When traveling to Nevada one always thinks about the slot machines and the bright neon lights of the casinos, but in truth, Nevada is a state filled with wonderful history, artists, legends and pioneer ranching spirit. On a recent road-trip, I was invited to explore the western town of Elko and situated in the middle of town, on Idaho Street, I discovered the Northeastern Nevada Museum. Housed in a large 40,000-square-foot facility, this museum offers an outstanding family travel experience, with its huge wildlife wing, art and history galleries, a theater and extensive archive/reference library.
When I arrived, I noticed outside the museum, a small log building, roofed with poles and on one wall, a stone fireplace chimney. The cabin is an original Pony Express building, erected as the Ruby Valley Station during the 1860 mail relay. It was moved to the museum site in 1960 and stands as a reminder that the mail was once carried via horseback across Nevada, just one link along the historic Pony Express Trail between Missouri and California.
The first gallery I explored in the museum contains Nevada’s largest collection of wild animal mounts. This vast display was donated by Jack Wanamaker, an avid sportsman who hunted world wide for over 30 years. When he retired at 80 plus years old, he decided to donate his collection to the museum. Because of the vast number of exhibits (approximately 300 animals, both full and head mounts), Jack and his family also helped fund the building that houses the Wanamaker Wildlife Wing. I saw trophy animals both large and small ... from an elephant to an African mouse. One of the strangest was some type of antelope with two tall thin spiral horns set between tiny round ears and a huge sloping nose. It looked like it had stepped out of a Dr. Seuss book or a Star Wars film. I headed upstairs to view this wide gallery from the open balcony above and from that vantage point, it was amazing, including the deer and elk mount-filled “mountainside” created in one corner of the building, almost three-stories high.
On the second floor, the Go West Gallery houses an outstanding Will James collection, donated by Don Frazier. Here the walls display one-of-a-kind artwork, pen and ink and pencil drawings, letters to friends and autographed first edition books. A 1924 horsehair coat, owned by Will James is displayed beside letters which talk about his life story, “ Lone Cowboy.” Hand written notes, inside book covers, to his friend Will Hays fill several cases and notes about the Rocking R Ranch in Pryor, Mont., in 1930. Will James wrote 24 books, for both children and adults, all of which were richly illustrated by his own creative hand. If you are a Will James fan, this is definitely the place to visit.
Back downstairs again, I investigated the Spring Creek Mastodon exhibit. Bones of a 2-million-year-old American Mastodon were discovered in 1994 in Spring Creek, Nev., about six miles SE of Elko, by a construction company digging a waterline trench. An extensive excavation took place and the resulting bones and fossilized remains have become a permanent exhibit here at the museum. I learned that Mastodon teeth are different from Mammoth teeth, as Mastodon are cone (nipple) shaped and functioned well in chewing herbs, shrubs and leaves, while the Mammoth teeth were composed of many flat enamel plates used in grinding hard foods such as grass.
The History and Geology Gallery features the Bob Chow firearms collection, which includes both historic and modern handguns, rifles and military weapons. Here too, Nevada’s history is told through the Native American and Basque cultures. Many excellent examples of Shoshone basket-making, in all shapes and sizes, fill several displays. A pioneer Elko memorabilia exhibit takes us throughout the years using clothes, hats, boots, toys, glassware and re-created period rooms. The history of G.S. Garcia, Elko’s world famous saddle maker, is told, including how he started the Elko Rodeo on July 4, 1912, which included the first sight of a “newfangled aeroplane” during the celebrations.
There was a rather fascinating item sitting among the ranching memorabilia that caught not only my eye but the curiosity of a young boy next to me. Two sets of cow’s feet, hooves and ankles, mounted one in front of another, are attached to large shoe-shaped, oblong pieces of wood. Leather straps were added so a person could tie them on and walk around wearing the odd contraption ... thus leaving only “cow tracks” and no outlaw boot prints in the dirt. Seems that in the late 1920s, cows were being rustled on the huge UC Ranch but no human tracks were ever found. One day, a couple of UC cowhands topped a hill and saw a steer being driven by a man on foot. They rode down and caught Crazy Tex, a cattle rustler, wearing these wild shoes. He admitted he had to practice “walking like a cow” in his invention but in the end, he still ended up in jail.
Another unique display was a denim Levi tuxedo owned by Bing Crosby. Story is, while on a hunting trip in Vancouver, BC (1951), he and his friends were denied a hotel room because they were so dirty and grubby. When the hunters returned to Elko, where Crosby was the honorary mayor (1948-1977), the president of American Hotel Association heard the tale and had the denim tuxedo made, which included an inside label that states: “Notice to Hotels everywhere, this label entitles wearer to be duly received with cordial hospitality and registered at anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances.” I hear Bing happily wore it during Elko’s Silver Stampede rodeo with pride.
So on your next visit to Nevada, stop in Elko and take in the Northeastern Nevada museum ... unlike the slot machines, its a winner every time. ❖