Tombstone finds a home in Dayton |

Tombstone finds a home in Dayton

Karen Woodmansee
Appeal Staff Writer
Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Dick Dreiling, left, talks with Don McDermitt on Friday at the Dayton gravesite of McDermitt's great uncle Mervin Johnson. The Historical Society of Dayton Valley held a ceremony Friday recognizing Johnson's history and Dreiling for his efforts to return the headstone after it was discovered under a Sparks street in 2004.

Mervin Johnson’s tombstone was laid to rest Friday, 76 years after the man himself.

A memorial ceremony was held for Johnson, whose tombstone was discovered under a Sparks street in 2004 and two years later was traced to a pioneering Dayton family.

Three cousins, brought together by the discovery of the tombstone, gathered at the Dayton Cemetery on Friday morning to honor the man they never new much about.

“I think it’s amazing,” said Virginia Gardner, of Reno, a grand-niece of Mervin Johnson. “It’s kind of good it happened because it brought a lot of us together in an interesting way.”

The saga began when construction workers discovered the tombstone under the intersection of El Rancho Drive. The workers contacted Sparks police, who held the tombstone for two years, in case someone reported it missing.

Getting no reports, on Nov. 1, police turned it over to the Sparks Heritage Museum, where docent Dick Dreiling took on the job of finding out the history of the man named on the tombstone.

Dreiling was at the ceremony too, and spoke about his search for information on Mervin Johnson.

Using census records and newspaper notices, Dreiling compiled information on Mervin Johnson’s marriage, children, military service and death.

He was born in Dayton in 1894, one of nine children of Manley Johnson, who ran a stage and freight business out of Dayton.

It was the Dayton connection that led Dreiling to contact the Historical Society of Dayton Valley, where member Linda Clements helped in the search, and where she and Mabel Masterman came up with the idea of putting the tombstone in the Dayton cemetery, even though the man himself is buried in Reno.

Mervin Johnson left Dayton for Reno, where he married. Later he moved to Loyalton, Calif., and worked in the lumber industry. His siblings spread out around Northern Nevada and California.

He was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in World War I. Mervin Johnson died in 1931, believed to be from the lasting effects of an illness that began during the war. Ironically, Mervin Johnson died the same year as his father.

Dreiling located Mervin Johnson’s grave site in Mountainview Cemetery in Reno, but was shocked to discover the grave had a tombstone. Later he discovered that the tombstone discovered under the street was probably discarded after the family replaced it with a military memorial signifying Mervin Johnson’s service in World War I.

It was that service that brought the Dayton Valley Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8660 out to the ceremony, where they presented the colors and played taps. Commander Stan de Stwolinski told of the hardships Mervin Johnson must have faced while fighting in Europe, including the possibility that poison gas or an influenza epidemic might have led to his early death at age 37.

De Stwolinski said Mervin Johnson may have been a casualty of the war, and quoted John 15:13.

“Greater love hath no man than this; that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Donald McDermitt, 77, of Sacramento, and cousin Carl Johnson, have been working on studying the family history, but not until the tombstone mystery became public did they put it all together.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “We never really knew this much about this side of the family and now it’s all coming together.”

Mervin Johnson had a son, Mervin Jr. who has died, and a daughter, Beryl, who lives in an assisted living facility in Anchorage, Alaska. She and her daughter were unable to attend the ceremony.

• Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at or 882-2111 ext. 351.