A ten-year-old boy. A small box of his most prized possessions. And 83 years later — a very special legacy shared.
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.
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.
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.”
——————– 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.
Tracks through the tall grass say people still visit the old Washoe City Cemetery. But the stories of its dead — and even some of their names — are long-forgotten.
Here’s one little-known tale that’s survived: the life of Lorenzo Smith. His family was part-and-parcel of Washoe County’s early history. And you can still find his headstone here, amid the brush.
Born in England in 1852, Lorenzo had just reached his first birthday when his family decided to emigrate to the States. Lorenzo’s parents, George and Caroline Smith, were converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His father was a church elder. Other members of the family had trekked to Utah in 1848 as part of the Brigham Young company. And in 1854, George and Caroline decided to leave England and join them.
One-year-old Lorenzo, his eight siblings, and their parents boarded the shipWindermere in on a cold February day in 1854, joining some 470 other Saints who were leaving England. Eight weeks later, the ship docked at New Orleans. From there, the family took passage on a steamboat to St. Louis, took a jog west to Kansas City, and then crossed the plains with a wagon train to reach Salt Lake.
One daughter, Eliza, died of cholera as the family was crossing the plains, and the family lost many of their possessions on the way. Father George, a mat-weaver by trade, was forced to discard his precious but heavy weaving equipment. Finally, they were able to embrace their relatives in Salt Lake Valley. But George Smith found it hard to make a living there. The next two years were difficult. Then in 1856, tales of gold farther west convinced George Smith to move his family once again, and they set out to seek their fortunes in a new part of Utah Territory.
The Smiths became the very first settlers in Pleasant Valley (just north of Washoe City, near Steamboat Springs). Here, George Smith built a cabin for his family, and began planting crops. By the time of his death in 1893, George had become one of the largest and most prominent land-holders and ranchers in the vicinity.
Son Lorenzo grew up on his father’s ranch. As a young man, Lorenzo ferried the mail on horseback between Washoe City and Virginia City. For a short time, he tried his hand as a butcher, operating a meat market in Carson City. But he soon returned to farming, and eventually took over management of the family ranch. Over the years, Lorenzo continued to improve the ranch: purchasing new equipment, adding buildings, and planting an orchard.
In 1882, when Lorenzo was 30, he married Sarah Ann Jones, daughter of prominent Carson Valley settler, David R. Jones. They had eight children together; but sadly, Sarah died in childbirth with their last child, Sadie Ann, in 1894. Lorenzo was left alone with eight motherless children. Four years after Sarah’s death, Lorenzo married Florence Connell of Antelope Valley, California. She must have been made of tough stuff indeed; she instantly had her hands full, with Lorenzo’s eight children!
Washoe City itself began as a milling, freighting and supply town for the Comstock mines, thriving from 1860 to about 1870. In 1861, it even became Washoe County’s first official county seat. As a young man, Lorenzo Smith must have visited Washoe City frequently to purchase supplies and attend to business. He was an active member of the Odd Fellows Lodge at Washoe City, and served as a trustee for the local school district. But construction of the V&T Railway in 1869 crushed the demand for teamsters to haul ore. And in 1871, the county seat was moved to Reno. The town’s population quickly dwindled and slowly, the buildings of Washoe City began to fade away.
As for Lorenzo, he lived to the ripe old age of 89, and was the last surviving child of the large family of George and Caroline Smith. Lorenzo passed away in the hospital at Reno on April 29, 1942, and was buried here at Washoe City Cemetery.
Lorenzo is buried beside his first wife, Sarah (who died in childbirth almost 50 years before him). And somewhere in the brush nearby, lying in unmarked graves, are Lorenzo’s parents, George and Caroline, and his sister, Sarah.
Concern about the cemetery was being expressed as early as 1892, with many graves said to be “in such form that it is impossible to properly locate them.” A To Whom It May Concern blurb in the Nevada State Journal requested assistance from people who could identify the location of graves of friends or relatives. But the grounds, at least, were still being tended by friends, family, and neighbors. As late as 1962 the cemetery was said to be in relatively “good condition,” at least as far as neatness was concerned, thanks to volunteer efforts.
Today, the cemetery is sadly neglected. Nevada’s Legislative Counsel Bureau estimated costs to restore Nevada’s neglected pioneer cemeteries in its report in 1962. But no money was ever appropriated for the cause.
And time (and humans) have not been kind. When a state investigator visited Washoe City Cemetery in the summer of 1962, he chanced upon a carload of Californians loading one of the historic headstones into their car. Their excuse: “All our friends have one!” (Luckily, he interrupted that plan.)
Turns out there’s a strange reason that Washoe City Cemetery is so sadly overgrown today: nobody actually owns it. Assessor’s maps show it belonging to “Washoe City Cemetery” itself — an organization as long-gone as the folks buried here.
And so, ignored and largely forgotten, Washoe City Cemetery continues to languish in the weeds.
Happen to know anyone in the Nevada State Legislature? Historian Sue Silver has kindly suggested that an “Orphaned Cemetery Preservation Act” might be a great way to help neglected pioneer cemeteries like Washoe City Cemetery!
TO BE CONTINUED: In Part 2 of this story, we’ll share more about the history of Washoe City itself. So stay tuned!
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If you’d like to visit: The Old Washoe City Cemetery is located on Old Hwy 395, on the west side of the highway. But it’s easy to miss. Turn into the driveway where a sign on the fence says “555” and “CRCS,” a few yards south of the old log cabin. Walk carefully, and watch for snakes in the tall grass. And if you’re tempted to try to remove a few weeds, please remember not to disturb any rocks, wooden remnants, or other artifacts.
Special thanks to our reader Dee for the inspiration for this story! Details about the life of Lorenzo Smith from Find-a-Grave, Memorial #16295343. Thanks also to historian Sue Silver for her extensive research into ownership of the Washoe City Cemetery, and her many contributions of individual histories on Find-a-Grave.com.
Ahh, Glenbrook. Capt. Augustus W. Pray arrived here in the spring of 1860 with N.E. Murdock, G.W. Warren, and Rufus Walton, when no tourists had yet discovered its pristine beauty.
Settling in the lush grasslands beside the lake, Pray and his companions built a log cabin, dubbing the site Glenbrook in a nod to the small stream running through their meadow.
Impressed by the profusion of wild grasses, the settlers hauled a horse-drawn reaper over the mountain from San Francisco to cut the hay and began planting a garden, including wheat and oats. Their first crop produced some 80 bushels of wheat and four tons of hay, with oat stalks standing an impressive 7 feet tall.
The group’s waterfront settlement soon became known as Walton’s Landing. Here, Georgetown pack train travelers would disembark after crossing the lake by boat from McKinney’s, before continuing their journey east.
The following summer (1861) Pray erected a sawmill, known (of course) as Pray’s Mill. Seeing potential in the nearby timber, Pray bought out his partners in 1862 and began buying up timber land to supply his mill, quickly assembling holdings of 700 acres around Glenbrook.
In 1863, Pray sold five acres to entrepreneurs interested in building a hotel. The upscale Glenbrook House (the first commercial hotel in the vicinity) was soon erected a short half-mile away from the shore by G.Goff and George Morrill. This new hotel served well-heeled travelers along the Lake Bigler Toll Road through Kings Canyon willing to shell out $21 a week for food and lodging — an impressive sum, in the days when miners’ wages were $4 a day.
Although some accounts have said Pray built his own Lake Shore House hotel at the foot of the meadow in the fall of 1863, contemporary newspaper accounts confirm it actually was built by W.A. Hawthorne, and construction began in May, 1875.* It thus became the second hotel operating at Glenbrook. A glowing newspaper column the following year dubbed Lake Shore House “one of the neatest and sweetest and pleasantest and cheapest places of resort on the shores of Lake Bigler.” A large sign over the door about this time announced the hotel’s name to visitors in bold, rolling letters.
Thanks to the expansion of Comstock mining, lumber became increasingly necessary — and valuable. In 1873, Pray sold his mill and the land that it stood on to entrepreneur D.L. Bliss. Bliss launched a massive lumbering operation throughout Tahoe Basin, assembling mills, railroads, and flumes into a complex network carrying timber over Spooner Summit to serve the mines. By the end of the 1890s some 750 million board-feet of Tahoe Basin lumber had been spirited eastward to support mining operations on the Comstock — leaving 47,000 acres denuded of their timber.
Mining on the Comstock eventually waned — and with it, lumbering, too. And in their wake, recreational activities at Glenbrook blossomed. Even the Bliss family followed suit, ordering the building of a 169-foot steamer in 1896, known as the Queen of the Lake.
Pray’s early Lake Shore House hotel was moved down closer to the Lake in 1906, and tweaked to form the south wing of the new Glenbrook Inn. Another old hotel known as the Jellerson formed a north wing, and an old store was pressed into service as the center portion of the new complex. The early 17-foot painted sign that once welcomed visitors to Lake Shore House was taken down during this 1906 renovation.
As the years rolled by, the hotel’s history continued to capture people’s imagination, and in the 1970s, the hotel was largely restored to its original late-19th century appearance. In 1979, Lake Shore House’s significance was recognized through its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today Lake Shore House is a private residence. Over the past year, a loving renovation has preserved the building’s structural stability and historic charm. A 17-foot sign closely resembling the original discovered during the renovation is now proudly on display again, tucked under an eave for protection from the elements.
Not far away lies Capt. Augustus W. Pray himself, sleeping an eternal sleep in the historic Glenbrook cemetery. If only he could see his beautiful Lake Shore House today.
*Special thanks to historian Michael Fisher for researching the date of Lake Shore House’s construction and providing great references to its initial construction and various management changes through the years, including: Carson Daily Appeal of March 5, 1874; May 25, 1875; August 16, 1876; and May 8, 1897; Nevada State Journal, April 20, 1877; and Reno Evening Gazette, May 12, 1884.
“I’m going to build you a grand house in Carson Valley, like we have in Germany!” promised 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ofthe Berning triplets, born in 1903 (can you imagine, triplets in 1903?!) And learn who built the famous Kinsey Mansionandwhy!(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!
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.
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Many thanks to Walt Fisher’s granddaughter Teri Balfour for photos and family history for this story!
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.
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 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?