A story of Reno resident Mel Vhay

Reed/Sparks High reunion info here

MelVhayMy original hed for this tale was “A story of Reno resident Mel Vhay, who was originally married to architect David Vhay, then married Don Powers following David’s passing, and was the daughter of the Mackay Statue and Mt. Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum.” I saw it in print and decided it was too wordy, even for me. So, you read the above hed. My contemporary  Des Powers sent me an extremely well-written e-mail about Mel Vhay, so I here post it for all to see:

Thanks for the update on the development of your column on the Holiday Hotel’s “Mug Hunt.”  Newt Crumley’s wife, Fran Crumley, and Mel were very good friends.   As you likely know, Mel’s dad was Gutzon BorglumBorglum [pictured to the right], sculptor of Mt. Rushmore and friend of Clarence Mackay.  Hence, the statue that Gutzon sculpted, of his friend Clarence Mackay, that stands on the Quad to this day.

Mel and my dad were married in 1990 until my dad’s passing in 1995.  Our mom passed away in 1988.  While married to my dad, Mel’s name was Mel Borglum Vhay Powers.  Kind of a long one, so she went by Mel Powers during those years.  I was very fond of her and felt very close to Mel during the years I knew her.  Mel was immediately very welcoming to my sisters and me, and to our extended families.  She was a remarkable woman and lived a very interesting and fascinating life.  She told a few stories over the years about how the concept of what became Mt. Rushmore came about, and some stories from the days during her father’s  sculpting of Mt. Rushmore.  She told the story of when she met President Franklin Roosevelt when he came to the dedication of Mt. Rushmore in 1941.  The stories she told still have me absolutely riveted to this day. 

[Here, I’ll interject a thought: Mel and David Vhay’s son Tink lives in Reno with his wife Muffy. I haven’t spoken to Tink but would surmise that he and Muffy were aboard for this also. ed.]

For me, in addition to being my step-mother who I loved, she was a living connection to significant times in American history.  In 1991, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mt. Rushmore was held at what Mel’s family affectionately refers to as “The Mountain.”  I went to the celebration with Mel, my dad, many of Mel’s family and a few thousand others whose names I don’t recall.  President George H.W. Bush presided at the celebration.  The celebration was in July 1991.  President Bush had already nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and the President could not hold back including in his official remarks, on the 50th anniversary of Mt. Rushmore, some comments on how important it was to see that Clarence Thomas received approval from the U.S. Senate for his appointment to the United States Supreme Court.  Well, as we know, the rest is history.

The seat I received for the celebration entitled me to a “third-class” view.  Mel and my dad were “down in front” enjoying a “first-class” view right in front of the podium and across the aisle from John Sununu.  Mel took some pictures of the speakers at the lectern on the podium.   I know that he was quite busy with other matters and likely overlooked getting many of the “small things” in his life done on a timely basis.  Anyway, I found a very nice viewing position on the top of the roof of a utility building.  As I got settled in, a young man, dressed in Army attire, who was apparently an ROTC cadet or a 90-day wonder in training, approached me and said, “Sir, you need to move”.  My response was, of course,

“Why?”  His response to my response was, “Because the Secret Service says you have to.”  I continued my protestation by saying, “I’m just sitting here and have already gone through security”.  He said, “Sir, you need to move.”  So I did, most likely with my movements being observed through various types of scopes held by various agents associated with various federal agencies.  I found another place to view the festivities, but it was not as nice as that spot on that roof.

Joining Mel and my dad on the trip was Fran Crumley.  Fran was a delightful lady and always very warm and welcoming to my sisters and me.  I occasionally saw Fran at family events subsequent to the Mt. Rushmore trip and I was always greeted warmly by her.  Fran had a great amount of class and I have remained impressed by her to this day.

MackayStatuePerhaps sometime you could write a column on Gutzon Borglum’s connection to Reno and the Comstock.  Gutzon Borglum, in my view, has yet to be fully recognized for his place in American history.  His connection to Reno and the Comstock’s history, in my recollection, has received only very brief references, if at all, over the years.  His impact on American history lives on to this day.  For example, in a conversation with her, I asked Mel why Teddy Roosevelt is on Mt. Rushmore along with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.  Teddy Roosevelt, while a significant American and a significant American president, to me, was not in the same category, in terms of their impact on American history, as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, yet he is with them on Mt. Rushmore.  Mel told me that Teddy Roosevelt is on Mt. Rushmore because, in her father’s opinion, he made very significant contributions to America, which he did, but also because Teddy and Gutzon were friends of long standing.

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Footnote: Mel (Mary Ellis) Vhay Powers, who resided in Lakeridge Terrace, passed away in September of 2002. 

Good words from a man not a writer, but a CPA. The letter goes on with some personal information. But Des’ point is well-taken; Borglum, who had local roots, is a person who should MtRushmore30061 Mt Rushmorehold a higher place in local lore. We know of Mt. Rushmore, and of the John Mackay statue on the Quad. Few know that Borglum was tapped by the National Park Service to re-sculpt the hand and arm of Lady Liberty, who was originally sculpted by Bartholde holding the torch in an awkward position, and thus was redone to the present appearance. I’ll work toward more Borglum stories as time marches on. And, I thank Des for a great letter. KB

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Horsley on the Fun Train…!

FunTrainGordon Horsley, pictured at the right below, is a Reno guy, pure and simple, all over the place all the time, Reno High Alum Association, Harrah Auto Museum trustee, great taste in columnists. And drives a classic Dodge with an old Harrah license plate. He took the time to send this:
Boy you really hit home on the Sunday column.  I could write a book report on my ties with this one but I promise not to.
Some highlights….
Don “BoomBoom” Burke I first met when he ran the Reno Chamber office in S.F. and got the fun train started.
Jud Allen, (who hired Don),  his widow Glenda and my wife are the best of friends.
When the RSCVA was formed Roy Powers brought Don to Reno to be a sales manager for him
.
As time went by Don later came to work for me at the Kings Castle as a sales manager and was my best man when I Horsleymarried my wife in Virginia City.  His wife Carol and my wife were business partners in Convention Activities, a convention services company that my wife and I took over and ran for 30 years.  Don’s widow Carol is still living in Reno and another of my wife’s best pals.
The fun train is still in operation run by Key Tours out of Walnut Creek but not anything like what you wrote about.  TheyNouk charter buses from us now and then to get the people from the train station to the various properties.
Boy what a event when you got Don Burke and Don Manoukian [at left] in the same room or on a golf course.  One a 49er and the other a Raider.  It was a cherished  part of my life I will never forget.
As always Karl….many thanks for the memories..
Gordon

The Famous Flaming Swan Dive at Lawton’s, 1931

 Swan_DiveFollowing several weeks of inclusion in my columns of some bygone swimming holes in Reno, the time is upon us to speak of some events which brought short-lived fame to a couple of Reno youths, at one of the local plunges that we studied, the one at Lawton’s Resort west of Reno.

          Our source for this narrative is unimpeachable, and he will be identified at the conclusion of this tale. The story he told follows now, and we here turn back the calendar to 1931. In that year, two years following the Great Depression, my father, Karl the Elder, was graduated from Reno High School. He then, and together with his close friend of equal age who grew up in Tonopah and whose name was Jack Douglass, sought employment here in Reno.     They were successful in securing positions as busboys at the popular Lawton’s, who served high-end dinners around poolside during summer evenings.

          Jack and Karl worked diligently during those warm summer nights attending to the tables and the swells who patronized Lawton’s restaurant. And, my source reports, that as youthful busboys will do on warm summer nights with soft live music in the background and being called upon to bus cocktail glasses as well as dinner plates and silver, drained the last sip out of the glasses until as the evening hours grew later, they remained albeit quite functional at their task yet were, in a word, pleasantly toasted.

          All the while they were working, on Friday and Saturday evenings from early June on, they looked over their shoulders at the magnificent diving tower adjacent to the poolside deck where the dinner tables were placed. A beautiful edifice it was, Mission Revival style, with diving platforms set one meter, three meters, and ten meters – almost 40 feet, above the still water in the pool. Karl – Dad – was a recreational diver of some note, known to be quite adept off the boards of Reno and the rocks surrounding nearby Lake Tahoe. They worked, bussed, sipped, and looked at that tower. All during June and July of 1931.

          Early in August, according to my source, they showed up to work in their crisp white shirts and duck trousers, but with a bag containing something in hand. They bussed and sipped and their courage grew with each departing party of diners who hadn’t quite finished their cocktails. During a lull in their duties, they adjudged the time to be perspicacious. They scrambled to the top of the stairs, to the vaunted 10-meter tower. Karl – Dad – whipped off his shirt, shoes and white ducks, down to a bathing suit that he was already wearing. Jack pulled from the brown paper bag a glass bottle of – white gas. A product that we’d call kerosene today. A gallon of white gas. My God, what were they doing?

          Jack raised the bottle and as if it had been rehearsed, he dumped a gallon of white gas on Karl, from the shoulders down. And as the last drop of the liquid emptied from the bottle, he took a wooden match and struck it to several places on his friend, who immediately caught fire and emitting an unearthly jungle scream, dove from the platform in what the source described as a perfect swan dive, to the pool below garnering the surprise and admiration of the many diners poolside, who scarcely believed what they had witnessed.

          Jack was already back at his labor before his absence had been noticed, and in the confusion and adulation, Karl, who had employed the confusion to leave the pool and return to his clothing, which Jack had scurried down 10 meters of stairs to place by the tower’s access door.

          And the buzz started around Reno – did you see the flaming swan dive last night at Lawton’s?, the fine folks all bandied around the town.

          That was on a Friday night, early in August as my source told me. Saturday night would be no different. All at dinner,LawtonsTower the diners, the wait staff (who had only guessed what might have happened, it all took place so fast then returned to normal so quickly), the others around the pool, were all atwitter about the flaming swan dive.

          And just when all poolside least expected it, for no one foresaw it happening again, the night sky was rent by a Tarzan-like howl and all looked to the sky to see a human form falling in a perfect layout swan dive, arms outstretched, legs ending in pointed arches, the shape of all of it masked in a blueish-orange flame that disappeared smoothly into the still body of water.

          Yikes! It happened again, and as it was the night before, no one saw Jack exit the tower’s access door, nor Karl rise to the water’s surface, climb out, duck into the tower and return in his crisp white uniform.

          Now the town was really buzzing. Two nights in a row. Would it happen again next week? “Let’s go out and have dinner, and see,” quite a few said.

          And it did happen again, according to my source, who looking back I’m not sure that he wasn’t party to this hijinks.

          The following Friday, which might have been the second weekend in August, and then Saturday, the flaming specter would come flying out of the high platform in mid-evening. And, speculated the source, witnesses were one-by-one starting to catch on – two busboys would disappear, one would beat the other one back to their duties a half-minute ahead of the other, one looked like his hair was still damp – little signals that this was unraveling.

          Speculation was also rife that the Laughton family who owned the resort (and finally grew tired of correcting all who spelled it Lawton’s and acceded to the popular spelling) were on the horns of a dilemma. The flaming mystery death-diver, the justification of death unclear, as no one had died, was good for business and making Laughton’s, or Lawton’s, a household word in the valley and causing diners to flock the two miles out the Lincoln Highway to see it happen. However the down-side remained among the grownups that if these shenanigans continued unabated, with the assumption that they were being conducted by youthful busboys (who of course denied any involvement), that a diner was going to get conked on the head by a falling busboy or that a busboy was going to wind up alive and medium-well.

          As all good things must, the Famous Flying Flaming Death-Dive came to its end, on what most remember as the third weekend of its world premiere, most say a Saturday (I cited one source to be named soon, but as I was still a bit incredulous about it I spoke to others of his vintage and they substantially confirmed that it was mostly true, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, so to speak.) The consensus was, or is, that the management of Lawton’s raised hell with all possible divers on a Friday night but not quite enough, and the Flaming Swan Dive again occurred to the great applause of the diners. Alas on Saturday, good sense overtook the raising hell and threatening, and someone simply locked the door to the tower, effectively bringing down the curtain on this chapter of early entertainment in Reno, improving the quality of table-bussing at Lawton’s, and preserving the local supply of white gas. And I would presume that Karl the Elder and Jack covertly raised a toast to each other with a couple of leftover cocktails.

          My source for this information I’ll now reveal, was a classmate of my dad’s, who most of us knew and thought the world of, Ralph Menante, yes, the Goodyear tire guy. My dad, Karl the Elder, died in 1971, curiously in a swimming pool, not of self-immolation but rather by high-voltage. Ralph lived on for many years, and recalled this tale to me in the years to follow. I followed up with others who knew him, and yup, it’s (mostly) true. Dad and Jack Douglass (and my uncle John) shipped out a couple years later as oilers on an American President Lines steamer and from accounts of that trip one wonders how we still have an embassy in their ports of call, China, the Phillipines, Guam and the Hawai’ian Islands. Jack would later be regarded as one of the more popular and successful men in the gaming community, with ownership interests in the Comstock and Cal-Neva. He mentions my dad liberally in his book Tap Dancing on Ice, published in 1997 by the University of Nevada Oral History Program.

          And that’s the way it was, two miles west of Reno, in 1931.

© Karl Breckenridge 2015

An update and newer photo of the Black Mariah in the old Reno Rodeo parades

the restored Black Mariah

BRINGING THE READER UP TO SPEED: LAST SUNDAY, JUNE 20, I WROTE OF THE BLACK MARIAH, USED AS A PADDY WAGON TO HAUL PEOPLE WITH NO WESTERN ATTIRE TO THE KANGAROO KOURT IN EARLY POST-WAR RENO. I MENTIONED THAT FINDING INFO OR PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE PADDY WAGON WAS DIFFICULT, AND RECEIVED THE FOLLOWING FROM JOHN EVANOFF, A LOCAL HISTORIAN WHOSE WEBSITE FOLLOWS HIS NARRATIVE. HE ENCLOSED THE PHOTO OF THE BLACK MARIAH FOLLOWING ITS RESTORATION; NOTE THE LETTERING IS NEW AND DOESN’T COINCIDE WITH THE ORIGINAL LETTERING DESCRIBED IN MY COLUMN FOLLOWING ITS RESTORATION. I’M GRATEFUL TO JOHN FOR HIS EFFORT; HIS STORY FOLLOWS:

John: Here I am with the Black Mariah in 1980 in front of the Eldorado. I was the vice-president of the Reno Jaycees and the new winner of the Nevada Jaycee-of-the-Year award. We worked tirelessly all year putting the jail back together and getting the Mariah back in shape for this and many other events. The Reno Rodeo was our most fun event though. We gave out Reno Jaycee Rodeo garters for a $1 or more donation to get out of our fun jail. Everyone wanted to have their picture taken next to the Mariah or while they were in the jail. Our Kangaroo Court enlisted the help of anyone who wanted to enjoy the chance to be part of this fun event every year. We had as many as five thousand garters sold as a get out of jail donations to help many Reno/Sparks charities each year. During the Reno Rodeo Parade, we threw candy and pins to the crowds along Virginia Street and won Parade Honors annually for our contribution to the festivities. We even towed the Jail one year and had crowd volunteers jump in to be part of the parade, after which we gave them a garter for participating.

Responding to my request to reprint the photo: Yes, of course. The jail was in total disrepair and we bought the supplies to bring it back in 1979. We took it downtown that year with the help of my truck and parked it on Virginia Street in front of the Horseshoe Casino and then the next year began to move it to more events. I left the Jaycees in 1981 after six full years of service and a friend told me they had problems with getting a permit for the jail so they put it away in someone’s backyard. The Mariah had engine problems and was tough to keep cool after just a half hour on the Rodeo Parade route so we had lots of water which we added constantly to try to keep it running throughout the day. I think one of the guys tried to get it back in shape a few years later but it cost too much to bring back and so it was parked.

Check out John’s column for other interesting facts about Northern Nevada… http://visitreno.com/evanoff/index.php

My column about all this is at http://www.rgj.com/story/life/2015/06/19/breckenridge-black-mariah-kangaroo-kourt/28980431/

AND THAT’S THE WAY THE COLUMN HAS WORKED FOR 27 YEARS – I DON’T KNOW IT ALL BUT HAVE FRIENDS AND READERS LIKE JOHN, AND BIT-BY-BIT WE WEAVE THE TALE OF OUR VALLEY! THANKS, JOHN…

Mike Ingersoll lives on at the U of N

NevadaStateMuseumA while back I lamented the impending departure of a couple of University of Nevada campus names that became hallowed to students and alums in the last 40 years – the Getchell Library and the Jot Travis Student Union – both buildings being replaced by newer facilities with newer names.

Comes now our college contemporary and later the popular long-time principal of Reed High School Tim Griffin, who reminds us that another revered facility name is on the endangered species list, the Mike Ingersoll Associated Students of the University of Nevada Senate Room within the doomed Jot. I could write now that Mike – (“Foot,” he was known as) – was the consummate BMOC but that dated 1960s mnemonic would probably be lost on 61.3 per cent of our Saturday morning readers. A Big Man on Campus, Foot was; his effusive presence and great sense of humor transcended graduating class and fraternity and sorority lines (he was an Alpha Tau Omega), and he was elected ASUN president in 1965. I remember him best for organizing a campus-wide blood donor drive for Vietnam casualties, with nary a warm-blooded mammal setting boot or paw north of Ninth Street and east of North Virginia Street spared – probably the most successful such drive ever carried out in Reno.

And Foot gave the first unit…

Mike would die in a skydiving accident before he graduated with his 1966 class (Sigma Nu Bill Chaffin took over for the remainder of that year.) A campaign grew to a huge groundswell gaining campus-wide support from all – students and faculty alike – and the room in the Jot devoted to ASUN business was named in his memory.

Regrettably but inevitably, 40 years later Mike’s name over the ASUN Senate Room’s doors means little to the current students, indeed just as the name “Jot Travis” itself is vague to many, but be assured that there remains a large cadre of us Homefinder alums still out here that recall Mike’s name fondly, and implore those on the Hill who make such facility-naming decisions to keep the memory of a guy from our era alive in the new student union facility.

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Our Nevada State Museum in Carson City (pictured above) is doing a cool thing: As within most museums space is available to display only a fraction of the artifacts and mementoes that they house. Our museum has started a “Behind-the-Scenes” display, periodically delving in the darker reaches of the storage rooms and bringing assets up to the light of day – watch for news of these special displays being carried in this paper – it’s worth a trip south, especially on the new freeway extension.

            One motivation to include all this on page 10 is to remind newer readers and residents that the grand old museum saw its first use as a federal mint, placed near the Nevada source of silver and gold and opening in 1870. It closed in 1893, and if you’ve got an 1893CC Morgan cartwheel or Double Eagle gold piece in the ol’ jewelry box, it’d look mighty fine in a belt buckle.

            And to give credit where due, the Silver State is grateful to Max and Sarah Fleischmann, they of the yeast fortune, who shortly after their arrival to Nevada to set up residency here in the 1930s endowed the museum, then somewhat floundering, with a grant necessary to convert the building from a mint to a museum – and continued the endowment for two more decades for construction and artifact acquisition.

            As kids a trip to Carson City and the museum was a slam-dunk requisite of our education (just as was singing “Home Means Nevada” every Friday morning in school!) and the descent down into the mock “mineshaft” beneath the museum was a memory we carry with us for a lifetime.

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In last week’s raw text I spelled a reference to the Spreckels family right but my spell-checker recognizes “spreckles” as a word, whatever a spreckle is, and kindly converted it to thus for me automatically. I alone take the rap for letting Spreckle get loose. On the bright side, I did get it right a long time ago in connection with the Spreckels family endowing San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor. So I’m batting .500 on Spreckels, Sugar.

            Milestones: We say goodbye later this morning to Jim Puryear. “Bud” had at least two firsts in his lengthy tenure with the Washoe County School District: He was our P.E. coach in his first year with the district in 1951 in Central Junior High’s first year of existence, and later was the inaugural principal of Jessie Beck Elementary School when it opened in 1958. I’ve scribed his name several times in this column as a great candidate for a school name, but thus far with no success (yet!). Jim was a hell of a guy, a good friend to us all, student-through-adulthood.

            And, we said hello last Friday night to Julia Michelle Breckenridge, born to Brent and Laura Breckenridge in San Mateo. She’s already interning to take over Gramp’s page 10 in 2038, that year coinciding with real estate editor Bob Brundage’s retirement from the Gazoo.

                I’m advised by George Smith, the Guru-of-Grain at Ralston Foods on East Greg Street whose Accident-free day count we’ve long been including in this column, that the plant two weeks ago reached 5 accident-free years, with a whopping 1,769,000 hours worked with no one getting sliced, diced, crushed, boiled or stuffed into a boxcar. Ralston treated the whole staff to dinner at Famous Murphy’s, and no, Rice Chex and corn flakes weren’t on the menu. Nor were Spreckles. Nicely done, all 150 of you Ralston Folks!

            Have a good week; be as safe as the Ralston folks, write a U of N regent near you about keeping Foot’s room-name alive, and God bless America.

 

 

A sample of Lew Hymers’ “Seen About Town”

JacobsenRawI wrote a column about Lew Hymers’ book last weekend; thought you might enjoy seeing a random page scanned from that book.

I’ve had a number of inquiries about availability of the book. It’s well out of print and not catalogued in the usual channels; considered a “collectors’ item” it’s being sold on a couple of websites for over $400. There is a 1999 revision of the book available through the University Oral History Program or Sundance, but it’s pricey also and only has about 50 pictures in it, with a lot of narrative. The original may be viewed, I think, at the Nevada Historical Society, noon to four pm Wednesday through Saturday.

Remembering Don, by John Metzker – September 25, 2014

NoukJohn Metzker is one of my oldest friends, and can write with the best of them. I’m pleased to have this old friend write on this page, about another old friend…KB

I met Don Manoukian in the Fall of 1952. I was a freshman at the still-new Reno High School, and, at 13 years old the youngest kid in school. My sister (now, Marylee Fulkerson) was a Junior and a classmate of Don’s sister, Jackie (now,Powers). Don’s younger brother, Noel, was a peon-Freshman like me. We Freshmen spent time wondering if those Seniors were really going to be pushing us into the hallway lockers, as was widely rumored. (They didn’t.) In those days, First Period was “Home Room” and we all sat in alphabetical order, a natural meshing of the Manoukian and Metzker youngsters.

            To say that Don was god-like probably understates the situation–he was god. He was captain of the Huskie football team, holder of the state record in the shot put, honor student and President of the student body. And – much more importantly – he would stop and talk to me in the hallways. You’ve probably heard the expression “shining with reflected glory”? Well, that was me with my Freshman friends. “Hi, Johnny. How ya doin’?” He would say. He was so kind and generous. Looking back, I can see that his reaching out was intentional.

            After Don graduated from Stanford and later finished his successful career with the Oakland Raiders, he turned to professional wrestling, which was still enormously popular, especially on regional television. Don (“The Bruiser”) was the bad guy. When he would be introduced at the beginning of a match, the crowd would all boo him. We watched his matches on television and a couple of times, live. The wrestling performances were great, but the best part was the press interviews, afterward. The interviewer would almost always manage to work in a question about Don graduating from Stanford. Don had developed his own kind of thuggish patois for interviews. “Yeh, dats no big deal. Anybody c’n graduate from Stanford. No big deal,” he would say. I don’t recall that anyone really got the joke. Sports writers for the San Francisco Chronicle’s Green Sheet were spluttering about this oaf and members of the Stanford Alumni Association found it uncharacteristically hard to adequately express their displeasure. Don commented on this for a wrestling publication. “Holy Christ, it made them crazy.”

            In 1983, my family planned a family-only, 80th birthday dinner for my father at San Francisco’s St. Francis Yacht Club. I had arranged for a “mystery guest speaker” – Don Manoukian. I have to add that my mother’s sister’s side of the family was (and still is) somewhat more refined and mannerly than my mother’s side of the family. Don said that he would fly down for the night and insisted that his expenses be his birthday present to Dad.

            Anybody who has ever listened to a Don Manoukian program will not use the adjectives “refined or mannerly” in their description of the presentation. Don, by then, had known our family for decades and knew some juicy tidbits to bring up. His comments that evening were somewhat bawdy – and to some members of the family, somewhat shocking.

            Don Manoukian was truly one of my life heros. I am so glad that I made it a point to tell him that on more than one occasion. And I’m sure that the account of that bulky football player riding his motorcycle into the Stanford library wearing nothing but a jock strap was just malicious gossip.

A Saturday morning 2005 Manteca-Fed Beef

MoffatAdverta>

NOTE TO READERS: THIS IS THE FIRST COLUMN WHERE THE “READER COMMENT” LINK APPEARS AT THE END OF THE COLUMN – THAT LINK WILL TAKE YOU TO READ E-MAILS THAT COME IN ABOUT SUNDAY RGJ COLUMNS. AND NOW, BACK TO MR. MOFFAT:
 The topic of last Saturday’s page 10 spoke, among other matters, of the inadvertent but interesting knitting-together of turn-of-the-century meat packer William Henry Moffat and his home on the Alamo Ranch south of Reno, well-remembered by many readers as the ornate white frame two-story distinguished by the adjoining framed-in water tower that sat pretty much alone on the northwest corner of South Virginia Street at West Peckham Lane.  We learned of his Manteca-Fed Beef being sold exclusively in the local area by the Eagle Thrifty market chain, one of which was coincidentally built on his ranch about 65 years after he bought it. And we spoke of Tom Raley buying out Eagle Thrifty, and Tom’s first market which opened in Placerville.

            William Moffat didn’t build the house.  He bought it, as I wrote in a column that appeared here in April 1999. And finding little else to write about this week, I’m going to here reiterate that piece and add a little about Governor John Sparks.        

            The facts are that John Sparks, already an established cattleman from Texas and Idaho, bought the Anderson Station in 1887 and presumably built the magnificent home shortly after his acquisition of the property (yeah, Anderson School took its name from the huge Anderson land holdings in the South Virginia Street corridor.) Sparks would go on to become governor of Nevada in 1902, and pass away in office during his second term, in 1908.  Peripherally, we may note that he gave his name to our Rail City in 1904. More peripherally, if that adverb has a comparative voice, “Sparks” was the second name for that city, following its original name “Harriman” in honor of Southern Pacific Railroad’s owner E. H. Harriman.  E. H., a modest sort, beefed to the citizens of Harriman, most of who worked for him. Dick Graves hadn’t arrived there yet to vote for East Reno, so the governor got the nod. Early City of Sparks plat maps still show a Harriman Street.

            Enter now to our town William Henry Moffat from San Francisco, scion of a California meat-packing family. I was able to establish that in 1902 the 27-year old took an office in the power-center First National Bank building on Second and Virginia Streets for Moffat’s Nevada operation. I am unable to verify the year that he bought the Alamo Ranch from Governor Sparks.

            The Alamo remained a local player in cattle production for a good number of years.  And researching an earlier column that probably got me on this Alamo kick earlier in the summer, I found a 1930s reference to “…a sheep ribbon-tying contest far south of town at the Alamo Ranch” so apparently Moffat also ran a flock of sheep.

            Moffat was nominated a Distinguished Nevadan by the University of Nevada Board of Regents in 1960, three years before his death.

            His home, following a few decades of lack-of-TLC in Pleasant, not Washoe Valley, is being lovingly restored to its former grandeur and I understand a fellow Gazoo columnist is working on a piece about the home, the new owners and its restoration.  Stay tuned. [No further column ever came…]

Here’s a story about Mrs. Sparks by our friend Joyce Crowson Cox, go to http://www.unr.edu/nwhp/bios/nv1st/sparks.html

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Let’s have a safe long Labor Day weekend; Happy Anniversary, Blondie and Dagwood, Cookie, Alexander, Daisy, Herb and Tootsie, Julius and Cora, Elmo, the carpoolers and mailman Mr. Beasley, who Dagwood’s been knocking on his ass going out the front door for 75 years tomorrow.  God bless America!

© Reno Gazette-Journal August 2005

 

 

 

 


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The Wells Avenue Trench

tunnel

On a bright afternoon soon after World War II, two playmates whose names are Eddie Pine and Jim Miller left the brand-new Veterans Memorial School on Vassar and Locust to walk to their homes, across South Wells Avenue from each other on the corner of Claremont Street.  Crossing Wells was difficult, even then, because the new underpass connecting Wells to Highway 40 – East Fourth Street – made it easy for a lot of cars to use the street to get to southern Reno.  It would be easier for Eddie and Jim, and the hordes of other kids that lived on the east and west side of South Wells, to get together if they had a tunnel between their houses.

            So Jim and Eddie began to dig, in Jim’s front yard.  They spent an afternoon digging, moving not a great deal of earth with only the one shovel that they had, taking turns.  But they made a small dent in the task.  The tunnel was underway.

            Jim’s dad, Walter, came home from his job managing the downtown Sprouse-Reitz department store, and assessed the new hole in his front yard.  The boys explained their endeavor and then dove for cover, expecting the worst.

            “You boys need another shovel?  Maybe a pickaxe?” Walter offered.  The boys concurred that more equipment would be good.  While they were digging the following afternoon, Walter came home and brought them another couple of shovels and picks.

            The dig continued; a few more of the Wells Avenue Gang – now comfortable that they weren’t going to wind up in the soup for digging up the Millers’ yard – joined in.  Walter brought a few more shovels.

            The hole grew – two, then three feet deep, from the size of a card table to a four-by-eight blanket.  A rope ladder was fashioned to get down into the pit.  Still more kids showed up each day to help, bringing their own shovels.

            As the hole reached five feet in depth, a bucket-brigade type of excavation system was devised.  Walter brought some buckets.  Kids were making a pilgrimage from Veterans School to Wells Avenue.  Grownups were starting to stop by and watch.  Even the girls in the student body were chipping in; digging, hoisting the buckets, barrowing the dirt to the growing tailing pile alongside the Millers’ home.  The hole was approaching eight feet deep, now getting a little soggy during the day, easing the afternoon’s dig.

            Walter came home one day and noted that the hole was close to the requisite depth, and soon the direction of the excavation would turn toward the sidewalk, then under the street to Eddie’s yard.  The neighborhood excitement was almost overwhelming, and the whole education structure at Veterans Memorial was going to pot while this project moved ahead.

            But, Walter said, could you guys just level the floor of the hole a little bit in this direction for a few feet before starting toward the street and the Pines’ house?  And so they did.

The time was approaching to start the stope under the street.  They perfected the floor of their cavern, by now over eight feet deep, the work product of scores of their classmates.  And all the while, the neighbors to the site and the teachers at Veterans Memorial, acutely aware of the excavation, scratched their heads in wonderment about what was going on on the corner of South Wells Avenue and Claremont Street, and why wasn’t Walter Miller coming unglued?

            Eddie and Jim decided that the hole was deep enough.  The tunnel would begin.

• • •

Virtually the entire student body of Veterans Memorial School marched from the school on the afternoon that the hole would start becoming a tunnel, picks and shovels over their shoulders, boys, girls – researcher Ghia was unable to confirm that they were whistling “Hi ho, Hi ho…” but it could have happened that way – this yarn is basically founded on fact.

            They approached Jim’s house, ready to go to work and turn the bore toward Eddie’s yard.  Then they looked down into their excavation.

            Resting on the floor of the pit was a tank – a brand-new, black furnace oil tank, about four feet around, and five feet long.   It’s probably still there.

• • •

The kids got a good laugh out of it, for they all knew deep down that a tunnel was out of the question, but didn’t know how to call off the project.  And we’re told that Walter made it right for the whole neighborhood.  He’s since passed away, but is remembered as a pretty good guy by the Wells Avenue Gang…

God bless those who dug, Walter, and America.

 

Mumbles rides again

Simplex

 

Following our score of column visits to a bygone downtown Reno, one denizen was destined to accept his place in posterity.  This column was inspired by a voicemail from Realtor John Utter: “John Gascue and I were talking over lunch about a weirdo newspaper delivery guy who used to work in downtown Reno – call me and I’ll tell you more.” My initial thought was that this topic defines the luncheon fare of two aging Sigma Alpha Epsilon alums that have sold one too many buildings or spent one too many years as principal of Reno High School.  I called Utter: “I know who you mean without hearing any more. His name was Peanut Butter Joe, the old guy on the Simplex.”  (We later agreed he was probably younger then than we are now.)  Peanut Butter Joe, he was, owing to PBJ’s daily nutrition regimen in the form of 13 beers (Acme) and a jar of Skippy’s peanut butter (crunchy) at Harolds Club’s second floor bar as the guest of no less than Pappy Smith himself.

            “Oh, no,” John spoke.  “His name was clearly ‘Mumbles.’” That appellation was born out of Mumbles’ tendency to ride his cycle about the village mumbling incoherent epithets – unprintable on this website – at passersby who would get in his bike’s path, and, uh, expectorate at all of the town’s six taxicabs.  “And he rode a Vespa, not a Simplex.” 

            I concede Utter’s Vespa as to being accurate over my Simplex, having grown up with John and knowing that were Morganna the Kissing Bandit riding a Vespa, Simplex, Ariel Square Four or anything else downtown clad in naught but Santa’s boots and two squirts of Gucci fragrance, John would notice her bike first.  John’s wife Anne Marie’s brother then entered the fray: Tony Lesperance, whose journalistic background came primarily as the head goat-roper for the University of Nevada – (OK, an aggie professor and great guy who ran the University Farm until he retired) – volunteered, “No way.  He was ‘the Bombardier’.  Everyone knew him as that because he always wore a World War II flight suit with a bicycle clip on his pantleg.”  Well, Gascue, Utter and Breckenridge sensed that Lesperance might be a bit shaky, so we brought in a higher authority, this time a big-gun real-deal newspaperman. 

We call in the heavy artillery:

A call was placed to Warren Lerude, who before becoming a Pulitzer Prizewinner, if that’s capitalized, was a circulation director for the Nevada State Journal, the freight that Mumbles or Peanut Butter Joe or the Bombardier delivered on his Vespa.  Or his Simplex.  And, to add further credence, almost overkill, to Warren’s immense credentials, he’s a fellow Sigma Nu alum. “You’re all wrong.  You are obviously speaking of ‘Bicycle Eddie,’ a central cog in the wheel of the 1950s journalistic community, who none of the papers’ staffers in the old building on North Center Street would tangle with for fear of being, uh, you know, on.”

So there you have it, BPS readers [Blue Plate Special, my website where I guess I published this melarkey]. Were you to be downtown Christmas shopping 60 years ago, holiday cheer abounding, Bing Crosby’s pipes crooning White Christmas from the speakers on the roof of the Byington Building, the little animated shoemaker in the window of the Nevada Shoe Factory on Sierra Street bedecked in his annual Santa Claus outfit, the kids skating on the Truckee being chased off by Reno’s Finest, an S.P. cab-forward mallet locomotive laying a haze of smoke along Commercial Row, Vic Charles swinging the Salvation Army bell at his yearly post in the warmth of the Arcade Building, a Marine deuce – OK, big green truck – parked at Second and Virginia to put presents for the needy in, you’d probably run afoul of this legend, in his flight suit and hollering at you, banging on the side of your Nash Metro, cutting off an old lady as he turned his Simplex/Vespa into Douglas Alley. It’s high time that Bicycle Eddie, the Bombardier, Peanut Butter Joe, Mumbles, or the dozen other names that we remember him as, now be enshrined in the great pantheon of the rich heritage of our town that I struggle so diligently in monastic solitude to painstakingly research, a gift for those who will follow us.  And yes, once a year at Christmastime [when I first wrote this column], I am permitted by the Gazoo editor to use run-on sentences that would make my favorite and dear RHS English teacher Roberta Kirchner cringe [Bert passed away – now she revolves in her grave].

• • •

Have a good week, and God bless America.

 

July 11, 2007