I’m glad I ran into my Virginia City printer/writer friend Chic DiFrancia last week because I learned he had written a Nevada magazine article about legendary Nevada Appeal Editor and Publisher Sam Davis, an important figure in Carson City history.
DiFrancia, who’s working on a history of Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise, writes Davis “was one of the last members of a fraternity of writers known as the Sagebrush School,” journalists who wrote short stories and poetry in addition to news stories and editorial commentaries. Born in Connecticut in 1850, Davis came west in 1875 to write for a San Francisco newspaper before moving to Virginia City as a reporter for the Evening Chronicle.
Following the death of Carson City “Morning Appeal” Editor and Publisher Henry Mighels, Davis was hired as the paper’s new editor by Mighels’ widow, Nellie. “Sam and Nellie made a great team and eventually their platonic relationship turned more serious,” according to DiFrancia. “Sam married his boss in 1880 and became part-owner of the paper,” where he remained until his election as state controller in 1898.
DiFrancia notes Davis was well known for writing “‘quaints,’ short fictitious stories designed to make readers believe what they were reading was true.” One of the most famous practitioners of that kind of dubious journalism was none other than ambitious, and clever Territorial Enterprise reporter Sam Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. A personal observation: Perhaps quaints were the forerunners of today’s “fake news.”
Back when Davis was the versatile Appeal editor he also set type for the stories he wrote and sold ads. In fact, most early journalists doubled as ad salesmen and typesetters, a job I can relate to because I took print shop in junior high school (now middle school) in West Seattle. I learned the California Job Case and set type for stories I wrote for the school newspaper, as DiFrancia has done throughout his career in printing and publishing.
My history with the Appeal doesn’t go back as far as Sam Davis, but it was a different newspaper when I moved to Carson as the Associated Press (AP) capital correspondent in 1962. At that time the paper operated on rickety scaffolding on the second floor of the Brewery Arts Building. I was always afraid I’d fall through the floor when I visited the newsroom in those days, and that’s where I met lifelong friends Ed Allison and Sue Morrow along with Bill Dolan, who did a little bit of everything at the Appeal.
I’m old enough to remember when young Appeal Editor Allison, a fervent Republican, refused to run a 1966 editorial endorsing then-Gov. Grant Sawyer (for whom I worked) because Allison strongly supported Sawyer’s Republican opponent, then-Lt. Gov. Paul Laxalt, a local hero. A blank space replaced Allison’s editorial.
Laxalt won, Sawyer lost and I moved to Washington, D.C., of all places, to join the now defunct U.S. Information Agency (USIA). My life came full circle in 1996, however, when I retired from USIA, moved back to Carson and began writing a Sunday political column for the Appeal.
In his Sam Davis story Chic DiFrancia quotes a Davis poem about the Silver State: “Have you ever scented the sagebrush that mantles Nevada’s plain? If not you’ve lived but half your life, and that half lived in vain. ... And when you die you’ll want a grave where the Washoe zephyr blows, with the green sagebrush above your head. What need to plant a rose?” Well said, Sam, and thanks to DiFrancia for reminding us of Davis’s important role in Carson City’s colorful history.
Guy W. Farmer is a longtime Carson City resident.