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Mysteries revealed at Nevada Historical Society

Richard Moreno
Special to the Appeal
Richard Moreno/Nevada Appeal Neon is part of Nevada's history, and examples like this sign can be seen at the Nevada Historical Society in Reno.
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Recently, my daughter asked me how Reno got its name. She’d heard two versions of the story. One was that Reno was named after the guy who didn’t show up in time to rescue Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn, and the other was that the city was named after a Civil War hero.

So we decided to check out the Nevada Historical Society, at the north end of the University of Nevada, Reno campus, to see if we could find anything about Mr. Reno.

Founded in 1904, the Historical Society is Nevada’s oldest museum. 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.

My daughter was immediately attracted to the society’s large display of prehistoric American Indian artifacts, including rows of handmade Paiute, Washo and Shoshone Indian baskets and cradleboards.

Many of the baskets are the work of THE 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.

We continued to explore. We found a replica of an American Indian grass dwelling and exhibits describing Nevada’s mining history.

My daughter found a number of vintage gambling devices that didn’t look like anything she’d ever seen before – strange mechanical card devices, wooden slot machines and a big wheel with pictures of dice.

In one corner, we found a couple of antique bicycles with wooden wheels and handle-grips and the most uncomfortable-looking wooden seats.

I told her the story about one thing I recognized, an old, stained sack of flour sitting in a display case. The 50-pound sack was originally owned by Austin shop owner Reuel Gridley, who, in 1864, lost an election bet and had to carry it through the town.

Following his walk, he auctioned off 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.

Other displays included 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. At the present time, you can see “Everyday Mysteries: Roy Curtis’ Photographs of Reno in the 1920s” (until Aug. 15).

Of special note is the society’s gift store, which offers American Indian 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.

Oh, we also discovered that Reno was named by the Central Pacific Railroad in honor of Gen. Jesse L. Reno, a Union officer killed in the battle of South Mountain, Md., in 1862.

• Richard Moreno is the author of “Backyard Travels in Northern Nevada” and “The Roadside History of Nevada” which are available at local bookstores.