A reading holiday

Nevada is the topic of four new books

Photo caption

Photo caption

Photo/Dennis Myers

Companies often put their new products forward at gift-giving time, and four Nevada books appeared in 2014 and are a good way to start 2015, to say nothing of easing gift selections all year long.

Christmas in Nevada by Patricia Cafferata is obviously the most in tune with the recent season. Within its pages is an eclectic collection of reminiscences, rituals and religion. The names of celebrities from Mark Twain and Artemus Ward to Lucius Beebe and Howard Hughes appear. But everyday people are well represented, including some of Nevada’s oldest families, and so are those forced out of the mainstream. The community of Black Springs north of Reno, once a hamlet for African-Americans who could not buy or rent in Reno, is included, as is one of the nation’s most famous 1960s gay couples, Beebe and Charles Clegg.

When I first heard Cafferata was working on this project, I had my doubts that there would be enough material to support the title, but she has done it by gathering material on topics like Victorian Christmases in Humboldt County, pogonip in Washoe County, and Christmas in 1930 Las Vegas among black, Paiute, Mexican, Japanese and white families whose livelihood had become tenuous after the railroad was completed. There is narrative about Christmas ornaments, meals, treats, gardens, trees (including Reno’s first official municipal government tree). It devotes considerable attention to how Nevadans of different backgrounds adjusted to the winter holiday—Serb food, shared building use by Catholic/Congregational congregations, a Las Vegas Jewish child of parents of different faiths making rounds of Protestant churches at Christmas.

Nevada: 150 Years in the Silver State, edited by Geoff Schumacher (once described by journalism professor Jake Highton as Nevada’s best journalist), is a project of Stephens Press, an arm of the corporation that owns 10 newspapers in Nevada. Schumacher assembled a collection of articles by familiar Nevada figures—Cafferata among them—on topics both familiar and obscure. This is not a holiday dish, but a broader menu of the state’s history, from Peter Skene Ogden to Willy Vlautin, from 19th century tribes to 21st century cities.

The book gives readers dozens of different sets of eyes viewing state history, many of them from people who actually participated in that history or watched it at first hand—Sally Denton, Dana Bennett, Michon Mackedon—along with both professional and lay historians. It also seems more attuned to the majority of Nevadans—transplants from elsewhere, who make up three-fourths of the state population—than other similar publications.

For a different approach to the same history, check out Nevadans: The Spirit of the Silver State by Stanley Paher, its author described in Warren Lerude’s introduction as “eminently familiar with Nevada literature as well as with the wealth of imagery and historical documents.”

Like Schumacher’s book, this volume relies on a number of writers, but most chapters are not bylined and are presumably Paher’s work, so it's more an individual interpretation of the state’s history. Names normally seen in other fields, like Charles Weller and Robin Holabird, are bylines here, but the principal voice is its editor.

All three of these volumes benefit from the unfamiliarity of the art within them. They are illustrated not with the hoary photos that have been published time and again in Nevada, but with photos that will be new to most readers. Schumacher seems to have, consciously or otherwise, stayed away from the overexposed. Paher actually dipped into a little known memorabilia collection of a Nevada aficionado who lives in Florida. Cafferata used not just unfamiliar photos but also paintings and drawings that will be fresh to most.

Schumacher’s book has already sold out its printing and is now going used for collector’s prices. It’s not yet known whether another printing will be ordered.

The Redfield saga

The fourth volume is less celebratory. It tells a tale that has long needed telling. For decades, Renoites have heard and told stories about reclusive millionaire LaVere Redfield, who lived in the marvelous stone mansion at the intersection of Mount Rose and Forest streets, but most of them were just repeating tales they’d heard from a friend-of-a-friend. My personal favorite among the Redfield stories is the fact that his will contained a provision for distribution of $1,000 to each and every lawyer in Washoe County, the idea being that if they were all watching each other, his estate would not be screwed. The provision actually existed, outraging local attorneys, but it was never carried out.

In 1952, federal officials claimed that there were 270,000 silver dollars secreted in the Redfield basement and further claimed that one of his wills contained the sentence, “The government can’t tax wealth that can’t be located. Burn this and tell no one. Carry on as though no coin or currency was left.” Redfield then had a couple of decades still to live, during which he stayed mostly out of sight. Small wonder rumors swirled around him.

Redfield’s strangeness and his battles with officialdom over the vaults of silver dollars under the Mt. Rose Street home fostered plenty of myths, most of which began with a grain of truth. Author Jack Harpster has done a service by pulling all the information together and sorting out what is true and what is fakelore. No doubt some people will be disappointed to learn their Redfield stories do not stand up in the light, but even so, this biography shows there is still plenty of bizarre behavior in Redfield’s life without the fables. And it also describes how his widow, Nell, survived him and became a public figure and benefactor her husband never was.

• Christmas in Nevada by Patty Cafferata. Reno: University of Nevada Press, $26.95

• Nevada/150 Years in the Silver State by Geoff Schumacher, editor. Las Vegas: Stephens Press, $29.95.

• Nevada/The Spirit of the Silver State by Stanley Paher. Reno: Nevada Publications, $39.95.

• The Curious Life of Nevada’s LaVere Redfield by Jack Harpster. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, $19.95.

All these titles but the sold-out Schumacher volume are available at Reno’s Sundance Books.