Small museums, hidden treasures

history and culture is on display off the beaten path

PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: Last Chance Joe, on left, presides over the entrance to the Sparks Heritage Museum and Cultural Center, on right, at the corner of Victorian Avenue and Pyramid Way in Sparks.

The past is still with us; you just have to know where to look.

Tucked away throughout Northern Nevada and California is a bonanza of small museums, displays housed at city and county historical societies and even eateries that have local history on their menus.  All offer a time-travel experience that reveals the identities of those who came before us, how they managed to survive and thrive in boom times and bust, and how our forebears planted the roots of modern life.

These smaller museums, including some that don’t get a lot of attention, feed our desire to experience the past. They reflect both the history of their host communities and the attractions that made people choose to make their homes there.

Here’s a look at some of them:

Sparks’ heritage on display

Visit the Sparks Heritage Museum and Cultural Center at the corner of Victorian Avenue and Pyramid Way in the historic railroad town and catch a glimpse of the city’s namesake, Nevada Governor John Sparks.

PHOTO/SPARKS MUSEUM: Shoes worn by Bertha the elephant.

Remember the glory days of the John Ascuaga’s Nugget Casino in an exhibit of vintage slot machines and the huge leather shoe of Bertha, the star performing elephant and the unofficial mascot of Sparks.

Across Victorian Avenue from the museum, step aboard a luxury sleeping car for a trip back in time.  Imagine traveling in style and comfort in a 1911 Pullman executive car for Southern Pacific managers when you take a guided tour of the train on Saturdays. 

Stop in at a genuine one-room schoolhouse (by appointment) where desks were arranged by size, smaller desks in front and “high-schooler” desks behind them.  The Glendale Schoolhouse, the oldest remaining schoolhouse in the state, was built in 1864 in a community south of Sparks, closed in 1958, and was moved to Victorian Avenue in 1993.

During the recent pandemic closure, museum director Christine Johnson planned new exhibits and a future research library open to local historians and curious Sparks residents.  The museum also is a repository for Sparks High School yearbooks.

“The museum is central to life today in Sparks as well as part of the historic district,” Johnson said.

Sparks Heritage Museum: 820 Victorian Ave., Sparks, Nev.,  open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m.  Admission: $5, ages 11 and younger are free. Phone: (775) 355-1144 or visit the museum’s website.

PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: Greg Zirbel, director of the MUseum of Truckee History, in the Truckee trainmaster’s office at the depot.

Truckee: California crossroads

Continue your exploration of railroad history in the region with a visit to the new Museum of Truckee History, which opened in early May 2021 in the historic depot in Truckee, Calif.  Walking in the door, you’ll step into the trainmaster’s office and listen for the whistles of the mainline trains that still stop at the Truckee depot. 

Touch screens, photographs and artifacts encourage visitors to explore the history of Chinese railroad workers, the logging industry, Native Americans, skiing and winter sports.  Ring the bell from a train locomotive and shake the jingle bells on a horse harness.  View photos of the 1895 Winter Carnival Ice Palace built to attract visitors to the West and to Truckee, billed the “Gateway to California.”

A couple of blocks north, along a pleasant, wide walkway along the railroad tracks, marvel at the power of a huge red rotary plow used to clear the way for trains braving the monumental  snow banks in the Sierra Nevada and across Donner Pass. 

PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: A rotary snowplow used to clear snow from railroad tracks in the Sierra Nevada.

Museum of Truckee History, 10065 Donner Pass Road in downtown Truckee, open Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. $2 donation requested. Details: (530) 582-0893.

When you leave the Truckee history museum, be sure to visit its companion museum, the Old Truckee Jail about two blocks away.  Feel the fear when the heavy jail door slams shut on your cell, a sound you won’t forget.  Docent Karl Pape has many stories to tell about the historic jail’s prisoners, like Ma Spinelli, “The Duchess,” the first woman executed by the state of California at San Quentin prison. 

Climbing up the stairs in the two-story building brings you into the 1905 hospital, scene of suffering during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. Patients only went to the hospital, closed in 1930, if they were seriously ill with dysentery, measles or mumps, Pape said. 

Old Jail Museum, Truckee, Calif., 10142 Jibboom Street, is open Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  $2 donation requested. Details: (530) 582-0893.

PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: Baskets made by indigenous people from Nevada and California tribes at the Gatekeeper’s Museum in Tahoe City.

Tahoe history and sports

From Truckee, continue to Lake Tahoe and visit the Gatekeeper’s Museum in Tahoe City.  If you’ve ever dreamed of living in a lighthouse, this comes close. The quaint log cabin is a reconstruction of the home of the guardian of the watergate where the Truckee River departs Lake Tahoe on its journey to Pyramid Lake north of Reno. It’s a historic spot filled with exhibits of banners, photographs and ski equipment  reflecting the one and only Olympic Games held at Squaw Valley in 1960.

Its treasures also include a magnificent collection of Native American baskets from tribes across the continent. Many of the woven baskets and hats were made by indigenous people from across the Sierra Nevada region, including artisans from the Pomo and Washoe tribes.

Gatekeeper’s Museum, 130 W. Lake Boulevard, Tahoe City, Calif., is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day; and from Thursday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. from September through May.  Admission is $5 general, $4 senior, 65 =, children under 12 and museum members are free.  Details: (530) 583-1762 or visit North Tahoe Museums on the web.

PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: A reconstruction of the log trading post and stockade at Mormon Station State Historic Park in Genoa.

Nevada’s first town

Early pioneering history in the Sierra Nevada began with the Silver State’s first permanent non-Indian settlement in Genoa. The town, backed up against a magnificent range of mountains and surrounded by green fields (and modern golf courses), has kept its charm during the last 170 years. 

Mormon Station State Historic Park features a rebuilt log trading post established by early pioneers set in a beautiful picnic area and outdoor displays.  Artifacts belonging to a local historic mailman, Snowshoe Thompson, who carried the U.S. mail up and over the mountains to California on longboard skis (then called snowshoes), include his battered mail satchel.

Wander over to an outdoor display of farm wagons and a replica of a water flume, used for transporting logs from the mountains to valley lumber yards for use in the Comstock mines for shoring up the tunnels.  Bring a picnic and enjoy the large shady tree-filled park.

PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: A display of a blacksmith’s forge and work area at the Genoa Courthouse Museum.

Visit the quaint Genoa Courthouse Museum opposite the park for another look back at history, including an exhibit featuring a set of spurs used by a Pony Express rider and a full-size replica of a blacksmith shop.

Mormon Station State Historic Park is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from May through September, and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday through Monday from October through April with a $1 entry fee.  Children 12 years and younger are free. Details: (775) 782-2590,

The Genoa Courthouse Museum, 2304 Main St, Genoa, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission: $5 adults, youth $2, children ages 6 and younger are free. Details: (775) 782-4325.

PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: Bicycles hang from the ceiling of Rosie’s Café in Tahoe City, where antique skis also are part of the décor.

Eateries double as museums

While journeying through Nevada’s past, you need sustenance, and possibly exposure to more local history.

Some Nevada restaurants incorporate the relics and artwork of the communities they serve into their décor, so that you feel like you are dining in a museum. Those include:

Rosie’s Café in Tahoe City with its bicycles and skis on the walls and ceilings; Mary & Moe’s Wigwam Restaurant & Casino in Fernley, Nev., features displays of Native American lithic points and arts, including beautiful cradleboards crafted by artisans at the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation; and Red’s Old 395 Grill in Carson City, where you can gaze at huge wagons hanging above the diners, and a steam fire engine and a steam tractor next to your table.

There are more small museums and historic collections that you may not know about (but should), and we’ll be taking a look at those in Part 2 of our tour of smaller local museums later this month.

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