JARBIDGE - Neglected old documents covered in rat droppings proved irresistible to one historian visiting this remote gold rush town in the mountains just south of the Idaho-Nevada line.
Now, they're part of a project Mary Greenfield and five other historians who dubbed themselves "The Jarbidge Archive Brigade" are undertaking to preserve the documents and chronicle life in the Old West.
Greenfield first came to Jarbidge in 1996 while pursuing a master's degree in Western U.S. history at University of Montana and then returned the last two summers. She spotted the records of Elkoro Mines Co., dating back to 1916 in the old Jarbidge jail.
"And they looked like they definitely needed some attention," said Greenfield, now working toward a doctorate in Western U.S. history at Yale.
Jacki Alexander of the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko; Kathryn Hampton and Jim Jenks of Helena, Mont., and Carrie Townley Porter of Reno are the other historians working on the project thanks to grants from the E.L. Cord Foundation, Nevada Humanities Inc. and the Jon Ben Snow Memorial Trust totaling nearly $18,000.
"Jarbidge is a place that has preserved not just documents and buildings but also traditional Western life ways," Alexander said.
The tiny town is nestled at the bottom of the Jarbidge River canyon, and its seasonal population shrinks to a dozen folks in winter.
"You gotta want to get here," said Leslie Paul, a part-time Jarbidge resident and the town's historical committee chairwoman. She is Jarbidge's liaison for the visiting archive brigade.
Greenfield says it's the real thing, neither a ghost town nor a tourist trap.
"The continued existence of the town, despite mine closings and its isolated location, is a testament to the tenacious spirit that helped to build it," Townley Porter said.
Among other things, the researchers surveyed and dated century-old miners cabins and plotted them on topographic software. They also scanned residents' family photographs dating back to the 1910s, and added them to a digital archive, which has grown to almost 500 photos.
"We've had all this history of Jarbidge that's been in people's attics over the years," Paul said. Greenfield and the others did "an unbelievable job of bringing the history of Jarbidge to life."
Photos from the early 1900s and on depict a self-reliant lifestyle that makes even a resident of Jarbidge feel spoiled by modern convenience.
"They lived with a lot less up here, and yet they were very happy," Paul said. For example: basketball in the Community Hall.
Naturally, not all memories that came to light in old-timers' oral histories were quite so wholesome. A footbridge separated the town from the brothels, and some people recalled sneaking across as kids, Greenfield said. If pressed, some remember prostitutes' names.
Overall, she said, Jarbidge's history is a story of survival, and that explains something about current residents' tenacious love for the town.