There’s More to the Lillian Virgin Finnegan Story!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Amazing Tale of Agnes Train

        She was a woman very much ahead of her time. A talented artist, author, botanist, and fossil collector, Agnes Train served as the first curator of the Nevada State Museum in 1941. And oh yes, from 1939 to 1956, she was also the owner of Genoa’s Pink House (with husband Percy), and was instrumental in preserving this landmark’s history and contents.
Despite all that, few folks have ever heard of Agnes Train. This wonderful guest blog about Agnes is written for you by Gail Allen, curator at Douglas County Historical Society and Museum. We’re so excited to share this exciting story about such an amazing and little-known woman. Hope you’ll stop in at the Museum soon to learn even more!

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Agnes Hume Scott was born in Seattle on March 24, 1905, to Margaret Hume and Walter John Scott. The family later moved to Chicago, where Agnes attended school. Her high school yearbook from 1924 shows her with a nickname of “Scotty.” Her interests at the time included art-related activities, with plans to become an “Artist Extraordinary.”

After high school, Agnes began working as a librarian in the Chicago Public Library. It was a fortuitous post, giving her skills and training she would use throughout her future life.

Agnes Train. (Photo courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society & Museum)

Using her earnings to buy two train tickets, Agnes traveled in 1926 with her mother to Seattle, to tour the area of her birth. And here fate intervened. She chanced to meet Percy Train aboard the train — a renowned fossil hunter, archeologist, mining engineer, and field representative of the Smithsonian Institute. After this chance encounter, the pair kept up a long-distance correspondence for over a year. Much to the amusement of Agnes’ co-workers Percy mailed her oddities from his travels, including a sheep fleece rolled up in a gunnysack and a dead black tarantula.

On June 7, 1928, Agnes and Percy hiked up Lone Mountain near Lovelock, where they were married at sunrise. She was 23; he was 52. They would spend much of the next eleven years together collecting fossils, minerals and plants together in the remote reaches of Nevada. Agnes used her artistic talent to sketch the specimens, and they were sent to museums across the country.

Agnes and Percy, roughly a year and a half after their marriage. (Photo courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society & Museum).

In 1937, the Trains joined a statewide project to identify and collect Nevada native plants. As part of this project, the couple interviewed of tribal members about the medicinal and other traditional uses of native plants. The results of their research were published in 1941 in a major work titled “Medicinal Uses of Plants by Indian Tribes of Nevada,” by Percy Train, et al. This groundbreaking study unexpectedly led to a breakthrough discovery in 1942 by the University of Minnesota’s pharmacological research team that helped preserve food rations in the Pacific during World War II.

Agnes on horseback on one of the couple’s specimen-collecting trips. (Photo courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society & Museum).

In April 1939, the Trains purchased the “Pink House” in Genoa with all of the Virgin/Finnegan family possessions. They lovingly preserved the furniture, clothing, housewares, trunks, saddle, papers, books, portraits and records, and also restored the house to its original pink color.

In 1941, Agnes began volunteering at the not-yet-opened Nevada State Museum. The Chairman of the Museum Board, Judge Clark J. Guild, tasked her with unpacking “pioneer treasured items brought to the Museum on loan from Carson Valley ranches.” These had been left stacked in the basement in unopened boxes since the Museum office staff thought they were too “folksy.” Six weeks later, Agnes was offered the position of Museum Curator.

This achievement was marred by the sudden death of her husband, Percy, less than two months later. But Agnes continued her work. She became a tireless promoter of the museum, writing articles and speaking to community organizations about Nevada history, museum collections and the Trains’ work. Her librarian skills proved invaluable for cataloging Nevada fossil, plant specimens, and managing the Museum’s collections.

Agnes Train with her beloved Percy. (Photo courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society & Museum).

Agnes left Nevada in June 1944 after marrying John Janssen. The Janssens were dairy farmers, land developers, and cattle ranchers in California. The couple eventually retired to Salem, Oregon, where Agnes resumed her career as a librarian. Agnes continued to own the Pink House until 1956, where her parents lived and acted as caretakers of the residence and its contents. She sold the home after her widowed mother moved to Oregon.

In 1951, Agnes began to take actions to preserve both the Percy Train collections of fossils, minerals and flowers and the Pink House artifacts. Collections of historical items were donated to Mormon Station State Park, the Nevada State Historical Society, and Carson Valley Historical Society, now Douglas County Historical Society. In a letter to the Nevada State Historical Society, Agnes explained she wanted to “place various collections where the public will have access to them for research and reference.”

In 1977, Agnes published a book of recollections, “Nevada through Rose Colored Glasses.” This is a story of her Nevada life with Percy Train.

Agnes spent the last two years of her life in Carson City. She died on July 17, 1991 at age 86, and was buried next to her beloved Percy in Genoa Cemetery. His headstone reads: “Geologist . . . Botanist,” and hers: “Librarian . . . Curator.”

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Written by Gail Allen, Curator of Douglas County Historical Society & Museum. Based on the story and background research was provided by Debbe Nye. Many thanks to both Gail and Debbe for sharing this wonderful information about the amazing Agnes Train! Featured photo (at top), showing the Trains all packed up for a collecting trip (with dog and chicken!) is courtesy of the wonderful Douglas County Historical Society & Museum.

Unsung Heroes: Mary Shaw Shorb and Vitamin B12

She’s probably one of the most interesting women you never read about. And long after her death, she may have just solved a friend’s puzzling health problem.

Her name was Mary Shaw Shorb, and she was born in the wilds of North Dakota on a blustery winter day, January 7, 1907. Women weren’t allowed to vote at the time. And although that, at least, had changed by the time Mary reached her twenties, job opportunities for women were pretty slim. You could be a teacher, a seamstress, a cook, a nurse, or a mom. Women in any other occupations were rare indeed.

Mary Shaw (Shorb), about the time she graduated from college (courtesy of the family).

But Mary Shaw wanted wider horizons than that. A family friend had taught her to recognize wildflowers and edible mushrooms as a child, and Mary was fascinated by botany. And as luck would have it, this same family friend had been one of the founders of the College of Idaho. Mary enrolled there in 1924, graduating four years later with a B.S. degree in Biology — and, just in case, a minor in Home Ec.

Mary’s older brother was studying to be a doctor at Johns Hopkins University and before long Mary enrolled there as well, earning her Doctor of Science degree (Sc.D.) in immunology in 1933. For her dissertation she developed an antigen that proved so successful it became one of the front-line treatments for pneumonia until sulfa drugs came along.

By now Mary was married to fellow grad student Doys Shorb, whom she’d known since kindergarten. Their first child arrived in 1936, followed by two additional children in 1938 and 1942. For a time, Mary stayed home with the kids.

But during the War years, determined to do what she could to help, Mary accepted a technical job with the Bureau of Dairy Industries: culturing a bacillus known as “LLD” used to make yogurt and other milk products. It was a mundane, routine kind of job. But Mary became fascinated when she heard about a well-known quirk in the industry: For some strange reason, in order to properly culture LLD the growth medium had to include a special extract made from liver.

Why was that? What did liver have to do with making these organisms grow? No one could tell her. Then in 1946, even that mundane job evaporated — the employee who’d previously held the position was now back from the war.

But Mary’s curiosity had been piqued. There was something in that liver extract– and it didn’t just help LLD to grow properly. Liver was also the only known remedy at the time for treating pernicious anemia, an often-fatal ailment that had already killed Mary’s father-in-law.

Unappetizing as it sounds, raw liver had indeed proven beneficial for anemia victims. But the treatment required taking nearly a pound of raw liver a day. And so far, the mysterious “active ingredient” in liver had never been isolated and standardized.

Fresh out of a job, Mary was able to wangle lab space at the University of Maryland as an unpaid “research position.” A Merck Company researcher came through with a $400 company grant to fund the upstart young scientist’s efforts. Her brilliantly simple approach: if LLD only grew in the presence of this unknown liver factor, then measuring its growth rate should help pinpoint this mysterious X-factor.

Mary Shaw Shorb

Mary developed a “bio-assay” protocol — and it worked. In just three months, the Merck scientific team was able to isolate the first red crystals of this special active ingredient from liver extract– now known as Vitamin B12. It was a stunning breakthrough, and produced astonishing results for victims of pernicious anemia.

Asked about this breakthrough in a 1954 Idaho newspaper, Mary was her  usual humble, retiring self. “It was such a gradual discovery it’s hard to express my feeling when it was proved the vitamin did cure anemia,” she confessed. “But I will admit that it was a thrill and quite a wonderful experience.”

A tiny dynamo standing just four feet eleven inches tall, Mary was granted a full research professorship at the University of Maryland. Over her lengthy scientific career, she authored or co-authored 58 papers for scientific journals before finally retiring in 1972. Ironically, she passed away at the age of 83 in 1990 from complications of pneumonia, the same illness she’d helped treat with her dissertation.

And how did Mary Shaw Shorb manage to help rectify my friend’s health problem, long after Mary’s own death? Actually, it was her discovery of B12 that did it.

It all started out with a wonky blood result. My friend, a long-time vegetarian, had had chronically low white blood counts for well over a decade. Recently, though,  her WBC number dipped into the “what’s going on” crazy-zone. Her doctor was ready to send her to an oncologist. That’s right: they thought it might be cancer.

My friend thought otherwise. She’d read that vegetarians tend to have lower WBC numbers anyhow. And there were a few hints that B12 might be helpful for improving both red and white blood counts. For three weeks, she took a daily B12 supplement and added nutritional yeast (a B-vitamin source) to her coffee.

And that crazy-low WBC number? It jumped by two full points. She’s back in the “normal” range for the first time in ten years. And she credits it all to Mary Shaw Shorb and her amazing B12.

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(Caution/Caveat/Disclaimer: This anecdotal health story is shared just for reading interest; it’s not intended as medical advice of any kind. Please talk to your own doctor before trying any home remedies or self-treatment!)