The central firehouse – the heart of a city

1947_ALF fire 2

A town needs its firehouse – be it in a hamlet in the middle of the nation’s Corn Belt, or downtown in a bursting metropolis; a one-truck affair attached to a Quonset hut dorm/kitchen/training room/card parlor, or a ten-bay three-story brick showplace with enough dorm rooms to start a Marriott, a kitchen with a walk-in reefer, classrooms, a dayroom lounge and a truck shop rivaling the Alamo’s. And be it large or small, in Minden or Manhattan, it’ll have a chrome fire hydrant at its entrance. That’s tradition, and few callings have traditions that run as deep as those of the fire service.

            And the townsfolk embrace their fire departments, and their firefighters. Watch the foot traffic at Raley’s on Mayberry grind to a halt when the door rolls up on Engine #5 across the street, the big motor cranks up, the red and blue lights come on and the engine lumbers down toward Hunter Lake Drive. If the shoppers just watched a moment longer, they’d see the door close itself automatically, for the station’s now vacant.

            At a Safeway, kids of all ages, some in strollers and others with graying temples pushing those strollers, approach a Sparks “triple,” the one with “Keep Back 343 Feet” on its hose bay – one foot for every firefighter that died at the World Trade Center. With a little luck they can get a tour or a demo or see what’s stored behind the myriad of doors on the sides of the engine. If they’re real lucky – and somewhere in Sparks someone else is real unlucky – they can watch the firefighters, grocery shopping in the store, beat feet back to the truck and tear out of the parking lot. That’s high livin’ – not a similar sight to be seen when the UPS or the Pepsi truck leaves. Fire trucks are special.

            And the fire stations – what memories every kid has of the first trip to a fire station, with a parent or the school. In Reno for most of us reading this it was Reno Main on Commercial Row and West Street, in service ‘til 1976. The firemen – an acceptable term in 1948 – saw the looks on our faces when we rode our bikes up to an open stall. “Wanna come in?” – Yikes, we’re actually in a fire station. “Go ahead, climb up the ladder,” and we were on the tillerman’s seat of the city’s brand-new American LaFrance hook-and-ladder, an archaic term now [that truck’s pictured above, some 40 years older when the shot was taken]. That new LaFrance rested among a few old pre-WWII warhorses. “This is the alarm board,” Smokey showed us (all firemen were “Smokey” to kids; a popular one in Reno was Smokey Lowe at Station #4 by the Sigma Nu house.) The Gamewell alarm system to coordinate a city’s fire alarm boxes dates back the 19th century and is still in use in some cities, substantially unchanged. Reno’s was a beauty in 1948 – four feet square on a wall with lots of brass and gauges and switches. Self-reliant, the wet-cell batteries to operate it gave off an aroma we eight-year-olds had never endured. Reno’s Gamewell board was preserved and relocated to the museum in the now-endangered [gone] main station on East Second and Evans.

            We went upstairs to the dorms and dayroom. “How does that firepole work?” we asked. Duuhh. “You stand right about here,” Smokey said, leading us to the hole looking down into the apparatus bay. “Then you put your arm around the pole, but don’t let your skin touch it. It’ll burn.” We locked our arms around it, but didn’t touch the pole. “You’re not allowed to go down the pole. Only firemen can do that.” Then, “Lean a little closer.” In turn, we leaned. Smokey smiled. “But don’t step off the floor or you might slide down the pole.” And we stepped off. Smokey met us at the bottom of the pole. Three boys that 1948 Saturday morning made up their minds to be firemen someday.

Reality sets in: the 1948 Lake Street fire

            And, as memory serves, it would only be a few months later that the tougher side of firefighting would be seen by us and most of the rest of Reno: On August 15, 1948 an inferno would rage through Lake Street. We saw the aerial that we’d “steered” and wondered about Smokey. He was OK, but Sparks Fire Department’s Chief Frank Hobson and two Reno firefighters, Captain Glen Davis and Fireman Earl Platt, and two civilians perished that morning.

            Boys grow tall and have their own sons, and we take them to, yup, a firehouse. The government of a city might take place at a city hall, but the firehouse is ground zero for cool stuff. We take old bikes there for the firefighters to fix for kids at Christmas, and in October we go to one for the Fire Prevention Month Pancake Breakfast. A city needs a big ol’ central firehouse, that a kid can ride his bike up to, with shiny engines and brass poles and a museum full of photos and antique helmets and nozzles, and an old Gamewell board and a Smokey to show ’em around.

I guess Reno needed a ballpark worse.

 God bless America…


© March 3, 2008 RGJ

A sample of Lew Hymers’ “Seen About Town”

JacobsenRawI wrote a column about Lew Hymers’ book last weekend; thought you might enjoy seeing a random page scanned from that book.

I’ve had a number of inquiries about availability of the book. It’s well out of print and not catalogued in the usual channels; considered a “collectors’ item” it’s being sold on a couple of websites for over $400. There is a 1999 revision of the book available through the University Oral History Program or Sundance, but it’s pricey also and only has about 50 pictures in it, with a lot of narrative. The original may be viewed, I think, at the Nevada Historical Society, noon to four pm Wednesday through Saturday.

The early neighborhood on West Fourth Street

CircleRBThere was a time when all of us reading this column walked, all together, and we looked at the old town. We usually picked a period of time around 1950 and visited the old stores and gas stations and restaurants and parks. But for some reason we never walked the neighborhood where West Fourth Street turns into Highway 40 – west of Keystone Avenue. And to the amazement of many newer readers, there wasn’t even a Keystone north of the railroad tracks before 1960. Vine was our westernmost street. Thus, there wasn’t much to see west of Vine Street.

          Or was there?

          Just west of Keystone was Reno Press Brick, originally Pressed brick – now there was an operation, owned by the Caton family. The late local historian Beth Miramon did an incredible job of assembling the myriad of local buildings, many still standing, which used the “press” manufacturing process. Caton’s companion business – Keystone Fuel – utilized a part of the huge site, from the highway northward almost to Seventh Street, the land now known as the Keystone Shopping Center (the heating oil was integral to firing the brick kilns.)

          Next west, Union Ice serviced homes and businesses even after World War II, when the transition to refrigeration still wasn’t quite complete. One of my dearest readers, nonagenarian Jean Hubbard remembers her late husband Tom and his partner Merrill McKinnon moving their truck repair business from East Fourth Street to the beautiful old stone building next to Union Ice now serving PAR Electric. McKinnon & Hubbard, they were, when men were me and ships were wood; when Macks and Reos climbed old Donner Summit – in “Grandma.” OK – low-low gear. Before 1952 it was Skateland, once hosting a young Eve Arden/”Our Miss Brooks” and I suppose I’ll have to explain that later.

          Then, the Silver State Lodge – a collection of log cabin motel units demolished only recently, where my contemporary Pat Ferraro Klos grew up as a young diva. We can’t forget the El Tavern Motel, still there and one of Reno’s hottest in 1950, also housing a tiny truck stop/diner. The proprietor of that diner was Bill Parker, a hard rock miner from Central Nevada who would build a new restaurant a long block to the east in 1958, and name it after Gold ‘n Silver. The Sunset Motel was also high-end, but lost its west wing when Stoker Drive was cut through in 1965. Across Stoker was the classy Circle RB restaurant, “RB” for Reno Browne, the songstress daughter of powerhouse local attorney John Robb Clarke. It later housed the Chinese Pagoda when that best-ever Chinese joint lost its space on B Street in Sparks. Now it’s Micasa Too. Should Alex Trebek ask where Micasa One was, (actually just Micasa), tell him Mill and Terminal on the southeast corner. You’re welcome.

          The 4th Street Bistro? Yup –it was Luigi’s. Overpriced then too. Ahh, the Villa Roma – if those walls could talk. It was later to become the Glory Hole, one of Reno’s longest-tenured restaurants, and now Washoe [2018: Whispering Vine Wines]. The motels beyond Johnny’s – the Dutch Wife, Silver Spur, Westerner, the Zephyr – were upscale, well-run, the first ones that visitors to Reno would see, and generally ran “no vacancy” during the summer until the town died in autumn.

          This is kind a quickie little article, just to let all know I’m still alive. Come back once in a while…!

© November 2014 the

Link Piazzo and Lew Hymers – an epilogue

Ol' Reno Guy

Sportsmana href=””>HymersStreeterA popular feature of the Nevada State Journal in the 1930s and ’40s was Seen About Town, a collection of caricatures of local movers-and-shakers, drawn rapidly in the lunch counters and legislative halls and wherever they appeared. One such was Jack Streeter – Jack’s seen in the bottom row of this montage, second from the right.

Hymers was a local treasure; some of his work apart from caricatures that’s best-remembered are the cartons of Chism Ice Cream, and the black-and-white striped sign with the likeness of Chet and Link Piazzo, from the Sportsman sporting goods store (he drew a few women also, mostly in State government, one of Mamie Towles, arguably Reno’s first lady school principal, and one of Dr. Mary Fulstone from Yerington.)

And here, I’ll stick my neck out and say that Link Piazzo is Hymers’ last living subject – I narrowed it to…

View original post 44 more words

It hasta be pasta – Reno’s Food Shop

Food Store

I was reminded by none other than Buddy Sorensen at a recent convening of the Black Bear Diner Gentlemen’s Coffee & Bear Paw, World Dilemma Solutions & Laudable Opinions Kaffee Klatsch, that if I’m going to go carousing around town on Saturday mornings talking about old markets as we have been on-and-off for the past few years, that I’d darn well better pay some mind to the Ferrari family’s Food Store, and particularly to include the nickname of a popular member of the family.

            That family member’s name is Bob Ferrari, who graduated from the original Manogue High School by East McCarran Boulevard at its Truckee River crossing, and went on to letter for four years in both baseball and basketball at the University of Nevada. He enlisted in, and later retired from the U. S. Army, then returned to teach at Sparks Middle School and eventually retired also from the school district. He’s now anything but retired in land development – his family recently donated a significant parcel to the Food Bank of Northern Nevada.

            But all that pales in comparison to his duties in the 1950s as a grocery delivery driver, taking vittles from hither and yon to the Food Store’s customers. On the tailgate of their 1946 Chevy truck was lettered, Noodles – free delivery. Thus our friend and Sigma Nu fraternity brother, following a career facing military combat and later the trenches of a middle school – which together should merit sainthood for anyone – came to be known by his friends as “Noodle.”

            I asked him whether any middle school students called him that or “Mr. Ferrari,” and he indicated “Mr. Ferrari, heavy on the ‘Mister’.”

  • • •

OK – it’s fine to have a little fun at Bob’s expense and anticipate him walking in to the Coney Island next Monday to a chorus of “Hey, Noodle!” but I owe the family more – the market was one of the stalwarts of our town. It was located in the venerable brick building on the southeast corner of West Second and West Streets, that building itself the subject of a Roy Powers painting in years past. I suspected that the Ferrari family brought their pasta skills from the old country, but learned that no, the family men were railroaders, coming to Reno from Palisade in eastern Nevada. The market was operated by several of Bob’s aunts and uncles and finally taken over by his parents, Ben and Nora. The family all pitched in, Bob and his sister Marilyn, who now operates the family’s motel in Kings Beach, and their younger brother, the late Ben Jr. – all taking their places in the store’s operation while going to school and college.

            Bob remembers a great grocery trade within the fashionable Colonial Apartments around the corner, delivering there frequently to some shut-in residents. He recalls a small strongbox in the market that had been ignored for many years being opened one last time when the store closed in 1958. In the box were I.O.U.s from many local residents who had fallen victim to the Great Depression, families that the Ferrari family stood behind in a time of need.

            The Food Store was an integral part of early Reno, and I’m glad we finally worked it into a column. Several e-mails asked why I hadn’t included it; the simple reason is that we hadn’t arrived at any downtown mom-and-pop markets yet. I’m glad Buddy got me moving on it, particularly with the nickname angle. But if you encounter Bob and call him “Noodle,” don’t tell him you read it here – I think he might have boxed a couple of rounds for Coach Jimmy Olivas while at the University, and I have a glass jaw.

© RGJ 2007


Home Means Nevada, 1947




Home Means Nevada, 1947

‘Way out in the land of the setting sun, where the wind blows wild and free,

There’s a lovely spot; just the only one that means Home Sweet Home to me…

It’s Nevada Day, 1947; the torchlight parade wove through Carson City last night and 40,000 folks, most from Reno, convened in our capital city to watch a half-dozen high school bands and a parade that stretched for over a mile. Many of them rode the Virginia & Truckee Railroad that according to the Oct. 31, 1947 Reno Evening Gazette put a second train on the line just for the occasion. A highlight of the parade was the six-horse Prairie Schooner from Dangberg Ranch. Prominent Reno attorney Lester Summerfield delivered the Admission Day address after the parade, and following that some went to the Capitol Plaza to watch the Quadrille dancers. Other revelers went to the traditional Carson City Senator/Reno High Huskie football game.

In a convergence of three great Nevadans, storied Judge Edgar Eather administered an oath of the court to Julien Sourwine, who was then introduced to the crowd by Senator Patrick McCarran. The Governor’s Mansion will be open from noon to four o’clock today, and then close so that Governor Vail Pittman and the first lady Ida can dress for the annual 1864 Ball tonight (one of the V&T trains will stay late to return dignitaries to Reno after the festivities.)

  • • •

If you follow the old Kit Carson Trail until desert meets the hills,

Then you certain-ly, will agree with me, it’s the place of a thousand thrills…

In other news today, the County Fair & Recreation Board approved $15,000 for the Silver Dollar Derby and University’s Winter Carnival, two longtime staples in the Sierra skiing scene (and just in time, Sears Roebuck on Sierra Street is advertising J.C. Higgins skis, $12.50, with bindings.)   The upsweep is in, the sidesweep is out, per a Hollywood hairstyle maven, but we all knew that. The state approved bread prices to rise by a penny, to 15 cents a loaf. Donner Pass closed for snow yesterday, the first closing this year, but the weather was OK for the parade today. A motorist remaining unnamed herein was fined a dollar for contempt of court while grousing about a parking ticket. The demand to see Forever Amber forced the Nevada Theater to schedule an extra 8:30 a.m. screening.  

Herz Jewelers – civic-minded in 1947 and remaining so in 2006, sponsored the aforementioned Quadrille dance in Carson City (the Quadrille’s an incredibly graceful dance to watch or perform, often to a Scott Joplin slow drag. Pity it died out.) Order your Christmas cards, a term politically acceptable in 1947, from Armanko’s Stationers on North Virginia Street soon. The two motorists who canned up their cars on Geiger Grade last night, according to the Ormsby County deputy sheriff, can try a new-fangled concept and rent a car from Hertz Drive-Urself while they fix the wreckage. (For the newer folks, Ormsby County later was re-chartered as Carson City, and yeah, I know Geiger Grade’s in Storey County – I’m just parroting what I read in the Gazette.)

• •

Whenever the sun at the close of day, colors all the western sky,

Oh my heart returns to the desert gray and the mountains tow’ring high…

Let’s see here: The University of Nevada’s Tommy Kalmanir was fourth in the nation in kickoff returns. The Wolf Pack is off tomorrow to St. Louis, by airplane yet, but Coach Joe Shekeetski says that halfback Dick Trachok is questionable for the game with an injury. (By the way, to several who wrote: The appearance of UNR herein last week was an editing change that didn’t tickle me one bit. I write that only with respect to university events following 1967, when we first had a UNR and a UNLV.) Penn State has the top defense in the nation this week; I don’t think Joe Paterno was coaching there in 1947 but wouldn’t bet against it. Some things never change: Michigan was picked for the National Championship in 1947, and now in 2006 the game of the year might be the Wolverines vs. Ohio State. Nevada has a two-day chukar season in 1947, three birds total.

            Want to get away?   Ride the mighty S.P.’s City of San Francisco, 33 hours to Chicago for 44 bucks. Or fly Bonanza Airlines’ daily DC-3, $22.50 to Las Vegas, only $11.60 to Tonopah. This is cool: Joe Patrucco and Gilbert Vasserot are re-opening Eugene’s on South Virginia Street. Fifty-four years later in 2001 I would write back-to-back columns about Eugene’s, describing it as the benchmark that other Reno restaurants would strive to reach, and taking its place alongside the finest restaurants in San Francisco.

And no one disputed my words…        

  • • •

Where the moonbeams play in shadowed glen, with the spotted fawn and doe,

            All the live-long night until morning light, is the loveliest place I know…

There were six, count ‘em, six, fire calls in the last 24 hours. Lucky Cowboy screens tomorrow morning at the Tower Theater; bring 14 cents and an Old Home Milk lid. We spy a furnished two-bedroom home in Sparks FSBO, telephone 6541. Lou LeVitt, a great guy I knew as a kid, is playing at the El Cortez’ Trocadero Room. A Stetson felt hat at Grey Reid Wright was advertised for $12.50; get the same skypiece for only eight bucks at Parker’s (and no sales tax!).   Spike Jones and the City Slickers are live on the ABC radio network, affiliating with KWRN in November (that’s K-Washoe-Reno-Nevada).         

            We sang Home Means Nevada as kids on Friday mornings throughout Reno and probably the whole state. Thanks, Bertha Raffetto, for penning it in 1931. God bless America, and Happy 142nd, Nevada; you’re lookin’ good!

Admission Day, 2006

© Breckenridge