(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
He looked dog-tired. He sat alone, wearing heavy turnouts, all bunched up at the boots. His head fell to his chest, left hand resting on his knee holding a helmet with SFD on the crown and his axe on the bench behind him. A couple of teenagers took turns sitting by him and taking pictures of each other, and then they walked away, leaving him alone again. I sat down next to him on the bench in a shady setting on Pyramid Way, right behind the Sparks Heritage Museum on Victorian Avenue.
I’d seen him before, while he was directing traffic at a wreck on Rock Boulevard and Prater. Or maybe dragging a cotton hose into the burning garage at an old house on D Street where the barbecue coals got away from the homeowner, or earlier that same day inspecting an office in the Ribeiro complex on Stanford Way. Once I saw one of Sparks’ Snorkel trucks in the Disc Drive Scolari’s parking lot, the truck’s operator keeping watch like a quail on a rooftop while his buddies joked around inside the store about whether to get chicken or burgers for their Sunday dinner. The quail in the Snorkel called them all back to work, pronto, on the walkie-talkie; 15 minutes later they were pulling an unconscious teenager out of an abandoned mine shaft. Dinner would have to wait this Sunday. Maybe the guy on the bench was one of the crew on the Snorkel.
But I was sure that he the was a hint of a smile on his countenance, so I might have seem him at a happier time – like when he was cooking at the Fire Prevention Week pancake feed at the main station last October, best in the west, or slinging weenies at the SFD booth on a Thursday night Farmers’ Market on Victorian Square. Or showing an elementary school kid how to “Stop, Drop and Roll” at the department’s training trailer, or taking a rebuilt bicycle to a needy tyke in west Sparks on Christmas day.
Whoever he was, he was a Sparks firefighter. Or maybe he was a she – in the turnouts I couldn’t tell. She might have been the EMT on the Water Rescue Team that fished the kayaker out of the river by old Manogue High School, or the tillerman on the aerial truck when Sparks still had one (and political correctness be damned; in this column the operator steering the back wheels of a hook-and-ladder will always be a tillerman!) Sure, that’s where I saw her. Or him.
Or it might have been a while back that I saw this firefighter. Maybe as far back as 1905 when Sparks’ first firehouse opened at 12th and C Streets, or 1917 when the town got their first motorized apparatus, or in 1960 hosing down Kleppe’s Pond by wintry day so the Railroaders could go ice-skating by night, (the Reno Fire Department did this favor for us Huskies, flooding Idlewild Park and Lake Park in the northwest.) Sparks’ firefighters have covered Reno’s many times when the RFD got bogged down, like the 1957 Sierra Street fire we read about here a while ago or the 1962 Golden Hotel fire we’ve chronicled in the past few weekends that partially inspired this yarn. Or when the Galaxy Airlines propjet crashed on South Virginia Street, killing 62 passengers. Sparks’ apparatus sat in a few Reno firehouses in case anything else got loose on that chilly night in January of 1985.
The Sparks Fire Department aided Reno in the August 1948 Lake Street fire, a nasty one. Sparks’ chief Frank Hobson was overcome and died a hero’s death rescuing someone in a building. I vividly remember standing in front of my dad’s office on A Street, watching a flag-draped coffin being escorted down B Street in the hose bay of a Sparks pumper. Maybe the firefighter sitting next to me was one of the honor guardsmen that slowly marched alongside the pumper. Or maybe it’s Hobson himself? Or Fred Steiner Sr., the other Sparks firefighter who died in the line of duty responding to a fire in 1953. Mutual aid between Reno and Sparks has always been the standard, and firehouse camaraderie transcends the shields of SFD or RFD, or FDNY or PAFD. This firefighter next to me could have had any one of those stenciled on the helmet in his/her hand.
A few other visitors visited the little park while I sat there. They saw seven bronze footprints in the walkway leading to the bench. They studied the life-size bronze figure in a moment of reverence, then took a few pictures and left.
• • •
The Sparks Fire Department Monument project was quarterbacked by SFD‘s [now Battalion Chief] Barry Hagen, who, with help from Councilman Phil Salerno and SFD chief Lee Leighton [retired 2004], made a successful request to the Sparks Redevelopment Agency for approval and funding of the project. Many Sparks businesses donated material, and 95 per cent of the labor was done by off-duty Sparks firefighters. Hagen contacted Colorado sculptor Gary Coulter, who had created a Fallen Firefighter memorial for Colorado Springs. That town released the right to replicate their statue, altering only the helmet to read SFD, and the monument was cast. Coulter passed away from cancer during the casting, so his wife Debbie completed it, and fashioned the axe in the Sparks firefighter’s hand and the brass footprints leading to the bench. Three flagpoles fly the United States, Nevada, and City of Sparks flags 24 hours a day – and at half-staff on each September 11th. Bronze plaques descriptive of the department’s history, the dedication of the monument, and the Firefighters’ Prayer are emplaced on the three flagpoles’ bases.
The monument will be dedicated on April 20th – next Saturday  – at 11 a.m.; once again, it’s right behind the Sparks Heritage Museum at Victorian and Pyramid. Easy parking.
And after the crowd leaves, hang around. Take a seat next to the firefighter, who might be on the quiet side, but the countenance at rest in this pastoral setting speaks volumes…
• • •
[I was proud of this column, and somewhat humbled to learn that it found its way into many firehouses across the country.]
© Reno Gazette-Journal April 2002
Tom Young at Great Basin Brewing recently won Sparks City Council approval for a new service on Victorian Way – look forward to it in the warmer days, be prepared to do your share of pedaling…!
Hey, it’s April Fool’s Day. Yet, it’s still not a bad idea
Added April 2nd: OK, now: April Fool’s over. And a dear ol’ reader, which is all I have are ol’, not all dear, reminded me that the old column, read by old people, uses the old name, “B Street.” That’s all well-and-good, but I’m learning that too many people don’t know where B Street is (Victorian, to them), and the sadder fact is, that some who once knew “B” have forgotten that also. So for all of them, come to our meeting tonight at Boulevard Pizza Parlor, on 17th Street. (Rock Boulevard’s old name, and no, we’re not meeting, but the Masons had a pizza night last Tuesday at the Boulevard and it’s a great joint!)
Possibly not as great as Tom Young’s rolling brew pub. But good pizza nevertheless.
With great fanfare this motel opened in the years after WWII, at the confluence of Prater Way, El Rancho Drive and B Street in Sparks – the first animated neon sign across the street above Cal’s Drive-In (the animation being an arrow flying off the Indian’s bow in the direction of the motel.)
And what a place it was! Ballyhoo-ed all over the West Coast, with the cachet of a Harolds Club organization. (As I type this I get an error message for not using a possessive apostrophe in “Harolds” – Reno advertising wizard Tom Wilson steered the club’s owners away from an apostrophe, and writers have been screwing it up ever since. The club’s advertising never used one, so we won’t either.)
The Mary Lee Nichols school on Pyramid Way in Sparks, with a for-sale sign on its west lawn? Yikes! This little building was an active school in the Sparks School District (pre-dating the Washoe Co. District), built in the mid-1910s and designed by Frederic Delongchamps with all sorts of historical designations, was in service ’til the early 1970s as a school in the Washoe District, then sold. Is there no “tail” on the deed requiring that it stay as a historically significant building? It’s too nice – and too historical – a structure to be used as just any occupancy. Check it out on the east side of Pyramid Way in the 400 block – it’s part of our local heritage.