Elko, Nevada: April 28 – May 1, 2012

Reminders: 1. Posts are in chronological order with most recent on top. 2. Pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them and then using the back button (not close) to return to the text.

After an impactful stay in Ely, we headed another 140 miles north to our last Nevada stop: Elko. As you may know, it’s a crossroads town. Route 80, the Lincoln Highway, runs right through it on its way from San Francisco to Times Square. In fact, we detoured west on 80 about forty five miles to pay this visit. The Union Pacific passed through here while heading toward its history-making junction with the Central Pacific at Promontory Point.

It was certainly worth i.he stop We settled in a lovely campground at the east end of town that was overpriced – they even charged $5 for the privilege of making a reservation! But it was comfortable and convenient, and with over 900 night-stays on this trip already, it didn’t raise our average very much.

As is often our goal, we started off at the Visitors’ Center. Unfortunately, it was closed for the weekend, but its environment was worth exploring. In 1875, the Walther family owned a 600 acre homestead that, among other things, served as a stage stop on the nearby toll road. In 1997, the buildings were moved 60 miles to become the town’s civic center. Sherman Station consists of the original ranch house, school house, creamery, blacksmith shop and barns.

We started exploring on our own and found two sites of key importance. The first was the Western Folklife Center. It’s a combination museum, gallery and performance venue. Ensconced in the old Pioneer Hotel, it challenges the world to understand the arts and thoughts of the American Cowboy. The Pioneer began as a tent in 1865, likely the first bar in Elko. When the current building was opened in 1912, it was the largest accommodation/retail center in the city. Today it’s all things to all interested people. The Pioneer Saloon dazzles one with its 40 foot back bar of mahogany and cherry inlaid with mother of pearl. At the rear is a marvelous fireplace nook with easy chairs, book shelves and cocktail tables. Beyond the east wall is a 300 seat auditorium. Lining the west wall of the bar room are the posters announcing the annual week-long National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, a festival of spoken and sung word that is now so large the center can’t hold all of it anymore – it spills over to the convention center. The event in 2012 was the 28th consecutive meeting. Event posters for all but the first (1985) are for sale at prices ranging from $25 to $900, depending on their availability and demand. All of the sessions, from listening experiences to leatherwork lessons, would set you back about $500 for the week if you attended every non-conflicting one. But they built it, and hoards come.

The main entrance at the corner opens into the opulent gift shop. It and the Gallery behind it are sponsored by the Wiegand Foundation, a national philanthropy that hosts, among other things, awards in the name of Bob Hope and Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. The Gallery features displays of the work of western artists; the current exhibits emphasize leather and photography, many of which are on sale. In the rear is an 20 seat theater, called the Black Box. The gallery was far from simply an exhibit of wares; the stories accompanying them exposed the roots of the families of contributing artists — and their subjects, in the case of the photojournalists. We stepped into the Black Box to learn more about “Why the Cowboy Sings.”

Elko was born in 1868, and like most towns, grew up around its railroad. And as it grew, the rail system became more of a menace; approximately forty trains passed through town and caused disruption at 17 crossings. Thanks to a federal grant for just this situation, Project Lifesaver caused the tracks to be relocated several blocks to the south, along the Humbolt River. The problem was ameliorated, but the town was left with a gaping hole between rows of treasured buildings that’s been used since for parking facilities and community events. A major renewal plan, first drafted in 2002, was approved in 2008. In 2011, the Elko Redevelopment Authority issued a 186 page bold plan, from infrastructure to implementation. I skimmed it and found no proposed completion date, and we’re too early to see fruits of their labor. But as a force behind a microcosmic version of such a project – the restoration and renovation of the facility in downtown Annapolis that houses the Summer Garden Theatre – I know how slow it can go. I’m pulling and praying for them!

Our other gem was the Northeastern Nevada Museum.The first thing it confirmed for us was that gold mining is still the active, well established industry in the county. Nevada is the largest gold supplier in the nation, and this northeast county still reigns supreme. Unfortunately, mine tours are verboten because of the risk! The industry has attracted people from all corners of the world; more than forty nationalities have settled there. Among others, there is a very strong Basque community that holds a national celebration annually. Shoshone and Paiute Indians are the strongest constituencies after “white.”

Parsing this museum into three segments, I’ll classify the first as history. That includes a section on prehistoric roots, on Native Americans, on 19th century development, on the Chinese, on the Basques, on law and order, on mining, an on Elko’s own celebrity. Let me demonstrate with a series of pictures below.

Start with mastodon findings, the first two pictures. View the handiwork of the earliest inhabitants. Move on to the route of the California Trail which, of course, was later supplanted by the railroad (next two). See a little of how the Chinese and the Basques lived. See a home display and artifacts of the times, including their “interior plumbing” and their early power lawnmower. View part of the huge collections of arms donated by Bob Chow. Visit one of the best con games from the area, when a cattle rustler donned shoes in the shape of hooves to fool the law. See a bit about the gold that’s the area’s cash cow. And finally, witness Elko’s best known Mayor: Bing Crosby. Der Bingle bought and ranched seven properties surrounding Elko, and in 1948, he accepted the invitation of Mayor Dave Dotta to become honorary Mayor of the city, a post he held for almost thirty years. There’s a picture of Bing in sanitary worker’s coveralls, sweeping the streets shortly after his appointment. He also chose to premier his hit movie, Here Comes The Groom, in Elko, bringing waves of notoriety to town.

The second segment is an international wildlife exhibit provided in total by Jack Wanamaker. Wanamaker built an equipment rental empire in Burbank, California, primarily serving Hollywood studios. His passion, however, was big game, and after a lifetime on the hunt, he was looking for a place to display his collection. On the advice of a close friend in northeastern Nevada, he chose this museum to not only donate his mounts but provide major funding for their display in a special wing. The wing opened in 1999, and Jack passed on at 88 in 2003. Because we have visited several other wildlife presentations, I tried to picture animals we’ve not confronted before. Below: wombat, common genet, bush duiker, pine martin, short tail weasel and misk ox. The final shot is from the third floor, a mezzanine that looks down on the exhibit’s mountain.

The third floor was also the last segment. In 1999, the museum received a donation of a collection of eminent works by Will James. The donor was Dr. Donald Frazier, professor of history at McMurry University in Texas and author of multiple volumes on the Civil War. The collection contains editions of James’ 24 books, some signed, as well as an extensive collection of his artwork. Will James is often deified in the creative triumvirate that also includes Frederick Remington and Charlie Russell. His volumes are profusely illustrated. Born in Quebec (with an entirely different name!), he was a western U.S. cowboy until he was accused of rustling and confined for 15 months to the Nevada prison system. When he emerged, his creative skills, initially developed even before his teens, took him off the horse and into the studio. He died at 52, and despite his regional notoriety, his work is outstanding.

There was a wall of Ansel Adams’ photography, too.

Another section of the upstairs gallery displayed the winners of the regional school creative completion, recently judged. One of the things that impressed me to the core was the fact that all grades and all ages – from kindergarten through high school – were present. How nice it was to find promising works – my own opinion, not the judges – at every level.

On the way out, we glimpsed both the stagecoach in the lobby and the Pony Express station in the front yard, both reminders of the discomforts of earlier travel — which often still exist in another fashion.

We were too early to visit the brand new California Trail Interpretive Center, scheduled to open later in the year. And somehow, I didn’t find the time to patronize any of the city’s four legal brothels. Maybe next time . . . (OOPS, I mean the Interpretive Center next time.)

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