Friday, August 21, 2009

The Final Resting Place of the Enigmatic "Old Virginny"

Few figures in Nevada history have been the subject of as many conflicting legends and stories as James Finney, better known as “Old Virginny.”

Part of the reason for different takes on the man often called the father of Virginia City is that actual details about his life are sketchy at best.

For example, even his real name is in dispute. In some accounts he is James Fennimore (or even, Fenimore) while in others he is named James Finney. Ronald M. James, author of “The Roar and the Silence,” perhaps the most definitive history of Virginia City, however, refers to him as James Finney.

What is known is that Finney was born in about 1817 in the state of Virginia—hence his nickname, “Old Virginny.” Little is known about his early years but apparently he headed to California during that state’s gold rush of 1849 and ended up in the Kern River area.

Comstock writer Dan DeQuille, who generally comingled facts with fanciful tales, later claimed that his name was originally Fennimore but he changed it to Finney after allegedly killing a man in California.

Wright also said that sometime in 1851, Finney crossed the Sierra Nevada to the Gold Canyon area near present-day Virginia City, where he began prospecting for gold.

However, another source, Mormon Station (modern day Genoa) founder John Reese, reported in his 1884 memoir that Finney was living in Gold Canyon when Reese passed through in 1850.

And Myron Angel’s 1881 “History of Nevada” said that Finney actually traveled to Nevada while working as a teamster for John Reese.

There appears to be a consensus that Finney resided in Gold Canyon during the decade between 1851 and 1861. It was during this time that he worked as a placer miner and encountered many of the other colorful figures in Virginia City’s past such as Henry Comstock, after whom the Comstock Lode is named.

In 1859, Finney moved up the canyon, which had become depleted of mineral wealth, along with a handful of other miners and began working a promising outcropping that was named “Gold Hill.” It’s thought have been the southern end of a rich silver vein that eventually would be known as the Comstock Lode.

A handful of accounts, mostly written years later, generally describe Finney as a well-liked and hardworking miner who was mostly likely illiterate and had a weakness for alcohol.

Ronald James noted that Finney “earned a reputation for having good nose for prospecting. All sources consistently support the idea that he was one of the first to recognized the mineral-bearing potential of the future Comstock Lode.”

But Finney is also often portrayed as a drunkard who didn’t appear to appreciate the magnitude of his discovery. In 1862, Henry DeGroot, a cartographer and writer, said Finney was “honest” but also “ignorant.”

DeGroot also reported that Finney sold his mining claim for an old horse, some blankets and a bottle of whiskey. This tale, which is probably not true, would go on to become accepted dogma with a number of other writers repeating variations of the same story.

An equally apocryphal story is the one about Finney’s naming of Virginia City. The popular Virginia City legend is that an inebriated Finney was stumbling down the town’s main street when he stumbled and broke a bottle of whiskey. According to the myth, he decided to use the occasion to “christen” the community “Virginia City” after his state of birth.

James, however, noted that the earliest source for that story was Dan DeQuille, who presented it in his 1876 book, “The Big Bonanza,” in which, he pointed out, “the author was equally capable of passing off legend as fact.”

James concluded, “Whether this happened or not, evidence clearly indicates that local miners decided in a meeting to name the community Virginia City.”

There are even differing accounts about his death in Dayton on June 20, 1861. In his “Myth of the Month” column, former Nevada State Archivist Guy Rocha recounted several versions including one that pegged Finney’s death as happening on April 26, 1861, another that said he died in July 1861 and yet another placed the event in 1865.

The cause of his demise is generally said to have been from a fall from a horse, although the details vary. In one version, he was “thrown from a bucking mustang” while drunk, while another simply stated that he fell from a horse and fractured his skull.

Today, visitors can ponder all the stories about Finney while standing at his grave site, which is located in the historic Dayton cemetery. The spot is marked with an impressive stone marker describing his life that was erected by the Dayton Historic Society.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Take a Spin on Scheel's Big Wheel

It’s no exaggeration to say that the Scheels store that recently opened in Sparks is a typical sporting goods place—on steroids.

Billed as the world’s largest sporting goods store, Scheels in Sparks is far more than just a place to pick up a new pair of running shorts or a soccer ball.

It combines a massive sporting goods retail operation with a full size, indoor Ferris Wheel, NASCAR simulators, a gourmet deli and fudge café, giant fish tanks, a mountain of mounted big game animals and several sports history displays thrown in for good measure.

And that doesn’t include the talking robotic replicas of 14 U.S. Presidents.

The store, located in the new Legends at Sparks Marina shopping complex, is part of a North Dakota-based company that operates about 20 similar sports businesses, mostly in the Midwest. The 248,000 square foot Sparks version is the biggest in the chain as well as the largest sporting goods store in the world.

It’s difficult not to be overwhelmed when entering the store. A giant glass and steel atrium in the center houses the 65-foot-tall Ferris Wheel, which dominates the building.

Originally built in 1921, the amusement ride was refurbished by Scheels and included in the store not only as a promotional tool but also as a tribute to the inventor of the Ferris Wheel, George Washington Gale Ferris, who grew up in Carson City.

Rides on the 16-car big wheel are only $1—and provide perhaps the best overview of the entire store, which is, after all, pretty massive.

Additionally, if you enter from the parking lot side of the store, you pass beneath two 16,000-gallon aquariums, one of which contains freshwater fish found in Nevada. Inside the giant clear tank swims dozens of catfish, sturgeon, largemouth bass, blue gill, crappie and red and green sunfish.

The other tank contains salt-water species such as rare Hawaiian Black Trigger fish, sharks and stingrays. Staff feed the fish in both tanks at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. daily.

The Walk of Presidents attraction, located around the atrium on the second floor, offers 14 motion-activated replicas of Presidents Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and others, who, in recorded voices, tell their stories. The Jefferson and Lincoln models also move while speaking.

The Wildlife Taxidermy Mountain, also on the second floor, is a 35-foot-tall, 800-square foot re-creation of a mountain peak that features more than 200 mounted animals that are found throughout Nevada including Bighorn sheep and mountain lions.

Perhaps the most fun attraction in the store is the NASCAR Simulator, where, for a separate price ($10 per driver), you can sit inside a full-size automobile/simulator and experience the thrill of driving the Daytona 500.

And if you need a break from walking around and checking out all of the stuff in Scheels, there’s Gramma Gina’s, a deli and fudge shop tucked inside the store. In addition to soups, salads and sandwiches, the restaurant offers an amazing array of Italian Gelato and the Scheels Fudge Factory, which sells more than 32 different flavors of fudge (I tried some—-it's quite delicious).

Of course, the main reason to hit Scheels is to shop and there is no shortage of name brand sporting goods spread throughout the place. The store is divided into 85 separate specialty shops selling items ranging from footwear to golf and ski equipment to hunting gear.

The Scheels company was founded in 1902 by Frederick A. Scheel, who opened a hardware store in Sabin, Minnesota (he later moved his headquarters to Fargo). In the mid-50s, he began selling sporting goods and, in 1972, added sports-related clothing. The chain’s first superstore opened in 1989 in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Scheels in Sparks is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Early California History on Display in Sonoma

Few Northern California communities are as quaint, picturesque and historic as Sonoma, a town that traces its roots to 1823.

That was the year that a Spanish priest, Father Jose Altimira, founded Mission San Francisco Solano, the last and most northern of the 21 missions established in California.

In 1834, Mariano G. Vallejo arrived at the mission to oversee the establishment of a military outpost and small town. He laid out an eight-acre plaza, which remains the heart of the modern town of Sonoma.

Today the plaza—the largest town square in California—has more than 200 trees as well as a wide variety of shrubs, picnic tables and a rose garden.

In the middle of the oak-shaded plaza is the former Sonoma City Hall, an elegant Mission Revival style building constructed of local stone between 1906 and 1908. A unique feature of the building, which now serves a visitors center, is that all four sides are identical, apparently to please local merchants each of whom felt it should face his or her business.

The square is also home of a unique monument to California’s colorful history. Atop a massive boulder is a bronze figure holding the Bear Flag. The statue commemorates the short-lived Bear Flag Revolt, an independence movement that in 1846 claimed California as an independent republic.

For 25 days, Sonoma was the capital of this new republic, which was created from land previously controlled by Mexico. On July 7, 1846, an American naval ship captured the Mexican capital at Monterey and claimed the region for the United States.

Not surprisingly, the Bear Flag Party chose to join with the Americans and become part of the union. The monument marks the site where the Bear Flag, which is now the official flag of the state of California, was first raised.

Surrounding the Plaza is a mix of interesting historic buildings, each with a fascinating story.

For example, at the northeast corner of the plaza (114 East Spain St.) is Mission San Francisco Solano, an adobe structure erected in 1840. It is not the original mission, which was a wooden building erected in 1824 and replaced by the present one.

Fully restored, the mission is one of the finest examples of Spanish mission-style architecture complete with an early Indian Mission chapel and rooms containing exhibits that tell of life nearly a century and a half ago.

Nearby, you can find the old adobe Mexican Barracks (First Street East and East Spain Street), built in 1841, which is now a museum and part of a complex of buildings known as the Sonoma State Historic Park. Inside the barracks you can find informative exhibits describing the history of the area and a well-stocked gift shop.

Adjacent is the Casa Grande Indian Servants’ Quarters (20 East Spain St.), built in 1835. The two-story Monterey Colonial adobe building was once part of a larger complex, called Casa Grande, which was General Vallejo’s first home (he built his “Lachryma Montis” estate, west of town, in 1853).

The Hotel Annex (also at 20 East Spain St.) is a two-story blue and white building east of the servants’ quarters that was originally a one-story saloon located in front of the quarters. In 1903, it was moved to its present site and a second floor was added. Today it serves as park offices.

Many of the historic buildings around the plaza now house a variety of businesses including several excellent restaurants, the fabulous Basque Bakery, and the Sonoma Cheese Factory deli.

One of the most impressive downtown buildings is the Sebastiani Theatre (467 First St. East), built in 1933. Featuring a 72-foot tower and elaborate balustrades across the front, the theater was constructed by Samuele Sebastiani, founder of the Sebastiani Winery.

Note the hole in the tower, which was designed for a chime clock. The clock apparently was never installed because of concerns about noise.

The core area also houses several quality small museums such as the General Joseph Hooker House (also called the Vasquez House), an 1855 kit house (it was shipped to Sonoma from Sweden in numbered parts and reassembled), which is now home of the Sonoma League for Historic Preservation.

North of the plaza is Sonoma Valley Railroad Depot (Depot Park Museum), a replica of the original depot of the Sonoma Valley Railroad (the original was located on the same site but burned in the 1970s). The museum contains displays and records of the railroad as well as a handful of restored train cars.

Of course, Sonoma is also noted for its wines and the historic Sebastiani Winery is located only a few blocks from the Plaza. Here you can tour one of California’s largest and oldest family-owned wineries.

The region’s oldest winery, Buena Vista, is located about a mile and a half east of the Plaza. These cellars were founded in 1857 by Count Agoston Haraszthy, considered the father of California’s wine industry.

Sonoma is located 30 miles north of San Francisco (and about four-and-a-half hours west of Carson City). For more information, contact the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, 453 First St. East, Sonoma, CA 95476, 707-996-1090 or go to