The Nevada Way

The 80th annual Nevada Day Parade is one way Nevadans celebrate the state

Spectators line the street during last year’s Nevada Day Parade.

Spectators line the street during last year’s Nevada Day Parade.

Photo courtesy of Cathleen Allison/Nevada Momentum

To the rest of the country, the only holiday that matters at the end of October is Halloween, which is celebrated much the same in every state. Yawn. Nevadans, however, know that October 31 is special for other reasons—the commemoration of our state’s admission into the Union, which we celebrate as Nevada Day. Along with West Virginia and Hawaii, Nevada is one of only three states that mark its anniversary of statehood, and we tend to go big in our state with local traditions.

Perhaps no single tradition is better known or more celebrated than the annual Nevada Day Parade in Carson City, and its accompanying state holiday. The parade has happened almost every October 31 since 1936, but the official day of observance changed in the year 2000.

“Nevada Day used to fall on October 31, 1864—that was when Nevada was admitted into the union as the 36th state,” said Ken Hamilton, executive director of the parade. “In the year 2000, they passed a law to have Nevada Day, the holiday, fall on the last Friday in October. Then the parade is the following day. That created a three-day weekend and that gave people more time, especially in the rural parts of Nevada, to be able to come over and be involved in the parade.”

Hamilton has lived in Carson City since his family moved there in 1972, and he has attended every single parade in the years since. He’s been involved with the parade’s governing body, an official non-profit, since 2009. Now, as the executive director, he is in charge of organizing the parade itself—and the day’s extensive calendar of events.

“A lot of events take place on Nevada Day, but there’s only certain events that we actually sanction, which is the World Championship Jack Drilling Contest, and the beard contest, and the balloon launch—weather pending,” Hamilton said.

The jack drilling championship pits contestants against each other to see who can drill the farthest through a solid boulder with only hand tools (in homage to the state’s mining heritage), while the beard contest judges the entrants’ facial hair in length, fullness and color.

Before the parade itself, attendees will also find the yearly pancake breakfast at the governor’s mansion, the hot air balloon launch and a flyover by military aircraft from Fallon to signal the start of the parade. That’s a lot of Nevada culture to pack into one day.

“[We’re planning] from January 1 until pretty much the parade is over,” Hamilton said. “And then we’re already thinking about the next year, as far as what’s our theme going to be, our grand marshal, what went right, what went wrong.”

Each year, the parade has a different theme that participants can style their floats or exhibitions after, and a ceremonial grand marshal to lead the day’s festivities. This year’s theme is “the state of economic diversity.”

“This year we have our very own Governor Sandoval as the Grand Marshal,” Hamilton said. “We picked him just because I felt, as far as the theme of economic diversity, he’s seen us through some tough times. And I think he’s been an outstanding governor, and the board and I felt he was the perfect fit.”

With a usual crowd size of over 15,000, Hamilton said it’s best to find a place to sit along Carson’s Main Street before 7 a.m. And with over 200 entries in the parade, viewers can expect to stay until around 2 p.m. to see them all.

Bringing it home

The floats and entries include equestrian teams, local businesses, political figures, fraternal organizations, volunteer groups and dance troups. But members of another Nevadan tradition always make their presence felt, and they’re already used to large, whimsical vehicles.

“We have a large Burning Man participation, and their floats could represent a house, a boat, art cars,” Hamilton said. “I mean they always have the most interesting parade entries of them all, I would say.”

One such entry is the USS Nevada, a large art car modeled after a pirate ship that has served as the official mutant vehicle of the Burning Man Camp Gallavant since 2001 and has sailed in the Nevada Day Parade since 2008.

“Most of the Burners are typically located near the end of the parade, so it’s kind of like the grand finale I’d say,” said Troy Morgan, who’s been involved with Camp Gallavant since 2005.

Morgan moved to Carson City 15 years ago from New Orleans, and has attended the parade every year since. Getting involved with the parade, he said, felt natural.

“I’m born and raised in New Orleans, so Mardi Gras is a pretty big thing for me, and being able to attend and or participate in the largest parade in the state of Nevada brings Mardi Gras home for me,” Morgan said.

Along with the parade, he hosts a weekend-long party at his home for members of Gallavant’s sister camp and any other local Burners who feel like attending. The party, he said, has become something of a Nevada Day tradition itself.

“At the time, I had the ship at my house and, you know, now it’s going to the parade, so why not have a party at my house post-parade,” he said. “And so I opened up my house for one day, and it just grew into a whole weekend long tradition that I’ve been doing for probably five years now.”

The parade receives the most (literal) fanfare in the course of Nevada Day’s celebration, but local traditions like the annual La Ke Lel Be Pow Wow also find ways to celebrate the breadth of Nevada’s history before statehood.

Another tradition that takes place in the weeks preceding Nevada Day itself, the annual Nevada Day Treasure Hunt, focuses more on celebrating the state’s natural heritage by encouraging citizens to get out and explore the Sierra wilderness.

Since 2000, the Nevada Appeal has posted riddle-like clues to the whereabouts of a small, engraved medallion hidden somewhere in Northern Nevada. Hunters who find its location are entitled to a $1,000 prize courtesy of the Mahe family, who took over organizing the hunt in 2014 after the family who originally created the event decided to step down.

“We hunted for years when the Olsens were running it, which we enjoyed greatly, and so when they said they were going to stop, we stepped in and said we would continue it,” said Jennifer Mahe, whose family hides the medallion, writes the clues, and funds the prize every year.

“The manner in which clues get you to where you’re going could change year to year and has, historically,” Mahe said. “The idea is to focus somewhat on Nevada history—they’re all Nevada- related, but they don’t all involve history. Some will involve something current that’s happened. Some might be a geological formation or talking about the place itself.”

The Nevada Appeal and the Nevada Day Treasure Hunt website publish 16 clues—once a day, Monday through Friday for the first three weeks of October—and the game doesn’t finish until the medallion is found.

And while the medallion has always been found before Nevada Day, Mahe said the treasure hunt and the holiday have similar goals: to encourage its participants to take pride in their state.

“I think certainly what we hope people are getting out of it is that they’re having a good time, and they’re enjoying it either by themselves or in groups—that families are going out and they’re learning” she said. “They’re not just learning about each clue, but you learn a bunch of history in order to solve a clue. So you’re learning about the state, and then you’re getting the opportunity to go out and see it.”