Tiny time machines

small museums host history from indigenous culture to the comstock

PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: Museum director Joe Curtis at the Comstock Firemen's' Museum in Virginia City.

Even long-time residents may not know about – or notice – all the small museums scattered around Northern Nevada, but those hidden gems are integral to the lives of residents and as much as part of our culture as schools, churches, stores, restaurants and government buildings.

The tiny time machines keep alive memories of how our forebears lived and worked and the rich heritage that makes each Nevada community unique. Their collections always contain surprises, including hidden treasures not found in the larger institutions dedicated to preserving the state’s history. The everyday objects invite visitors to put themselves in the places of the people who came before them, long before the age of autos, TVs and computers.

There were too many small museums to fit into our first installment of our tour, so here is part two of our guide. And don’t forget your shopping list.  Selling unique and local merchandise is a museum’s way of keeping the doors open, but also to remind visitors of an hour or two of learning and fun.

Comstock Firemen’s Museum, Virginia City

Walking up the C Street boardwalk into downtown Virginia City, don’t miss the storefront Comstock Firemen’s Museum, rich with beautiful, rare 1860s fire engines and memorabilia. Firefighting is part of the heritage of Virginia City, besieged by fires throughout its history and devastated by the Great Fire on Oct. 25, 1875.

Director Joe Curtis, Storey County’s emergency manager and museum director, demonstrated the energetic method of pumping water from an early non-motorized hose rig, “You get twelve men on each side pumping to create an air pocket to pump water, and it can shoot water 200 feet.”

 The elegant, but effective, pumper depended on the muscle power of 25 men to pull it up the steep hills and streets of Virginia City. 

Curtis, a volunteer fire fighter, helped found the museum after a fire crew pulled out some of the rare equipment and engines from a fire in a local barn. In 1976, five museum board members spent three years restoring the finds, including a 1979 steam-powered engine, used in movies by 20th Century Fox studios, Curtis said.

Comstock Firemen’s Museum, 125 C Street, Virginia City, Nev., is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.   Admission is free; donations requested. 775-847-0717.

PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: A child tries out a desk at the Fourth Ward School.

Fourth Ward School, Virginia City

When entering the Comstock-era Fourth Ward School in Virginia City, children and parents step into an imposing school of bygone years where time stands still.

The most prominent of the many public and private schools serving families and children during the Bonanza mining boom, the Fourth Ward building itself was innovative for its time, director Nora Stefu explained. The structure had all the modern conveniences that the Victorian Age had to offer, including  indoor ventilation, drinking fountains, flush toilets, electricity and interior gas lighting. 

On its upper floor, the Fourth Ward School offers a significant overview exhibit of the important mining industry, past and present, which any Comstock visitor will appreciate. Take a look at the banister of the staircase: it’s worn down to the wood beneath the paint. That’s not an oversight in the restoration; the smooth surface is the result of generations of students sliding down the banister.

Other exhibits highlight the unique culture of the Comstock, where the families of mine owners could feast on oysters and roast beef, while out of work miners’ families worried about where their next meal was coming from. Displays include horse-drawn buggies and the smaller objects of everyday life, such as a silver tea set, mining tools and medical and dentistry implements.

The school also hosts research archive containing historic Comstock photos and documents. One room is dedicated to Sam Clemons, who got his start as writer – and came up with his penname, Mark Twain – while a reporter at the Territorial Enterprise newspaper. That room features antique typewriters and a functioning rotary press

The Fourth Ward School is located at 537 South C Street in Virginia City and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from May 1 through October 30.  Admission:  Adults 17 and older $6; children 6 to 16 years $3; children 5 years and younger are free; free for active military with current ID. 775-847-0975.

Stewart Indian School Museum and Cultural Center

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Bobbi Rahder, left, director of the Stewart Indian Museum and Cultural Center, and Chris Moran, right, at the museum on Aug. 6

The Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum is dedicated to the memories of the first Stewart Indian School students from Great Basin tribes who were enrolled in 1890, and all students and their families who were impacted by the Stewart experience. The vision of the museum is to serve as a steward of living American Indian materials and traditions, said Bobbi Rahder, the center’s director.

The new facility opened in January 2020. It attracted more than 1,000 visitors in the first few weeks, but had to temporarily shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The center has since reopened and observes all pandemic protocols.

The 240-acre campus operated as an Indian boarding school in 1890 and closed in 1980. The institution was part of a federal policy of “assimilation,” a plan to eradicate tribal cultures and educate indigenous children in the ways of the dominant White society. Initially, the students came from the Great Basin tribes: the Northern Paiute, Washoe and Western Shoshone. In the early decades, children were often kidnapped from their families and confined in the school, where they were often subjected to harsh discipline and unhealthy conditions.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: The buildings on the Stewart Indian School campus were constructed of colorful native stone by Native American students at the school during the 1920s.

Over the years, conditions slowly improved and the school enrolled students from tribes across the Southwest. By the mid-20th century, the school expanded its curriculum and its sports teams were celebrated across Nevada. The cultural center tells the story of Stewart’s dynamic history, with exhibits, interactive displays, and audio recordings of alumni. A self-guided walking trail features numbered stops where visitors can hear podcasts of alumni or employees telling of their experiences at the school.

The countless stories of hardship, resilience, strength, and triumph are at the core of the current efforts to preserve the Stewart campus and are illustrated in the exhibits. In addition to sharing Stewart’s history, the museum is a place of living heritage through exhibits of contemporary Native art, storytelling, arts and crafts demonstrations, lectures, public programming, and educational activities.

The Stewart Indian School and Cultural Center is located at 1 Jacobsen Way, Carson City, (775-687-7608). It is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed on weekends, state, and federal holidays).

Pyramid Lake Tribe Museum and Visitors’ Center

PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: The entrance to the Pyramid Lake Tribe Museum and Visitor’s Center in Nixon.

Spectacular architecture amid a scenic lakeside setting makes a trip to thePyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s Museum and Visitors Center an uplifting experience.  The Paiute people, who have lived in the area for millennia, consider the lake and its surroundings sacred and central to their community identity. 

PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: Cradleboards at the tribal museum.

It’s the only tribal museum in Nevada and was designed by a Hopi architect. The elegant structure was built with local stone quarried at Marble Bluff and put together by tribal masons. The tower connects the earth and sky and mimics the pyramid-shaped rock that inspired the lake’s current name.

The center serves to educate the public about the tribe and the Northern Paiute, said director Billie Jean Guerrero. Exhibits showcase traditional weaving crafts, with baskets, cradle boards, duck decoys on display. The stone manos and matates, ancient mortars and pestles, were used for grinding seeds and nuts.

Preserving the tribe’s cultural survival is key to the museum’s mission, Guerrero said.  “It’s more urgent than ever to share our history,” she added.

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Museum is located at 709 State Street in Nixon. It’s open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from May through September, and Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. October through April.  Admission: donation requested. 775-574-1088.

PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: The Children’s Museum of Northern Nevada in Carson City.

Children’s Museum of Northern Nevada

Parents and families will love the Children’s Museum of Northern Nevada located in Carson City, which explores many themes of railroading, natural history, construction, Nevada history, science and art.  The difference from other museums: there are no glass cases and everything is hands-on, said director Chris Brandon.  “Research shows that when kids who are exposed to museums, it opens up their minds.”

The open floor on the first floor of the building, which was originally the civic auditorium, then city hall, and subsequently the city library, beckons children with a mock-up of the Space Shuttle, a grocery store and café play area, a construction zone and slides.  Children can pan for minerals in a sluice, a trough with water flowing from a pump, using a wood-framed sieve. 

The museum hosts birthday parties as well as STEM camps, Lego camps and art and culture camps and regular story times.  The natural history alcove downstairs has exhibits of bears, a shark, lions and tigers.  A new exhibit about black bears, common in the area, is being designed and will soon be mounted  through the efforts of a Dayton girl for her Eagle Scout project, Brandon said.

The Children’s Museum of Northern Nevada, 813 N. Carson Street, Carson City, Nev., is open Monday-Friday: from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Exhibits downstairs are closed June 21-25, 2021 during a scheduled kids’ camp.  Admission: children ages 2-18 are $10; adults free; children under 2 free.  775-884-2226.

PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: Butterfly beadwork at the Nixon store at Pyramid Lake.

A bounty of history-themed gifts

Museum gift shops offer beautiful and unique items, many created by local artisans and craftsmen, so don’t pass them by on your way out.  Here’s a samplings of what’s available in these community museums.

Sparks Heritage Museum, Sparks: raw silk scarves stamped with images of farm and ranch equipment; pendants made of cameo maps of local sites; hand-forged ironwork in the forms of wine trays, business card holders, door knockers and barbecue tools; local honey from Pleasant Valley, Nev.; John Sparks soap cakes with tobacco scent; candles scented with lilac or juniper; railroad-themed ornaments; jeweled horseshoes; lantern-shaped pencil sharpeners.

Gatekeepers’ Museum, Lake Tahoe: pine needle baskets; gilded leaf necklaces; turquoise and beaded necklaces; laser-cut wooden ornaments with Tahoe themes, plush toys such as colorful birds and small animals.

PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: Wooden Christmas tree ornaments at the Gatekeepers Museum in North Lake Tahoe.

Mormon Station Historic State Park, Genoa: souvenir magnets, postcards, stickers, posters, coffee mugs, shot glasses, lapel pins and a variety of books related to Nevada history.

Genoa Courthouse Museum, Genoa: many historic books and children’s books, small jars of gold and silver, natural history picture guides, medallions, historic toys such as finger puppets, yo-yos, and jacks.

Children’s Museum of Northern Nevada, Carson City: STEM and art kits by Kidzlabs, travel games, solar print paper, children’s books.

The Stewart Indian School Museum and Cultural Center: The giftshop in the old U.S. Post Office building just outside the entrance to the cultural center offers jewelry, beadwork, books about indigenous people and more.

Pyramid Lake Paiute Museum, Pyramid lake: Elaborate beaded jewelry, moccasins and decorations by local artisans and other Native American tribes. 

Fourth Ward School, Virginia City: mineral samples, vials of gold and silver, books on Mark Twain, vintage cookbooks, craft books, children’s books, vintage games such as tiddlywinks and metal jacks, balsa airplanes, music boxes, crystal growing kits, paper dolls; sewing cards; a jigsaw puzzle of the school building.

Janice Hoke is a retired Reno newspaper reporter and feature writer with an interest in Nevada history and landmarks. The first installment of her series on small museums is here.

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