Between a rock and a hard choice
The Big Metate once marked the last remaining winter village sites used by Washoe Indians. Now it’s parked a few yards away in front of a new mini-storage facility.
For centuries, Washoe Indians used the area surrounding what is now known as Steamboat Hot Springs as a winter home. The area wasn’t far from many travel corridors and prime hunting locations. Hot springs in the area increased the ground temperature by a few degrees. Nearby Steamboat Creek attracted animals such as rabbits that the tribe hunted, and trees provided food such as pine nuts. Women and men made knives from nearby stones and ground food on a hard granite boulder partially buried near the springs, creating smooth craters on the enormous gray stone called the Big Metate.
Today, the land that was once that winter village is bisected by U.S. Highway 395 (aka South Virginia Street) and is home to Anchor Storage, a mini-storage facility that opened several months ago. All that’s left of the most significant areas of that winter village is buried under dirt, leaving only a few artifacts and—thanks to the efforts of the owner of Anchor Storage—that SUV-sized boulder, the Big Metate.
Over the years, millions of people may have driven past the site without any knowledge of it. I found out about the campground only when my father, Allen Boegle, called me one day several months ago. He’s 58 and a fourth-generation Nevadan who grew up in the Steamboat Valley, where he still lives today. He’s known about the Big Metate since he was a child. He’d hunt for arrowheads in the area and remembers being awestruck by the hollowed-out areas on top of the large granite stone.
Earlier this year, construction equipment moved in and started spreading dirt around on top of the site. He was upset about what appeared to him to be the destruction of the Indian village site.
“It kind of made me sick because [I thought] we lost that archaeologically rich area,” my dad said.
Timothy Farrell owns Anchor Storage at 16025 S. Virginia St., directly across from Rhodes Road, south of the Mount Rose Highway. He’s a fourth-generation Nevadan, just like my dad. As a matter of fact, they went to school together, both graduating from Reno High School.
As he walks around Anchor Storage, Farrell talks about two major themes: frustration that it took so long for him to develop his land and relief that he has indeed finally developed it.
“It’s an interesting look into how the government works,” Farrell says.
The land has been in the family for a couple of decades. Farrell’s parents owned it for about 15 years, and when his mother passed away in the early 1990s, he and his brother purchased it from his father for estate purposes. Farrell’s first thought was to put a mobile-home park there.
Shortly after the purchase of the land, however, Washoe County rezoned it from commercial to general rural, he says. Because he bought the land intending to use it commercially, and because the move by the county significantly lowered the property’s value, the county gave him a variance and told him he had three years to develop it.
First, the idea of a mobile-home park was shot down; it would have created too much noise and traffic, the county said. Eventually, Farrell got a special use permit from the county to build a mini-storage facility. But one of the approval conditions was that he had to hire an archaeological firm to study the property.
This is because the Truckee Meadows Regional Plan—which is currently being revised again—has a clause in it that protects cultural and historic resources more than 50 years old. The governmental agencies operating within the Regional Planning Agency’s area of jurisdiction (which extends from Cold Springs and Stead in the north to Carson City in the south) are charged with protecting such resources and require that all developers do as much as they reasonably can to preserve any historic resources located on their land before projects are approved.
The TMRP is the only law in the state that provides any protection for historic or archaeological resources on private land, says Rebecca Palmer, an archaeologist with the State Historic Preservation Office. Nevada has no antiquities law to protect such resources (see sidebar).
Archaeological studies had been conducted on Farrell’s land before, but nobody could find the resulting reports for the frustrated businessman. So he paid a substantial amount to hire Kautz Environmental Consultants Inc. to do another archaeological survey. When the survey was completed in March 1996, Farrell learned about the site’s historical significance.
The report detailed four possible historic sites on Farrell’s land. One of them was determined to be extremely significant—the “Big Metate Rock Site.” The Kautz report notes that the site was initially recorded in a different survey done in the late 1960s.
The report goes on to discuss the Big Metate and notes that the site “has obviously gained the attention of local looters as evidenced by the many pits they have left noted within the project boundaries.”
But this did not sour the surveyors on the site’s significance. “There is ample evidence that a subsurface cultural component is present on this site that may yield stratified chronological data that is important to the understanding of the prehistory of the Truckee Meadows, and beyond,” the report states.
“It is recommended that this site is eligible for nomination to the [National Register of Historic Places] based upon its own merits, as well as be considered a significant element of the proposed Southern Truckee Meadows Prehistoric Archaeological District. It may represent one of the last extant sites commonly referred to as Winter Village Sites in the Truckee Meadows.”
Normally, armed with information on such a significant site like this, the county—with the SHPO’s help—would make an effort to look into the site further, possibly excavating the site, if possible. But that never happened.
Somebody with the county dropped the ball.
Rebecca Palmer’s office is at the south end of the State Museum and Archives building in Carson City. The building itself is one of the older state buildings still in existence, having been built in the 1800s.
Palmer’s job is to review various development proposals throughout the state to see if they could affect any archaeological resources. Washoe County, she says, is one of the better governmental agencies when it comes to sending her information on a monthly basis.
She then reviews this information based on previous archaeological inventories. She also looks over the surveys, such as the one done by Kautz on Farrell’s land. In the case of Native American sites, she also tries to get the tribes involved, she says.
Palmer received the initial report on the Anchor Storage (then referred to as Steamboat Storage) land in early 1996. She instantly knew that this area had historic potential and notified the county of that fact. In June, she received the Kautz report, and she sent a letter to the county concurring with its conclusions.
At that point, she would normally work further with the county on mitigation to preserve the site’s historical resources. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The county (like other local governments) has little archaeological expertise but has the authority, thanks to the regional plan, to take reasonable steps to preserve historic sites. The SHPO has the expertise but no authority.
But that mitigation never happened at Anchor Storage.
“That was the end of our involvement,” she says. “There are no more letters [from the county]. Washoe County has been very good about seeking our inventory and requesting our comments on any mitigation plan. This came as a shock.”
The next word Palmer received about the Anchor Storage site was earlier this year, when county Planning Manager Sharon Kvas called her. Palmer says Kvas realized something was wrong while reviewing a file.
Kvas says she is not sure what happened, only that there was a “breakdown” between the time the survey was done and the time the county would normally get feedback from the state. She says the cause could be that both the county’s planner and the planning manager working on the Anchor Storage project left the county’s employment during the process.
With the county growing at such a quick pace, the planners are busy, Kvas says. And somehow, the archaeological concerns fell through the cracks. She noticed the mistake when she was reviewing a grading/building permit that needed to be renewed for the Anchor Storage site. That’s when she called Palmer.
“I jumped in and salvaged things the best I could,” she says.
Between 1996 and 2001, Farrell was busy jumping through governmental hoops and untangling red tape. For example, there was the issue of the wild Steamboat buckwheat, an endangered plant that is located within one mile of Farrell’s property—but not actually on his land. Because his land is so close, he had to prove the construction of Anchor Storage would not adversely affect the plant. That caused one of several delays. With each new time-consuming obstacle, permits would expire. Getting permits renewed meant more delays.
Farrell says that he turned in all of the archaeological information as required, including the Kautz report, and waited for 30 days for approval. After hearing nothing, he agreed to another 30-day period, after which, he says, the county told him to proceed with construction with the restriction that construction would be halted if any artifacts were found.
Construction finally got underway this year, and Farrell says he took the advice of the Kautz group on how to deal with and preserve the site: Bury it.
“We covered it with layers of dirt on our design,” Farrell says. “Our archaeological firm says that similar things have been done in the past.”
He also decided to move and save the Big Metate—which nobody required him to do. It was moved to a site just adjacent to the mini-storage’s parking area, using a D-9 Caterpillar to move the boulder, which weighs several tons.
“I feel responsible for that rock,” Farrell says. “That’s why I spent the money and got the equipment to put it there.”
Farrell says he was in the process of doing all this when Kvas discovered the “breakdown” earlier this year. In a letter from Farrell to Kvas dated June 19, he explained what he had done, saying that he had even contacted the Washoe tribe for assistance. He also says he offered the stone to the state museum, but that they declined it because it was so huge.
All the confusion left Farrell feeling frustrated, he says.
“It’s a situation that, as a business person and property developer, was very difficult,” he says. “It’s impossible to find out who has the authority to do what.”
Today, the Big Metate sits several dozen feet from the spot where it spent the previous centuries. It is completely above ground now, standing about 6 feet tall. Before, it had been buried about halfway in the ground, providing a perfect surface for grinding—kind of like a kitchen countertop.
The enormous granite boulder has a few scrapes on it from its move. It also has the word “SAVE” spray-painted in small, red letters toward the bottom of the rock. Farrell says he eventually plans to put soil around the rock and build a ramp so people can see the top of it more easily.
Farrell has also contacted William Dancing Feather, the Washoe tribe’s cultural resources coordinator, in hopes that the tribe will help provide a plaque commemorating the Big Metate. Dancing Feather confirms that he has spoken with Farrell, although there have been some occasional lapses in communication; their game of phone tag has been going on for several months now.
Farrell says he’s glad that Anchor Storage is open, and he’s proud of what he was able to preserve. Kvas says she’s delighted that Farrell was so cooperative in saving the stone. The stone could have been lost, and the site completely wiped out, had Farrell not done what he did.
Palmer, however, is saddened. While she is grateful that Farrell did what he did, she says she has concerns. While the site was covered over—that’s the favorite choice of developers, she says, because it’s easy to do—that could hurt what is underneath if the soil was acidic, if it was compacted too much or if it retains too much moisture, she explains.
“This happened without our review of the treatment,” she says.
It also means that the site will not be excavated for quite some time, if ever. Dancing Feather says that as the Truckee Meadows area grows, more and more sites are being lost forever.
“Everywhere you go in the Truckee Meadows, there are going to be some kind of artifacts that are being destroyed," he says. "The Washoes were all over the place. And if [the artifacts are on] private land, there’s nothing we can do."