Traces of Washoe City (Part 2)

Our last story followed the life of Lorenzo Smith, whose family settled Pleasant Valley in 1856.

At the time the Smiths arrived, there was no Washoe City yet. But that soon changed. The site had all the important amenities to fuel Virginia City’s thriving mines: abundant water from the nearby lake; convenient road access; and available timber on the hillsides to the west.

Washoe City sprang up around 1860 when mills began to be built — some to mill lumber, others to reduce ore. The townsite was formally platted in 1861. And before long, “bull-whackers” and their wagons were making multiple trips each day from Washoe City to Virginia City and back — carrying timber and supplies on the eastward leg, and ferrying ore back to be milled as they returned.

The interior of the Buckeye Mill at Washoe City.

When the new County of Washoe was created in 1861, Washoe City sashayed right in as its first county seat. Now, herds of lawyers bumped elbows with the teamsters and jostled with saloon owners, storekeeps and liverymen. A newspaper was launched in October, 1862, and a two-story brick courthouse and a jail were soon built.

Before long, Washoe City had a hotel, a school and hospital, stores and fraternal halls, physicians and druggists, a post office, a handful of churches, and all the merriment and mayhem of a typical boomtown. By the time statehood was bestowed upon Nevada in late 1864, Washoe City boasted some 2,500 permanent residents, plus another 4,000 or so “floating” inhabitants.

The Buckeye Mill at Washoe City.

But the angel of progress began to pass by, leaving Washoe City in the dust behind. Timber resources on the hillsides above Washoe Valley began to dwindle. Ore-milling shifted to the mining companies’ own reduction works at Empire, and seeing the writing on the wall, Washoe City mills began moved their equipment there. In 1869, the V&T Railroad had extended its line as far as the Carson River, and by 1872 its rails stretched all the way to Reno. The days of teaming and “bull-whackers” to serve Virginia City were largely over.

In 1871, the upstart young village of Reno snatched away the crown of county seat from Washoe City. Disgruntled Washoe City townsfolk contested that vote all the way to the state Supreme Court, but lost. In a huff, they then petitioned to secede from Washoe County entirely and make Washoe City part of Ormsby County. They failed in that effort, too. The death knell was sounding loud and clear.

The V&T Tracks came through town. But it wasn’t enough to sustain Washoe City for long.

In 1873, Washoe City’s stately two-story brick courthouse was ripped asunder and its bricks carted off for reuse in the Carson City armory. (Rumor has it that some of the brick also went into the Mapes Hotel in Reno.) Then late one evening in 1875, fire swept through what was left of the old town. With no fire engines remaining, residents could only stand around in their nightclothes and watch the flames.

The flames had actually broken out simultaneously in two separate places, a rather suspicious circumstance. Arson seemed a strong possibility. At least, quipped a Virginia City newspaper, “the fire had saved them the trouble of selling out.”

One fire broke out in the basement of a saloon.

One of the twin blazes originated in the basement of a saloon. Upon closer inspection, it was found that all of the kegs of liquor had been conveniently opened to release their contents, and the straw used for packing nearby liquor bottles had evidently been set ablaze. If there was a bit of humor in it all, it was that the saloon owner’s habit of watering-down his inventory came to light. Instead of the alcohol fueling the flames, “owing to the bad quality of the liquors the fire had gone out.”

By 1880, only a store, one saloon, a few homes, and about 200 residents were left in Washoe City. Today, Wikipedia declares it a ghost town. A few traces of the old town still remain, however, if you know where to look. The first, of course, is the town’s amazing graveyard. (One bit of happy news there: volunteers are prepping the paperwork asking to add the cemetery to the National Register of Historic Places!) And a second notable remnant of old Washoe City: a stone-and-brick building which once may have been a saloon, on the east side of Old Hwy 395 (today, part of a nursery).

Next time you drive Old Hwy 395, we hope you’ll slow down to remember the town of over 6,000 souls that once stood here.


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10 Best Sierra History Books

Here are some of our very favorite books about Sierra history. Okay, we confess — we could easily add a few dozen more (perhaps that’s our next list!)

Nonetheless, we challenged ourselves to come up with just ten of our favorites. We hope this list will spur you to check out a few great Sierra history books that might be new to you!

    • William Brewer, seated.

      Up and Down California in 1860 – 1864: The Journal of William H. Brewer. First published in 1930, this classic has gone through multiple publishers and editions. Brewer was part of the Whitney geological expedition sent “up and down California” to report on the state’s soils, minerals, and “botanical and zoological productions.” In vivid prose, Brewer’s journals describe his four years of adventuring, including visiting the Big Trees, stopping at Mono Lake and Aurora, traversing Carson Pass, and paying a visit to Lake Tahoe. His description of the early mining excitement when he arrived August 4, 1863 at Silver Mountain City makes you feel like you are there: “This log shanty has a sign up, ‘Variety Store’; the next, a board shanty the size of a hogpen, is ‘Wholesale & Retail Grocery’; that shanty without a window, with a canvas door, has a large sign of ‘Law Office’; and so on to the end. The best hotel has not yet got up its sign…”  Whatever part of the Sierra captures your fancy, this is a book to read and re-read!

  • The Story of Early Mono County by Ella M. Cain. This is a book about the settlers, Indians, ghost towns and gold rushes of Early Mono County, told by a daughter of one of the earliest settler families. Ella’s mother came to Bodie in 1879, during its earliest gold rush excitement. Here she met and married M.J. Cody, a land office “receiver”, and Ella was born in Bodie in 1882. Her father went on to become Mono County Sheriff, and the family moved to Bridgeport. After her marriage to David Cain in 1904, she moved again back to Bodie. The copy on our shelf was published in 1961. As Ella notes in the Foreward, the book includes scenes that she herself observed over her very long and full life. And the stories are told with her own delightful wit and humor. Here, as Ella herself says, are the tales of “these intrepid souls, the pioneers, who settled here, and who suffered and braved the hardships of the frontier to lay the foundation of the Mono County we have today.”
  • Cemeteries of Carson City and Carson Valley by Cindy Southerland. A beautifully-done visual tour highlighting some fascinating graves through Carson Valley. Included are graves from (of course) big cemeteries like Genoa, and Lone Mountain; but also smaller cemeteries like Fredericksburg, CA; the cemetery at the Nevada State Prison; and relatively unknown burial sites like the Capt. George Indian Cemetery. Included are vintage portraits and photos of funerals, plus a wonderful explanation of cemetery symbolism. Our favorite, of course, are the stories of the people — many of them pioneers who shaped the history of Carson Valley.
  • Carson Valley: Historical Sketches of Nevada’s First Settlement by Grace Dangberg is a go-to classic. Originally published in 1972, it’s now in its fifth printing. This lavishly illustrated book gives a great overview of the history of Carson Valley, including the early wagon route; the town of Genoa; prominent landmarks like Walley’s Hot Springs and the Ferris House; the development of ranching and the railroad; plus tales of early weddings, murders and more. We bought our copy at the Carson Valley Historical Society Museum’s gift shop — such a beautiful book. Pick it up and you won’t want to put it down. 
  • Territorial Lawmen of Nevada (Vol. 1), by Robert W. Ellison. Fascinating and comprehensive profiles of early lawmen in the period 1851-1861 (Utah Territorial days). In addition to sheriffs, constables, justices and U.S. Marshals, there are also fascination  chapters on “Vigilantes” and “More Vigilantes” — in recognition of the fact that “These men were trying to keep law and order by  holding the criminal element among them responsible for the crimes that they committed. . . . a difficult task for a community with no government officials to speak of, no courthouse, and no jail.” In addition to a helpful index, there is an appendix listing Sheriffs, Constables, Justices of the Peace, Watchmen, and other lawmen by period and jurisdiction. Well-documented and copiously footnoted, it’s a deep dive into history — and a fabulous resource for anyone researching a particular lawman or seeking a different perspective on the period. 
  • Emigrant Trails: The Long Road to California by Marshall Fey. One of my favorite books about the Emigrant Trail, this beautifully illustrated book makes good use of its visual appeal using coated paper to accentuate the illustrations, and also boasts a fabulously approachable format. As the introductory pages put it, “the modern reader may drop back a century and a half and experience the great westward migration to California, and travel in the shadow of the emigrants.” This beautiful book is a visual treat, in addition to a well-researched history of the Trail. GPS coordinates and trail marker identifiers help you find the exact locations being described if you choose. And in one of my favorite touches, it includes “Emigrant Voices”: quotes from actual diaries as emigrants traipsed the Trail in the 1840s and ‘50s. (A new edition of this book is due out soon!)
  • The Hanging of Lucky Bill by Michael J. Makley — The wonderfully-researched (and wonderfully told) true story of Lucky Bill Thorington, whose not-so-lucky demise came at the end of a hangman’s noose. Lucky Bill’s hanging was in 1858 one of the early scandals of Carson Valley. Gambler, toll-road-keeper, hotel-operator, and good guy/bad guy, Thorington’s legendary tale has been told and retold, but never quite as well as in this fun volume. The facts are all here — you can make up your own mind about whether justice was served or not. Included are portraits of many early pioneers, plus reproductions of three fabulous early maps. A helpful chapter at the end also details the “Fates of the Principals” who took part in the hanging, to wrap up the tale. 
  • A Lovely & Comfortable Heritage Lost: The Unique History of Early El Dorado County by Ellen Osborn. Written by a great-great granddaughter of John Calhoun Johnson — the pioneer who established the Johnson Cutoff — this fascinating book provides a fresh look at Gold Rush history including unique insights into the El Dorado Indian Wars. The result of thirty years of research, it is not only a biography of this important historic figure but also a chronicle of early El Dorado County in its formative years. Great period illustrations help bring the stories to life. One shows Johnson himself as a young man, operating a long tom as he mined for gold; another (from the 1880s) shows Placerville’s 3-story Cary House Hotel, with a caption indicating Johnson fell from one of its windows. A rare look at a historic figure most folks have never read about. 
  • Aurora Nevada’s Silent City on the Hill by Sue Silver. A fabulously-researched compilation of the stories of those buried at the Aurora Cemetery. To say she’s “done her homework” wouldn’t do this book justice. If you’re fascinated by the ghost town of Aurora, this book is a must. Included are not only the currently-marked graves but also documented and possible suspected burials. Many of those profiled are truly forgotten pioneers — you won’t read about them anywhere else. Period photos, maps and advertisements bring the stories to life. And who could resist a chapter titled, “Died For Their Wicked Ways”?! 
  • A Few of our Friends In the Amador County Cemeteries by Catherine A. Cissna and Madeline Church. As the subtitle indicates, the stories are of early Amador County pioneers “who have been our friends and focus of interest, through insights into their lives.” The authors began doing genealogical research on their own families, then branched out to help others with their histories. Through fifteen dedicated years of research they located a total of fifty cemeteries, including some little-known and private family cemeteries. This gem of a book reprints newspaper reports and tales of pioneers buried in over 40 of these cemeteries. Included are such amazing places as Yeomet, Drytown, Daffodil Hill, Aqueduct City, Butte City, and the Jackson Chinese Cemetery. This treasure of a book was self-published in 1994 at Sutter Creek. Although it is now officially out of print, copies still turn up occasionally on the internet. If you spot one, buy it!

Have a favorite Sierra history book of your own? Let us know! We’d love to do a Readers’ Round-Up of more great books someday!

Here are a few places where you can look for these and other great history books: Both new and used copies A great source for out-of-print or hard-to-find books  Another great source for rare and hard-to-find books

Old Carson Valley Creamery (Part 2)

The new Carson Valley Creamery proved a lucky thing for teamster Fritz Dangberg, who met his wife as a result of driving butter and cheese to Carson City.

Herman Scheele hauling milk cans from Fredericksburg and Centerville ranches to the Creamery. (This beautiful full-wall mural is featured in Katie’s restaurant at Carson Valley Inn in Minden.)

Other locals, too, were drivers for the Creamery. Dick Bartel collected milk from farmers in the East Fork area; Dolph Dressler picked up milk cans around Genoa; and Herman Scheele, a Fredericksburg rancher, brought in cans from the ranches between Fredericksburg and Centerville.

Although the new creamery expected a ready market for its butter in San Francisco, that niche proved surprisingly difficult to break into, at first — for a somewhat unexpected reason! Turns out the taste of butter from Carson Valley’s alfalfa-fed cows was different than San Francisco consumers were used to from milk from hay-fed critters. Thankfully, one tenacious San Francisco butter dealer “spent considerable money and time in educating the people” about the “superior quality” of Carson Valley’s butter. Those efforts evidently worked; Carson Valley Creamery won gold medals for their butter at the San Francisco mid-winter fair in 1894, 1903 and 1904.

At its height in 1897, the Creamery processed an astonishing 1 million pounds of local milk, and distributed profits of $116,000 to its shareholders. After that banner year, however, its business began to decline as additional creameries formed and jumped into the market. By 1909 there were a total of three creameries competing with each other in the valley.

The Carson Valley Creamery underwent reorganization in later years, becoming a “co-op” instead of a stock-and-shareholder organization. As the newspaper diplomatically put it, this took place “after the farmers had suffered considerable loss through [the] privately-owned concern.”

A token from the Minden Creamery.

Finally on May 1, 1914, after 22 years in business, the old creamery was forced to close its doors “simply because dairying here is not sufficient to support two creameries.” The Minden Creamery had won the lion’s share of the business. (And by 1924, the Minden Creamery was still successfully putting out 2,200 pounds of butter every day of the week.)

The Creamery’s large wooden building was later purchased by peddler Isaac Goldstein, who converted it into a general merchandise store. Today it is filled only with memories.

If you happen to visit, keep an eye out for a small house just to the north of this fascinating old structure; this dwelling was once owned by the early Henningsen ranching family. And across the road from the old Creamery once sat the home business of Adolph Rohlff, a blacksmith whose trade was said to suffer mightily from his too-frequent patronage of the Behrman saloon. But that’s another story!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The old Creamery building is still beautiful today in its own rustic way! It’s privately-owned, so not open to the public. But to view this photogenic piece of Carson Valley history from the road, turn east on Waterloo Lane from Highway 88, then watch for the building on your right (west) just after the sweeping turn.

Enjoyed this tale of old Carson Valley? Please SHARE it with your friends!(Missed Part 1 of this story? You can read right here.

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#CarsonValleyNV #history #whyCV

Memoir Writers: How to Create a Get-Organized Tool Kit

Writing a memoir or oral history? You’ll find it helpful to put together a Memoir Writer’s Tool Kit ahead of time! What to include??

Here is a list of tools in my own kit: things I’ve found especially helpful for memoirs/oral histories. And the good news: they’re all small enough to keep in a handy tote-along bag!

Camera – Today’s small-but-sophisticated cameras make it easy to capture not only your subject but also places and things that will illustrate their story. Perhaps it’s a shot of the house where they grew up. Or maybe they make beautiful quilts, baby clothes, or baskets. These all make great illustrations for a life story. And small cameras tend to be less-intrusive than giant ones, and are often more usable in any light!

Hand-scanner – One of the greatest innovations in recent years for genealogists and memoir writers is the introduction of small, portable scanners. With these you can easily copy old newspapers clippings, handwritten manuscripts, and other documents. They even do a darn fine job of copying old photos! (I have a VuPoint Magic Wand and love it!) Here’s an example:

Digital microphone – If you want to be certain you get a subject’s words exactly right, ask if you can record your conversation. Small digital microphones are great if your subject is willing to be recorded. (The one I use is a Sony).

Spiral-bound notepads – I’m a huge fan of small pads of paper — and I leave the *everywhere* to capture notes and ideas! (purse; bedside table; car). A great, simple way to record notes about ideas, stories, formatting. They don’t have to be fancy; just something like this:

Business cards – yes, you need a business card. Even if you’re not selling your history-writing skills, it’s the simplest, easiest way to share your email address and phone number. (Have you ever struggled to make out someone’s handwriting or couldn’t tell if that was a “3” or an “8” in their number? ‘Nuff said!) Helpful tip: make sure the font size on your card is large enough to be read by most people without searching for their glasses!

Pens – everyone has a favorite ink pen. Keep plenty of yours on hand.

Calendar or planner – whether you’re jotting down your next appointment or penciling in a target deadline or completion date, a good calendar is a must!

Consent form for oral history – It’s always a good idea to be sure you and your subject are on the same page. (There’s a sample form in my LifeStory Workbook.)

Laptop or iPad – If you’re a fast-fingered typist, note-taking can be a breeze on these portable devices. I love my iPad and it’s easy to add a wireless keyboard.

Extra batteries for any devices. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been grateful for this “extra batteries” advice! I keep extras with me for my hand-scanner and microphone. And be sure your camera, phone and tablet/laptop are charged up before you head out the door!

Magnifying glass – You never know when you’re going to want to scrutinize a faded handwritten letter or study a hard-to-make-out postmark. Bring a magnifier that will sharpen the details — preferably one with a light.

Sticky notes – You can’t have too many sticky notes. Big, little, or in-between, just make sure you keep some with you! They’re great for marking things to follow up on, jotting questions, and just keeping your life stories organized.

List of interview questions – Another important “keep yourself organized” tip: jot down the question you want to be sure you don’t forget before you go! (Helpful samples are also in the LifeStory Workbook)

Tote bag – And to keep everything together and ready to go out the door, pick up a fun tote bag. Look for one with zippered compartments like this one, so things won’t fall out. And for plain canvas, try adding your choice of an iron-on transfer for some extra fun.


Bonus List for Cemeteries:  Checking out cemeteries as part of your family research? In addition to a good camera (of course), be sure to pack along:

  • Whisk broom with soft bristles and a long handle to gently removes leaves and debris from gravestones without bending over, for photographs;
  • Spray bottle filled with water – a quick spritz with water helps with contrast in hard-to-photograph stones;
  • Tripod to keep your camera steady; and
  • Pocket rain poncho – Voice of experience here: you never know when Mother Nature is going to have her own ideas about the weather! Keep a cheap plastic rain poncho handy (the kind that folds up and can fit in your glove box or pocket)!

Hope you find these suggestions helpful for creating your own memoir or life story kit. Please let me know if you have other great ideas to add!

Looking for even more in-depth tips to help with memoir-writing? Check out our helpful new book!

Now available from Kindle!

True Crime 1895: the Sarman Murder

The murder of 57-year-old Anna Sarman rocked Carson Valley in 1895.

Anna and her husband, Fredrick, were living on the old Ferris Ranch about four miles south of Genoa, Nevada. Like so many local ranchers, the Sarmans originally hailed from Germany; they’d arrived in the Valley in 1882 and had lived peaceably there for a dozen years before that tragic spring day. Their extended family included two married daughters and a son: Mrs. Louisa M. Heitman; Mrs. Henry Frevert; and Fred Sarman.

But May 8, 1895 would prove to be Anna’s last day of life. Someone entered her home and struck Anna brutally in the head with a hatchet. Investigators later reviewing the crime scene concluded Anna had been murdered in the front room of the house; her body had been carried to a bed in an adjacent bedroom; and the bed was then set on fire. The hatchet that killed poor Anna was found in a nearby woodshed, “covered with blood.”

Nearby ranchers claimed to have spotted a transient named Jim Williams about 3 p.m. on the day of the murder, “hurrying through the valley  . . . and looking back at short intervals as if expecting pursuit.” Williams was promptly arrested and actually admitted taking a meal at Mrs. Sarman’s house earlier that morning — but adamantly denied killing her. Local sentiment initially ran high; there was even talk of lynching. But when the preliminary hearing was held, “nearly all the testimony went to show that Williams could not have committed the murder,” according to the paper, and he was released.

A second transient, Joseph Richie, was arrested at Bodie about two weeks later. He, too, candidly admitted passing through Carson Valley on the day before the murder. Suspiciously, he was said to wear a “narrow-toed shoe which corresponded well” to footprints found near the Sarman home. But charges against him, too, eventually were dropped.

The quiet grave of Anna at Genoa Cemetery (photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire)

The local rumor mill kept churning, however, and community suspicion eventually began to turn toward Anna’s husband. Fritz Sarman claimed to have been out working in his fields at the time of the murder, returning home about 3 p.m. — “in the nick of time to save his property,” but not to save Anna or to catch any glimpse of the murderer. Fritz said there were witnesses to his whereabouts during those crucial afternoon hours, but none of the witnesses he named could be found. A few townsfolk reported that Fritz had “acted strangely” after discovering Anna’s body, going about his usual chores and even calmly milking his cows. Friends, however, expressed themselves “very confident” that Fritz was innocent.

Fritz Sarman was buried next to his wife, Anna. (Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire)

Anna was laid to rest in the Genoa Cemetery, and sympathetic townsfolk turned out in huge numbers for her funeral: a reporter counted sixty wagons and buggies at the somber affair. Husband Fritz, however, did not attend; he was said to be “completely prostrated” by his wife’s tragic death.

Fritz Sarman passed away on May 12, 1900, almost exactly five years to the day after Anna died. He, too, was buried at Genoa, beside his wife. Whispers persist to this day, but the mystery of Anna’s murder was never officially solved.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Enjoy real-life murder mysteries? I’m pleased to give a shout-out to my friend and fellow writer Sue Russell! Check out her fascinating book, The Illustrated Courtroom, for illustrations from some of the most colorful and historic criminal trials of the last half-century including Charles Manson, Jack Ruby, Patty Hearst, and “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz.


Like to read more of these true history/mystery/Sierra travel stories? Just let us know at top right of this blog, and we’ll add you to our weekly newsletter! (Yep, it’s free!)

There Really Was a “Claire” behind Clairitage

Claire Marie Christy Dale adored historic buildings. Well, one historic building in particular: the old brick railroad station in New London, Connecticut.

Our growing-up memories include ever-changing stacks of reports, letters, and newspapers spread out on the dining room table — all of which had to be moved before any meal could hope to be eaten. The railroad drama was a saga of local politics, and a roller-coaster between gloom-and-doom (“they’re tearing it down!”) and the occasional glimmer hope (“they might reconsider!”). Five or six years into this long-running melodrama, even a whisper of those dreaded words “railroad station” was guaranteed to elicit a collective groan from the rest of the family.

The classic brick railroad station in New London, Connecticut, built in 1887 and designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, a predecessor to Frank Lloyd Wright.

Hope, hard work and history prevailed in the end. New London’s magnificent brick railroad station was eventually saved from the wrecker’s ball by — well, by lots of folks. But Claire’s single-minded tenacity was definitely at the core.

Claire passed away in 2002, long before Clairitage Press was even a glimmer. But it would have made her happy, I think, just to know that so many folks treasure history, and get so excited about uncovering and preserving these wonderful stories.

Claire’s bright smile burst into the world exactly 90 years ago today. Just thought you might like to know  about the real “Claire” behind Clairitage!

(Happy birthday, Mom!)

Ancient Survivor

We were driving home through the mountains recently when Rick suddenly swung the car around. “Look at that!!” he exclaimed, pointing.

“That” turned out to be the largest sugar pine either of us had ever seen, towering 150 to 200 feet in the air.

What a survivor! Rick estimates this ancient  tree at over 300 years old. That means it was already growing right here when the first shots of the Revolutionary War were being fired back east in 1776. It would have witnessed the early wagons heading for Jackson over the newly-graded Amador Wagon Road in the 1860s. And it greeted innumerable travelers over the various reincarnations of the road in the next 150 years.

Somehow this stately tree managed to avoid being converted into a campfire or a cabin during its early years. (Sugar pine wood makes marvelous shakes; Jacob Marklee, the founder of Markleeville, is said to have covered his entire cabin in 1861 with shingles made from sugar pine!)

Despite growing bigger and bigger with each passing decade, this giant tree also escaped the avaricious attention of loggers over the past century. (Modern lumberjacks are still eager to chop down huge trees like this. For woodsmen, a tree this size is an exciting challenge. But for those of us who love gigantic old trees, seeing them fall is infinitely sad. If you have a strong stomach, check out this YouTube video called “Jacking a Big Sugar Pine.”)

Whether from sheer good luck or perhaps respect for its obvious age, this gigantic sugar pine has now become a stately “Father of the Forest,” surrounded by a ring of its own strapping offspring.

A blaze mark, nearly grown over, shows evidence of ax marks and fire.

But the huge tree hasn’t been completely overlooked by man. Someone chopped a blaze mark in its trunk perhaps a century ago, a scar that’s now nearly grown over. Sometime after that, the tree must also have survived a brush with fire, as the inside of the scar is charred black.

The sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana) is not only the tallest of the pine trees, it also has the longest cone. Perhaps because of the tree’s giant size and long life, the species plays a part in at least one Native American creation myth. As the tree’s name implies, the sugar pine’s resin is sweet. The Washo Indians called this pine sugar “nanomba” and used it to sweeten their food.

Huge as this particular tree is, it’s by no means a world’s record. The tallest sugar pine ever recorded was discovered in Yosemite National Park only a few years ago — in 2015. That tree reportedly towers nearly 274 feet in height, taller than a 20-story building! Little wonder that naturalist John Muir dubbed the sugar pine “king of the conifers.”

Surrounded by its own strapping offspring, this “King of the Forest” still towers above!

We discovered this amazing tree off Highway 88, in Amador County. But we hope you’ll pardon us if we don’t tell you exactly how to find it. This towering tree is a survivor; we hope it stays that way.

Leek Spring: Where the Wagons Rested

If you’re a fan of Calif. Highway 88, you’ve probably seen the sign for Iron Mountain Road. It’s a pleasant back-country drive — and also a route with a great bit of history.

As the road’s alternate name (“Mormon Emigrant Trail”) implies, this was roughly the route blazed by the Mormon Battalion in 1848 on their return trip to Salt Lake. For the early eager gold-seekers of the 1850s, this became the way to Placerville.

Just over two miles after you turn onto Iron Mountain Road, watch for an Emigrant Trail T-marker on your right. (These metal markers have been helpfully posted by TrailsWest.) This was the site known as Leek Spring, and the T-marker is inscribed with an excerpt from the diary of Mendall Jewett, who camped here in July, 1850.

The upper meadow near Leek Spring.

Just as today, the spot was a beautiful little valley surrounded by large pine & fir trees. Jewett dubbed it “the most romantic spot we have camped upon.”


Jewett wasn’t alone  in recording his stop here at Leek Spring; other emigrant diaries mention both Leek Spring and the valley below, sometimes called “Onion Valley.” With its water, grass for the draft animals, and the abundance of wild onions (a real treat for the emigrants after months on the trail!), it’s no wonder that this became a popular camping spot.

It was, in fact, so popular with emigrants that enterprising early traders quickly set up shop here, knowing they would have ready customers.

Here are several trading posts, on account of it being a great camping place,” wrote John Wood in his diary of September 13, 1850. A fellow emigrant named George Hegelstein observed in August, 1850 how pleased he was to be able to add to his provisions here, finding flour at the amazing price of “only fifty cents a pound” — and celebrated by purchasing a pint of whiskey “to refresh ourselves.”

The lower valley, sometimes called Onion Valley.

One slightly later guidebook for emigrants confirmed that this was a “favorite camping place.” But it warned would-be travelers that, late in the season, “the grass will all be eaten off about here.” (Hosea Horn’s Overland Guide of 1852).

On your drive home, take a minute to ponder how closely today’s modern roads follow the path originally blazed by the first Mormon’s wagons. The same miles that today take us mere minutes to zip over in comfort required days of arduous travel for those hardy pioneers.

Memoir Tips: 3 Places To Start

A student in my Memoir class recently asked for some tips before interviewing her parent for a family history. It’s a common dilemma: “Where do I start??”

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, of course. But here are the suggestions I sent her – I hope they help you, too!

(1)  People: One easy place to begin is to ask the person to describe people who were important in their life. (Typically you’ll hear about a parent, a grandparent, or a teacher — someone your subject was especially fond of, or who influenced his/her life. Be sure to ask what that special person looked like, and what their personality was like. Is there a particular event your subject especially remembers that involved this special person in their life? One story here often triggers another!)

(2)  Places:  Ask about a place that was especially memorable when the person was growing up. (You might hear, for example, about their first house; a swimming hole; their grade school. Or you might prompt stories about a special vacation, a grandparent’s farm, or even a favorite ice cream parlor. Often it’s easiest to start talking about a happy spot — perhaps a treehouse where the local kids used to gather! Ask them to describe whatever they most remember about that place.)

This charming flapper boasted not only great clothes but also a great ukelele!

(3)  Historic Context:  Our life stories don’t take place in a vacuum. Ask about the time period when your interviewee was growing up. What was going on in the world, and how did that affect their own life? (You might hear tales about the desperation of job-seekers during the Depression; the lack of sugar during World War II; air raid drills in school during the Cold War; or long gas lines during the ’70s. Find out what movies and movie stars were their favorites, and which songs were most popular. See if he/she has an old photo showing them wearing the latest fashion of the day!)

All of those topics make great places to start. But listen and go with the flow of the conversation. Sometimes even basic openers like “Where were you born? Who were your parents?” will trigger a flood of stories! So don’t cut that off if it happens.

Then just keep collecting: those little vignettes will eventually tie together into a whole life’s story!

Like more memoir-writing tips? Check out our fun 28-page LifeStory Workbook here.

A workbook can help keep you going.

Civil War Fashion

Women’s fashion during the Civil War was really something. Dresses ran the gamut depending on the woman’s imagination — and whether she was wealthy enough to afford a high-end sewing maven to craft clothes for her.

It was, after all, a time of war. So even women’s dresses often took on a “military” look.

Many women’s dresses took on a military look during the war.






But fashion was still fashion; well-dressed women knew how to splurge.

Embroidery accented this  gown.

The “look” was captured in innumerable ladies’ magazines, such as Godey’s: wasp-waisted, full-sleeved, and above all, utterly demure.

Gorgeous dress, trimmed in lace.


And those skirts! Exactly how they sat down remains a bit of a mystery.

“It” girls.

A stylish hat was a necessity if you were going outside, of course. And regardless of whether rain was in the forecast or not, a parasol was another mandatory accoutrement.

Not everyone was a dress-making whiz, of course. Some women clearly didn’t have the designer’s gene. These photos display less-than-lavish versions of typical 1860s fashions, or even a decidedly homespun touch.

Simple children’s clothing.

In other pictures, it’s clear that the woman’s infatuation with fashion magazines got the better of her.

Akk, those accordion sleeves!

What ever possessed the makers of these, for example, not only to sew but wear them?




But cringe-worthy though they may seem today, at the time these creations were considered photo-worthy.

Another concept that must have looked better on paper.

I wouldn’t look so happy wearing this either.

Someone evidently thought bigger was better.


Homemade cape… with tassle.

Still, some period photos clearly show a designer who knew what she was doing.

Understated and elegant.

One of my favorites is this beautiful gown, with elegant white undersleeves and understated geometric accents. Yet another glorious design is this one —
a day dress, probably in cotton, featuring fashionable
checks and a generous bustle.







And then there were these lovely creations:

Probably a homemade design — but what rich deep peach color!

A gorgeous combination of fabrics, colors, and patterns.

But all of these fashions had to be sewn! While the treadle sewing machine had already been invented, not every family could afford one.

A seamstress at work.

Women were eminently practical about the whole sewing concept. They often sewed together as a way to make the time pass more pleasantly.

Women often sewed together.

And they wasted no time getting to work, when just a stitch or two was needed. Here’s my all-time favorite photo:

Why take the britches off when only a little mending is needed?

For more than a hundred images of Civil War-era fashions, see: