Adding a little spice to an icon of the Old West |

Adding a little spice to an icon of the Old West

Jarid Shipley
Appeal Staff Writer
Kevin Clifford/Nevada Appeal Exhibit Preparator Jeanette McGregor carefully places a ceramic cherry toothpaste jar back on its stand after cleaning it Friday afternoon at the Nevada State Museum. The jar is just one of many artifacts found from Virginia City that will be shown at the "Havens in a Heartless World" exhibit starting Tuesday.

John Wayne swings open the butterfly doors of the saloon and scans the room before entering. The spurs on his boots jangle with each step as he saunters up to the bar and orders a drink from the mustached bartender to calm his nerves before engaging in the gun battle that is surely moments away. As he lights up a cigarette, he orders a plate of fresh oysters. Wait – what?

Tell most people to think of a saloon and they conjure up images of rustic cowboys, a crowd of armed men playing poker under a cloud of smoke and dancing girls. But, if you ask Historic Preservation Officer Ron James, those images are really off the mark.

“The saloon is an icon of the American West. We all have a perception of what the saloons were from movies and TV shows but that image is just not right,” James said.

“They were not a place to go on a Friday night to get shot. It was a place to go to escape the harsh world of the mines and the Comstock,” James said.

Now, in an effort to change perceptions about the historic saloons, the Nevada State Museum is preparing an exhibit titled “Havens in a Heartless World – Virginia City Saloons and the Archeology of the Wild West.”

The exhibit features more than 300 artifacts recovered from four historic saloons in Virginia City that prospered during the late 1800s. The artifacts were collected from 12 years of excavation.

“You are lucky if you get one saloon, and by having four it allows you a lot of comparative information,” said James, who is curating the exhibit.

The highlight of the exhibit is the world’s oldest Tabasco bottle, made around 1870. The bottle was found in 29 pieces in the African-American owned Boston Saloon. The bottle was repaired by a museum volunteer and has been verified as the oldest bottle by the Tabasco corporation.

The exhibit also includes poker chips, children’s toys, a ceramic spittoon, a tin for cherry-flavored powdered toothpaste and oyster shells from two species of oysters. The types of shells are significant because one was from the West Coast and was shipped by wagon, while the other was from the East Coast and wasn’t available in the area until after the railroad was completed.

The exhibit opens Tuesday and runs through April 28. It includes artifacts from the Boston Saloon, Hibernia Brewery and Saloon, O’Brien and Costello’s Saloon and shooting gallery and Piper’s Old Corner Bar.

“I doubt you will ever see anything like this again because of the amount of labor it takes to excavate four saloons. It’s unprecedented,” James said. “It’s the collection of them together that makes you see the story of the Western saloon.”

The exhibit, which cost nearly $45,000 to prepare, was funded by Museum and Library Services, the Nevada Historic Preservation Office, the National Park Service and the Nevada State Museum.

Once the exhibit is closed, some artifacts will be sent to Virginia City, some to museum’s in Las Vegas and others to Reno.

— Contact reporter Jarid Shipley at or 881-1217.

If you go

What: “Havens in a Heartless World -Virginia City Saloons and the Archeology of the Wild West” exhibit

When: Tuesday through April 28

Where: Nevada State Museum, 600 N. Carson St.

Call: 687-4810

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