Jot Travis, Noble Getchell and Max Fleischmann – Three big men on campus…

Fleisch“What’s on deck for Sunday morning?” the crew of the Seven Ayem Senior Moment Krispy Crème BS & Kaffeeklatch asked.  “So many topics, so little space,” I lamented.  The suggestion that followed was unanimous: Resurrect some University of Nevada history for the alums in town.  (In a column years ago I scribed that for many of us, “the Hill” remains a term of endearment for the Nevada campus.) 

A piece that ran a while back drew a lot of mail, because very few of us, and I include myself, ever knew who the Jot Travis Student Union was named for.  His name was really Ezra Johnson Travis and he raised horses and built stage lines until he died in 1919.  His son Wesley Elgin Travis, who ascended to the presidency of Greyhound Bus Lines, bequeathed the university the tidy sum of $300,000 upon his death in 1952 “…to be used for the construction of a building to be named the ‘Jot Travis Student Building,’ so long as a matching amount be approved by the Nevada State Legislature.”  

            Work on the student center commenced in October of 1956, amid a gnarly challenge of trying to build a structure so close to Manzanita Lake, and the building was finished in May of 1958.  Three generations of us have met “at the Jot.”  This, in retrospect, beats what might have become known as “the Ezra.”

            The Getchell Library was named for Noble Getchell, a Nevada miner and member of the Nevada legislature, and the chief executive officer and vice-president of George Wingfield’s Getchell Mines.  Getchell donated a portion of the $2.8 million cost of the new building – he had hoped to donate more, and twist the mining industry’s tail to help out, but a dry stretch in the state’s mining industry curtailed a lot of the hoped-for participation.   It opened in January of 1962, and would be the largest library in the state and the definitive resource for Basque history and heritage the world around. 

            The “Jot” and the Getchell Library have been replaced, and many alums hope that the benevolence of the Travis family, of Noble Getchell, and the memory of the Mike Ingersoll Associated Students of the University of Nevada Senate Room will live on in the replacement buildings.

            But the dominant donor to the university remains Max C. Fleischmann (pictured above).  He was born in 1877 to parents who had already made their fortune in yeast production, and what follows is the tale of a man who started with 20 million dollars and ran it into a fortune.

            He moved to Nevada with his wife Sarah in 1930, bought ranches near Yerington and Carson City, built a grand home in Glenbrook, and lost little time in starting to enhance northern Nevada for the next half-century.  Early on he enabled the conversion of the federal Carson City Mint to the Nevada State Museum, the purchase-then-donation of the sprawling 264-acre Ladino Dairy Ranch to the university, help to the Boy Scouts, Ducks Unlimited, libraries, both local hospitals and the school district.  After WWII came the endowment of the Max C. Fleischmann College of Agriculture and the Sarah H. Fleischmann College of Home Economics. 

            In 1952 he endowed the Fleischmann Foundation to the tune of 63 million dollars, give or take a mil or two and rising with accruing interest like the yeast that created it.  Foundation trustee Sessions (Buck) Wheeler’s biography of Fleischmann Gentleman in the Outdoors was published by the University Press in 1985.

            Max died by his own hand on Oct. 16, 1951 in Santa Barbara, where he maintained another ranch, very shortly after being diagnosed with cancer.  The foundation continued his philanthropic work; two major benefactors in the years shortly following his death were the new National Judicial College and the Desert Research Institute.  Sarah passed away in July of 1960.  The Foundation’s final reconciliation was made in 1978, and the obligatory public record revealed 192 million dollars in grants, with 47 per cent of them staying in northern Nevada and the University the biggest benefactor.  Its smallest single grant was 250 dollars; the largest, 19.3 million dollars, that to the University. 

               The Fleischmann Atmospherium-Planetarium, named at his request for his parents, was built in 1963 by McKenzie Construction to a Ray Hellman design.  The Gannett Foundation of Gannett Publishing, known for its great Sunday columnists, endowed the sky projector.

            Where did the other 53 per cent of the Fleischmann Foundation’s grants go?  A great deal went to education throughout Southern California and specifically in Santa Barbara.  There were some major endowments to schools in the Rockies heavy into mining and agriculture, including a wing on the University of Colorado’s planetarium.  And we’d like to think he just frittered a few mil away (a WWI combat pilot, he commuted to and from Santa Barbara in his own Lockheed Vega, similar to Amelia Earhart’s Electra.)  


Added, a note from Dr. Gene Pascucci:

As you know my parents bought the bunkhouse on the Evans ranch on Evans Ave in 1955, Evans being another integral donor to the then- University of Nevada.
Such a great article to read today as our house bordered on the campus and it literally was my childhood playground growing up. I jumped our back fence and cut thru the campus everyday walking past Getchell and Jot Travis to go to school at St. Alberts on North Virginia across from Jot Travis Student Union, a building my dad had worked on.
I watched them build Getchell Library and collected the workman’s empty soda bottles for 5 cent refunds to buy candy at the little corner store on Artemesia and Sierra Streets
We rode our bikes down to Fleishmann’s Ag building and would wander thru the halls to look at all the biology specimens entombed in formaldehyde glass jars. Little did I know at the time how much I would appreciate that I would eventually get my Biology degree and those three men’s buildings would be so integral to my early life and later my education. Such fond memories stimulated from your article this morning of days gone by.


Thanks, Doc!

© Breckenridge; Fleischmann photo U of Nevada Library Special Collections

Happy Bill Howard, The Nugget’s Flagpole Sitter


‘Twas in the year of 1955 that the battleship gray and black-and-green high-reach crane trucks – Sierra Pacific Power and Nevada Bell’s respectively – set a spindly 60-foot pole on the north side of B Street in Sparks just across the street from the Sparks Nugget’s brand-new building, set guy wires to keep it vertical, and then lifted a replica of a shiny gold nugget as big as a Chevy Suburban to the top of the pole.  On that nugget they set a platform, and finally a canvas tent on the platform, then aimed floodlights up to illuminate it.

            The Nugget casino south of B Street was tiny compared to the Nugget of today; no I-80 freeway over the building, just B Street out in front doubling as transcontinental Highway 40.  No elephants; this was pre-Bertha.  Last Chance Joe had just arrived to keep an eye on the happenings out in front.  And pilgrim, did he get an eyeful as Happy Joe Howard, the last of the great pre-war flagpole sitters arrived to begin his ascent to the platform atop the tower on August 4, 1955, where he would stay longer than any flagpole sitter would ever sit.  Flagpole-sitting was a rage that died out somewhere in the 1930s, probably for good reason, but the Nugget’s then-owner Dick Graves, already well-along in the process of selling the Nugget to John Ascuaga, was a showman, attuned to every PR stunt in the book. 

            Howard soon became accustomed to life on top of the highest building in Sparks.  He became the darling of the local media and the West Coast scribes when his time on top of the gold nugget started to look like a serious attempt.  A month, two months, dragged by, the number on the base of the “flagpole” being changed daily to indicate the number of days he had stayed there.  The summer of 1955 arrived and the world was in turmoil, but local notice was paid first to Happy Bill Howard, so high above B Street, drawing crowds of people who would stop on the highway to look in wonder at how he could possibly keep doing it. 

            Casual visitors could speak to Happy Bill on a phone provided by Nevada Bell, from the base of the tower to his lofty perch.  Several times daily a truck from the Nugget arrived to lift a basket of grub – the best fare of the Roundhouse Room or an Awful-Awful burger from the Coffee Shop, maybe an iced pitcher of piçons from the Nugget’s long-gone Basque Bar, the day’s edition of the Reno Evening Gazette, and letters from his fans.  He had a radio, no TV.  For reasons unknown to anyone, a band of local idiots tried to incinerate Happy Bill by burning down his tower, forgetting that the Sparks Fire Department and Police Department were housed nearby on C Street then.  The fire laddies doused the fire and Sparks’ Finest threw the perpetrators into the hoosegow for a few nights.  

            Time marched on into the dog days of August.  The West Coast press still loved it, and afforded the Nugget the ongoing publicity in the Bay Area that Dick Graves had hoped for.  Happy Bill’s birthday arrived, with accompanying hoopla and a cake from the Nugget’s bakery, songs from the local media and fans. 

          And the unexpected occurred – Happy Bill woke up with a hell of a toothache one morning, and the Nugget summoned respected Reno dentist Arnold Johannes to his aid.  In a display of humanitarian emergency not one bit concealed from the adoring press, Dr. Johannes was lifted in a Jacob’s Chair-harness with his black bag of drills, pliers, wrenches, laughing gas and an Blue Cross form to Happy Bill’s side, to administer on-the-pole medical aid.  I suspect that the rest of the late Dr. Johannes’ career, excitement-wise, was downhill after that procedure…

            As the leaves turned to gold on the trees lining the Reserve in Sparks, the evening winds turned wintry.  Happy Bill’s reign over the little town was coming to a close, although not for lack of interest – the town and the media continued to embrace his effort, but the simple fact was that his flagpole had no heat, and the night was rapidly approaching during which he’d freeze his celebrated buns off.  Leaving on a high note started to become realistic.

            In a round of PR embraced by Reno and Sparks and the San Francisco press, by then including Herb Caen and Terrence O’Flaherty, Happy Bill Howard was returned on February 12, 1956 to Mother Earth by the same Nevada Bell snorkel truck that had set him atop the flagpole, 204 days – almost seven months – before.     

            Bill’s work on earth, or in this case above it, was done – his effort was vastly successful in putting the little burg of Sparks, known before by very few in the Bay Area as being a little east of Reno, wherever that was, permanently onto the map.  For his efforts he was awarded $6,800 and a sterling silver belt buckle as big as a penny postcard engraved with Thanks from the Sparks Nugget in a very public ceremony.  To our knowledge, he never sat flagpoles again.  And Sparks, whatever it been before that, was defined as a destination town; Dick Graves departing, a legend named John Ascuaga soon to arrive.  .

            I thank several readers for inquiring about Happy Bill Howard and inspiring this story, [the late] Fred Davis – the Nugget’s longtime (1958-1972) publicity director, Sparks native Don Stockwell – he of the ironclad memory, the Nevada Historical Society, John Ascuaga, Nugget executive secretary Nancy Trabert for their help with this yarn.

teext © RGJ, a long time ago

photo Bill Howard © JA Nugget/Custom Publishing Group


Eugene’s – computer busted, look for new material Wednesday July 17!!

Eugene Jarvis turned a classic old ranch house a fur piece south of Reno into an elegantly appointed restaurant after the end of World War II.  He might have called it “Jarvis’s” but owing to either caprice or the awkward apostrophe, he elected to go with “Eugene’s” thus bestowing one of the most instantly identified and enduring names in Reno’s heritage.

Eugene'sJarvis picked the name, but it took two young men who met in New York at the 1939 World’s Fair and journeyed – separately – to Reno, to get the restaurant underway.  Joe Patrucco was the affable bartender at the Riverside Hotel’s well-known Corner Bar, while Gilbert Vasserot had opened the Moulin Rouge restaurant on Sierra Street.  Their youthful careers were interrupted by a world war, but they rejoined and in 1947 bought the restaurant from Jarvis, retaining the Eugene’s name and assembling a world-class staff that would give Reno a restaurant that would rival the finest in cosmopolitan San Francisco.  (Eugene Jarvis, possibly to create confusion for 50 years to follow, would open a second Eugene’s on a promontory above Lake Tahoe’s Crystal Bay.)

      Gilbert, a Swiss culinary artiste trained in Europe, donned the chef’s toque, a hat he would wear six nights a week for years to follow, while Joe handled the “front” duties – also six nights a week.  And Joe greeted all equally – Eugene’s had the local reputation that a guest was a guest and none were treated better or more quickly than others; that all would receive old world hospitality be they Dennis Day sneaking in for dinner before his show in the Mapes Sky Room, or the local couple taking their daughter out to dinner on her 16th birthday. 

  • • •

The town embraced Eugene’s with civic pride, and eleven years after it opened in Eugene Jarvis’ ranch house, local architect Frank Green was commissioned to design a new restaurant building. 

        Premier local builder Allan Gallaway finished the new restaurant on a spot now near the domes left over from the Century Theater south of the Peppermill, and Gilbert and Joe reopened Eugene’s on May 14th, 1958 (a great photo of Joe and his wife Lucia, and Gilbert with his Lucienne, taken on the steps on opening night, will magically appear on my website soon…) [Lucienne passed away shortly after this column appeared.]   The original ranch house restaurant had been moved a few hundred feet to the west to free up the site for construction.  That structure burned a few years after the new restaurant opened.  And it wasn’t the old James McKay house, as I and many others originally believed; the McKay home was a long block to the south.

What a place the new restaurant was!  A classic bar with a beamed ceiling, leaded glass windows and thickly padded leather banquettes, and a bartender named Cliff Challender who prided himself on committing regular diners’ cocktail preferences to memory (Gilbert points with great pride at his sommelier – wine steward, to some of us – well-remembered by many as Antoine Balducci, who handled the patrons’ wine orders with uncanny knowledge, freeing up the waiters to provide better service.)

        The main room was quiet and open, with rich paneling and more leather – chairs and banquettes – and chandeliers with bulbs hand-painted by Gilbert himself for just the right effect. Pianist Del (few knew his last name was Dellaquadre) could be heard around the room, subtly, but less subtly when somebody would roll in with a party of eight and no reservations.  Del would break into La Vie En Rose, to some a charming love song, but to Joe Patrucco, somewhere out in the room greeting guests, a code to come to the front pronto and deal with a problem.

        One didn’t hear La Vie En Rose too often at Joe and Gilbert’s…

  • • •     

The bill of fare rivaled any fine dinner house in America, garnering Holiday Magazine Five-Star awards year after year when fewer than 75 were conferred in the whole country.  In 1960, Eugene’s hosted the City of Reno’s welcoming luncheon for the International Olympic Committee during the Squaw Valley Winter Olympics.  Business soon came from one interesting market, the airlines. United Air Lines, three words in the 1960s, began with meals for two flights a day to solve a logistical problem and found that the food was so popular on those runs that they eventually selected Eugene’s to prepare meals for twelve flights a day.  Years ago the rumor was that United changed their schedules just to use food from Eugene’s.  Bonanza Airlines also served Eugene’s fare enroute to Las Vegas.  Gil and Joe did take-out judiciously; for a good customer a little under the weather, a Broiled Langoustine Eugene’s or a Filet of Sole Meuniere, with Foigras du Perigord or Zabalione might appear on their sickbed tray.  Or, for Charles Clegg and historian/raconteur Lucius Beebe’s St. Bernard – all three fairly frequent diners — a nice dish of Skippy a la Comstock for the beast.

There’s too much on the menu here to cover in one week.  Soon, we’ll name names: the long-time employees who bought it from Joe and Gilbert in 1961; about photographers Gitta and Jimmie Smith, old-world names like Madalaine Chamot, Annie Creux, Walter Zhand, Rene Jacquemin, Raymond Capitaine, Sergé Nussbaum, Don Richter and Dave Blakely (Richter and Blakely?  Well, not all of them were old-world…) I’ll include some anecdotes from a recent visit with Gilbert Vasserot, some more from the late Joe Patrucco’s daughter Linda, about Eugene’s guests, staff, and great times in a Reno landmark, and finally about Joe and Gilbert’s Continental Lodge.

And now, dessert…

In a recent column, we spoke of what I boldly labeled the finest restaurant that ever graced local nightlife – Eugene’s – and I braced myself for a spate of e-mail pointing out a few other classy places, of which there are many in town.  That argument never arrived (a lot of agreement did, however.)  On the other hand, I heard from all 1,704 people, to listen to them, who had dined in the old house out by the present Peppermill that housed the original Eugene’s on the night owners Joe Patrucco and Gilbert Vasserot closed it in 1958.  And all of the 3,214 first-nighters when the restaurant reopened in the new building across the parking lot on May 14th the same year.  [Sarcasm herein missed by some readers – the new place sat about 130 diners.]  Gitta was there that night and took many photos of the diners, as she did almost every night, trundling off to her studio downtown to process and print them and return before her subjects left for a nightcap at the Riverside.

I promised in that column that in this sequel I’d name names and here we go, with little regard to sequence or grammar:

        It’s hard to think of Eugene’s without thinking of Gil and Joe, then almost automatically of the tall, ethereal waiter-turned-host-turned-owner, who approached Joe Patrucco in 1946, he looking for a job as a waiter, Joe then in the process of buying Eugene’s from Eugene Jarvis.  His name was Walter Zhand (still is) and this “skinny kid,” as Joe described him once in a letter to his daughter, became synonymous with wonderful service and food, first at Eugene’s, then at the Continental Lodge that Joe and Gil opened in 1963 (that’s a column for another Saturday), and later when he built the Galena Forest restaurant on the Mt. Rose Highway.  (Walter, with Raymond Haas and chef Raymond Capitaine, bought Eugene’s in 1971 and operated it into the early 1980s.)  Walter still walks from his home by Virginia Lake, ramrod-straight, still a great guy.

        Many readers wrote of their favorites: Angelo Buccalari tended the bar in the earlier years; Cliff Challender, of the masterful memory for patrons’ favorite drinks, took over later.  Armand was the wine steward of long standing; Raymond Haas was originally a waiter, becoming the lead wine steward when Antoine Balducci, who took over from Armand, retired.  Sergé Nussbaum, Walter Dixon, René Jacquemin, and Carmen.  Waiter Heinz Sauer’s name came up, as did a chef named Mel, and another named Steve LePochat.  Here’s a surprise: Retired Carson City dentist Tom Horgan, who bussed tables while in school. Ingo and Uwe Nikoley, they were there…

  • • •

The patrons were myriad and far-flung to Reno from around the world: During the Squaw Valley Olympics, Joe and Gilbert hosted Lillian Crosa, the figure skater from Gilbert’s native Switzerland, her coach Annie Creux, and ladies downhill contender Madelaine Chamot.  During the filming of The Misfits, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and most of the cast made

Eugene’s their home-away-from-home for dinner (a photo in Gilbert’s scrapbook which he so kindly loaned me depicts our own Betty Stoddard in a page near the Misfit cast, and most people I’ve shown the scrapbook to at first see Betty as Marilyn.  Their 1960 resemblance was amazing…)

        It should be noted that the inspiration for this column came from two fronts occurring within a week of each other: the first, the aforementioned Betty Stoddard sitting with Bob Carroll in a Bonanza Inn TV commercial chatting about great old restaurants – the Lancer, Vario’s, Eugene’s, etc.  Almost simultaneously a lady e-mailed me about a restaurant that her father co-owned, out South Virginia by the Peppermill, a long time ago.  Might make a good column.  “Yeah, I’ve heard of it once or twice,” I answered Linda Patrucco Doerr, and I was off and running.

        Gilbert’s book contains dozens of other neat photos, most from Gitta, Reno’s pre-eminent nightlife photographer, a few from Jimmie Smith and a few more from Don Dondero.  One is of Reno mayor Len Harris and his wife, another of Mike Mirabelli, the music man and state treasurer, one of my old friend Dave Ginsburg and his parents, yet another of Eddie Questa, Jordan Crouch, and a few other First National Bank honchos who I can’t recognize.  And one real treasure: How many people remember Reno’s first TV news anchorman?  I picked him out of a shot, when others couldn’t: His name was, and remains, Durward Yasmer, the voice of KZTV. [later KOLO-TV.]

  • • •

Finally, the guys who parked the cars.  There were a few, I’ll name two old fraternity buddies: Don Richter, who prided himself on lurking around the restaurant watching for a party to get ready to leave, then bringing their car to the door as they walked out (he used his free time to dump the ashtrays and wash the windshields, and reportedly later took three years in the insurance business to get his income back up to what he made in tips at Eugene’s.)  A later valet was Dave Blakely, whose late parents Bill and Maryalice were steady diners at the restaurant.

        I’m indebted to many for the background for this yarn; to Gilbert Vasserot, who with Joe Patrucco – who passed away in 1994 – set the standard against which local dining class and elegance will be measured for years to come.  To Joe’s children, Linda Patrucco Doerr and her brother Bob (and Wendy) Patrucco.  And to Josette Jacquemin, Christiane Markwell, Denise Haas Hastings, and Carmen Buccalari Borges, for their reminiscences.

  • • •

(this column originally appeared in the RGJ on June 23rd, 2001)

July 13 – A letter from a friend!

A day or so ago I wrote of the Sparks SP railyard in our youth, and this reponse arrived from my ol’ childhood/upper Ralston Street playmate Don Hartman, now living, using the term loosely, in the Sacramento environs. His post is so good and well-written I just cut-and-psated it into this space! Enjoy, and thanks, Don…

DonHartmanSparks was SP and the SP was Sparks. Sparks, back in the day, was a true railroad town. My dad took me to the roundhouse (he, too, worked for the Mighty SP until he went into gaming at Harolds Club). The roundhouse was scary to a 10-year-old. There were the big cab-forward engines and the large conventional rear-cab articulated steam engines. I climbed up on the “cow-catcher” of the cab-in-rear monster and was amazed that the “front porch” was as big as my whole bedroom on Ralston Street! The cab-in-rear articulated locomotives were used on the Modoc line – Sparks- Fernley via Pyramid Lake and then all the way to Alturas and Klamath Falls, Oregon.  The roundhouse was so big and there were signs on the roundhouse walls stating, “Do Not Lean On Walls”….my dad said the SP did not want grease and oil- covered workers to get the roundhouse walls dirty from workers’ clothes if workers leaned on the walls!

I remember the roundhouse was freezing cold in winter. The big turntable was so neat to watch as it spun the giant locomotives around. I loved watching the turntable and never forgot an alarm bell would ring just before it started to turn.

My grandmother lived by the old Sparks High School. When I visited her as a young kid, it was neat to hear a loud, shrill whistle blow at high noon at the SP yard so the workers in the roundhouse could go to lunch. That whistle could be heard all over Sparks at 12 noon and again at 12:30 p.m. and also beginning and ending of the shifts in the roundhouse. The newer building next to the roundhouse you mentioned is where my grandfather worked. That building scared the pants off me when my dad took me in there. It is where heavy-duty machine work took place and where parts for locomotive repair were forged. Very, very loud machine noises…large, heavy-duty drop-forge hammers, sparks and fire from machines everywhere; hot, loud banging pipes and big locomotive wheels, glowing-white-hot locomotive parts, grease and oil and puddles of water everywhere. I do not see how Grandpa Dondero could work in that building eight hours a day, six days a week for many years. OSHA would have a field day!

Side note…my dad took me to the roundhouse one Indian-Summer day, October 1953. While there, we saw my uncle who was a brakeman for the SP. My uncle got me (unauthorized) into the cab of a diesel locomotive and I was allowed to sit in the fireman’s seat and ring the bell at road crossings all the way to Fernley where my dad met us. The SP line followed the Truckee River and it was a beautiful Nevada-Autumn day….golden-yellow cottonwoods, ducks on the Truckee…

[In a separate response]: Karl, you may want to add this: Looking back at my visit to that SP building so many years ago, it is amazing the conditions my grandpa and other workers toiled under in that hot, noise-filled building. Boots, bibb-overalls gloves, flannel shirts, period. No eye protection, ear protection…no hard-hats…..and they could not even lean against the walls to rest…

Thanks again, Don; good words…


July 12 – A Pocketful of Notes

HerbCaenFairmontSure – Herb Caen is my role model; make no mistake. I’ve always wanted to have a deadline six days a week in six decades as he met. And yeah, I use his heds once in a while, but I don’t think I ever knowingly used one without attribution, especially since he passed away in 1997 (and yes I went to his service, which was at just about any pub in San Francisco that first week of March!). So when you see A Pocketful of Notes, as above, or Out Of My Mind, or These Things I Like or others in this column, look for attribution to him.

Sadly, one of his trademark names, this the one of his mythical ace researcher who he’d dispatch to the darkest corners of The City to ferret out some facts, is no longer relevant. The name he gave this person was Etaoin Shrdlu, and at one time in journalism circles it drew a lot of yucks, for all right down to the newest-hire copyboy knew what Caen meant. Now in the 21st century I used it once, only to find that only I and the Big Dude Lerude knew whereof I wrote (OK, Jim Richards makes three).

etaoinshrdluIn the golden days of the newspaper biz, the type was made by dumping molten lead into a mold created by a Linotype machine, which was already on the pathway to oblivion when I enrolled on The Hill in 1959 (but legendary Professor Higginbotham required a class be devoted to it, 16 weeks. He also decreed hand typesetting, a la the Gutenburg Bible) for another 16 weeks. When the Linotype operator knew that he made an error, he’d drag his right index finger from the top to the bottom of the dominant row of the machine’s keyboard, like a typewriter’s ASDFKL: line, but vertical on a Linotype. On the Linotype, it made a line reading ETAOIN SHRDLU. This line stood out like a sore thumb to the copyeditor, who would pull the lead from the elaoinshrdle line and the one above it – the one with the error.

linotypeCaen named his mythical researcher Etaoin Shrdlu, to the great amusement of newspaper people. I used it, one time (with attribution to Caen) and knew that I’d never do it again. No one knew what the hell I was writing about (which is not uncommon). So – should you see that person’s name mentioned in type, that’s the story. I give all my heavy research to Carmine Ghia, who first appeared in my column in 1999. And, is now about as relevant at Etaoin.

Here’s a classic Herb Caen squib that got the phones in San Franciisco pretty well tied up, probably in the 1950s. Once a year or so, Caen, in the Chronicle and Don Sherwood on morning drive-time on KSFO radio, would make some wisecrack that would actually tie Pacific Telephone’s switching equipment in a knot, with listeners or readers telling their friends stories like this:

The gentleman was up and getting ready for work, breakfast and then catch the 10-Monterey (22-Fillmore, 30-Stockton, whatever) to his office downtown. He’d just stepped out of the shower, and was still in his birthday suit when his wife called him, “Honey, the sink seems to be backed up. Can you take a look at it?” He grumbled but pulled a towel around himself and went into the kitchen. He knelt with his head under the kitchen counter looking at the plugged trap when the family dog ambled into the kitchen and drug his wet nose across his master’s nude posterior.

The guy reared up and struck his head on the sink cabinet quite hard, and knocked himself out. His wife found his unconscious body and couldn’t revive him so she called the ambulance. The ambulance crew couldn’t revive him either so they loaded him onto a gurney and were carrying him down the half-stairway to the street. One asked the wife how this happened, and she told them. 

The ambulance crew started to laugh, one so hard that he lost his grip on the gurney. The gurney fell, the naked unconscious husband’s wrist was broken in the fall. They reloaded him and carried him to the ambulance and drove him to Harbor (Presbyterian, St. Francis, UC Parnassus, whatever) Hospital. There the doctors set his wrist in a cast.

The guy came to shortly, wondering why his head hurt, his arm was in a cast, he was breathing through an oxygen cannula in his snoot and he was in a backless hospital gown, when the last recollection he had was looking under the sink with a pipe wrench in his hand…

Caen photo at the Fairmont © SF Chronicle


July 10 – Raising the railyard in Sparks

SP Sparks roundhouse

It is difficult to believe that in nine consecutive columns, nary a one has alluded to the Mighty SP railroad, a topic that ranks right up with schools and teachers in reader popularity. Well, 10’s the charm, and this morning we’ll touch on the SP, actually when it was the Central Pacific.

While some towns lower their train tracks, others raise ‘em:  In 1903 E. H. Harriman completed the purchase of the Central Pacific Railroad from the Big Four and immediately started to re-engineer the CP tracks to get rid of some awkward grades and curves to accommodate a new, heavier generation of locomotives and rolling stock. The main line at that time ran down Prater Way, and engineers decreed that the better route would be south of Prater with a major yard in a lowland area just south and east of the Sparks Nugget’s present location. It was then known as the Mary Wall ranch.

The area south of the present Nugget was low and therefore flood prone, but did afford room to expand the train yard, build a first-class roundhouse and locomotive shop, and relocate Southern Pacific’s branch operation from Wadsworth to the west, closer to the east threshold of the Sierra and Donner Pass. No sweat; a large community of Chinese laborers were available, the toughest in the world, whose fathers gained experience in creating the landfill Marina/South of Market areas of San Francisco in the 1840s, later in the Comstock mines, their descendants in the Donner Pass railroad tunnels and the Virginia & Truckee Railroad’s mountainous right-of-way, and were by 1902 looking for work.

They laid railroad tracks from the present Sparks rail yard along the route of the present Highway 40 to a spot near the present Stoker Drive. As many as 300 laborers, according to the Sparks Heritage Museum’s railroad expert John Hartman, took earth by pick and shovel to the gondola cars and offloaded it at the site of the new railroad yard. The work continued under torchlight night and day for 13 months until Sparks’ new railyard had been elevated and then compacted, adding a compacted elevation of nearly two feet.  Incorporating almost 80 miles of switching track, it was dead level, and it’s never flooded. The early engineers knew what they were doing.

A roundhouse servicing 36 tracks was begun after that, and the shop was completed after the yard was laid in 1904. The PFE Icehouse came relatively later, go here for some information about that operation.And if you’re a real glutton for punishment, here’s a yarn about the engine shop east of the original shop that was built during WWII.

I don’t know about you but I’m tired of reading about choo-choos. See ya tomorrow for Day 11 of the Artown Challenge!

roundhouse photo ©  SP Railroad


July 10 – On the Loose With Columnist Seuss (with apologies to Theodor Geisel)

seussIn the waning months of the 20th Century a band of Reno townsfolk invaded City Hall to persuade the City Fathers to change the name of a Reno street to “Locke,” in honor of the popular brothers Locke; Bill and Bob, pharmacist and physician respectively. “No, no,” said the council; “for that would be easily confused by Emergency 911 operators with ‘Rock,’ which already exists in both Reno and Sparks.” (The street-name change was to eliminate one of the two separate “Fairview” streets in southwest Reno.)

          Ever on the alert to champion the cause of our hamlet’s oppressed citizenry, we crafted a poem in the Saturday Gazoo to speak to the obvious pinheaded response of the council, a poem surely on a par with those of Frost, Poe, Kipling and Seuss. I had hoped that folksinger Woody Guthrie would weigh in and elevate my poem to a par with his son Arlo, Pete Seeger, Malvina Reynolds, Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Sam Dehne, but it didn’t happen that way, as Guthrie had passed away some 30 years prior to our little local poem’s introduction. Nevertheless, I resurrect it for you now – all the capitalized streets do exist, within Washoe County. (And if you haven’t seen it before three times, you must be living in a cocoon, but I need 31 columns this month for the Artown challenge)

“We’ve a Quail and a Vale, a Dale and a Ruth; a Swaledale, a Gale, a Muth and a Booth;

Ralston and Purina, Sandra and an Arbor; a Marina and a Sandy and one called Harbor.

A Ron and a Dawn, a Von and a Valerie; a Fawn, a Jon, a Hahn and a Mallory;

Stine and Line, Rhein and Pine; Damon and Pythia, Forsythia and Vine.

Molly and Polly, Sally and Rilla, let’s not forget Jolly, Valley and Villa.


“Suzy Lake and Sphynx, Suzanne and Sue; a street named Lynx and one named Larue.

We know Mall and Fall and Ball, y’all; and Tholl and Wall and (close) dePaul; 

(Who once sang Puff de Magic Dragon with dePeter and deMary).

And all of this really starts to get scary, with Cherry and Lymbery, Geary and Gary.


“We’ve a Haley and a Bailey, Robb and Clover; to a fireman they might sound like Cobb or Plover.

Rye and Sky and Nye and Champion; a Whistle and a Thistle, but what is a ‘Rampion’?

Bates and Gates, Kate, State and Leather; all seem to rhyme with Tate, Feather and Heather.

Dow Jones or Jones might mislead the man in the firetrucky,

But not half so much as Buck, Tuck or Lucky.


“Caballo, Denio, Rio Tinto and Cello; Papoose and Caboose, Pinto and Mello.

Marne, Tarn and Barnes, Carlin and Hodge, they all sound a lot like Marvin and Lodge.

Prater and Slater, Pearl and Earl; Oh! How I wish we’d a street called Squirrel!


“Brook Drive and Brooks Circle, and a third street called Brookie;

And if Brook rhymes with Nanook, then what rhymes with Brookie?

We have Lacy and Staci, Snow and Coe; Tracy and Casey, and old Latigo.

There’s a Little Ford and Ford, and indeed, a Taurus;

But Prior and Dyer don’t do that much for us.


“A Duke and a Prince, a King and a Queen; Daniel, Daniel Webster, plain old Webster and Lean.

Ben and Ben Franklin, Franklin and tough rhymin’; Bank, Robert Banks, Roberts and Lyman.

Sandra and Dee, Bobby and Darin –is this the place to throw in McCarran?”








July 9th – of a Saint and of Berta

RHS2009One may think that the school district is screwed up today, but I’ll tell a tale here about a stroke of genius that was rendered in 1958. I was then a senior at Reno High, taking a class called “Civics” from a teacher who was principally a coach, but the district said that to be a coach one had to teach some creampuff subject as well. He was teaching Civics – the study of government, past and present, right here in the US of A.

A test of some consequence was coming ’round the bend soon, and sensing that we’d be asked to name the cabinet offices of the government, I composed in my mind a mnemonic to bring the answers to the forefront. I shared my mnemonic – “St. Dapical the Tenth” – with classmates, and we all aced that element of our test.

It came to light soon that the four-eyed geek with ears that looked like a NYC taxicab with both doors open in the back of the classroom had facilitated most in the room – boys and girls – to score high on that question. I was called on the carpet for this transgression. “What’s the difference how we remember, so long as we remember?” I asked in my defense. “We’re here to learn, Karl, not play word games with the government,” I was informed.

Oh. I offered a counter to his aberrated reasoning, for which I was dispatched to the vice-principal of discipline, another eight-ball in the system that no real employer would give houseroom to. I’d like to think that calling the Civics teacher a “fumducker” somewhere along the way had nothing to do with this decision.

My father, who spent more time than I did at Reno High in my senior year, was again summoned (he had his own parking place in the circle in front of Reno High).  I had to promise to never again screw up a test by sharing a mnemonic like “St. Dapical X” with my friends, and a few other things. And the Civics teacher, as proof of the book “Peter Principle,” postulating that all people rise to the level of their incompetence, would several years later be named the principal of a new high school.

God help the students and staff of that school, and I’ll elucidate “St. Dapical X” at the end of this piece. And I will share one of my father’s more propitious comments, uttered years later – he a man who would take the side of the Devil Incarnate over me in any situation: “Where did the district ever find those two…?”

Berta (2)OK, now let’s go for a more positive person in classroom teaching and management – her name was Roberta Kirchner and when they’re handing out school names, the “Berta Kirchner Elementary School” has a nice ring to it. At the 50-year reunion of the Class of 1959 ten years ago, Mrs. Kirchner was a leader in the informal appellation of our most-favored teachers (John Gonda won for the men teachers). Here’s an example of a class with Mrs. Kirchner:

At the inaugural day of our English class, September 1958 for our senior year 1959, she laid out the curriculum for the ensuing school year: heavy on the classics – “Tale of Two Cities,” “Silas Marner,” “Pride and Prejudice” – more of the same boring stuff we’d endured since junior high. Sensing the moaning and groaning from the assembled Sweathogs, she stopped. For some reason she looked square at me. “Mr. Breckenridge, what would you like to study this year? Mickey and Donald? Batman? Woody?” She left out The Roadrunner and Wile E.

The Sweathogs chuckled. Knowing that once your feet are off the ground it doesn’t matter how high they hang you, I said, “How ’bout some writers that are more modern? The best poet in the land died two weeks ago, why not him? Jack London lived in Glen Ellen and John Steinbeck still lives in Monterey – both two hundred miles from here – how ’bout them? Jane Austen could bore anybody. How ’bout Rudyard Kipling? Every kid in this class oughta have to recite ‘If’ to get out of here…”

“OK, Mr. Breckenridge, I’ll make you a deal: If you can come back in this room Monday (I think this was on a Friday) and recite one of the guy who just died’s poems, I’ll think about it!”

Rats – how did I get in this boat, I thought. For the next 72 hours, I ate, lived and slept with one poem going through my head. I holed up in my bedroom and read it over and over. At school Monday morning I was a Zombie – the poem going through my head endlessly

And Berta played me like a Stradavarius during class when it finally came. No mention of my poem was uttered – she just let me twist in the wind, waiting. With five minutes left in the hour-long class, she said, “Oh, Mr. Breckenridge, do you have a poem for us?”

I stood, looked at the floor, then the ceiling. I began to speak: “A bunch of the boys were whooping it up at the Malemute Saloon; the kid that handles the music bos was playing a jagtime tune…” – the words of the late poet Robert Service and his “Shooting of Dan McGrew” – six minutes of torture.

But it worked; Berta started the next class with the announcement that “We’re abandoning the ‘gasbags’ as Mr. Breckenridge called them last week, for some poets and writers a bit more contemporary ..”

“Gasbags”? I said that…? Well it must have worked. We had a wonderful year, then went our separate ways. Berta retired and took over the ladies golf program and newsletter at Hidden Valley, doing a Yeoman’s job with the administration and burning up the links. Even wrote a book: Twisted Pinon Golf Club – The Red Tees. She passed away in 2008 – a great lady, a friend and a teacher’s teacher.

Oh, almost forgot: St. Dapical the Tenth: ST = State, Treasury. DAP = Defense, Attorney General, Postmaster General. I = Interior. CAL =  Commerce, Agriculture, Labor. X = Health, Education and Welfare. If I ever take such a test again, I’ll have to account for Homeland Security!

Snapshot of Berta, courtesy Paul Kirchner

July 8th – Monkeytail


As some know, on a tipsy bet I  accepted a challenge to publish a column every day for the 31 days of  Artown. Nowhere in the rules of the bet did I say that the pieces would be original, or even good. Te following is proof-positive that they won’t be good. But it counts toward the 31! HA!

Often, while on my usual relentless quest for some new quotidian facet of bygone life in our valley, an idle conversation can take a subtle turn and lo, a column just begging to be written hits me right between the horns. While I usually try for a little greater depth than the following item affords, sometimes ya just gotta have a little caprice on the keyboard.

            The talk at men’s coffee groups can transcend from informative and cogent, to complete blather, in about seven syllables, and that happened a few weeks ago at the Black Bear Diner coffee shop.  The intelligent and significant discussion was of the proliferation of bar codes in pricing, and the capability of a merchant to change prices, up or down, by mere keystrokes on a computer. And the follow-on thought was how much easier that was than re-marking everything in the store. So far, that all made sense.

            But then, local historian extraordinaire Red Kittell brought up MONKEYTAIL, and what was slightly frightening was that most at the table knew what monkeytail is. Or was. Once upon a time there was a venerable store in western Nevada named Eagle Thrifty Drug & Market – we know them now as Raley’s. Eagle Thriftys sold everything under the sun, and their basement on the Wells Avenue store (now a Mercado) was a hardware/camper/TV and radio/auto mechanic/outdoor furniture freak’s paradise. All of their wares had a price on stick-on labels, with letters below the prices. A few hapless employees divulged to the profane world what those letters stood for, never to be seen ever again (it’s rumored they reside under the produce section on the Mayberry Avenue store.) In the monkeytail code, the “m” represented “1”; the “o”, “2”; the “n”, “3”, and so forth up to the “l” for zero. We learned over time that if we were looking at a Coleman lantern that was marked $16.99 and the letters under it were “TAE,” that the store had paid Coleman $7.85 wholesale.

            It turned out that many retailers had such a code, and some were dandies; they had to be of 10 letters, none repeating. They started surfacing when bar codes and cash register scanners started ruling the west. Anyway, go out to the garage andJag XKE find an old broom or a can of paint that came from Eagle Thrifty. Armed with this information, available nowhere else in this web, you can become privy to what the Gastanaga family that owned the chain made off your transaction these 40 years ago for Jose to put toward buying that Jaguar XKE we all remember!

July 7th – Rollin’ on S.F.’s Stern Grove

Fidlr_helmetIn the early 1960s I bade fairwell to Reno and the University of Nevada and came to roost in a boarding house in San Francisco, known as the “Dair House” on Bush Street between Taylor and Mason – two blocks from Union Square. 

Life was easy at Dair House; I paid them $115 a month and they gave me two good meals a day, a big breakfast on Sunday, clean sheets once a week, a sunny south room with a view to Sutter Street  and free television (Andy Williams in Living Color!). For another $22 a month my Jeep got a parking spot at the new garage at Mason and O’Farrell Streets.

(Pictured above, Arthur Fiedler in the helmet and some clown named Klem Kadiddlehopper, looks a lot like Red Skelton…)

Early on in my tenure there I met the neighbor, who lived in the house across Bush Street. I’d noticed the house before; I had thought it was a fire station  but had also noticed that the doors to the apparatus bays never opened, nor did any engines ever leave it.

It was a private residence, the home of San Francisco’s fire chief. Built to look like  firehouse. Wowee.

FireResidenceIts occupants were Fire Chief William Murray and his wife Alida. Murray had been the chief for about ten years, and was one of the most respected and revered men ever to live in The City – by both the fire community and all its other residents. San Francisco loved its fire service, and Murray was the top kick. And he was a nice man besides, funny as a crutch!

Our nexus was my Jeep. The chief loved Jeeps, and our relationship jelled when I lent it to him to take Mrs. Murray around the block one afternoon. They were gone over an hour and I heard later they hit a considerable number of fire stations, showing it off to the boys!

One weekend morning I was washing it and he came out the door. “Karl, do you know who Arthur Fiedler is?”


Arthur Fiedler was the larger-than-life conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, FiedlerHeadprobably the nation’s finest. Immensely popular in the music world… I had a couple of his albums – my favorite was a classic on RCA Red-Seal called Concert in the Park – the park being the Pop’s home facility in Tanglewood, outside of Boston. Still have it 50 years later – my friend Deidre McCormick recently transferred it onto a CD. Fiedler was a legend…

I responded to the chief in the affirmative, the chief saying “Fiedler’s coming to town for the Pops summer season and staying with us – you want to meet him, be here at 10 a.m. next Saturday.”

Next Saturday I was indeed outside on Bush Street when a SF Fire Department hook-and-ladder came over the crest of the hill across Taylor Street (Bush is a one-way street down a pretty good grade toward the Ferry Building). No siren. In a jumpseat next to the tillerman was seated, Arthur Fiedler. 

For the uninitiated, Arthur Fiedler was known as a fire-department junkie, who made friends with the fire service in every town he visited. No less than Herb Caen, writing in the Chronicle, once wrote that “Every time Fiedler comes to town [for the annual Pops concerts], something goes up in smoke!” He was followed by a car with his luggage, and staying with the Murrays for this, the summer concert rehearsal and S. F. Pops Stern Grove Summer Concert, toughest ticket in The City.

Sigmund Stern Grove is a beautiful tree-lined concert venue about a block square, out 19th Avenue on Sloat Boulevard toward the SF Zoo. To that shady grove each summer, the SF Pops orchestra and about 5,000 of their fans would congregate to be seated at tables with red-checkered-tablecloths and mimeographed (remember those?) music lyrics and the program, BYO picnic basket lunch and wine. Fiedler would hold forth for two-and-a-half hours of the greatest music in the world – classics, modern, and even the Beatles.

You wanna go to the concert, Karl? We’ll leave from here, next Sunday morning.” I jumped at the invitation. And the following Sunday morning, a hook-and-ladder came over the Taylor Street bluff and we hopped in…out 19th Avenue we went and turned into the grove off Sloat Boulevard.


The hour came for the concert – Fiedler, resplendent in a white morning coat with tails, his silver mane tumbling over his collar, strode onto the music pavilion of Stern Grove, as he had done before on half-a-dozen summer days before. The crowd knew they were in for a treat. As is custom, he shook the hand of the first violin – the San Francisco Pops Orchestra’s captain. He raised the baton, and mesmerized the Grove’s denizens for two hours – Aaron Copeland, the Gershwins, Sibelius – their Rhapsody in Blue brought tears to all our peepers. Most of the repertoire was taken from composers still among us.

And then – the moment that all awaited.  Five thousand people in Stern Grove knew it was coming, marked by the seven introductory notes of “Ta-ra-ra-boom-dee-yay.” Now I know that younger column readers, if such there be, never heard of Aaron Copeland, Arthur Fiedler or probably Karl Breckenridge and think I must be daft, but all knew that the concert would end with Fiedler’s signature “Song Fest.” One of the greatest thrills I’ve ever known was hearing five thousand voices – the strong, the soft, the young and those older – lifting their voices in unison, almost, to the music they’d waited a year to hear, and many who had played every stunt in the world to gain admission to Stern Grove, where the tickets were free but “sold” out almost a year ago. One could probably hear us to Stonestown.

Some used the lyrics sheets available on each table, but most had grown up  with the tunes and averred the sheets, singing from memory – “Sweet Adeline”…”Bicycle Built for Two”… “Tavern in the Town” …. “Mandy” … and a half-hour’s worth of such old barbershop tunes – for some reason, the Cal fight song was quite popular. A couple tunes came from “The Music Man” which was newly on Broadway… a couple more from Rodgers & Hammerstein, then “You’ll never walk alone” and “Sunrise, Sunset” became instant favorites new to the Song Fest perennial collection.

The music ended, but no one moved for a while, content to enjoy the shade and finish their wine. I rejoined the Fiedler party, which was actually about a dozen people. Most boarded large sedans for the trip back to their host hotel – the St. Francis, as I recall. Dr. Fiedler and I roughed it, he again in his white helmet, catching a fire truck, for this trip a “triple,” not the aerial we rode out to Stern Grove.

I was amused to see the firemen on that apparatus snap to at the sight of the white fire helmet, emblematic the world around of a fire chief. Fiedler’s had “SFFD” and “Fiedler” on the crown, proof that he didn’t just find it lying around!

Inbound on 19th Avenue we traveled, with the flow of the heavy traffic – no drama from the siren or red lights – just a few of the guys out for a Sunday ride (in the patois of San Franciscans, “inbound” is travel toward the Ferry Building……).


We arrived at our respective homes on Bush Street, and disembarked the LaFrance. I thanked Fiedler and Chief Murray profusely, and crossed Bush Street to my basement room in Dair House – kicked off my shoes and flopped down on the bed.

“Did all this really happen to me…?”

photo chief residence © Art & Architecture magazine

text © Karl Breckenridge

Fiedler and Skelton  – who knows?!