Happy Bill Howard, The Nugget’s Flagpole Sitter

Howard

‘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

 

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,..no ear protection…no hard-hats…..and they could not even lean against the walls to rest…

Thanks again, Don; good words…

 

WALKIN’ EAST FOURTH STREET, ca. 1955, with a great reply from a reader added at the end, and the picture of downtown Reno that she wrote of

LittleKarlA strange effect is starting to occur: The Six-Year-Old Kid from Ralston Street was going to saddle up his bike with his neighbor Hank Philcox and ride out to the Sparks railyard and get a last look at the old roundhouse as it’s being torn down; our school Mary S. Doten elementary on West Fifth Street closed this Memorial Day weekend for the summer, Hank’s mom Corrinne packed us some sandwiches and goodies for ou trip – but – I started researching our journey with City Directories and an old Gazoo column that I wrote in 2004, and got lazy. “Why rewrite all this when I can cut-and-paste it?” So I did.

But, that said, Hank and I are riding all the way to the Mighty SP’s railyard, soHankPhilcox watch this space as I chronicle our trip down B Street and within the railyard – probably two columns you may come back to in a week or so.

In the meantime, here’s what we saw on that first leg of our bike ride, pretty much as it appeared in print a decade ago:

“You’ve walked all over town in past columns, why don’t the RGJ readers walk East Fourth Street?”  Or so a few readers wrote.

            It’s mostly because the RG-J recently carried an excellent three-issue overview of East Fourth with more ink and graphics than I could ever hope to squeeze out of the real estate editor.  This morning’s piece started as a commentary on old signs, but while riding around with a notepad some quirky thoughts of East Fourth in Reno and B Street – Victorian Way – in Sparks still beckoned to be heard, so we’ll mix up the two themes this morning.

            The two neon signs that most interest me while I’m enjoying an ale or three at the Great Basin in Sparks are first, the Pony Express Motel sign at the Prater/Victorian “Y”, a late-1940s product of Pappy Smith’s (Harolds Club) and Young Electric Sign’s imaginations.  I started to write that it was the first “motion” neon sign in town – (the arrows being shot from the Indians’ bows) – but I now spell-check-eliminate any superlatives, like first, oldest, highest, etc.  And “railroad,” “church” or “architect” for that matter.

            It’s much too big to steal, but the second sign I lust after is more portable [and now gone in 2019], in front of the old Park Motel on Prater Way; the Phillip Morris-type bellboy with the once-waving arm that used to beckon travelers into the “motor lodge.”  It’s a creation that would blow the CC&Rs of the God-forsaken desert to smithereens if I lit it up in my backyard, waving at the architectural committee.  No chance.  Note the other remaining motor hotel signs on East Fourth – the Sandman, with the tires on the prewar sedan that once appeared to rotate.  And the classic neon art style, with no name that I know of attributed to it other than post-war contemporary, on Everybody’s Inn and Alejo’s motels’ signs, and a few others – hopefully they will all be saved, rehabilitated and displayed somewhere as signs of a bygone era, pun intended.   

            Check out the architecture on East Fourth – the brick patterns in the Alturas Hotel, J.R. Bradley Company, the buildings that flourished in the early postwar period like Siri’s Restaurant, Reno Mattress and some of the retail stores.  Replicating the rococo brickwork style in some of those buildings today would cost a fortune.  And Ernie’s Flying “A” truck stop, we called it then, now signed as RSC Something-or-other: The fluted column-tower signature of Flying “A” stations has long since been all but removed from this garage, but look close and you can easily detect a close resemblance to Landrum’s Café architecture on South Virginia – a very prevalent commercial style of a prewar period.  (Ernie’s was, with McKinnon & Hubbard on West Fourth Street, the forerunner of Boomtown, the Alamo and Sierra Sid’s to old U.S. Highway 40 truckers.)  And, if I’m permitted to editorialize, hats off to my old buddy Steve Scolari, whose family business Ray Heating – now RHP – has been on East Fourth for 70-plus years.  Faced with the need to expand, he turned the main office building facing East Fourth Street into a great-looking little office, retaining its pre-war nuance, then upgraded a half-dozen industrial buildings on the street and railroad land to the south into very serviceable first-class modern shops, preserving the workforce and tax base in the East Fourth corridor.  A gutty move, but a lead that more property owners in areas like East Fourth and South Wells Avenue should follow.  And progressive city management, now hell-bent on plowing two or three hundred million dollars into a hole in the ground for choo-choos, should offer tax incentives for this “infill” redevelopment like other cities do.  End of tirade. 

Evidence of a bygone retail presence on East Fourth is Windy Moon Quilts on Morrill Avenue, the only quilt shop in town with a drive-up window.  Why?  ‘Cuz it once was a busy and highly profitable branch of First National Bank, that’s why.  [And Windy Moon has since moved to the Velvet Ice Cream building on Kuenzli Lane, at one time known as North Street. But wait: now that’s the home of Road Shows – Street Vibrations. Still a pretty brick building]

            We couldn’t tour East Fourth without stopping at the architecturally resplendent Tap ‘n Tavern Saloon, and then mosey on down Highway 40 to Casale’s Halfway Club for world-class pizza. And if host Mama Stempeck ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.  What a great lady…

            Many notes remain and readers will kick in a few more, so we’ll probably go back and finish this tour soon.  I detected a slight deterrent to retail development on East Fourth while driving, starting, stopping, backing up, making notes and taking pictures, stopping again: On several occasions local ladies practicing the world’s oldest profession invited themselves into my pickup for a good time, some of whom were probably undercover police.  “Honest, officer, I’m researching a column for the Gazette-Journal.”  (Good story, buddy, tell it to Judge Salcedo.)

  • • •

And we walked some more…

We took a little stroll around East Fourth Street last week, and one observation that just wouldn’t fit was of the arachnid – OK, scarab – atop the roof of the building visible best from the Wells Avenue overpass.  The bug first appeared in the late 1970s, some say as a dare, others say a work of art, still others as the result of seven Sigma Nu frat-rats finding four cases of beer, a blowtorch, and an SAE’s Volkswagen.  As the sun rose over Lagomarsino Canyon it appeared on a field south of a Quonset hut-barn so far out South Virginia Street that you had to pack a lantern and a lunch to get there (but now the only Quonset hut in the South Meadows techie park.) Bug you a little?  [A column about that Scarab appears somewhere in this book.]

The structure that the big bug sits on was Reno’s most modern and largest fire station (Station 2, the first numbered station, replacing the former system, Central, North, etc.) when it was built after World War II.  It replaced Reno’s East fire station across East Fourth Street then west a few blocks, and was a twin of the now-gone Station 3 at the dead-end of California Avenue and South Virginia Street.  Walker Boudwin Construction converted Reno East into a construction office many years ago; it became an independent-living resource for the handicapped, and now it’s a halfway house.   

I had a call or two about the old Wells Avenue bridge – this is the second modern one.  Seven more frat rats (probably ATΩs in this case) with a trunkful of Burgermeister might have built that earlier bridge – swayed in the breeze, it did; no trucks bigger than a Ford Excursion could use it and it ended in mid-lane on the north landing at Wells Avenue, creating basically a one-lane northbound affair.  So much for the low bidder, railroad trench proponents take note.

Akert’s Market?  Right across from Hale’s Drugs.  Benny Akert – as in Ben’s Discount Liquors in years to follow – and his sister Betty (Brown), later one of my favorite Realtors, worked Akert’s for their parents, at the corner of East Fourth and then-Alameda Avenue – now renamed North Wells.  [And no it wasn’t the first Ben’s Discount Liquors – that was at Pine and Center Streets.]

Did I tour East Fourth without even a whisper of Louis’ Basque Corner (picture on the Facebook  page)?  Did I do that?  I owe you all a picon…

Here’s the photo that Sheila referred to in the “Comments” below:

BikeSafety

 

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 an 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 with the later 1944 addition are seen to the east/left of the roundhouse and turntable (the roundhouse was razed in 1959). The Sparks Nugget is now located near the grove of trees to the upper right corner of the picture. The Pacific Fruit Express icehouse, later housing the original Harrah’s Auto Collection,  is seen to the upper left in the photo. Both photos © Southern Pacific Railroad, pleasesp-sparks-roundhouse

A snowy February morning…

LittleKarlIt’s a grand day in the neighborhood; snow has been on many folks’ minds, particularly the TV weathercasters who might have probably gone orgasmic had they ever seen heavy snow in Reno. The transition from 2004 to 2005 was noteworthy and pretty well constipated our roads that New Year’s weekend and for a week to follow.

Mount Rose SchoolBut I’m not going to regale anyone with snow tales, the “How it used to be” stuff so popular – but – I have a few thoughts and memories, augmented by friends remembering snowstorms that make this last series look like a cloudy day – and I’m not sure that I can still even write – I think it’s A-S-D-F etc. on the keyboard but not sure. And I gotta tell ya: My hands will barely write anymore, hands that once hired out to write cursive – remember that? – for invitations and place cards, so I found a “new” IBM Selectric III typewriter, brown like the last one it replaces, with a couple new balls, er, “elements” to go with the ones I already had. It’s about 40 years old, Handwriting2but reconditioned, and Ken Hamilton of Hamilton Business Machins gave me a “lifetime guarantee.” The S.O.B. knows that I’m 77 years old….. Oh, you don’t want cursive? How ’bout a printed letter with serifs? [at right, a library project I worked on]

SelectricBut, on this snowy morning, I hearken back to earlier days. I attended Mary S. Doten Elementary School [above], a twin to Mount Rose School (one spells out Mount for that school, otherwise it’s supposed to be “Mt.” according to old stylebooks but seldom is anymore.) I started Kindergarten there in 1946. Mary S. Doten School will hereafter be known as “Mary S.” our colloquial term for it –now the school district and media would just call it “Doten” robbing its namesake of the honor. But that’s what they do now – don’t give a damn about old stuff.

SeeMary S. was run by a sweet little lady that looked like Mrs. See on the See’s Candy boxes, a delightful lady that could also scare the pants off our six-foot-plus fathers on snowy mornings like this one. Her name was Rita Cannan, note the spelling – and she also has a school named for her, east of I-580 and north of Oddie. And known by some as “Cannan” but not in this column. It’s “Rita Cannan Elementary,” thank you.

Miss Cannan, heavy on the “Miss,” I think but never proved was a product of theWhitakerSchool Bishop Whitaker School for young ladies [right], in the eponymous park across the Ralston Hill from my family’s house at 740 Ralston Street. Many of the older teachers came from that institution, but that’s another column. Miss Cannan is on my morning musings because she had amassed a collection of shovels appropriate for removing snow – one could not buy a “snow shovel” in 1946. Coal scuttles came close, and most Reno homes had one. These shovels were kept under a stairwell outside the principal’s office of the school, and when, as and if a father delivered his child and some of the neighbor kids to school, he knew that Rita Cannan would land on him like a chicken on a June bug and virtually shame him into shoveling a portion of the elementary school’s infrastructure – the sidewalks, the approaches, some stairs – until the entirety of the school was safely passable. This occurred all over Reno and Sparks on snowy mornings. Dads shoveled. By the crack of nine, when classes convened.

I promised this would not be a “This is how it was” column, but I’m compelled to  relate that classes started at 9:00 a.m., rain or shine, in Reno schools (which were a separate district from Sparks, Brown, Huffaker, Glendale, Franktown, and a dozen  other small districts in Washoe County) and had some well-meaning father or mother suggested following a back-breaking accumulation of almost half-a-foot of snow, that Mary S. either delay its start time to 10:00 A.M. or in the alternative have a “digital snow day,” the only digit they would see was Rita Cannan’s index finger pointing at the aggregation of snow shovels under the stairwell, facilitating the fathers’ (or mothers’) efforts to remove the snow. By the crack of nine.

It should be also noted here, parenthetically, that the superintendents of the Reno School District, Roger Corbett comes to mind, didn’t particularly give a rat’s assFinch copy what the parents, teachers, staff, students nor taxpayers of the City of Reno thought about any issues, nor did he host these ungodly “scoping meetings” seeking “transparent”  input about a pending decision until the district went into complete paralysis with a plethora of opinions. He called the shots, period. Same with dress codes, even through David Finch’s days at Reno High – no jeans for the ladies, no advertising on gh boys’ t-shirts, no appeal, no negotiation. Corbett and Finch steered the ship. As did Cannan at Mary S.

Snow was fun in Reno in 1946, and my buddies from Sparks thought the same thing. We wore mittens and galoshes to school over our shoes (we didn’t know what “Keds” were then – leather shoes were all we had!) Upon arrival at Mary S., many of us went to the boiler room, which Mr. Minetto th custodian unlocked so that we could put our stuff on racks next to the boiler and dry them off. By lunch hour they’d be dry, and Bus 109we went outside to play. And yes, we threw snowballs at each other, at the teachers on playground  duty and at the city buses on Washington Street on the other side of the fence.  And  we bullied – and were bullied by – our classmates, and either toughened up and eventually gave it right back, or are still wimps 75 years later. Our third-grade teacher Jean Conrad could put a snowball into a car’s window if it were doing 60 miles an hour up Washington Street. And did once. (It’s a school zone!) Mrs. Conrad had an arm… I’ve kept in touch with her daughter, Carolyn Darney, the mayor of  Puccinelli Drive in Sparks, for the past 70 years – damn, she’s old!

Anyway, that’s what would be happening this Thursday morning at Mary S.  I’m out oDonHartmanf space, but have to add that after school, 3 o’clock, we’d get our galoshes, mittens, sleds and toboggans and head home. Then the neighbor guys – me, Hank Philcox, [right] HankPhilcoxTommy Weichman, Hugh Barnhill, Don Hartman [left], the Molini brothers John and Willie, Hans Siig and even some of the guurrrrrrrls (yecch) Maggie Eddelman, Mary Eichbush, Trina Ryan, Cecelia Molini, Marilyn Burkham and Ellen Murphy – would shovel the neighbors’ sidewalks and driveways. We never asked nor charged; some neighbors would bring us out a silver dollar or a cup of  cocoa, and some would hide ‘til we were done. But a buck would get us in a movie with a coke to spare, life was good, and the neighbors who hid would lose biggest at Hallowe’en. We had good memories.

And that’s the way is was on a snowy morning, February 21, 1946. Stay tuned if it keeps snowing in Reno, and we’ll learn of the great haylift of 1948 to feed the stranded cattle in Nevada, of our classmates who lived with their families in the Nevada Bell microwave station on top of Peavine Peak and were marooned by the snow and what our class did for them, or of the choo-choo train that got stuck on top of Donner Pass in 1952. Or the memories that you send in…!

karlbreckenridge490@gmail.com

Happy New Year to all!

LittleKarlOur editorial staff last evening, New Years Eve, played hooky from our bounden duty to readers of updating this site, and instead streamed a classic: “Smokey and the Bandit” – the Bandit, Snowman, Fred the Basset, the Frog, Beaufort P. Justus, still ranking up there with Butch and Sundance and with Igor and Frawnkensteen for the three greatest shit-kickin’, no-brainer, New Years Eve flicks ever made!

Thanks for coming back and viewing – as in the past 12 years, the site in 2019 will be no cropped-cropped-kfb-bow-tiedifferent – poorly-written and -edited notes about God-knows-what, arriving on your screen with little or no forethought nor schedule – this year with hopefully a bit more reader participation, wherein I’m downplaying the “comments” feature of the site in favor of including my email address below and inviting everything from a short squib about a past column to your submission of a complete new column, that I can post for all to see. Don’ worry about the gramer or speling – I’ll fix that for you. Photos are welcome and encouraged with releases and accreditation, and no downer stuff – this remains an upbeat, non-political place to visit and relax.

On that score, I encourage newer readers to utilize the WordPress “search” function in the box below. Type in a keyword and then click the box and scroll down. You may just find what you’re seeking. If not, email me and I’ll try to help. There are over 420 posts on the site and I don’t know myself what’s posted here! But if it’s somewhere we’ll find it, or maybe just write a new one for all to enjoy.

Now – it’s the kickoff day to a great year, the sun’s out – let’s make a dandy!

KarlBreckenridge490@gmail.com (a new address for column/website traffic; don’t panic, the old live.com address still works. Usually.)

More S. F. 1906 Earthquake stuff

LottaJPEGWhen last we met, I described meeting a friend who gave us a predawn ride from the SF Marina to Market Street, for the 100-year anniversary of the Great San Francisco Earthquake – the morning was April 18, 2006. What I didn’t really develop was the participation and organization of the San Francisco Fire Department. The event was basically rooted in the fire services of San Francisco and more outlying communities.

Don Young, who I’ve profiled in a 2016 RGJ column, is a retired chief of the Sparksxsfd Fire Department – a man with his wife Maddy that you should know. Soon I’ll dig out the column I wrote about him, and figure out how to convert it from Gazoo-print to WordPress. Watch for that. But right now, Don writes, in response to the piece her of a couple of days ago: “The Sparks Fire Department changed the rules in 1964 to honor the State of Nevada Centennial and the firemen were authorized to sport facial hair and wear uniforms like you have on. [in the photo with Linda at Lotta’s Fountain on Market Street]. My wife and YoungLittleWalothers made the shirts out of heavy red flannel and we also wore jeans as a work uniform. Thanks, Don”

And we thank you Don, known by his license plate as “XSFD” – ex-Sparks Fire Department. You’ll read more of him soon, right here. His official department portrait seen above right was taken by SFD’s Jeff Spicer. Pretty cool.

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Also in the column of a couple days ago, I mentioned the 1908 photograph of Reno and Sparks, taken from an airship, better described as a kite, by the Lawrence Airship Company out of Chicago. I won’t waste space here; you can read more of it in the preceding post. But – I did allude to 17 prints of it being discovered downtown, and my ownership of one of the originals.

LawrenceAirshipPhoto

The backstory there is, that in 1957 there was a major explosion and fire in downtown Reno (I’ll put a link to it at the end of this post). In its aftermath, some workers in the A. Carlisle Company, on the west side of Sierra Street just north of Home Furniture on the First Street corner, were mopping up after the fire. They pulled a large ozalid-process machine for making blueprints and about as big as a big deep freeze, away from a wall and voila! They found behind the printer, 17 original prints of the photo, in pristine condition. My dad scored one of them; it’s hanging to this day in a relative’s law office. There were only 17 known until recent technology and the expiration of a copyright allowed them to be copied – and copied in better detail than the originals. So – there’s more than 17 around town now. Lawrence’s brochures and records indicate a price of $18 per copy, a pretty penny in 1908.

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OK, still writing of fire department stuff vis-à-vis San Francisco and the earthquake, let’s pay proper attention to the American LaFrance Company, who in 2006 had been supplying America, through its several incarnations, with fire trucks. CaptureSan Francisco was a prime customer and LaFrance took it upon themselves to make a statement of gratitude. They sold the City 16 new “triple” engines, but put a little extra into them before they were delivered starting in February of 2006. The engines were painted a “retro” color, darker red and almost a purplish-brown, to emulate the color engines the City used before WWII. But the piece-de-resistance was the gold-leaf treatment – I don’t know whether the engines are more striking by day with the sun dancing off the heavy gold-leaf that covered the engines and station numbers and SFFD ownership, or maybe they were more so at night, with other light sources lighting up the gold. Top that with heavy silver plating on the bumpers, trim and the big bells on the front bumpers with the LaFrance eagle atop them, and those are 16 pretty trucks. They remain in service, immaculately-maintained these 12 years later, and are still head-turners when cruising around the Streets of San Francisco.

Now, we’ll put the SFFD out of service for a while, but return to a tale of a local guy, a Sparks Railroader who ran the Sparks Fire Department. If you’d like to read the post that preceded and inspired this go here and it will open in another window, or if you’d like to know more about one of Reno’s major downtown fires in 1957, click here.

See ya in a week or two; I’m going to get the six-year-old kid off his butt and writing about old Reno!

 

 

April 8 – the new 1950 car models are out; let’s go downtown and look at them!

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The new cars models are out and a bunch of us from Whitaker and Peavine are going to ride our bikes down and see them! The salesmen in the showrooms aren’t too nuts about a bunch of rag-tag kids coming in and leaving their bikes in their doorway but how else are we going to know how the new cars work? And someday we may buy a car, so HA!

I s’pose we rode to see the Studebakers first, since they were at Western Distributing on the northeast corner of Sierra and the Lincoln Highway. They soStudebakerCommanderld American Flyer trains and hardware too. Studebaker had been around since they first made covered wagons for the pilgrims. And they made a lot of wartime stuff, like Weasels and Ducks. Their cars were pretty neat, and they sold a lot of pickups too. I didn’t know it in 1950, but in a few years they’d build the Avanti, which could have been America’s Corvette if they knew what they were doing.

Mercedes 188Just to the west a couple blocks, across Chestnut Street where the high school would this year become “Central Junior High School,” was Oden Motors, that sold a bunch of foreign cars, like Jag Jag 120and MG and Austin, later the Austin Healey, and Mercedes Benz. Those Mercedes were a little over $3,500 a car, the most expensive car  in Reno! And the Jaguar XK-120 was one of the prettiest cars ever made. Mercedes would later move to the northeast corner of Virginia and Liberty Streets.

FordRichardson-Lovelock Ford was to the east, on what I guess was now called “Center Street,” but not too long ago was “University Street” and some maps and Yellow Page ads still show University. Ford was a big seller, had some pretty neat cars, but I mostly wanted a pickupFordTruck truck like my Uncle Vic’s, which was an “F-1”. But I’d probably never get one, because I’m only nine years old and those pickups cost over six hundred dollars, more than the Ford cars.

We rode down Virginia Street past the courthouse, where there were a bunch of car dealers. Scott Motors sold Cadillacs Caddyand Buicks and at one time sold the Durant, a high-end General Motors car. My dad bought a 1950 Buick from Mr. Scott. He was a pretty neat guy; he had a Lockheed Electra like that lady pilot who got lost flying around the world. His son was my age and would later run the dealership. But I didn’t know that in 1950. Buicks had a touch that would continue BuickI’ll bet until at least 2018 – they had “portholes” on the sides of their hoods, three was for Special, Super, and Century; four was for Roadmaster, their big expensive model. They all had big engines, bigger than other GM cars. And the Cadillacs in the same showroom, on the west side of Virginia where Ryland dead-ends into it, were no doubt the ritziest car on the road. Some had air conditioning, and a gadget to dim your headlights when a car was in front of you. Dad said it didn’t work.

The Pontiac dealership was a block to the east, on Center and Ryland. Mr. Winkel owned that. Dad got Lees1a 1950 Pontiac “Catalina,” a two-door coupe that GM introduced that year that was designed to look like a convertible. Chevrolet had the “Bel-Air” version, and Oldsmobile the “88” model – all hardtops. Our Catalina (second from the left, light-colored car) was in a picture of Lee’s Drive-In on Sierra and Fourth Street that I found by accident researching drive-ins. But that was a lot later, I was a really old man then, about 50. Marsh Johnson’s Chevrolet was north on Virginia across Court Street from the courthouse. Mr. Johnson would later build a shopping “mall,” they called them later, called “Park Lane” a couple miles south of town.

Waldren Oldsmobile was just south of Scott Motor’s Buick. Mr. Waldren would be OldsRocket88one of the first to move off “auto row” on Virginia Street, staying on Virginia Street but building a whole new building just south of what would later be “Plumb Lane” by Mr. Johnson’s shopping mall. In later years there would be no Oldsmobiles (nor Pontiacs!) and the Oldsmobile dealer would become a fish/sushi place. Yecch…raw fish……

We parked our bikes and toured the Dick Dimond Dodge dealership at South Virginia and Moran Streets DimondDodgeand looked at those cars. Their dealership’s building was really pretty, said by some to be designed by a man named Frederic Delongchamps. I got in trouble once for writing that it looked just like an auto dealership on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco designed by prominent SF architect Willis Polk so I won’t write that again. I got a picture of it from my buddy Jerry Fenwick – someday I’ll write about Jerry’s parents’ art shop downtown. The Dodge and the other MOPAR cars  had a “Fluid Drive” – kind of an automatic transmission that you had to shift, but the clutch was automatic. Dad had a 1948 Dodge and like most Chrysler products the back-up light, which had to be turned on and off manually, was always on.

ChryslerWoodyDad and my uncle John and their friend Wayne Spencer were once in San Francisco, and while my mom and aunt and sister and all took off downtown to the City of Paris and Gump’s and Maiden Lane, my dad and John and Wayne had a few in some dive bar and got pretty well toasted, and Dad went up the street and bought a Chrysler convertible with wood sides. The next day he had to go back to the dealership on Van Ness Avenue and beg and plead to call off the purchase. It was almost a two Chryslerthousand dollar car anyway so he probably wouldn’t have been able to buy it. But we sure had fun, and was sorry to see him back out. Mom was, well, I’ll write of that another time.  Above, is the Chrysler New Yorker

MercurySuicideWe didn’t have to ride our bikes too far from Dodge to see the new Lincolns and Mercurys – just across Virginia Street. The Mercury (at left) was kind of a ho-hum car, not too much different than a Ford, (who owned Lincoln and Mercury), and the one in the picture has “suicide doors” (like the Lincoln below) – the rear side door hinged in back, so that if the car gets in a wreck the front and back doors jam and no one can get out. But the Lincoln was a great, big luxurious barge, the choiceLincoln 1950 of many rich people and government officials, and the Continental (below) was about the only specialized, souped-up car made in America. It had a V-12 engine – the biggest of the other cars had a V-8. And most had just a straight-line six cylinder engine. The ContinentalReno Motors showroom, which I didn’t know then, would later become the casino for the Ponderosa Hotel, and even later a place called a “men’s club” where ladies would parade around naked. Yecch – sounds  like an air conditioning  and heating problem that needs repair to me but what do I know? I’m only nine years old.

Ya know, this is getting too long. Dad  says the most I should write is four sheets of binder paper or people won’t get through it. There’s more to be written – the Henry_Jforeign cars, the trucks, and the attempts at “compact” cars like theCrosley Henry J (left) and the Crosley – let’s get together another time and we’ll ride off to more early Reno auto dealerships…see ya all soon, right back here…

Photo credit Jerry Fenwick for the Osen Motors Dealership building – the rest, God only knows..

 

Walking East Fourth Street

Slim“You’ve walked all over town in past columns, why don’t the Gazoo readers walk East Fourth Street?”  Or so a few readers wrote.

(This is a re-run of an old column….)

            It’s mostly because the RG-J recently carried an excellent three-issue overview of East Fourth with more ink and graphics than I could ever hope to squeeze out of the real estate editor.  This piece started as a commentary on old signs, but while riding around with a notepad some quirky thoughts of East Fourth in Reno and B Street – Victorian Way – in Sparks still beckoned to be heard, so we’ll mix up the two themes this morning.

            To the ongoing horror of friends, the two neon signs that most interest me while I’m enjoying an ale or three at the Great Basin Brewpub in Sparks are first, the Pony Express Motel sign at the Prater/Victorian “Y”, a late-1940s product of Pappy Smith’s (Harolds Club) and Young Electric Sign’s imaginations.  I started to write that it was the first “motion” neon sign in town – (the arrows being shot over Prater Way from the car wash, from the Indians’ bows) – but I now spell-check out any superlatives, like first, oldest, highest, etc.  And “railroad” or “architect” for that matter.

            It’s much too big to steal, but the second sign I lust after is more portable, in front of the old Park Motel on Prater Way; the Phillip Morris-type bellboy with the once-waving arm that used to beckon travelers into the “motor lodge.” It’s a creation that would blow the CC&Rs of the God-forsaken desert to smithereens if I lit it up in my backyard, waving at the architectural committee.  No chance.  Note the other remaining motor hotel signs on East Fourth – the Sandman, with the tires on the prewar sedan that once appeared to revolve.  And the classic neon art style, with no name that I know of attributed to it, on Everybody’s Inn and Alejo’s motels’ signs, and a few others – hopefully they will all be saved, rehabilitated and displayed somewhere as signs of a bygone era, no pun intended.      

            Check out the architecture on East Fourth – the brick patterns in the Alturas Hotel, J.R. Bradley Company, the buildings that flourished in the early postwar period like Siri’s Restaurant, Reno Mattress and some of the retail stores.  Replicating the rococo brickwork style in some of those buildings today would cost a fortune.  And Ernie’s Flying “A” truck stop, we called it then, now signed as RSC Something-or-other: The fluted column-tower signature of Flying “A” stations has long since been all but removed from this garage, but look close and you can easily detect a close resemblance to Landrum’s Café architecture on South Virginia – a very prevalent commercial style of a prewar period.  (Ernie’s was, with McKinnon & Hubbard on West Fourth Street, the forerunner of Boomtown, the Alamo and Sierra Sid’s to old U.S. Highway 40 truckers.)  And, if I’m permitted to editorialize, hats off to my old buddy Steve Scolari, whose family business Ray Heating – now RHP – has been on East Fourth for 70-plus years.  Faced with the need to expand, he turned the main office building facing East Fourth Street into a great-looking little office, yet retained its post-war nuance, then upgraded a half-dozen industrial buildings on the street and railroad land to the south into very serviceable first-class modern shops, preserving the workforce and tax base in the East Fourth corridor.  A gutty move, but a lead that more property owners in areas like East Fourth and South Wells Avenue should follow.  And progressive city management, not hell-bent on plowing two or three hundred million dollars into a hole in the ground [the railroad trench!], should offer tax incentives for this “infill” redevelopment like other cities do.  End of tirade.

Evidence of a bygone retail presence on East Fourth is Windy Moon Quilts on NicholsSchoolMorrill Avenue, the only quilt shop in town with a drive-up window.  Why?  ‘Cuz it once was a busy and highly profitable branch of First National Bank, that’s why. [In a later column I alluded to the Windy Moon moving to the former Mary Ann Nichols School on Pyramid Way in Sparks (pictured at the right), and some dude wrote the paper deriding my “poor research.” In reality, he was right; it’s still in the Morrill Avenue location as well as the former school. But to hell with thanking me for the plug…}

            We couldn’t tour East Fourth without stopping at the architecturally Inezresplendent Tap ‘n Tavern, where that’s not sawdust on the floor, but last night’s furniture, and then mosey on down Highway 40 to Casale’s Half-way Club for world-class pizza, and if Mama Stempeck ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.  What a great lady… (pictured at left, photo courtesy Guy Clifton)

            Many notes remain and readers will kick in a few more, so we’ll probably go back and finish this tour soon.  I detected a slight deterrent to development on East Fourth while driving, starting, stopping, backing up, making notes and taking pictures, stopping again: on several occasions local ladies practicing the world’s oldest profession invited themselves into my pickup for a good time, some of whom were probably undercover police.  “Honest, officer, I’m researching a column for the paper.”  (Good story, buddy, tell it to Judge Salcedo.)