Mesquite history displayed at Virgin Valley museum
April 18, 2015
Like most of Southern Nevada, the community of Mesquite has undergone substantial changes in recent decades.
Once a sleepy farming community, the town has grown enormously since the 1980s—from about 1,100 in 1984 to more than 16,000 today.
Fortunately, while Mesquite has been growing and changing, there is one place that has managed to hang on to at least a few pieces of the former Mormon colony's past: the Virgin Valley Heritage Museum.
Housed in an historic National Youth Administration building, constructed in 1941-42, the museum offers an opportunity to catch a glimpse at the rich history of the Virgin Valley region.
The museum building itself is unique; it is one of only two NYA buildings in the state (the other is in Fallon). The seven-room stone structure was originally a library then served as a hospital (35 local babies were born here). After a few years as a boy scout lodge, the building was designated as the town museum in 1984 and opened the following year.
Inside, the cluttered museum is a vault of local history. A large collection of historic black and white photographs shows the evolution of the town as it grew from a few farms to a roadside stop to a burgeoning gaming mecca.
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One of the exhibits displays vintage clothing, including a beautiful turn-of-the-century wedding dress, and another shows off the town's first telephone switchboard and phone sets.
One corner contains 1930s motion picture theater equipment, while nearby is a recreated turn-of-the-century bedroom, complete with period furnishings, and a 1920s-era parlor.
A display case holds state basketball trophies from 1915 and 1916; the team had to travel by wagon to Moapa in order to catch a train to Reno, where they won the first-ever state tournament. The museum's docents are extremely helpful, many having lived most of their lives in the valley.
The Virgin Valley area was first settled in 1880. But the adjacent Virgin River proved too much for these Mormon pioneers — it dried up in the summer and flooded the farms at other times—so they abandoned the area after a few months.
In 1882, another member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, a man named Dudley Leavitt, moved his five wives and 51 children to Mesquite Flats, as it was named. He rebuilt irrigation ditches and, once again, tried farming the area. Another flood, however, destroyed his accomplishments and he was forced to give up.
The first sustained settlement was started in 1894 with the arrival of several more families. This time, nature proved more cooperative and the farmers were able to tame the river by rebuilding and fortifying the dam and canals.
The town grew gradually during the next three-quarters of a century, then began to sprout with the development of the Mesquite Peppermill in the early 1980s. In 1984, Mesquite incorporated, making it one of the state's newest cities.
Mesquite also holds the distinction of having been part of the Old Spanish Trail. An historic marker in front of the museum notes that the trail, used from 1829 to 1850, stretched for 130 miles across Clark County and was the first major trading route through the state (it connected Santa Fe, New Mexico to Los Angeles).
The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information go to http://www.mesquitenv.gov/city-government.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.