A tribute to the late Web Brown, by his fellow Reno civil engineer Milton Sharp

Karl, thanks for your remembrance of Web Brown last Sunday.

Web_BrownWeb was an exceptional Nevadan and leader in the Nevada engineering profession during trans-formative years immediately following World War II.  Web was one of the first to organize an engineering firm specializing in structural engineering.  Prior to 1953 when Web founded his Reno firm, structural engineering was considered to be a subsidiary branch of civil engineering and was practiced only intermittently by some civil engineers.
Web was one of the first engineers in Nevada to incorporate an understanding of seismic and wind forces into structural design of buildings.  That was not part of the civil engineering curriculum at the University of Nevada, and Web learned through his early employment at Kaiser Engineers and self directed study.  In 1953 building codes were just beginning to be concerned about earthquakes and high winds, and Web was ahead of his profession in being able to respond to those concerns.
During my early years in the engineering profession, I was fortunate to be employed by Web Brown from 1958 to 1966.  He taught me and coached me to be an engineer.  Everything I ever knew about seismic and wind design, began with the basics that I learned from Web.  He was my mentor and a special friend for the ages.
Web Brown was a talented, even brilliant engineer, but more than that, he was a gentleman, a family patriarch and an exceptional citizen of the State of Nevada.
Milt Sharp 
Milt_SharpEditor’s note: Milt Sharp is a Reno Civil Engineer of long standing and a driving force in the Sigma Nu fraternity alumni chapter. I’m grateful for his kind words about Web, and for his allowing me to post this letter to me, that others may enjoy it.

When the Gypsies came to Idlewild

gypsy-truckI was visiting some friends a while back in their pleasant and tastefully-furnished home when I saw a piece of furniture that head-slapped me back to a time in the early 1950s when people parked diagonally on the Virginia Street bridge, fast food was the Q-ne-Q Diner, television was soon to arrive in our hamlet and sales tax hadn’t been invented yet.

            “Where in the world did you get that beauty?” I asked, about a diminutive item that I’d have called a love-seat before the onset of political correctness in newspaper columns; now, just a skinny little sofa wide enough for two, woven of bent branches with twigs tying them off where they came together and wrapped around the legs, the branches forming the seat and a heavier branch curving over the sofa’s back forming a decorative arch. Very light, airy and welcoming.

            My hosts, who had lived in Reno for a couple decades, told me that it was found left over in a rental they owned when the tenants vacated, and they took it home because it was kind of cool. My gut feeling was to offer them ten bucks for it, but I couldn’t do that to friends. The love-seat was a collector’s item for many of us who remember from whence that furniture came. And sadly, there are to my knowledge, darn few like it left in town.

            It was made in Idlewild Park, from native sprigs growing around the Truckee, in two or three summers of what most recall as 1951 or ’52. It was during those summers that the Gypsies came to Reno, forty or fifty perhaps, men women and children. I’d like to write they came by horse-drawn, gaily painted and decorated wagons, with big round curvy roofs and flags and lanterns and chimneys and stuff appended to them. That would not be true, and this column is built on truth, sort of; what they did arrive in were trucks, but brightly decorated as I said above, trucks that looked like Burning Man meeting Steampunk. They did not come unobtrusively to idyllic Idlewild Park, nor set up furtively in the space behind the California Building. They arrived, grandly, openly and notoriously, setting up striped tents, kerosene lanterns and some Persian rugs that would be pretty desirable in a home today.

            And did they ever shake up the townsfolk. “The Gypsies are back!” the hue and cry rumbled in the valley and echoed in the dell. “Lock up your children!” was the operative cry, for all had it on good authority that they were here to steal children, which, to my knowledge, never occurred, at least any children that were missed. They did busy themselves in activities more productive and industrious; one of their fortes was roofing, perhaps eight homes during their two-week stay, and to their credit I never heard of any homeowners displeased with their service. Roofing contractors, on the other hand, saw red but by the time the City of Reno could swing the hammer about small issues like building permits and insurance and contractor licenses the Gypsy trucks would trundle off down US 40 by the dark of night.

            Other endeavors were as “tinkers.” They had crank-operated stones and went door-to-door sharpening knives and fixing things – I recall them setting up a shop replete with a wild awning in Whitaker Park, for the purpose of bettering the neighbors’ homes and cutlery. Fallon resident Janet Carrica Inda, in her 1982 UNR Oral History, mentions the Gypsies as adept at sheep shearing, which jibes with the accounts that many American Gypsies came from southern France which could possibly be sheep country.

            And yes – the furniture. The ladies in the group went early after their arrival to the Truckee, harvesting bale after bale of twigs and branches from the vegetation, and went to work making the love-seats, smaller chairs, sofas, or coffee and end tables. And img008local residents, one by one, learned of the furniture, came to the park and bought the items – three to five dollars a piece was the going rate. My friend Gordon Chism, whose family lived across the Truckee from Idlewild Park, included in his excellent book of growing up in Reno, “As I Remember,” a family picture with the family seated on a Gypsy sofa on page 50; buy a copy at Sundance – it’s a treasure….

            When the day’s work was done, they’d party hearty in the lee of the California Building. The many of us who ignored our parents’ rants about avoiding the park lest we be stolen in later years, rode our Schwinns to the park and secreted ourselves in the trees to watch, and consider ourselves fortunate to have borne witness to the music and the dancing that shook the park up every night. Colorful costumes with a definite Middle Eastern flair connoting a Romanian influence – full skirts and sashes  and bonnets of bright colors on the ladies, baggy caftan pants and what we’d call cummerbunds on the men, exotic hats and fezzes, dancing and singing songs from a strange language with instruments we’d never seen or heard. There was a lot of laughter with perhaps a toddy or two being served, and food – barbecued on Gypsy ovens before the world knew what a Weber was (the Idlewild Park zoo was still active; we speculated what some of the entrées might consist of, but never learned of anything nefarious befalling the zoo animals.)

            And one morning, they’d be gone, as quickly as they arrived. And one summer, they didn’t return. They stirred some hidebound sorts in our ol’ town up for a couple weeks, but looking back, it was in an innocent manner. The Gypsies of Idlewild were definitely a part of the fabric of our community for those two or three summers.

            And no local children were stolen in the process. Have a good week, and God bless America!

© RGJ 2015



Takin’ a dip on a warm summer’s day  


When you’re up to your, er, waist in alligators, it’s sometimes hard to remember that the objective was to drain the swamp. Such was the dilemma a fortnight ago when my focus was on two new downtown bridges we read of last week right here – the Sierra Street and Lake Street bridges. But as I pored over the microfiche in the mossy stone-lined torch-lit chamber reserved for me five floors below the Nevada Historical Society on North Virginia Street, a dozen other tempting topics beckoned, and this week those hen-scratched notes become a column

           California Building The towns’ old swimming holes loomed large. We alluded to the original Idlewild Pool last week, and here I wrote of the concrete-lined pool in the present pool’s location that was dedicated in 1937. The city parks department in the years prior to 1937 maintained the west pond of Idlewild Park created ten years earlier, with rudimentary creature comforts like changing rooms and a snack bar. (The present 50-yard pool, with an adjoining kiddie pool, replaced the 1937 pool in the early 1970s.)

            I found a great article about Reno Hot Springs, penned by now-RGJ editor Peggy Santoro a decade ago. “Reno Hot” as we called it was a bit of a challenge for kids on our Schwinns, being a mile or so up the Mt. Rose highway. But, on the days that we could score a ride from one of our parents, it was a favorite, with a big warm pool, a good snack bar and a vista all the way out to Pleasant Valley to the south. On the topic of that pool I’ll mention the miniscule rock house still standing all by its lonesome across the Mt. Rose highway south of Summit Mall: That’s occasionally cited as a last vestige of Reno Hot Springs. The straight story is that it’s a leftover from the Herz Hot Springs – a resort that went away in the 1930s, a hoot-and-a-holler east of Reno Hot.

            Peggy’s yarn evoked many pleasant memories, from dog-paddling with Marcie Herz as twirps later to the high-dive boards with Rusty Crook, which mercifully went away in what most agree were the mid-1970s (the boards, not Rusty). Three meters off the water, they were, almost ten feet for us Yankees. Lawton’s pool, several miles to the west on the Truckee, had boards before my lifetime and replaced them with a tower, not only one- and three-meter platforms, but a 10-meter, reminiscent of Butch Cassidy’s famous line, “Can’t swim? Don’t worry; the fall will kill you!” Lawton’s was probably the most pleasant pool in Reno, when combined with its hot tubs to the east, rooms, and excellent dinner for grownups, poolside on warm summer evenings, and the Mighty Southern Pacific’s choo-choo trains plying the tracks next to it – which we kids enjoyed but in reality probably doomed both Lawton’s and its present forlorn cedar River Inn replacement.

            The Mark Twain Motel came along, across South Virginia from Park Lane, with a great pool available to the public with the added amenity of a cover, ergo a year-round pool. The other year-rounder was another favorite, the Moana plunge on Moana Lane east of the ballpark (it’s frustrating to cite a landmark as a location for a bygone building, only to realize that the landmark’s gone also!) Moana plunge or Moana Springs was on the present soccer fields west of Baker Lane, site of the bygone ballpark. There. The Berrum family brought us a lotta laughs for a hundred years out there. If you liked diving off the three-meter boards around town, then you’d have loved the infamous rope at Moana, where one could take the rope to the ceiling and jump while emitting one’s best Saturday-morning Tower Theater Edgar Rice Burroughs “Tarzan” yell and bailing off, hopefully to land in the pool and not in the snack bar, the locker room or on your best friend in the pool. How did we ever reach adulthood, one wonders…?

            The Railroaders had Deer Park, one of the last public structures completed after the beginning of WWII, and still immaculately maintained by the City of Sparks. I’ll be reminded of others – the YMCAs, downtown until 1953 then on Foster Drive after 1955. Baker’s, mentioned in the Nevada White Hats yarn a month ago. The prohibited and banned swimming holes, like Highland Park reservoir, Virginia Lake, Charlie Mape’s home on Mt. Rose Street, the ditches (you ain’t lived ‘til you take an inner tube down the Orr Ditch under Ralston Street a half-block from my boyhood home!) The city fathers (no mothers then) voted in 1947 to create a pond by the Orr Ditch at Whitaker Park – “No, guys; we’re trying to keep kids out of the ditches…” That idea sunk, no pun intended.

            A few leftover hen-scratches: How many knew that in August of 1923 a bath house and “beach” was built on the river at Belle Isle? (Old-timers know that Belle Isle is the island between the two bridges on Arlington Avenue.) Or that in the mid-1920s Reno’s earliest incandescent, outdoor electrical lights were first introduced in Idlewild Park?  Or that the City had bought 300 bathing suits to rent to patrons of the new Idlewild Pool? The August 14, 1937 Reno Evening Gazette was silent as to whether bathing suits were optional; we tend to think that they were obligatory.

            And now comes the pièce de résistance of the whole column, if such there be: Reno mayor John Cooper and Sen. Pat McCarran, misspelled in the Gazette, imagine that, were dedicating the new 1937  Municipal Pool in long-winded and flowery oratory, when a 12-year-old bathing beauty of unchronicled name decided to hell with all that, dove in, and became the first lady to swim in the new pool. The children who followed would pay a nickel to swim, their parents a quarter, thanks for reading, and God bless America!

[click here to go to the last swimmin’ hole column…]

© RGJ 2015


On the campaign trail with Judge Bill Beemer

BeemerFollowing several pathetic attempts by ersatz acquaintances to get the names of some mayoral candidate hopefuls into this column, for whatever benefit that might be, I feel that the time is upon us to speak of the greatest campaign publicity stunt ever orchestrated in our valley.

            Shortly after WWII, an energetic and popular young local boy by the name of William R. Beemer decided that he’d rather be Justice of the Peace of the Reno Township than the insurance magnate that he was struggling to become. Accordingly, he cobbled together an aggregation of sterling 30-somethings as a campaign committee, my father Karl the Elder its chairman, and they convened. With wisdom that can only be acquired by spending an evening at Brickie’s Tavern on West Second Street, this august committee decided that ordering clear plastic magnifying glasses, their lenses about the size of a silver dollar and their handles embossed with “Beemer for J.P” would be the way to go to get their candidate’s name out to the waiting electorate (embossing “Bill Beemer for Justice of the Peace” would have been prohibitively expensive.)

            The magnifying glasses arrived a fortnight later, and relying upon further wisdom attained in yet another evening at Brickie’s, it was agreed that the offspring of committee members could transport the little glasses to the local schools, to be then taken home to the voting parents. I was delegated to take a shoebox full of glasses to Mary S. Doten elementary school on West Fifth Street, a Spanish Quartette edifice built in 1911 to serve as proof positive that 5,000 Reno kids could endure lead-based paint, asbestos and the school cafeteria’s bill of fare until its destruction in 1971 (it was a twin to the present Mount Rose elementary on Arlington Avenue.)  Magnifying glasses were also dispatched to Reno’s other four elementaries, to Billinghurst and Northside junior highs and mighty Reno High School on the Lincoln Highway.

            Even the median students in the slow learners classes quickly deduced that if the magnifying glass were to be held two inches from any sunlit surface, a bright pinpoint light would appear, followed by a wisp of smoke, and with dexterity and practice one could fricassee an ant, write a name in a school handrail or lunchbox, or get the attention of the annoying little red-haired girl right through the shoulder of her smoldering blouse. This scientific experiment was being replicated at all of the Reno schools by the hour of the afternoon recess after the glasses’ arrival and distribution.

            The Reno School District’s board – the Washoe County district would not be created until a decade later – from their lofty head-shed in the classic old Babcock Building on West Sixth Street, spread the word, “Confiscate those God damned magnifying glasses, pronto!” Good luck on that, Superintendent; upon learning that that seizure was imminent they all went into the back pockets of our 501s. For a while. But to the unbridled joy of the Brickie’s Tavern campaign committee, the local papers – the morning Journal and the afternoon Gazette – both carried headline accounts of this upstart young insurance executive who with malice aforethought was attempting to systematically reduce the Reno District’s real estate assets to rubble with these devious little magnifying glasses. Substantiating the mantra that bad publicity is better than no publicity at all, William R. Beemer blew the doors off his opposition and marched triumphantly into the J.P. chambers where he would serve for four professional yet hilarious decades.

  • • •

Justice of the Peace Bill Beemer was – at the time of his passing in 2001 – one of the most knowledgeable authorities of the lore of our valley that ever passed through it, his wisdom usually conveyed in an atmosphere of side-splitting humor. The Judge used one long-standing remark to close the many memorial services that he officiated. He would remind us in his clarion voice that there is no expression of a lasting goodbye for death in the Paiute language; the closest expression that existed for that sentiment was “…see you next time,” a pleasant euphemism for a farewell to a departed friend. He’d then recite that expression in the Paiute tongue. Those of us who had attended the many services that he officiated knew that that closing was part of the liturgy, and we anticipated its arrival as the final, posthumous compliment to a friend – the Judge bestowing that farewell upon them in the patois of the Paiute tribe.

            Having heard Beemer eulogize too many friends, always concluding with the Paiute farewell, I took the bull by the horns one night at a conservatively-libated Sigma Nu Christmas dinner. “I’d like to work your Paiute farewell into a column someday. Say it slowly in phonetic English so I can write it down.” (The Paiute language has no written form.)

            He paused. The assembled brotherhood waited. I extracted a pen and found a napkin to record it for posterity.

            Bill stared at the floor, then at the ceiling, as if it were Heaven. A hush fell. He then spoke softly: 

            “I have no idea.  I’ve never done it the same way twice.”

            Such was the humor of our friend, Judge Beemer. 

            See you next time, Bill. Have a good week, and God bless America…

text and Beemer photo © 2015 RGJ


Not the end-of-the-line, for ol’ One-Oh-Nine

Bus 109While idly motoring along Greg Street on a day before Christmas [2013], to my aging eyes appeared a specter from my past, a flashback to a bygone era, a bus, not an ordinary bus but a bus with an orange body beneath a roof of pale yellow. I did a double take; while the thing was half-again the size of the buses that Gene Lane and the Blakely kids and Mike Doyle and the Cardinal twins and I used to ride to Reno High School in 1957, it was like seeing a ghost. I looked down to assure myself that I wasn’t back in my 1951 Chevy with Richie Valens on the AM radio, and then looked up again. Right here on Greg was a retro-bus; a grown-up version of the ones so many of us rode and remember! [pictured above]

            Sensing a column-in-the-making, I hied myself to the Regional Transportation Commission’s shops under the freeway by the airport. I was fortunate enough to there receive the hospitality of one Tina Wu, a happenin’ lady who knows her buses cold and knew just where my mind was going. The retro buses – there are two – were both out on the street, but “Would you like to see our restored coach 109?” Would I? Off through the shops we walked. (109 emerges from the barn for Hot August Nights occasionally, but it’s been a while for me.)

            Parked all by its lonesome in a corner of the garage was Coach 109 – and again the flashbacks started. The little coach, following its seven-year tenure as a Reno Bus Lines asset starting in 1957, fell off the radar for seven years in 1964, and then was acquired by the Glory Temple Church, hauling a choir around for two years. Then for ten years it sat in a field going to glory until it was located and rescued by Reno bus historian Jim Fairchild.

            The restoration that Fairchild and the RTC crew did is phenomenal, no other word for it, worthy of any rod we see during Hot August Nights or of Morrison-Knudsen’s restoration of San Francisco’s F-line streetcars. Paint, smooth as glass, inside and out. Upholstery, like new on the 31 passenger and driver’s seats. The dashboard and controls, factory-grade. Window glass, replaced; dome light lenses, replaced; the floor tread impeccable, the chrome seat grip bars replated, the gas engine, brakes and transmission rebuilt – it probably looked better than when it rolled out of GMC’s plant in 1957. And Tina knew every detail about it like the back of her hand.

            Seated in the driver’s seat my flashback continued. I sat in the Sky Room of the Mapes watching four like buses – two pointed north, two more south, at the top of any hour, on the Virginia Street bridge. In unison they would roll off to the four quadrants of Reno, each on kind of a looping route. During the school year the No. 4 bus, southwest Reno, would pull into Reno High’s north parking lot in the morning and afternoon run to pick us up, and kids from the other three quadrants became pretty adept at gathering on the bridge to await the No. 4, which would get pretty crowded. A friend of mine, while we were having a little bus-talk, said that she could probably drive the No. 4 route, even today. And I’d guess that she could…

            The buses were our wheels in the years following WWII – the price was right (15 cents). We took care of the buses and the men who drove them, for that day that we didn’t have 15 cents but needed a ride. The bus company operated its 11 coaches also for the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Campfire Girls, YWCA and the 4-H. This service was mostly for trips to summer camps.  The company’s cash cow was Stead Air Force Base, and the company’s 1964 exit from business roughly parallels the closing of Stead. But Reno Bus Lines, like its competitor Nevada Transit, which provided service from Reno to Sparks, and within Sparks, served our little towns admirably.

            If you noted one of the the new, gleaming biodiesel umpteen-passenger current buses in Reno Bus Lines livery (shown below), parked next to the little 27-foot, gas, 31-passenger GMC, I gotta ask: Which one would you take cruising on Hot August Nights? And about Tina, what can I say? If RTC can put our ol’ buddy Jerry Hall’s name on their bus barn, and PanAm can use dignitaries’ names on their 747 Clippers, then I say there should be a coach marked “Tina Wu” plying the streets of Reno and Sparks – she’s that great a credit to the Regional Transportation Commission!

Have a nice Sunday; use your sunscreen, Go Niners (again)! and God bless America


© RGJ January 2014