A Grand day at Ralston Foods

Pilots enroute to Reno’s airport used to call tower, “Piper XXX abeam the checkerboard for landing.” And the tower knew exactly where to find Piper X-ray. This was written when the Ralston checkerboard still adorned the building’s silo on East Greg Street. Its name is different, the checkerboard’s gone, and George Smith, the Guru of Grain is nearing retirement. Here’s the story of that building and its function:

Inside what might be the only building in town where an employee could drown in a 200-gallon drum of clover honey, 150 souls have worked together for 1,000 straight days as of last Wednesday, often 24 hours each day, without incurring an injury grievous enough to necessitate any lost time, let alone killing one another.

            About 1,030 days ago [this is from a 2004 column copyrighted by the RGJ] I started watching the “Accident-Free Day” readerboard on Ralston Foods on East Greg Street grow, day-by-day, to about 270 days.  Then one January morn early in 2001 it fell to “001”.  Rats – someone got hurt and the tally had started over.  That September I called attention to their 260-plus days of safety in this column, fearful that it might carry the “Cover-of-Sports Illustrated” syndrome and trigger an accident.  Since then I’ve frequently noted their progress at the close of the column, often getting an occasional reader call checking on them when I went too long between updates.  Somewhere on a computer disc is the text from a column I can’t find, wherein I speculated that to keep the “Accident-free” count climbing, an employee’s carcass was converted into bran flakes and the evidence resides in 37 supermarkets all over the nation.  “Not so,” responded George Smith, Ralston’s Guru-of-Grain.  “That person was from the HR department, and was loaded on Dave Stix’ trailer, spread out in the pig pen at the Damonte ranch, but the pigs caught on and grazed all the way around him.”  Dave Stix is the south Reno rancher who buys unusable or spilled cereal for his feed lot.  And this tale, is obviously false.  I hope.

            How 150 people could escape injury in any facility, let alone in Ralston Foods for 1,000 days boggles the mind – I know of a 30-person office where the acrylic lens of a light fixture fell and put an employee into the hospital overnight.  When you visit the plant and watch a railcar load of oats get converted into stacked boxes of little doughnuts that look a lot like cheerios, the 1,000 days of safety take on real significance.  Note that I use no capitalized brand names in this column, as Ralston makes cereal for all the grocers, the mighty and small alike.

            A bulk-commodity railcar is rolled into the building – railcars roll silently and your visit could terminate right there as it goes over the top of you.  A stainless steel, food-grade hopper is slid under the car’s outlets – the product is in a sterilized environment from the time it leaves the railcar (and presumably when it was loaded into it.)  The car’s chutes open and compressed air takes it from the hopper to one of the score of silos in the tower on the east end of the building (the tower with the checkerboard until Ralston Purina – pet food – was sold to Ralston Foods in April of 1994 and the building completely revamped in a mega-million overhaul..)   Since the plant’s set up right now for a run of rice crispies or corn pops that might take several days, the oats will remain in the silo, then for a day longer while the plant is cleaned and reset to make cheerio-like cereal.  An independent nationwide inspection contractor familiar with industrial food plants regularly monitors sanitation.  I still have the bump-cap, safety glasses, elastic booties, hair net and earplugs that I wore during my visit, both for my own protection and the preservation of plant cleanliness Struck quite a figure in my booties and hairnet, if I do say so myself.  Wish now that I’d remembered to take the hairnet off before I went into Tom Young’s Great Basin Brewery after the tour – I the only man there with a hairnet.)

            The oat run may start at noon or some wee hour of the morning.  The production line, spread over an acre and several levels of the plant, takes life as the silo is vibrated to start the oats flowing onto a belt.  Computers guide the conveyor belts’ speed, the steam heating the huge cooking vats’ temperatures, and the little jets that extrude cooked oats in circles the size of cheerios onto a baking surface where they cook and harden and are then vibrated off into a conveyor – picture an endless stream of cheerios pouring onto the luggage carousel at the airport.  That much cereal.  If it’s nut-‘n-honey, lower-case, the computer may have released honey from one side and nuts from the other while a mechanical arm stirred it.  There’s been very little human intervention, save for keeping an eye on the many computer stations along the route.  But those humans have been constantly exposed to steam, scalding hot water, huge stainless kettles far beyond red-hot to the touch, conveyor belts grabbing at loose clothing, compressed air escaping, and an occasionally serious racket at some stops along the oats’ journey.

            The sea of cheerios moves above us, now being separated into chutes of ever-decreasing size until their opening matches the size of a cereal box.  Cardboard flats – supplied by the end-user grocers and preprinted somewhere beside this Sparks plant – are machine-folded into boxes.  Rolled waxed paper is mechanically sized, folded and glued into a sack as the cheerios pour into it, and the whole thing falls into the box which is then glued shut.  And this doesn’t take forever – the boxes fairly fly off the line and are mechanically stacked on pallets, then taken to the west end of the building for shipping.  A dry-bulk railcar of grain has been converted to a boxcar of cheerios, and the plant will retool for corn flakes.  If you’ve escaped the rolling railcar, the mile of conveyor system, the steam kettles, the compressed air transfer system, remember a forklift still might get you right here so don’t drop your guard quite yet.

            Ralston Foods and its predecessor have been outstanding community neighbors and employers in our valley, and in the brevity of this column it’s hard to overstate their diligence and commitment to industrial safety – or maybe writing that 1,000 safe days in a plant as complex and fraught with peril as any on the West Coast, says it all.  I thank Dan Kibbe, the facility’s manager, Steve Smith from Human Resources and the aforementioned George Smith, no relation, for their input and hospitality.  They’re shooting for two grand on the readerboard above the guard shack on East Greg Street, and we wish all 150 employees good luck.

            Now – go eat your morning bowl of cheerios, lower case, with an expanded appreciation of the veritable art forms floating before you.

  • • •

[It was the George, the guru-of-grain, who told me that the chicken crossed the road to see his brother Gregory peck.]

 

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March 24 • Dad’s new office in Sparks

Go to the first tale in this adventure

 

_BandstandWell, we’ve been here in Reno for a couple weeks; school will be starting soon down the hill at Mary S. Doten. Dad got a job as a real estate man working for an agent named Charles H. Skipper, whose office is in Sparks, a little town just east of Reno. Dad said he thinks it will grow pretty fast with a guy named George Probasco, building houses that the guys getting out of the service will be buying.

Dad took me out to Sparks this Saturday morning. We went out the Lincoln Highway, past a lot of old pre-war businesses and some “auto courts” that I’ll tell you all about one of these times when I’m writing again. But this morning I start our walk at his office, in a little tiny house on A Street. The main drag through Sparks is the Lincoln Highway, but in Sparks it’s called “B Street.” Skipper’s office is on “A Street,” south of the highway and on the south side of a pretty little park called the “Reserve” by the Union Pacific Railroad when they moved to Sparks in 1903. It was reserved for a park for employees of the railroad, and had sat there for 40 years, grassy with nice walkways, early light fixtures and a small eight-sided “Queen Anne” bandbox on the east end of the Reserve  (pictured above). It started at about 12th Street which in time to come would be a casino called the Nugget, and went from there east a long ways, toward what I’d learn in 1955 would be a bunch of great big tanks to hold oil and gas and stuff, starting about 4th Street. Getting myself adjusted, I figured out that 8th Street would become known as “Pyramid Way” because it went to Pyramid Lake.

SP Sparks roundhouseThe railroad’s property was fenced, on a line which started south of dad’s new office on A Street. There were a couple of gates, the big one that most of the employees used was at the foot of 8th Street, Pyramid Way. Just beyond that gate was the railroad’s “roundhouse,” a big building to turn locomotives with. I didn’t know it that morning but in a few years it would be torn down and its bricks used all over Reno and Sparks. There was another big building to the east of the roundhouse, where the railroad worked on its locomotives. During the war, which was just ended, a wing was added to the east of that brick building. There were big locomotives everywhere, with silver fronts and their smokestacks in the back, which was different than what I saw in El Cerrito when we lived there. And you could hear (and smell!) them from blocks away from the railyard.

 I met Mr. Shelly that morning with dad. He was a neat guy who owned a hardware store a little ways up Pyramid Way by the airport. He knew all about the railroads, and told me that there was over 30 miles of side tracks in the Sparks railroad yard. The ground had been built up in 1903  before the railroad laid all that track, with dirt that had been brought in from a little place west of Reno by a street that would later be called Stoker. But this was 1946, so I didn’t know that street’s name then. He told me that when the railroad opened their railyard they brought in over 1,000 tons of coal and made a big pile of it to use in their engines

The engines were built for the snow sheds west of town, with the engineers’ seats in the front and air pumped into the cab, to keep the smoke out when they were in the tunnels on the big mountain west of Reno. Boy, I can’t wait to go up and see those snow sheds and tunnels! I’ll write about it here when I do! The railroad bought a lot of those locomotives. Mr. Shelly told me that at one time over a hundred of them were built by Baldwin Locomotive in Philadelphia and towed to Sparks. He gave dad and I a ride in his pickup to the far end of the railyard, where we went over 14 sets of tracks, I counted ‘em, on Stanford Way to cross the yard. The street was named for Mr. Stanford, one of the railroad’s owners. And it was later closed to cars. One day in the mid-1950s they would start building those tanks, but we didn’t know that then.

FiremanSparks was a fun town to walk around in while dad worked selling houses. I’d go often with him on Saturdays. The Reserve got a lot of use with kids like me during the day and in the evening they’d have band concerts and dances in the little bandbox. There was a library across B Street that took good care of kids. On a sad note I remember a procession one morning with firemen marching slowly alongside Sparks Fire Department’s pumper truck. All its hoses were removed and a casket with a flag over it was in the hose bay. Dad said it was for the Sparks fire chief, who died fighting a fire in Reno at the Greyhound bus station on Lake Street. That was August 1948, and I think everybody in Sparks and many from Reno were on the lawn at the Reserve. That really stuck in my mind for a long time. There’s a memorial statue now for fallen firemen on Pyramid Way.

There were some nice stores on the north side of B Street. One all us kids liked was theAdams Sparks Bootery, where you could stand on a gadget and see your feet and all the bones and stuff inside your shoes, in a weird green color that looked right through your shoes! Another neat store was a friend of dad’s, Mr. Adams, who was the official watch repair guy for the railroad. He took care of all the railroaders, who had to own a certain kind of watch, and have it inspected each year. He had a big board full of pocket watches that he’d loan to the engineers and conductors while their own watch was being tested. I got lucky and got to have one  of those old “loaners” in later life.  

 Well, dad’s calling me now across the park so I’m going to go. We’ll meet again soon – there’s a lot more places to walk in Reno and school will be starting soon and I’ll be off to kindergarten! Maybe I’ll be a better writer then, come back and we’ll see……

 Contact the six-year old at kfbreckenridge@live.com

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A turkey lays an egg…and a link to the 1950 Thanksgiving flood…

cometThe non-sensical piece that follows has run innumerable times, usually proximate to Thanksgiving, in the Gazoo when I wrote those columns, on my website when I had it years ago, and a couple times in the SF Chronicle when I sent it in (I didn’t really write it; I merely stole it from someone who told it in a joke and turned it into a news story.) It may be true, or not. The photo is a vintage British airliner, a Comet made by the forerunners of the Airbus consortium. A friend asked me over the weekend, are we going to read that stupid turkey story again? Yes you are; here it is. Maybe the next post will be of some substance. Or not. Happy Thanksgiving to All!

~ ~ ~

Early in the maturation of jet airliners, British aircraft engineers, addressing the dilemma of strengthening pilots’ windscreens against bird-strikes at low altitude, think a Canadian honker vs. a FedEx Airbus getting together over Peckham Lane after takeoff. They knew the United States had much experience with this matter and contacted some Southern California aeronautical engineers, who supplied plans for a rudimentary catapult that hurled a standard, store-bought turkey at a test windshield at a calculated velocity for analysis.

            The British guys fashioned a catapult, and soon after sent the Yanks photos of a test cockpit with the windshield shattered, the pilot’s headrest in smithereens, a gaping hole in the bulkhead behind the pilot’s head and the flight engineer’s console behind that bulkhead totally demolished. Other photos depicted another huge hole aft of the console in the next bulkhead separating it from the crew lavatory, which was also trashed.

            A few weeks later, the Brits received a telegram from the Americans: “Next time, thaw the turkey.”

Here’s the story of a flood in Reno, Thanksgiving 1950

the Sparks Southern Pacific engine shop addition

From the dark reaches of our choo-choo file we find an old photograph taken inside the addition to the Southern Pacific locomotive repair shops, still standing just west of the tank farm in Sparks. This wartime steel addition to the old brick loco shop is here seen inside, the windows are those seen from the freeway.

 

sp_shopThe lettering on the picture indicates “lifting first locomotive in new erecting shop – Sparks, Nev. – Feb. 9, 1944”  Loco 4046 was brought in from the turntable serving the roundhouse near the south dead end of present Pyramid Way. Separated from its tender, it was backed through the old brick loco shop and into this new building, where it was lifted clear of its axles, wheels and cylinders, for a complete tear-down and service.

Here’s a link to an old story about what work was done in the loco shops in Sparks. You may have already read it. It opens in a new window.

Below is a pre-1944 aerial view of the Sparks S.P. roundhouse looking northeast to southwest, note B Street/Victorian Way diagonally to the lower right, 8th Street/Pyramid Way just to the right of the uppermost white building on B Street. The locomotive shops sans the later 1944 addition are seen to the east/left of the roundhouse and turntable. The Sparks Nugget is now located near the grove of trees to the upper right corner of the picture. The Pacific Fruit Express icehouse  is seen to the upper left in the photo. Both photos © Southern Pacific Railroad, pleasesp-sparks-roundhouse

Let’s go bowling….

BowlingShirtI walked into the Nevada Historical Society earlier this week in my vermillion shirt with the black short sleeves, Sascha the Hamm’s Beer bear embroidered on one pocket, “Walker & Melarkey’s Flying A” across the back and the shirt-tail hanging out. NHS head librarian Mike Maher looked up.

            “Writing about bowling next Sunday are we, Karl?” he asked, laconically. I replied in the affirmative and descended into the abyss of the microfilm grotto.

For the king of old bowling alleys, we’ll focus on the YMCA, then located in downtown Reno on East First Street between Virginia and Center. The earliest reference I could find about bowling in Reno was in a March 1909 Nevada State Journal, and not in the sports section but the society page – bowling was fast becoming an acceptable diversion for young ladies, nationally and here in our valley. “Clubs,” which I surmise we now call “leagues”, were forming in town. And Thursday evenings were now reserved for ladies at the Y, which was open for bowling every night but Sunday.

Print references are scarce for quite a number of years following 1909; the Downtown Bowl at 130 North Center Street pops up in a few sports pages’ references to tournaments. But, in the April 19, 1937 Reno Evening Gazette, pay dirt: We read of the phenomenal new “Reno Recreation Palace” ballyhooed on South Virginia at Ryland. I was unfamiliar with that stately pleasure dome, and opened a Sanborn map expecting to see eight or 10 city blocks devoted to civic revelry. But I found only a bowling alley we knew as the Reno Bowl, which adjoined a theater we knew as the Tower Theater. A movie theater in the same building as a bowling alley is a specious use of space, sound-wise – many of us recall a dashing and tuxedoed Errol Flynn sweeping a gowned Maureen O’Hara off her Guccis on the Lido deck of a luxury liner; violins soaring, the full moon on high dancing on the liner’s wake as the palm-lined island faded into the background on the Tower’s silver screen.

Contemporaneously as Errol planted a major lip-lock on Maureen, a bowling ball on the other side of the paper-thin wall crashed into the pins to complete a turkey as the inebriated keglers in the Reno Bowl bellowed and whooped and high-fived each other. Romance may not be dead, but at the Tower Theater it was frequently in ICU.

Electric Pinsetters? Ye gods; what’s next…

 On downtown Sparks’ B Street/Lincoln Highway/Highway 40 (and now Victorian Avenue) from Home Furniture’s new Sparks store – now Rail City Casino – and next door to the Elbow Room, where that wasn’t sawdust on the floor but last night’s furniture, came a new, post-war bowling alley. The Sparks Bowlarium opened on Jan. 18, 1949 with eight, count ‘em, eight lanes; in 1958 the building would be enlarged and the lanes doubled to 16. It then had a real twist: automatic electric pinsetters – the kid resetting pins in the “pit,” working two or three lanes and ducking inbound bowling balls for all his life – would soon be but a memory. (It should be mentioned somewhere that the alleys then, as today, had cocktail lounges, food service, and at most, child care and dancing.)

 A long way out on South Virginia, almost to the end of Reno at Moana Lane (before Moana even existed east of South Virginia) Reno got its first post-war bowling alley. The Town & Country (now High Sierra Lanes) was opened in April of 1958. I’m stumped as to its original lane count; it is clear in both the Gazette and the Journal that at least some of that alley’s original lanes were taken from the Downtown Bowl on Center Street between First and Second Streets, which closed that year. (I mentioned in a column a while back that that building downtown was taken over by Harrah’s for office space.)

Back to Sparks now, just off 8th Street – now Pyramid Way – to the newish Greenbrae Center – another new alley opens in August of 1960. The Greenbrae Lanes featured 24 lanes. And my Sparks readers are probably wondering if I could possibly deign to mention “Greenbrae Lanes” without also scribing “Driftwood Lounge” in the same sentence. That would be a travesty I won’t commit – the walls of the adjacent and fabled Driftwood could probably tell more tales than all the cocktail lounges in Reno or Sparks put together. The alley closed, but the lounge is still open for business [2016-?], and we’ll give the Archueleta family a plug here and our thanks for the decades that they operated it.

Keystone Avenue was finally cut through northward from the railroad tracks and the Starlight Bowl opened on West Sixth Street near Keystone on Dec. 10, 1961. It’s been a winner ever since; when it opened with 32 lanes it was the biggest alley in Nevada. Sterling Village Lanes, toward the north end of Valley Road near old Bishop Manogue High School, opened on July 10, 1964; it closed in the 1980s and now houses a small market. The big Kahuna of local public alleys is now within the Grand Sierra Resort; before it opened in 1978 as the MGM Grand its 50 lanes were shipped to Reno and installed temporarily at the Coliseum (OK, the Convention Center) for a summer-long national tournament, then were relocated to the brand-new MGM following that tournament.

Another big bowling alley opened in Reno in 1994 but inasmuch as they won’t let me bowl there I can’t reliably write about it. But, on this morning of the Sabbath, know that the family that prays together, stays together; the family that bowls together, splits. Have a good week, and God bless America!

A postscript that arrived after publication: “My friend Tom Case reminded us that at the end of a night of bowling, a tennis ball slit halfway around its circumference would quietly roll out of the pit toward the bowlers. The unspoken etiquette was to put a few pictures of dead presidents into the ball as a gratuity, then return it back down the gutter to the pinsetter.”

And a post-postscript: My editor-in-chief Linda Patrucco told me that her mother, an inveterate bowler didn’t fool around with a tennis ball, she just rolled a silver dollar the length of the gutter to the grateful pinsetter

©  Reno Gazette-Journal  May 14, 2008

 

Reed and Sparks High Class of 1976 + ’77,’78 and ’79 Reunion – save the date: Friday, July 29

raidersI’ve been called a cheerleader for Reno High School, been reminded that there’s other schools in the valley, and been criticized for not including them in columns. To allay that accusation, I’m glad to post this letter that I received today from Debbie Rossi. I’m glad to post it on this website for all to enjoy! Lightly edited, Debbie writes (beautifully, I might add!):
Edward C Reed High School opened in 1974 – at Sparks High School. In the summer of 1975, before school began, the parents and students of Sparks High and the yet-to-be opened Reed High were sent letters explaining that Edward C. Reed High School – the building – was not complete and would not be able to house students until later in the fall. So the solution was to house both schools at Sparks High School.  Sparks High’s schedule for all the students, administration and teachers was seven-ish in the morning until noon and for Reed High students, administration and teachers, 1:00 p.m. ending at 5 p.m. 
Since a majority of the new Reed students were rezoned from Sparks High (we also metreedalum new friends from Wooster – the Hidden Valley area, and from Hug High – the North Sparks area) we were very familiar with the school. Both Sparks and Reed doubled up in lockers. We decorated in separate halls for big events and did our best to respect our unique situation. 
We chose our team name, school colors and elected our first-ever school officers – all within the walls of Sparks High School. In addition to students moving schools, many of the teachers, administrators and staff moving to Reed were from Sparks, Hug and Wooster High Schools.
On the first day of the second semester – the opening day at Reed – we drove or walked, for what seemed like miles, down Baring Boulevard.  The school was built down a long, wide street. There were no homes, no stores, nothing between McCarran Boulevard and the school. Reed was designed quite differently from the other high schools, with really wide hallways and bright colors.  We were overwhelmed those first few days and weeks. Fortunately, we began our first day at the new school with the friends we had already made while we were at our temporary home.
That year was 1974. We were Juniors. We were the top class as Juniors and Seniors. When we were freshmen, we were the first Freshman class to be moved up from Jr High  to High School- rather than the traditional three-year. Jr High School. That is the year Jr. Highs in Reno/Sparks became “Middle Schools.” So we were also the novelty to the upper class men. We were the first to dip our toes into that new direction in high school. So we were the novelty in high school. Actually, that first year, seniors had the option to not go to Reed and many took that option and stayed at their respective schools- Sparks, Hug and Wooster to graduate.
This year, in honor of our 40th Class Reunion – We are getting together on July 29th with the three classes behind us – the Classes of ’77, ’78 and ’79 – to celebrate with us. And on Saturday July 30th, we will join Sparks High Class of 1976, as we have always celebrated all of our reunions together and to celebrate our unique high school history, our friendships, and our 40th year of life after graduation.
Happy 41 Years to Edward C. Reed High School….from very unique beginnings to where you stand today! To all the faculty and the students of today and yesterday! A toast – and a little history to remember ….. To all of us in the first graduating class and to our friends for life – Sparks High School – Class of 1976. In our hearts the memories are a little dimmer, but it still just seems like well, last week now. 
Good words, Debbie – many thanks!

Happy Bill Howard, The Nugget’s Flagpole Sitter

Howard

(click the pic for the recipes) 

‘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 and publicist Beth Cooney for their help with this yarn.

© RGJ, a long time ago

 

The Sparks Heritage Museum [pictures added Tuesday]

Museum older

xxxxxxxxxxx 016 xxxxxxxxxxx 017 xxxxxxxxxxx 013 xxxxxxxxxxx 014 xxxxxxxxxxx 015Over the years of writing these columns a number of truths have become evident, one of which is never write about irrigation ditches, churches, architects and railroads because one can research them all ’til hell won’t have them, and you’ll still be wrong. Another, ranking right up toward the top, is that Sparks, to Reno’s east, is a cool city, had the coolest chicks in Washoe County in 1959, has the best place to watch Hot August Nights revelry, has the Sparks Hometowne Parade with Santa every year, has the Farmers’ Market all summer, the Marina, the best (and biggest)) city manager in the lower-48 in Shaun Carey [when I wrote this originally], John Ascuaga need-we-say-more, and, a museum. Which Reno doesn’t. So I say to my Sparks buddies who rag on me for not writing about Sparks, read the chapters in my book about Ascuaga’s shark, (which is still thriving in San Francisco’s Steinhart Aquarium), about the Nugget flagpole sitter and about Sparks’ fire department – and one of their chiefs who died in the RENO 1948 Lake Street fire. I do write about Sparks. And a few weeks ago on this web a photo of a Sparks fireman and a link to the Man On The Bench, a column I wrote that I’m proud to say is in the FDNY’s firehouse that gave it all on 9/11. I like Sparks, and make no bones about it.

Ergo, whatever that means, this week we are going to learn more of Sparks’ museum – the Sparks Heritage Museum on Victorian Way, with great parking behind it and a thousand stories to tell, and most of them relevant to kid of all ages, and not just the ones growing up in Sparks.

I’ve written about the formation of the museum, of the guys like Carl Shelly and Tom Swart who got the thing going. And tonight as I write I’m betting that maybe we’ll get a few folks to go to the Rail City and enjoy the museum!

The museum, pictured above, is in an old county building that was originally built in 1931 for the Washoe County Library’s Sparks branch, note Harry Scheeline’s name on the plaque, Scheeline the hotshot banker of that era.  The little brick building, attributed to architect Frederic Delongchamps but I’m standing clear of that, became the Sparks Justice Court in 1966 – the domain of the legendary judge Jack Lamberti, one from the family of great Sparks residents spanning several generations, most of them railroaders.

The stuff in the museum is to some degree a story of railroading – from Sparks’ earliest heritage with photos and artifacts and hardware and displays of the tools of railroading, and ranks right up with the artifacts in the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento. I would think that the Sacramento museum would give their eye-teeth for some of Sparks’ displays – and the close-up, hands-on presentation in Sparks. Check out the telegrapher, one of several displays in Sparks using mannequins. His desk probably mimics one in the Sparks of the 1900s. And the photos on the walls – one could take hours just looking at the artwork!

But it’s not all railroad – we’ll see some more railroad photos, like the clock that once was evident in downtown Sparks, a Ball clock that kept time with remarkable accuracy and was available in the window of W. R. Adams & Sons Jewelers on B Street – now Victorian Way – in Sparks.

The railroads of old prided themselves on timeliness, and a method of keeping time – prior to GPS systems and WWV short-wave transmissions – was the Ball clocks (“on the Ball!”). A trackie in Sacramento would look at the Ball clock in Sacramento prior to leaving over Donner Summit for Sparks, set his pocket watch, and get the Ball clock in Sparks “on the ball” (the Sacramento clock in turn had been reset by the same process to the Ball clock in Oakland.) Railroads insisted on a certain brand of watch with a specified dial pattern (trackies couldn’t vary from the Hamilton watch, and only in recent years has Seiko been accepted as a railroad-grade timepiece.)

Many Sparks businesses contributed liberally to the Heritage Museum; a barber chair from a B Street tonsorial artist and the Derby hanging on the rack and the barber-pole, still turnin’ – find another like that in our valley today (OK, Town Barbers has one…!)

The Sparks Heritage Museum is one of the best-kept secrets in the valley – its displays mimic not only the railroad heritage of Sparks, but the lifestyle of our towns in turn-of-the-20th Century, early photos of the Nugget, the agricultural endeavors around the area. They are volunteer-based, get no money from any governmental agencies and do one hell of a job. Next time you have friends in town, or kids that would like to see the way we were – the volunteers would love to show you around!

Next WordPress post, we’ll get closer to the story of the Sigma Nu house and the heiress who built it – join me then, have a good week, and God bless America…

Posted February 18, 2009

Read about Sparks Fire Department’s Guy on the Bench