Friday, May 05, 2017

A Loose Leaf: The Unusual Life and Times of Journalist/Photographer/Sailor/Spy Earl Leaf

Be sure to pick up the latest—and sadly, last—issue of "Nevada In The West" magazine. This fine publication, produced by Nevada historian Eric Moody, has ably spotlighted the rich history of the Silver State for the past eight years.

The final issue contains a fun story I wrote about a somewhat forgotten figure in Nevada journalism, Earl Leaf.

Here's how the story begins—you'll have to pick up a copy of the magazine to read the rest!

To say that Earl H. Leaf lived a remarkable life is an understatement. While best known as a magazine photographer who, in the 1960s and 70s, photographed hundreds of celebrities—particularly young starlets like Marilyn Monroe, movie stars including Gregory Peck and Clint Eastwood, and musicians such as the Beach Boys, Janis Joplin and Bruce Springsteen— he also worked as a cowboy, a sailor, a logger, a prospector, a bookkeeper and even possibly a spy.

In the mid-1930s, Leaf was employed by United Press in China and was one of the first western journalists to interview and photograph Mao Tse-tung. Later that decade he became a consultant for the propaganda arm of the Nationalist Government of China in New York City. With the start of World War II, he was a war correspondent/propagandist for the Office of Strategic Services, a wartime intelligence service that was the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency.

In the early 1930s, however, Leaf had a different role: sometime reporter and daily columnist for the Nevada State Journal.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Major William Ormsby's Thirst for Fortune and Fame

Ever wonder who was Major William Ormsby, namesake for the old Ormsby House casino in Carson City as well as for Ormsby County (which was consolidated into the current Carson City combined city-county government in 1969)? I tried to answer that question in a new online article for the Carson City Visitors Bureau, which you can find at:

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Very cool virtual reality tour of the now-gone ruins at American Flat near Virginia City:

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Shoe Tree is Dead, Long Live the Shoe Tree

    The saga of the Old Shoe Tree—the big cottonwood on U.S. 50 near Middlegate that’s filled with hanging shoes—refuses to die. It lives on despite the fact a vandal cut down the original shoe tree a few years ago.
In response to that terrible deed, Middlegaters and other fans of the shoe tree designated another cottonwood down the road as the inheritor of the legend and a new shoe tree was born.
Drivers on U.S. 50—celebrating its 30th anniversary as the Loneliest Road in America in 2016—pass by the tree and see hundreds of pairs of sneakers, boots, oxfords and other footwear hanging from the tree’s limbs by their strings.
While there are a number of variations on the legend of the shoe tree, the basic story, according to Fredda Stevenson, co-owner of the Middlegate Station bar and grill, is that sometime in the early 1990s a young couple from Oregon had traveled to Reno to get married.
They decided to spend their honeymoon camping along U.S. 50 and stopped under the original shoe tree.
In an interview several years ago with an Associated Press reporter, Stevenson explained: “They camped by the tree. They had their first big fight. The girl threatened to walk to Oregon. He took her shoes, tied the laces in a knot and threw them up in the tree.
“He said, ‘If you’re going to walk home, you’re going to have to climb a tree first.’”
Stevenson told the reporter that the husband “drove down here and we talked for two or three hours. I told him to go back and say he was sorry and that it was all his fault.”
She said the man took her advice, the couple made up and drove away. A year later they stopped by to show off their first child, whose first pair of shoes were tossed into the tree.
Over time, others saw the shoes in the cottonwood, which was about 70 feet tall, and began tossing their own footwear into its branches.
Over the years, the tree became a local landmark. It wasn’t uncommon to see cars with out-of-state license plates pull over to the side of the road so the occupants could snap a few photos of the unusual sight of a tree brimming with hanging footwear.
In December 2010, however, vandals chopped down the original tree with a chainsaw. The demise of the local icon generated national media attention and in February 2011 a memorial for the tree was even held.
“It was like a good friend had just died,” Stevenson told the Los Angeles Times. She said she began to cry when she first heard the news about the tree’s demise.
The Times reported that the memorial service attracted dozens of people including “leather-clad bikers, dreadlocked artists, giggling children, retirees toting cameras and camping chairs. Dozens more peered across the two-lane road.”
But that’s not the end of the story. A few months after the original shoe tree was cut down, a second cottonwood located about 10 to 20 yards away from the site of the original began to fill up with shoes.
The legend lives on. Good.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Uncovering Reno's Spiritual Side

  As a place long mostly associated with sinful endeavors, like legal gambling, few outsiders think of Reno as offering much when it comes to matters of a more religious nature, such as churches.

But contrary to such stereotypes, the Biggest Little City is home to a number of houses of worship, including many that are historic, which disprove that reputation.

Indeed, three of Nevada’s finest historic churches are found within a few blocks of each other in downtown Reno.

The oldest is the stone and brick St. Thomas Aquinas Cathedral on the corner of Arlington Avenue and West Second Street. Erected in 1908, the cathedral is part of a complex of buildings that includes a former school and a rectory, which were added in 1930.

The cathedral itself is impressive with its twin Baroque/Classical towers facing Second Street. Two large, copper-covered doors, engraved with Bible scenes, protect the entrance.

The copper used to make the doors was mined in Ely while, inside, the altar and rails were crafted in aragonite that came from Tonopah.

According to Dr. Holly Walton-Buchanan, author of the excellent book, “Historic Houses and Buildings of Reno, Nevada,” the church was partially destroyed by fire in 1909 and immediately rebuilt by its parishioners.

The church became a cathedral—home church of a Catholic bishop—in 1931 after Pope Pius XI visited that year and a new bishop, Thomas Gorman, was designated for Nevada.

Another impressive place of worship, located a few blocks east of St. Thomas Cathedral, is the First United Methodist Church (201 West First Street), constructed in 1926. This ornate monolith—Walton-Buchanan described it as the “gray lady of West First Street”—was one of Reno’s first poured concrete buildings.

In fact, as Walton-Buchanan points out, close inspection reveals the grain of the wooden forms into which the concrete was poured.

Built in a Gothic Revival architectural style, the Methodist Church was originally smaller than how it appears today. In 1940, a two-story connecting wing and parish house were added on the west side of the church.

The church’s tallest towers are more than four-stories tall, although they look toy-like when compared to the surrounding condominium and hotel-casino towers.

The church boasts several noteworthy stained glass windows, installed in the 1940s, including the Holy Family Window, said to be worth more than $8,000.

Reno’s last temple of the divine is the Trinity Episcopal Church at 200 Island Avenue. Erected in 1929 and enlarged in 1948, this concrete Gothic structure on the banks of the Truckee River is an imposing landmark.

According to Walton-Buchanan, the Episcopal congregation in Reno dates back to 1870 and originally held its services in a public schoolhouse. The original 1929 structure on the site is now the church basement.

The church is locally renowned for its marvelous 115-foot bell tower, which contains a melodious carillon of 35 Flemish bells (the biggest one is 1,000 pounds). When the bells chime, the sound can be heard throughout the downtown.

Additionally, the church contains one of the largest pipe organs in Nevada; a Casavant Fréres Pipe Organ, Opus 3778. Installed in the 1990s, the Canadian-built organ, which cost more than $400,000, has 37 ranks and 2,177 individual pipes, all of which combine to produce a rich and memorable sound.

All three of the churches are, of course, open for services on Sundays. However, if you ever happen to be walking through downtown Reno and notice any of the doors open, be sure to stop to look inside. Each, with their elegant wooden pews, stained glass windows and quiet ambience, offers sanctuary, if even for only a moment, from the surrounding hustle and bustle. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Broken Hills: Much Ado About Nothing

     One of the sad realities of Nevada’s mining past is that in many instances, the perpetuation of a fraud was at the heart of a mining boom. Such was the case with the mining camp of Broken Hills, the site of which is located about 27 miles north of Gabbs via State Route 361 and a dirt road.

Broken Hills was established in 1913 by two English prospectors, Joseph Arthur and James Stratford, who discovered modest amounts gold in the area. The two worked the claim for about six years, pulling a reported $68,000 of gold from the ground.

In 1920, the pair sold their claim to George Graham Rice, who would later become known as the “Jackal of Wall Street” because of his stock manipulation schemes and frauds.

Rice, whose real name was Jacob Herzig, was born to a financially successful family in New York in 1870. After stealing money from his family’s business, he was sent to reform school, where he befriended an elderly convict named Willie Graham Rice (and later appropriated part of his name).

Rice soon found success as a racehorse tipster, helping to fix races, and, after serving time in jail in New York, headed out to Nevada, where he became extremely successful promoting worthless mining stocks.

Using a Reno-based company he called the Fidelity Finance & Funding Company, Rice began aggressively promoting Broken Hills and selling stock in the mine.

Rice took out large advertisements in western newspapers that claimed, “It is probable that no mining discovery of recent years in Nevada has received such favorable endorsement by public officials, banking men and mining experts as has the Broken Hills.”

The smooth con-man was even able to entice Nevada Governor Emmet D. Boyle to sign a statement saying that after a personal examination of the mine, “the showing is the best I have seen in any new territory in Nevada for many years.”

Rice formed the Broken Hills Silver Corporation, with a stated capitalization of 3 million shares, and named Ed Malley, Nevada’s state treasurer, along with Gilbert C. Ross, Nevada’s state bank examiner, and other prominent businessmen to the company’s board of directors.

Perhaps not surprising, Malley later became embroiled in one of the largest political and financial scandals in state history. He, along with State Controller George Cole, embezzled more than a half-million dollars from the state treasury in the 1920s.

They took the funds and invested in mining and oil company stocks, saying they intended to return the money when they struck it rich. Unfortunately, the investments went bust and the two lost everything. In 1927, both were convicted of diverting state funds for their own use and went on to serve four years in prison.

During most of 1921, Rice creatively promoted Broken Hills. In an article in the Deseret News on February 22, 1921, it is reported that “Great excitement prevails here over the bonanza values carried in a foot and a half vein of heavy black silver-sulphide ore recently discovered on the Broken Hills property.”

Additionally, about a month later, Rice’s associates submitted a bid to host a fight between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier, the European champion. According to news accounts, a syndicate from Broken Hills offered a guarantee of $800,000 to secure the fight for Broken Hills.

On April 21, 1921, the Desert News, which reported a number of times on Broken Hills, noted, “Every pan shows flake and wire gold . . . miners and prospectors from all around the country are headed for the new camp.”

According to the Mines Register of 1922, by April of 1921 Rice had sold about $161,900 in stock and invested some $80,000 in developing the community. But since the Broken Hills Silver Corporation owed $380,000 to Rice’s Fidelity Finance for the mining property, the company was unable to meet its debt obligations and soon folded.

Stockholders, however, launched an investigation of Rice, who, eventually, was convicted of fraud. In 1929, he was once again sent to jail, serving four years, where he shared a cell with Al Capone.

While a headframe and some other buildings, including a one-room schoolhouse, were constructed at Broken Hills, the community didn’t really ever amount to much. The last residents moved away by the mid-1950s.

Today, the metal headframe remains as does an old grave (a wooden board is inscribed with the name “Matt Costello”) and some assorted pieces of wood and cans but not much else.

An excellent book about Rice is “My Adventures with Your Money: George Graham Rice and the Golden Age of the Con Artist,” by T.D. Thornton, published in 2015.