The circus train visits Mackay Stadium

BaffertAt the crack of four ayem in Fort McDermitt near the Oregon border all the kids are roused from the arms of Morpheus to dress, dine and dash to the waiting school buses. But the bleary-eyed parents meet little resistance – these kids are off to the circus! A similar scene is being played out on this August Saturday morning in four Nevada counties, and tykes from ages six to 14 are hitting the decks – in Humboldt House, Tungsten, Paradise Valley, Battle Mountain, Valmy, Unionville, Getchell Mine and Imlay. By car and school bus they’ll make their drowsy way to Winnemucca, and board the Western Pacific passenger train, destination Mackay Stadium, because the Shrine Circus is in town – all aboard!

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They’ll find on the train a bunch of clowns, played out by Shrine members and Western Pacific employees and led by the head clown for the day, who in real life resembled the late District Judge Merwyn H. Brown of Winnemucca. Brown was a popular and celebrated Nevadan, and former Shrine Potentate. He was instrumental in putting this day together in 1949 and shepherding it along for the six years that it lasted. In an August 19, 1953 interview for the Nevada State Journal he cited the tremendous cooperation that the Shrine received from the Western Pacific Railroad. Who else would virtually donate a 24-car train and help the Shriners stock the center two baggage cars with box lunches, milk, ice cream, soda pop, peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jack and other goodies? (Four thousand bottles of soft drinks, all donated by local businesses, were consumed on the 1953 run.)

And who would dress up one railroad and one Winnemucca doctor and a contingent of nurses like clowns to help out with the 1,200 kids who would eventually board, as the train chugs out of Winnemucca with stops along the way picking up even more kids in Sulphur, Jungo and Gerlach in Nevada, and (over the California border briefly) Herlong? Who? And here’s a fun one: who would buy special water-based paint so that Winnemucca children, and those along the way, could “decorate” the Pullman cars with graffiti telling the world about their adventure? And, on the side of safety, place men with “stop” signs along the train’s route to forestall a vehicle collision in rural Nevada… who?

The Western Pacific Railroad, that’s who – the Feather River Route guys. OK – we’re rolling into Reno, how will we get to the circus in the old Mackay Stadium, which was closer to Virginia Street than the present one? (Somewhere on campus there’s a plaque marking the center of that old classic’s football 50-yard line.) Well, let’s take the train, since all 1,200 of us are already on one. We’ll use the same tracks that the circus and the elephants and tigers and the Big Top arrived on – the tracks that run down Evans Avenue behind the campus. That way we won’t have too far to walk. And how do we stay together? Aha – Judge/Clown Brown and his band of merry men have a rope, a rope long enough for 1,200 kids to hang on to, walking side-by-side from the train to the stadium (where the clowns secured the gates just to prevent one of the older, bolder passengers from walking down to the Wigwam for some hot apple pie.)

The clowns had fun, but safety was paramount for the day. Those who let go of the rope would be fed to the tigers. It was that simple, a harsh word was never uttered, it was great fun for all, and best of all, they never lost a kid in six years. And all saw a real-deal first-line Ringling Brothers circus; the Shriners had brought it to Reno initially in 1947, appearing then on South Virginia Street on the former site of the El Reno Apartments (later to be Washoe Market and now an antique store.) It would move to Mackay the next year. And our excited kids from outlying Nevada joined us locals, to see Victor Julian and his 21 (count ’em) trained dogs with two rhesus monkeys; to see Brigit Hadnig, direct from Munich, who wisely changed her name to Lalage the Unicyclist; to see Amielo and Elvira Sciplini’s six world-renowned chimps, and the Flying Palacios – Lola, Raul, Jose and Lalo, and from a careful perusal of the program’s photo I would surmise that it would take all three of the brothers plus a couple chimps to catch the Flying Lola once she let go of the trapeze – a ballerina she wasn’t.

But heck, it was a great time and most of the kids got to pet an elephant and have a tiger shriek at them. Rumor has it that they slept like little logs on the long choo-choo ride home. They had indeed been to the circus – on a day that they’d never forget, thank you Winnemucca Shrine Club and Western Pacific Railway.

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Times have changed; no tracks go near the Livestock Events Center where the Shrine Circus performs now. And few of the excited children of all ages under that Big Top came to Reno by train, having left Winnemucca at this morning’s sunrise, nor clung to a rope to stay with their buddies all the way to the show, but let’s hope that all will have as much fun as these 1,200 children did, some of whom are probably reading this column and taking their grandchildren to the circus. If their memories of this great time in local history reach me by e-mail, well, we might all just read them right here on some otherwise-slow day!

Credit where due on this one goes to Mike Maher at the Nevada Historical Society, now retired. I knew this story existed, but while I was poring over railroad, circus and Shrine files, Mike went right to a Nevada Highways & Parks magazine. He’s a pro… (The photos are courtesy of that magazine.)

If you rode the train, lemme know at kfbreckenridgelive.com ; release your text and name so I can post it here…..

And here’s one now from Mike Mentaberry (at right):  “We came from the MentaberryMentaberry family’s Washburn Creek Ranch outside McDermitt the weekend prior to the trip to the depot in Winnemucca to paint the cars.

“My uncle Hank Mentaberry was the dispatcher for the Western Pacific and I can remember Uncle Hank waving goodbye as we left the station headed for Reno.
I also remember disembarking on Evans Avenue across the street from Mackay Stadium …a vivid memory still today is the bologna sandwich, Nesbitt’s orange drink combo and the resulting burn in my nose when the meal did not “set well” on the return trip! Fun times for sure!
“On a side note, our trips to Lake Tahoe 4H camp were very unique…
A local McDermitt trucking company would steam clean one of his bobtail cattle haulers; line walls with benches and we would load up and head down the road to South Shore for a week of fun and games.
“We were the talk of 4H camp with our “Uber/Lyft” mode of transportation.”
Keep up the good work, Karl!

Best regards, 

Michael P. Mentaberry
Broker Salesman/Property Manager
Dickson Realty

Tombola Days!

HarrahFireTruck

There was a time in this great land when a function that was vital to the populace would find itself on the ropes, financially, possibly, and rather than boo-hooing to state legislatures or Facebook and selling out to the federal system, or hyping up a shaky stock offering or pruning down their loyal employees’ wages, they would roll up their sleeves and do something about it – with dignity, honor, and a little bit of fun.

            And that’s the way it was in the late 1940s at a little business down at the corner of Mill and Kirman Streets – the original brick building built in 1904 can still be seen amid the sprawl.  The Washoe County Hospital has roots back to 1876, when 40 acres of the Hatch ranch were purchased for a hospital and a poor farm.  At mid-century its fiscal pulse, respiration and temperature were approaching Code Blue – the (three, then) County Commissioners were noodling with the eventuality of closing the whole thing down.

            A knight in shining scrubs rode into town from Arizona – his name was Clyde Fox – and he took over as the hospital’s administrator.  One of his first acts was to create a body that had been successful for him in other hospitals: an auxiliary, composed of community ladies and doctors’ wives.  His auxiliary rapidly grew to 500 members and old newspaper clips include the movers-and-shakers of our towns.  I was surprised to see my own grandmother in a newsclip, shaking her ancient booty in some hen party at the Twentieth Century Club, all in support of the Washoe Hospital Ladies Auxiliary.

            “We shall raise money,” they decreed, and in the year fuzzily identified as 1951 they gathered on a sunny Saturday in Pickett Park across from the hospital, and held a rummage sale.  The name was “Tombola Day” – I’ve references to tombola as some sort of salsa bingo game, and/or a Central American fiesta.  Tents were set up for the merchandise, the hospital brought some grub over and they had a few booths for kiddies – a “Wheel of Fortune” sort of thing, a Fortune Teller and a Wishing Well.   They went all day, sold out, made a few bucks for the hospital and had a ball.

            Well, next year, it’s going to be a little different, someone said, and it was.  The rummage had a little greater variety, the children’s games were expanded a bit, and a school and a church were brought in to provide a few tunes.  Someone brought a barbecue, and recall if you will an outdoor grill was not an amenity in everyone’s home in the early 1950s – most were homemade from 55-gallon drums with little ostentation.  But – they had hot food.  And here I’ll run a few years together from newspaper accounts: Each year brought a little more entertainment – for the kids and the adults.  At some point a barbecued lamb became a fixture at the event and remained so for many years – the late John Iratcabal arriving the night before, digging a pit and starting the little creature’s journey to between two slices of bread the following afternoon (the lambs on several occasions, maybe more, were courtesy of John Ascuaga or Bill Harrah.)  And, the piece de resistance of every Tombola Day was a raffle for a little house, an A-Frame of about 10 by 10 feet square and 10 feet to the roof peak, complete with plumbing and electricity, ready to be occupied as a hunting cabin or backyard playhouse.  Washoe Med’s (its later name) maintenance crew, headed by superintendent Edin Sontag built the little houses and they’re still collectors’ items seen occasionally around town.

            Tombola Day grew, few in town didn’t visit it, and what a show – great parking, food, entertainment from schools, churches, the University, Tink’s Municipal Band, an early Day with Lash Larue and the Singin’ Cherokees, later whoever was playing downtown in an impromptu visit (a youthful Bill Cosby sticks out in my mind, I’d guess this in the early ‘70s, and no kid went home without a snapshot of him or herself and the Cos, often on his shoulders – what a terrific friend he is to kids of all ages.)  A couple of Harrah’s museum cars showed up one year including a fire truck with a Dixieland band; not to be outdone by all that was John Ascuaga, who dispatched Bertha & Tina, hoisting a few Nugget showgirls and some bolder volunteer celebrants with their trunks.  Reno Fire Department parked a couple of engines for the kids to climb all over, and Bill and Moya Lear, who were among the strongest supporters of the hospital and the League, delighted all by landing a LearAvia medivac helicopter for ground tours.  (This in 1974, a joint venture with Reno’s Aids Ambulance.  The semipublic Careflight air-evac service would come seven years later.)  Some thought the helicopter looked a lot like a French Alouette III, but Bill Lear liked to put his own name on things.

            Tombola was Reno’s big summer show, akin to the Harrah Swap Meet with many similar attractions – both bespoke a great time in our town, when kids were safe riding bikes on their own to Pickett Park and none, rich or poor, went without a hot dog, coke, and cotton candy; a tour of a fire truck, touching the snoot of one of the Nevada White Hat riding team’s palominos, ringing the bell at the Strongman Hammer booth and leaving with a Hartford Insurance fireman’s helmet – local businesses’ participation grew steadily over the years.

            And for  the adults?  Lash Larue and the Singin’ Cherokees, can’t beat that.  A fashion show from Eve-Lynn’s bevy of beauties.  Great food and company; a late-afternoon hoedown, I think a cold brew or two might have found its way onto City property, and a sense of getting something done for the community.  

            Tombola Day went away about 1984.  It was a point of municipal pride for three decades. Could we carry off another one in theses times?  Maybe.

            This note cannot go unpublished: On July the second of 1974, a bold step was taken at Washoe Med: Smoking was banned on the entire fourth floor, staff, visitors and patients alike, no exceptions, said Maida Pringlr. 

Fire truck photo © Harrah’s