Great tales at the Nevada Historical Society
Every artifact found in the Nevada Historical Society’s exhibits has a story.
Take the society’s collection of prehistoric Native American baskets and other items. Many of the baskets are the work of a legendary Washo artist, Dat-so-la-lee, who, in the 19th century, created dozens of magnificent grass baskets with intricate weaves and designs. Because of their quality, some Dat-so-la-lee baskets have been valued at tens of thousands of dollars.
And then there is the old, stained sack of flour sitting in a display case. The 50-pound sack was originally owned by Austin, Nevada shop owner Reuel Gridley, who, in 1864, lost an election bet and had to carry it through the town.
Following his walk, he auctioned the sack with the proceeds donated to the Sanitary Fund (precursor to the Red Cross). The sack was resold several times that day, generating some $5,000 for charity. Gridley was later asked to repeat the auction in other Western towns and eventually raised nearly a quarter-of-a-million dollars for the Sanitary Fund.
Located at the north end of the University of Nevada, Reno campus, the Nevada Historical Society is the state’s oldest museum (it was founded in 1904). Over the years, the society has accumulated an unequaled collection of historic books, writings, photographs and other items about the state.
The Historical Society combines a photo and manuscript library with a small Nevada history museum. A few years ago, the society’s home was renovated and enlarged to accommodate its growing collection of Nevada-related materials.
The museum’s permanent exhibits, called “Nevada: Prisms & Perspectives,” are divided into five categories that each tell part of Reno’s story.
For instance, “Land of the Living” is devoted to describing the region’s pre-historic and native people. In addition to the large collection of baskets, it includes a replica of an Indian habitat made from local plants.
“Riches from the Earth” tells the area’s mining history, particularly in nearby Virginia City, while “Passing Through” addresses western Nevada’s relationship with the 19th century emigrants heading to California and the building of the transcontinental railroad.
The last two sections of the room, called “Neon Nights” and “Federal Presence,” focus on more recent history including the legalization of gambling, Reno’s once-thriving divorce trade and the impact of the federal government on the state’s development.
In all of the exhibits, the museum displays a number of fascinating historic artifacts that help to illustrate the narrative such as vintage gambling devices including strange, mechanical card devices, wooden slot machines, and a big wheel with pictures of dice. All were once used in local gambling houses.
There are also antique bicycles with wooden wheels and the most uncomfortable-looking wooden seats, a large neon sign from an old Reno bar (“The Phone Booth”) as well as maps, photos and paintings depicting early Nevada, vintage clothing, and beautiful leather saddles and boots.
In addition to the regular displays, the museum has a changing exhibit gallery as well as a well-stocked gift store, which offers Native American jewelry, unique history-related gift items and a large selection of books on Nevada.
The Historic Society also publishes an excellent quarterly magazine containing scholarly articles about Nevada history.
The Nevada Historical Society is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is located at 1650 North Virginia Street on the north end of the University of Nevada-Reno campus, adjacent to the Fleischmann Planetarium. Admission is $4 for adults, with children under 17 free. For more information call 775-688-1190 or go to http://museums.nevadaculture.org/.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.