.

It didn’t take us long to realize that both Hector and his cafe were totally extraordinary. The food, for one thing, was amazing. The bread was fresh; the passion fruit tea as refreshing as promised.

Refreshing passion fruit tea was a great pairing with delicate tomato soup. And oh, that fresh basil!

The tomato soup when it arrived (laden with glorious chunks of bread) was delicately-seasoned and sprinkled with fresh licorice-basil ribbons on top. Our tostada salad came piled high with grilled fresh vegetables and rested on a baked (not deep-fried, thank you) whole wheat tortilla. Yumm.

Grilled vegetable salad.

But the real treat was getting to meet Hector. When he told us he was approaching his 19th anniversary as owner of Cafe Zack, we asked where he’d come from and how he’d happened to buy this special place. So he pulled up a chair and told us.

Turns out his story is worthy of a Horatio Alger novel — a real-life fairy tale come true. The saga (and it is a saga) of how Hector became the Cafe Zack’s proud owner is a testament to both his willingness to leap and never giving up. We asked if anyone had ever written a story about him. Hector just shook his head slightly at the odd question, as if what he’s done is nothing special.

No, it’s definitely special. It’s hero’s journey worth celebrating, an ode to hard work, a message of inspiration. We’re tickled to be able to pass the wonderful story of Hector and Cafe Zack along to you.

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Hector’s arrival in the world was a tad, well, inconvenient. He was born in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to a mother who wasn’t married and an airline-executive father who was — to someone else.

When he was eleven months old, Hector’s mother went off to seek work in the States, leaving him in the arms of his grandmother. “I first met my mom ten years later, when I was eleven,” he says with a shrug. There’s no trace of animosity as he describes his parents. “They had their own lives.”

Grandmother Elia was good to him. But counting Hector, her household numbered eleven people, spanning four generations, all in one tiny house. And out of those eleven, Elia was the only breadwinner. She worked as a maid for a local family in a private residence.

By the age of 8 or 9, Hector began walking a mile after school every day to the home where Elia worked, to help his grandmother. “I would sweep floors, I learned to clean pools,” he says with a shrug. And when her usual workday was over, Elia sometimes would walk the neighborhood, knocking on doors to ask if there were clothes she could wash or iron to bring in extra money. Hector would help his grandmother carry two big metal wash buckets loaded with laundry down to the river, a mile and a half from their home. Elia would beat the clothes on rocks there to scrub them clean.

One day when he was 12, Hector announced he was going to find a job. “I want to help you,” he told his grandmother firmly. He requested permission to serve as a greeter at a local restaurant, opening taxi doors for arriving guests and offering a hand to help ladies out of the cab. “I made that my little business,” Hector smiles. “I wasn’t on the restaurant’s payroll, but sometimes guests would tip me.” A few months later, he moved up to a job as a dishwasher. He was 13 years old.

At 14, Hector begged a manager at another local hotel for a job as a busboy. The man quibbled about his age and tried twice to turn him away. “Don’t pay me,” Hector pleaded. “I just want to learn.” The man relented, and Hector spent the next year and a half as an unpaid “busboy for the busboys,” pulling silverware and cleaning ash trays. “I worked hard. Really hard,” he says. “And I did it for no pay.” There’s a far-away look in his eye, as if he’s remembering. “Sometimes I made a little in tips from the busboys. But there were also days when there were no tips at all. I’d come home cussing.”

Those were the nights his grandmother would console him. “Just remember, mijo, you are there to learn,” she told him. “Someday it will pay off. One day you’ll have your own restaurant.”

Hector finally got a real job as a busboy when he was 16. He looked up to some of the waiters at the restaurant (“my favorites”), who “dressed so beautifully and smelled so nice.” Some waiters spent half of every year working in the States, returning to Mexico to spend the other half working at the resort. Hector yearned to follow their example. He made up his mind he was going to go to the Bay area to find work when he turned 18. He spoke no English.

The following year, fortified with $100 and a backpack, Hector flew to Tijuana and eventually found his way to a Greyhound bus headed for San Francisco. But once the bus reached Ventura, Hector saw the beautiful ocean passing by on his left. “I wanted to check it out!” he says. He got off the bus and walked down Thompson Boulevard — his steps taking him past the restaurant he would someday own. It was like Fate was calling him.

Those first two nights in Ventura Hector slept in empty cardboard box near the railroad tracks. Then Fate stepped in one more time. Buying lunch the next day at a burrito stand, Hector met a man named Frederico who hailed from his home state of Jalisco. That chance meeting would shape his life.

Frederico offered to let Hector to stay at his home. “There were 29 guys there already in a four-room house; with me, it would be 30,” Hector says. But it was better than a cardboard box. Frederico’s friends at the house shared a rumor that the Elephant Bar might need a busboy. Hector applied for the job and, as he puts it, “the rest is history!” But a single job didn’t bring in enough, so Hector soon picked up a second job as well. He did room service, worked as a busboy, learned to cook, and eventually became a server for various local restaurants.

Meanwhile, his roommate Frederico had a job as a cook at the restaurant Hector had walked past on his first day in town — yes, the very same one that’s now known today as Zack’s. Hector stopped by one day to say hi, and the owners asked if he wanted to be a server. “I didn’t speak a lot of English at the time,” Hector grins. “They handed me a menu and a wine list, and that was it!” And oh yes, he kept his two other jobs, too.

Hector worked for the restaurant owners for seven years, eventually picking up both lunch and dinner shifts. That meant 14-hour days, but it also meant he was able to ditch his side jobs. In 1993 he met Frederico’s sister, Suzie, who’d arrived with her parents from Mexico. Eight months later they were married. Things were on the up-swing. The restaurant owners treated him like a son. Hector had even been talking with them about purchasing the restaurant someday.

Then in 1998, he returned from a short vacation to devastating news. The restaurant had lost its lease. Instead of offering the business to Hector without the security of a solid lease, the owner had decided to sell it instead — to the landlord’s niece.

It was a tough blow. Hector swallowed his disappointment and continued to work at the restaurant, for the new owner. It was a difficult transition, and despite her enthusiasm, the new owner struggled to make a go of it. “She was young and inexperienced,” Hector says kindly. “It wasn’t for her.” Eleven months later, on November 1, 2000, Hector was able to purchase the restaurant himself. Astonishingly, he’d saved enough over the years to pay for it in cash.

Cafe Zack’s the vibe is upscale with a foodie flair. Fresh flowers; linen tablecloths; and an imaginative menu.

“One of my best memories,” he tells us, “is when I called up my Grandma and told her I’m going to buy this place. I’ll never forget — we both cried on the phone together. She told me, ‘Remember when you used to bitch about working for no pay, and I told you that you would own your own business someday?’”

Today Hector is a U.S. citizen. He has three children, who’ll be 21, 17 and 13 this fall. He tells his oldest son to stay in school: “Life is not easy, mijo.” Grandmother Elia passed away nine years ago, but she was able to visit several times and see the restaurant. Hector has purchased a 4-plex, where his wife’s brothers and others in the extended family now live. Three family members help him in the restaurant. Still a workaholic, Hector describes the restaurant as “my life.” But he proudly adds that he never misses special occasions with his family.

Hector is a living example of the power of gratitude. “God gave me this –” he pauses to find just the right word — “this gift. I’ve always had lots of energy. I’ve been doing double shifts for the last 25 years. I’m just really thankful for all the people who helped me along the way.”

The irrepressible Hector Gomez, in one of his rare moments sitting still.

Between the great food and Hector’s outgoing personality, Cafe Zack has built a devoted following. Most of its customers are locals, a statistic Hector shares with pride. “Ninety percent of the people who come to the restaurant are repeat customers, not tourists,” he emphasizes. “We know them by name; they come to my home. They know my kids. We are like family.”

It’s easy to see why. As we leave, Hector offers us each a hug. It’s warm. It’s sincere. We may have walked into Zack’s Cafe as strangers. But we leave as friends.

Here’s Where To Find It Yourself:

Cafe Zack

1096 Thompson Blvd

Ventura CA 93001

(805) 643-9445

www.cafezack.com