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Silver State National Peace Officers Museum pays annual homage to police veterans.
Virginia City is famous for many things. The great Comstock Lode, the “Bonanza” television series, and as anyone who has spent time there knows, parades! Yes, Virginia City has a parade in celebration of nearly any subject one might imagine. The Hippie Parade, the Pet Parade, the Outhouse Parade, and of course parades in recognition of every holiday known. There is, however, one parade with a uniqueness and purpose that calls for further explanation.
Back in 1954, a young California police officer found a sterling silver star badge mixed with a pile of costume jewelry at a flea market. He examined the precious metal symbol and pondered the fact that some man, or perhaps many men, had worn that badge with pride as they performed the dangerous duties of a police officer near the turn of the century. He made the purchase, and that badge became a very important possession to Walt Gist. That badge fueled a passion for the next 51 years, as he amassed a collection of historical law enforcement memorabilia second to none.
Fast forward to 2009.
On July 18, 2009, the Silver State National Peace Officers Museum was born in Virginia City. The museum, with the Gist Collection as its primary exhibit material, opened inside the 1876 Storey County Jail, which is buried in the back of the historic and still active Storey County Courthouse.
Much fanfare took place, including a law enforcement parade and ceremonial events to recognize the museum grand opening. The grand-opening parade received such a positive response that the decision was made to hold an annual Police Memorial Week Parade in May in celebration of the law-enforcement profession and to reflect on and pay tribute to some 15,000 American peacekeepers who have lost their lives while protecting the citizens of their communities.
Now with four years of operation under the proverbial belt, the museum board of directors will hold its fourth annual Police Memorial Week Parade on Saturday, May 4, 2013. At noon, a procession of law enforcement-related icons will travel through downtown Virginia City at a slow crawl as an announcer calls off particulars of each entry, or perhaps a little informative address on the dangers and sacrifices made by officers every day here on the streets of the United States.
Professional singer Sandy Selby, at the start of the event, can be heard belting out a wonderful and appropriate song in recognition of those officers present, and for those who cannot be, as flag-baring color guards, pipes and drums, even vintage police vehicles along with representative officers on horseback, motorcycles, and marked vehicles from across Nevada and California move down C Street at a funeral-procession pace.
You won’t find such an event just any place. Few locations in our nation host law enforcement parades these days even though during the days of horses and six guns, police parades were commonplace as they were held in conjunction with their annual inspections. But in Virginia City, along with Washington D.C. and perhaps a couple other towns in America, the tradition carries on through the efforts of the peace officers museum staff and the community, too.
The parade falls on the heels of two local law enforcement memorial ceremonies that take place on the Nevada Legislature grounds and then in Reno’s Idlewild Park on the previous two days. These events place a compliment of peacekeepers in the area ready for a positive and fun event after standing in recognition to those men and women partners in the profession that they had lost during the previous year.
If you would like to attend the Police Memorial Week Parade, or participate if from law enforcement or have a vintage police vehicle, visit the museum website at peaceofficersmuseum.org to learn more about the weekend’s events. This is a very special event, and the public is encouraged to attend the parade, visit the museum, and take in all of the other opportunities that Virginia City has to offer.
Silver State National Peace Officers Museum
While on the subject of the museum, this magnificent place will reveal to you a tremendous collection of memorabilia from throughout our country’s policing history. You will find artifacts from the 1780s to current from every city and town possible, or at least that will be your impression. You will see 1930s gangster John Dillinger’s death mask along with many more gangster era exhibits.
First issue law enforcement badges of New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Diego to just name a few, take you back to the day that these agencies first started, in 1845 in the case of New York City! You will see tools of the trade including historical restraints, nightsticks, flashlights and lanterns, uniforms, and even the badge of a bandit-turned-lawman named Matt Warner, who robbed banks with famed Butch Cassidy in the 1800s but then changed his ways and became and honored lawman in Price, Utah for the rest of his days.
Just recently, a very worn and roughly constructed badge was sent to the museum with a request for information. Although the owner had harbored that badge for 50 years, he had no idea what significance it may have held or who had worn it and when. Even though it held initials of the proud lawman, they had no idea!
Through museum research, it was quickly determined that the badge had belonged to Joseph McCourt, elected sheriff of Lander County in 1888. He served only one term in the county seat of Austin. The strange badge construction, made from plain old steel and brass with indications that it had been created by a blacksmith, caused concern as to authenticity as most badges of the early years were either production made or jeweler made of precious metal, not poorly finished steel.
In the end following completion of the research, the badge owner was provided with the name, the fact that McCourt had made a living as a blacksmith as well, which explained the design and construction of this artifact. But the real revelation was in the fact that the owner of the badge had now realized that McCourt had been an ancestor! Stories like this are all too common as we strive to discover and preserve the history of policing in America.
There is also a fitting memorial room dedicated to those officers who gave it all and a Kid’s Station that lets your little ones’ minds wander as to what it would be like to wear the uniform, drive that emergency vehicle to the scene of a crime, and just absorb what it would be like to do the job into their imaginations. Then, you can take the opportunity to put on police uniforms of the 1800s, pose in front of an 1800s street scene, and have your photograph taken! It all happens in this one very special place because one man had such a respect and passion for his fellow peacekeepers that he captured their history for others to behold. There is so much to do in Virginia City but you just may spend the entire day inside this old jail filled with history!
Doug Gist is the chief executive officer of the Silver State National Peace Officers Museum and retired from law enforcement as a division commander with the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office in Reno. He is the son of Walt Gist and a lifelong historian himself.
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Silver State National Peace Officers Museum