Because Nevada is coming up on its sesquicentennial year, I’ve spent hours in the State Library and Archives squinting at microfilm images of newspaper pages.
Although I’m looking for particular stories, there’s no way to avoid the weird, curious or monumental articles that catch my eye. How could I possibly ignore a headline that reads, “One-Armed Bandit Out with Two-Armed Banditti”?
It tells the story of an otherwise ordinary morning in 1944 at the Senator Coffee Shop in Carson City. “Out of this tranquil scene walked two young men, carrying between them a 10-cent slot machine. They deposited it in a gray Pontiac sedan, at the wheel of which sat a decided blonde. In a wholly unobtrusive manner, the trio drove out of town. Just like that.”
In those pages is told the story of Nevada — rough and remarkable, its towns growing like weeds or, sometimes, suddenly choked off to be left for dead. Ever heard of Skookum? I hadn’t. It lasted only a year as a mining camp in Lander County, but it had its own newspaper — the Skookum Times.
Those newspapers tell of booming mines, of Fourth of July picnics and out-of-town visitors, the opening of new businesses and how the governor fell off his horse on the road to Virginia City. They have bad jokes, tall tales and enough racist language to make you cringe.
Of course, those pages also carry the news of wars, assassinations, foolish acts of Congress and assorted indiscretions of national celebrities. But I was most fascinated by the local stories — the ones that tell me what a community was like.
Maybe it doesn’t seem important now that Tony Piazza, a Fallon rancher whose cow suffered a broken leg in 1937 when it was hit by a car, agreed to pay Ralph Casey for the damage done to his car. But it was news then. You can look it up.
The newspapers of Nevada and around the country are celebrating National Newspaper Week (Oct. 6-12). The theme is “Your Community, Your Newspaper, Your Life.”
They are the living history of our communities, as much today as they were in the 1854 when the first Nevada newspaper showed up in Gold Canyon (a decade before Nevada gained statehood).
Not all those papers survived. Not all those towns survived. But you can still read about them in the Archives, and you can get a perspective on what it was like to be a Nevadan in every era in our state’s communities.
That’s what the sesquicentennial is about, at least to me, and plenty of reason to celebrate a 150-year birthday. There’s no history quite like Nevada history, especially as told by its newspapers.
Barry Smith is executive director of the Nevada Press Association, which was founded in 1924 and traces its roots to 1888.