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.

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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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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.

Julia Bulette . . . There’s more to her story!

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!

Chautauquan Kim Harris, as Julia Bulette.

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.

John Millian, the Frenchman who hung for Julia’s murder.

“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.

Julia Bulette was a high-priced courtesan who enjoyed fine clothes and travel. (Kim Harris here in her role as Julia.)

“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!

The fire hat given to Julia.

“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!’”

This plaque in Julia’s memory describes her as an “angel of miners, friend of firemen, and administrator to the needy.” It sits at the Virginia City cemetery where she is buried.

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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 Adventuresome Samuel Chapin

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.

Ads like this one lured passengers bound for the gold fields to a “first-rate clipper ship.” Vague promises included: “The voyage will probably be made in a few months.”

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.”

San Francisco, about the time Chapin arrived.

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.

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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 House (1862) still boasts great architectural details like this arched window at the peak.
The front of Chapin House, with the Savage Mansion in the background.

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.

Chapin’s tall, stately house on “C” Street, on a recent rainy afternoon.

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.

As you make your way down Gold Canyon, keep an eye out for this historic marker for “Johntown” below Silver City. Johntown was Nevada’s very first mining town, established in 1853, and the spot where Eilley Orrum (the “Seeress of Washoe” and the future Mrs. Sandy Bowers) had her boarding house. Other early residents included the Groch brothers and the iconic H.T.P. Comstock himself. We thought it was so appropriate that when we visited, someone had left an old shovel here!

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!

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Great Nevada History Reads

You can’t have too many friends, too many adventures, or too many books. (And books, after all, are a whole lot like friends and adventures!)

Here are four new Nevada history books we recently found — or that recently found us. We wanted to share in hopes they follow you home, too!

Nevada State Orphans/Children’s Home: My Life as a “Home” Kid, by Bonnie Boice Nishikawa – Lovingly told by a real-life “Home” kid who lived at Carson City’s Orphan’s Home from 1942 to 1955, this is not only a true personal story but the story of the amazing Children’s Home itself — a Nevada institution that gave shelter and nurturing to orphans and half-orphans from 1870 to 1992. A great story about thriving despite tragedy, and how a few caring individuals can change a life.

 

 

Dayton, Nevada, by Laura Tennant and Jack Folmar – The story of Dayton, told (as Arcadia Publishing does so beautifully) in vintage pictures with well-researched captions. Fabulous illustrations include what might be the original trading post built along the Emigrant Trail; the old town itself as it looked in the late-1800s; and a photo of one-handed Otto Schroder around 1902 in front of his Old Sazarac Saloon (Otto’s left hand was amputated as a result of a fight involving another man’s ex-wife). Everything you never knew about this gold discovery town, by a noted Dayton historian/journalist.

 

Sparks, Nevada, by Joyce M. Cox – This lavishly-illustrated Arcadia history of Sparks (Nevada’s fifth largest town) shares charming rare photos from the Sparks Heritage Foundation, Nevada Historical Society, and several private collections. Our favorites: the ruins thought to be the very first trading post  (established in 1852 by H.H. Jamison); freight wagons moving entire buildings from Wadsworth to begin the new town; and a 1907 auto-stage bedecked with dangling fringe and rear-facing wicker seat for pampered passengers.

 

Aurora, Nevada: 1860 – 1960 – by Clifford Alpheus Shaw – If a book could ever return a town to life through pictures and stories, this one works that magic. In addition to fascinating quotes from period newspapers and documents, this 480-page volume adds special rare photos: Mark Twain’s cabin; the interior of a saloon in Aurora’s “Red Light” district; pictures of James S. Cain, the Bodie banker who revived Aurora’s mines in 1903 after a quarter-century slumber; and local Paiute Indians and beautiful Paiute baskets. (This second edition just came out in 2018.)

Happy history reading!

Virginia City’s Cemetery

So beautiful – and so many mysteries are buried here!  We recently paid a visit to the historic cemetery on the outskirts of Virginia City. Here’s Tip #1: Be sure to bring your camera. (You’ll definitely wish you had one!)

And Tip #2: Don’t count on it being a quick visit.  If you’re like us, you’ll find yourself wanting to ramble the hills of this beautiful graveyard for hours!

Mysteries abound here. Like: Who were George and Elizabeth Strasser?

George and Elizabeth are still remembered, over 100 years after their deaths, thanks to these amazingly preserved (and recently repainted) wooden headstones.

George and Elizabeth are on the downward slope of the hillside, away from the main body of the cemetery. Someone has not only recently repainted their wooden headstones but also carefully laid flowers there — a kind touch adding a cheerful splash of color.

A quick search once we got home produced a few bits of their story:  Both George and Elizabeth (Erhart) were born in Berlin, Germany, and were married there in 1851. George would have been a dapper 21 at the time; Elizabeth was two years older, and was 23.  They decided to emigrate to America, settling in Virginia City in the 1860s, during its early mining hey-day. George worked as a saddle and harness-maker — an important trade in those horse-and-buggy days, and a whole lot safer than working as a mill-hand! A son, George S., was born in 1868.

George was 66 years old when he died of a stroke in August, 1896. A member of the local Masons, he was no doubt laid to rest by his fraternal brothers here in the Masonic section of the cemetery. Elizabeth passed away six years later, in 1902, at the age of 74.

Their headstones, interestingly enough, were originally made of stone. They must have been beautiful indeed, as vandals stole them. The current wooden markers were added by family members, luckily making sure that George and Elizabeth are still remembered to this day.

This beautiful small marker features a hand holding a flower.

But not all the mysteries we stumbled across had such clear answers! Take this beautifully-carved small marker — a monument erected by a daughter named Lillie in memory of her father.

So, who was Lillie? And what was her father’s name? How did he die? And what ever happened to Lillie? It’s possible there’s still a record somewhere. Someday, perhaps, we’ll know!

And in the meantime, we plan to come back here, again and again.

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Walking Tour of Old Minden, Nevada

The pillars on County Road at the entrance to the Town of Minden once proudly bore a date of 1905. Perhaps it was wishful thinking; plans for this fresh town actually weren’t approved by County commissioners until 1906. And once it was a go, new homes began to spring up immediately in the fresh town.

Minden was the brainchild of Henry Fred Dangberg, Jr., oldest son of H.F. Dangberg. After the death of H.F. Dangberg Sr. in 1904, Fred began to dream of creating a well-ordered, planned community — to be dubbed Minden, in honor of a town near his father’s birthplace in Germany.

Town founder Henry F. Dangberg, Jr., sporting the snappy slicked-down hair, center part, and pocket handkerchief that were fashionable in his day.

That means, of course, that many of the beautiful old homes and commercial establishments in Minden are now more than a century old.

Luckily for historians and visitors, the Town of Minden has published a fabulous walking tour of its oldest buildings, featuring many of the gracious homes surrounding the town’s iconic square. Just click here to pull up  their walking tour flyer. Scroll to the end for a handy map, which includes helpful thumbnail photos to help you identify the buildings.

This well-designed map contains information about some of Minden’s most fascinating and beautiful old homes, including these landmarks:

The C.O. Dangberg House at 1609 Esmeralda.

Built by Davies Brothers Construction in 1910 for Clarence Oliver Dangberg, this house is made of thermally-efficient cement block, an innovative building material for the day.

The C.O.D. Garage, named for Clarence Oliver Dangberg.

At the time this home was built, Clarence had sold his share of the family ranch to his brothers, and was about to turn his attention to his next creation, the C.O.D. Garage (just down the block, at 1593 Esmeralda), built in 1911. Clarence later became a founding charter member of the Minden Rotary Club in 1926. He died in 1938 and is buried at Lone Mountain cemetery.

John Dangberg House, at 1600 Sixth St.

Another fascinating house on the walking tour map is the John Dangberg home. This beautiful two-story home was designed by noted Nevada architect F.J. DeLongchamps for H.F. Dangberg, Jr.’s younger brother, John. It was completed in 1912.

John was president of H. F. Dangberg Land Livestock Company beginning in 1904. He also served as a director for Farmers’ Bank, Alpine Land Reservoir Company, East Fork Water Users Association, and Minden Milling Company. This home was later occupied by his daughter, Grace Dangberg, until her death.

John Schrengohst house, 1578 Mono Avenue.

This humble frame home with the twin-peaked roof was built by blacksmith John Schrengohst in 1918. John was born in Kansas in 1860.

John and his son, Bill, were blacksmiths in Minden — an important trade in the days when horse-drawn buggies, wagons and farm tools were still in use. The Schrengohsts ran a family blacksmith shop across the street from this house for the next two decades. John died in 1938 at the age of 78, and is buried at Mottsville.

Helpful plaques on many of the original Minden homes and businesses make it fun to visit the outside of these buildings in person.

If you choose to make the tour in person, be sure to look for helpful brass plaques mounted at many homes and businesses in Minden’s historic downtown. We hope you’ll take time for a leisurely tour next time you visit this beautiful town!

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