Friday, May 22, 2015

Lovelock Cave's Legendary Red-Headed Giants Continue to Fascinate

Here's a recent story about the legendary red-haired giants who allegedly once lived in the Lovelock Cave:

I wrote about this fascinating legend in my book, "Mysteries and Legends of Nevada," which was published in 2010 by Globe-Pequot Press ( Here's the beginning of that chapter:

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Ely Celebrates Its Rich Ethnic Diversity at Renaissance Village

Ely's Historic Renaissance Village

Over the past few decades, the eastern Nevada town of Ely has quietly but diligently sought to save its history.

While the revived Nevada Northern Railway is perhaps the best known of those community projects, an equally ambitious effort is Ely’s Renaissance Village, a cluster of six historic railroad houses furnished to reflect the ethnic diversity of the region when it was a thriving mining area in the first two thirds of the 20th century. 

The story of the homes—five are identical railroad section houses while the sixth has a different floor plan and is larger—can be traced to 1907, when the Nevada Northern Railway constructed them for its rail yard workers.

Originally, there were six of the 24-feet by 24-feet section houses and they were located at Eighth and B Streets in Ely. Each had a front porch and contained three rooms including a small living room, a kitchen and a single bedroom as well as a bathroom.

In 1925, Bill Geraghty (pronounced “Garrity”), who owned a local freighting and storage company, purchased five of the structures (the sixth was bought by someone else) as well as a larger house and relocated them to a parcel he owned on what is now the 400 block of Ely Street. The compound of homes remained in the Geraghty family for the next eight decades.

In 2005, the Ely Renaissance Society, a local arts group founded a few years earlier to promote arts and culture in the community—one of its most visible projects are the many colorful murals depicting scenes of local history and culture that are painted on buildings throughout Ely—acquired the Geraghty property.

The group’s goal was to restore the structures and establish an art center for the community. Additionally, it decided to renovate each of the houses with historic artifacts reflecting the various ethnic groups that were associated with the region.

As a result, one of the homes is known as the Asian House and it has been decorated with items reflecting the Chinese and Japanese immigrants who came to White Pine County in the early 20th century to find employment.

Others include: the Slavic House, celebrating the large number of Croatian and Serbian immigrants who worked in local mines; the French House, which honors the many French Basque people who came to the area from the 1920s to the 1950s to work in the local sheep industry; and the Spanish House, which spotlights the role that Spanish and Spanish Basque immigrants played in the community.

The Greek House commemorates the many Greeks who came to Ely in the early 20th century to work at the nearby McGill smelter.

Another home on the property, called the English House, was built by the Geraghty family and served as its residence for many years. The name reflects the fact that Bill Geraghty and his two brothers were originally from Devonshire, England, and it is furnished in English and Welsh furnishings.

In addition to the homes, Renaissance Village includes an old barn that was once used as storage for the Geraghty storage company, a two-room prospector’s cabin, an Italian House and an old-fashioned General Store, which sells locally made products.

A 100-seat amphitheater has been constructed behind the houses to host music events and outdoor theater performances.

Renaissance Village is open on Saturdays between June and September. A local farmer’s market is held on the property from mid-August to the end of September. For more information, go to

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The Stokes Family's Unusual Summer Cottage

 In the late 19th century, banker Anson Phelps Stokes was a pretty big deal in Nevada.

Born in New York City in 1838, he joined his family’s successful mercantile company as a young man and by the 1860s he had begun investing in silver mines in the Reese River area around Austin, Nevada.

According to railroad historian David Myrick, in 1879 Stokes became convinced that Austin needed a rail connection to the Central Pacific Railroad line to the north at Battle Mountain in order to transport its silver ore.

He purchased the holdings of the Nevada Railway, which had unsuccessfully tried for several years to complete a 93-mile line between Austin and Battle Mountain, and renamed it the Nevada Central Railway.

The earlier rail company had persuaded the Nevada legislature in 1875 to authorize Lander County (of which Austin was the county seat) to grant $200,000 to the railroad as an incentive to build the line. However, there was a five-year time limit to complete the railroad.

After acquiring the Nevada Railway, Stokes and his partners had about five months to complete the project and earn the subsidy.

Between September 15, 1879, when he purchased the railroad, and February 9, 1880, the state mandated deadline, the Nevada Central threw down some 80 or so miles of rail and ties, an impressive accomplishment but not enough to get the job finished.

The Austin city officials came to the railroad’s rescue by voting at the last minute to enlarge the city limits to just about where the rail line reached, thereby ensuring that the line had been built to Austin, as specified in the legislation.

“At 10 minutes before midnight, track was completed by torchlight to stake 4811, 900 feet inside the expanded city limits,” Myrick wrote.

Of course, in subsequent weeks, the railroad completed the entire 93 miles of the line, which began regular service in early March.

In 1897, Stokes brought on his son, J.G. Phelps Stokes, to oversee his Austin holdings. To provide a suitable dwelling for both when in the area on business, Anson Phelps Stokes had a three-story granite slab structure erected on a hill to the west of Austin which became known as Stoke’s Castle or the Tower.

According to historians William Douglass and Robert Nylen, the castle was modeled after one located in Italy. A painting of the historic Roman structure hung in the Stokes home in New York and was the template for Stokes Castle.

J.G. Phelps Stokes later recalled, “the view from that little tower in Austin was no less beautiful than the view from the ancient tower on the Campagna, and in the boom days of fifty years ago my father and his friends, I among them, spent many a wonderful summer evening on its balcony enjoying the truly entrancing beauty of the scene that spread before us.”

Stokes also noted that the tower was originally only two stories and that he and his father first occupied it in June and July of 1897, and returned to live there in October of the same year. He said he and a business associate, Tasker Oddie (who later became a Nevada Governor and U.S. Senator) resided in the structure in February 1898 while on a business trip to Austin.

The tower was enlarged to three stories in the spring of 1898 and occupied by both father and son Stokes in June 1898. He said that shortly after that, he and his father sold their mining holdings in Austin as well as the castle.

The castle was largely abandoned for the next half-century until it was acquired in 1956 by Molly Magee Knudsen, a cousin of Stokes. Knudsen, a New York socialite who had fallen in love with Nevada, also purchased a large ranch near Austin and became an active and prominent member of the Austin community (as well as a longtime University of Nevada regent).

Remarkably, the castle remains standing today. While still in private hands (a chain-link fence has been erected around it to preserve the building), it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a popular Austin landmark.

Looking at the tower, can see the rough, hand-cut stone walls and the now-rusted metal supports that once held the balconies that encircled the upper floors. Partially boarded-up windows look out on the valley and a chimney rises from the top of the structure (there were fireplaces on every floor).

Visitors to Stokes Castle can reach it by heading south of U.S. 50, just west of Austin, on a well-maintained dirt road. Once there, it’s easy to see why J.G. Phelps Stokes was so enamored with the view of the surrounding Reese River Valley—it is spectacular.

For more information on Stokes Castle, contact the Austin Chamber of Commerce,

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mealtime at a Basque Restaurant

Recently, the Reno Gazette-Journal published an excellent story about the origins of Picon punch, an adult beverage popular at Nevada’s Basque restaurants. The story included the recipe for making a Picon punch (at least the version served at Louie’s Basque Corner in Reno), which included:

• Ice

• Splash of grenadine

• 1 ½ ounces Torani Amer liquor

• Shot of soda water

• Splash of brandy

• Lemon twist (peel only)’

Fill a five-ounce glass with ice. Add grenadine, Torani Amer and soda water. Stir. Top with brandy. Add the lemon twist. Serve.

Several years ago, I co-authored a book, Endless Nevada, with photographer Larry Prosor. One of the chapters in the book spotlighted Nevada's Basque restaurants. The book is now out of print, although you can find copies online, so I thought I'd share part of that chapter, which was titled, "Mealtime."

"A public establishment masking many private intimacies." - William A. Douglass

You can never eat alone at a Basque hotel.

One of the unique aspects about dining at one of the dozen or so authentic Basque boarding houses found in Nevada is that the meals typically are served in an intimate, family-style.

You sit down at a long table, usually covered with a red-and-white-checked tablecloth, and are proffered food while sitting with a bunch of strangers. You can find yourself seated adjacent to anyone from a visiting mining engineer to a local insurance salesman.

The Basque hotel developed in the late nineteenth century to offer a home away from home for the many Basques brought to the American West to tend the growing flocks of sheep appearing on the open range.

Basques come from an area in southwestern Europe that encompasses the crest of the Pyrenees mountains and part of the coast of the Bay of Biscay; it straddles the border of modern France and Spain. Basques speak a unique language, unrelated to other European tongues, and, it has been said, have never been truly tamed by any monarch or country.

The first Basques arrived in Nevada in the 1890s, during a time when the state's vital mining industry had begun to wane and agriculture was becoming more important. A common myth is that the Basques coming to the west were already professional sheepherders.

William A. Douglass, a retired University of Nevada Reno scholar, who has studied Basques in the west, notes that, contrary to that image, most were merely poor, relatively uneducated and rural. While their rural background provided them with skills in handling livestock, they were generally successful because they were ambitious and worked hard under extremely difficult conditions.

The sheepherder had little social status. In the American West, sheep were considered far less noble than cattle. To be a sheepherder was to be doing something beneath the dignity of most—which made it a job usually reserved for foreign immigrants, like Basques.

On the other hand, it was perfect work for a newly-arrived Basque. He didn't need a formal education, didn't have to know English and, if he worked hard, could make enough money in a couple of years to purchase his own sheep and expand his horizons. Within a short time, the sheepherder might be able to bring a relative or friend from his Basque homeland, and the latter would repeat the pattern.

The work was demanding and lonely, requiring the sheepherder to spend months in the most remote parts of Nevada, without much companionship. As a result of such conditions, it was almost impossible for most Basques to learn the language and assimilate into American society as did members of most other immigrant groups. Obviously, opportunities for establishing a family were also extremely limited.

Most Basques looked upon their American experience as little more than an opportunity to escape poverty at home, then make enough money to return there to buy a farm or other business (the Basques called these returnees, "Amerikanoak").

Because of the difficulties of assimilating, and the attitude that a couple of years in Nevada was a temporary assignment, Basques retained a strong sense of cultural identity.

All of these factors helped create the Basque hotel. Not every Basque immigrant returned to the Pyrenees. Some sent for wives and family and chose to establish businesses in America, including small hotels and boarding houses. These became the focus of Basque culture in a community.

Sheep men, down from the hills, would flock to the hotels for warm meals, soft beds and opportunities to catch up on news from home, read Basque newspapers and speak in their native tongue.

By the beginning of this century, Basque boarding houses had cropped up in a number of Nevada communities, including Winnemucca, Elko, Reno, Ely, Carson City and Gardnerville. Of course, they didn't cater only to Basques but encouraged business from anyone seeking a bed for the night and a good, hot meal.

* * *

A few years ago, I decided to have dinner at the Ely Hotel, a small Basque boarding house and restaurant that used to be in the center of the former copper mining town of Ely.

I was early and the owner hadn't yet set up for dinner, so I sat at the bar to wait and ordered a Picon punch.

Now, a Picon punch is powerful drink. A bartender will tell you it's made of a liqueur named "Amer Picon" or “Torani Amer” (a bittersweet orange cordial unrelated to the pecan) mixed with grenadine, often fortified with brandy.

One Picon punch will make you late for dinner. Two will have you arguing with the bartender about the unification of Europe and after three, you'll be singing the Basque national anthem while cursing the memory of Franco.

No one has ever walked away hungry from a Basque meal. In addition to seemingly endless courses, the meals include as much of any particular dish as you wish to eat.

Specific types and flavors of food may vary, but at a typical Basque restaurant, they'll start you off with a basket of fresh French bread and butter, followed by a tureen of soup, followed by a large bowl of salad, followed by a plate of spaghetti or vermicelli or some other pasta, followed by a bucket of beans, followed by platters of French fries, followed by another side dish, usually with vegetables, followed by the main dish, generally a huge slab of marinated and broiled beef or lamb steak.

After that feast, some restaurants will bring you sliced apples and cheese and ask if you'd like a bowl of ice cream. At some point in the meal, the waitress or waiter will also bring you a carafe of hearty red wine. Obviously, the secret is to pace yourself.

Sometimes, it's best not to know what you're being fed. Basque cuisine varies as a result of provincial differences (e.g., coastal Basques serve more fish while mountain folks tend toward beef and lamb).

Naturally, in Nevada, the Basques have adapted to their surroundings. Therefore they serve not only a lot of beef, pork and lamb dishes but also rabbit, trout and a subcategory I call "entrail food." The latter include such delicacies as sweetbreads (animal pancreas), tongue and "mountain oysters" (bull or sheep testes).

Of course, you never know who you will sit next to during one of these Basque culinary overloads. Once, in Ely, I found myself next to three visiting oil engineers who had been testing an area for oil reserves. Their talk of sonic thumpers and other electronic wizardry turned out to be far more interesting than the day-old newspaper (the only kind you can get out there) I'd planned to read.

But I left after they'd finished their third Picon punch and were beginning to sing.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

First and Last

About 12 years ago, photographer Larry Prosor (formerly of Truckee, CA, now living in New Zealand) and I were fortunate to publish the first book ever produced by Stephens Press of Las Vegas, a coffee-table photo/essay book entitled "Endless Nevada."

The book was an updating and complete revamp of an earlier book Larry and I had put together that was published by a Truckee-based publishing company called Fineline Production (that book was called "Desert Highs and Mountain Lows"). While the book was elegant, we were financially stiffed by the company before managing  to regain the publication rights to our work.

I'd read about how the Las Vegas Review-Journal was starting a new book publishing division and contacted Dale Wetenkamp, who was the company's publisher at the time. Dale was excited about the idea and soon offered us a contract to publish the book, which came out in 2002. The book was beautiful and we were extremely pleased with how the whole project came out.

Recently, I was asked to contribute a pair of essays for a new Nevada book called "Nevada: 150 Years in the Silver State," to be published by Stephens Press to commemorate Nevada's Sesquicentennial, which is on October 31, 2014.

The book, edited by Geoff Schumacher, a longtime Las Vegas newspaper writer and editor, and now publisher of the Ames Tribune in Ames, Iowa, is a collection of essays and photos by a number of Nevada writers, historians and photographers that offer a visual, cultural and historical portrait of the state. The book is scheduled to be published on June 15, 2014 (it can be ordered on amazon at

It will also be the last book published by Stephens Press, which announced it is closing operations in 2013.

I guess I feel kind of honored to have been associated with both the first and last books published by Stephens Press—but it's a bittersweet feeling because I'm very sorry to see them go. The company published some quality books and it will be missed.

Friday, August 30, 2013

An Unpublished Work

Recently, I was asked to contribute a foreword to a new book, Historical Nevada, that will be published by Nevada Magazine for the Silver State's 150th birthday. The book is a collection of historic photos of Nevada, all of which have appeared in Nevada Magazine's Nevada Historical Calendars over the years.

Below is my first draft of the foreword, which we decided not to use because it was perhaps a little too irreverent for a history book and focused far too much on me and my time at Nevada Magazine, and not enough on the state's history. A considerably revised and different version, however, does appear in the book.

While it won't appear in the book, I thought it was interesting enough to share:

The first story I ever wrote for Nevada Magazine involved breasts.

Chicken breasts, that is. Dave Moore, the longtime Nevada Magazine editor, had asked me to write a short piece about a place in Baker called the Outlaw Bar and Restaurant (now known as the Happy Burro).

The owner at the time, Reita Berger, was colorful, quotable and mischievous. One of the things the Outlaw was known for was a tasty chicken sandwich, so Reita’s hand-drawn menu included the striking image of a hen sporting huge, human-size breasts.

Needless to say, lots of her menus were stolen as souvenirs.

I can recall that when my story appeared I felt so privileged to have something appear in Nevada Magazine. I had just been hired as the public information officer for the Nevada Commission on Tourism after working for about four years at the Reno Gazette-Journal.

I loved my job but I missed writing. I had long admired the magazine with its stories about Nevada’s state parks, ghost towns, historic figures, recreational activities and entertainers and its legendary writers and photographers (at least to me) like David Toll, Anthony Amaral, Richard Menzies, Guy Louis Rocha, Robert Laxalt, C.J. Hadley and Linda Dufurrena.

So, I jumped at the chance to write even a brief restaurant review for the magazine. It was the beginning of what became a long love affair. I guess Dave liked my story about chicken breasts because over the next few years he gave me other assignments.

I wrote the magazine’s first story about Highway 50 being branded the “Loneliest Road in America” and a long essay about the state’s best-preserved ghost towns. And when each story came out, I ran over to the magazine’s offices to pick up a copy. There was something gratifying about seeing my name attached to a story printed on paper that was nicer than newsprint.

For a time, I wrote a regular column for the magazine called “Did You Know?” that focused in Nevada trivia, such as the fact that iconic tumbleweed isn’t native to Nevada or the American West (it’s actually a thistle from Russia). As a result of writing that column a publisher contacted me to see if I would be interested in writing a trivia book about Nevada. I agreed to give it a try and the resulting work was the first book from which I made any money (my two earlier books were produced as fundraisers for the Children’s Museum of Northern Nevada in Carson City).

Several years later, I was named as the magazine’s publisher—a dream come true. It was a privilege to work not only with Dave Moore but also the rest of a very talented group of people, who felt, as I did, that Nevada Magazine was something special.

During the 14 years I served as publisher, I was able to further explore Nevada’s rich history and heritage. I wrote about subjects ranging from the state’s most endangered historic landmarks to the tenth anniversary of the creation of Great Basin National Park to the strangest stuff found in the state’s museum collections.

In those years, we moved the magazine’s offices into the historic Paul Laxalt Building, celebrated the magazine’s 60th anniversary (look closely at the cover of the anniversary issue—I’m the passenger in the 1933 Chevy driving up the old Clear Creek Grade), redesigned the magazine (1999) and fought like hell to keep the magazine financially sound (every year).

Among my fondest memories of my time at Nevada Magazine are those that involve putting together each issue of the magazine. It was having the art director prepare multiple versions of the cover of each issue and having the staff vote for a favorite.

It was reading over the early drafts of the stories scheduled to appear in the magazine and seeing the magic that sometimes happens in the collaboration between an editor and a writer.

That’s not to say it was all Kumbaya moments. For instance, one time the staff had a big internal debate about whether to publish a large full-color photo of artist Hugo Heyrman’s recently completed Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada.

The work is a giant cinderblock statue of a woman—it sort of resembles a big pink Lego creature—located near the ghost town of Rhyolite. The photo was quite striking and an accurate depiction of the artwork. The problem was that the statue is anatomically correct, albeit in a cubist fashion.

Several staffers were concerned the photo might offend some readers. Others thought it was modern art so no one could really tell what it was supposed to be anyway. In the end, we decided that it was hard to write about the statue without including a photo. So we published it and braced ourselves for the angry calls and letters.

We didn’t receive a single complaint.

All good things must come to an end, however, and about seven years ago, I decided to try my hand at being a college professor and left Nevada Magazine. My family and I relocated to Illinois, where I began to teach journalism and advise student publications at Western Illinois University.

But Nevada had a tight hold on me. I continued to write about the Silver State, including three Nevada-related books in recent years, and returned regularly to visit friends and family. Every time I came back to the state I realized how much I’d missed it.

I missed the mountains—what’s called a mountain in the Midwest just isn’t—along with the impossibly beautiful blue and purple and red early evening skies. I missed the open spaces. I missed walking through a crumbling town that was once home to hundreds but now can only claim ghosts as residents. I missed the smell of sagebrush. I missed Nevada.

Fortunately, there is Nevada Magazine—I still read every issue—and the annual Nevada Historical Calendar to give me a little Nevada boost when I need it. One of my predecessors as publisher, C.J. Hadley, came up with the latter, which is an oversized, sepia-tinted collection of historic Nevada photos attached to a monthly calendar that included enough space for each day of the week that you could scribble in personal notes. It was popular with readers as well as fans of Nevada history, and the best thing I did as publisher was to not screw it up.

And it’s a large part of the reason this book is in your hands. Over the nearly four decades since the first Nevada Historical Calendar was published, hundreds of exceptional historical photos have appeared in the calendars. Of course, the thing about being in a calendar is that once the year is over the calendar is tossed out and no one sees those wonderful photos again.

The editors of Nevada Magazine have selected 150 of the best images from all those old calendars to include in this publication. It’s an exceptional collection of images worthy of being preserved.

Sadly, there’s no photo of Reita Berger’s menu.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Something Completely Different: The Story of Adaven

Many years ago, I wrote a book for my then-young son, Hank (he's in his mid-20s now!). At the time I was going through a divorce and I missed him greatly. To help stay close to him I decided to write him a story, composing it during the week and reading whatever I had written the next time I saw him. Over time, the story grew into a book that featured a young boy named Hank who finds a mysterious golden flashlight that takes him to a magical land called Adaven (Nevada spelled backwards). There, Hank encounters a talking fly and the Tree Wizard, who tells him an amazing story in which he is (more or less) the main character and he has a duty to deliver the world's most delicious pie to another great wizard. Along the way, he is tempted, teased and tormented by a host of strange creatures all coveting his prize. Recently, I found the text of the book and decided to try turning it into an electronic book on Amazon's Kindle store. The book is now available for $1.99. It's clearly something far different from what I've posted on this blog but I hope those who decide to download it enjoy it.