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Photo: Chris Chrystal
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Don and Carol Shanks of Pioche describe themselves as “gross underachievers.” Hardly. The couple is submerged in activities, projects, and committees that promote their rural economy. They are involved with the Pioche and Greater Lincoln County chambers of commerce, Pioneer Territory, Lincoln Communities Action Team (LCAT), Lincoln County Trails Coalition, the Lincoln County Golf Course, and the Pioche Heritage Plays.
“The Shankses are invaluable to the rural tourism effort for the State of Nevada,” says Larry Friedman, Nevada Commission on Tourism’s (NCOT) deputy director of sales and industry partners. “They give unselfishly and care about the entire state. Their contribution cannot be overstated.”
Chris Chrystal, NCOT’s media relations manager, recalls a request she received from the Reno’s CBS affiliate. The television station wanted to do a feature on traveling across Nevada, entirely on dirt roads. “I thought of Don and he was only too happy to help,” Chrystal says. Shanks not only mapped a route for them, but also traveled to Reno to meet with the reporters. The delivery service meant an 800-mile round trip from Pioche to Reno.
The Shankses graduated from UNR, where they met. Don spent a year attending medical school before saying, “To hell with it. I’m going to give up being rich.” He was a missile technician in the U.S. Army before joining the U.S. Bureau of Mines as a chemist. There he researched more cost-effective and less-polluting ways of processing ores.
A Pioche native, Carol earned degrees in chemistry and biology and worked as a lab technician before working at JCPenney to support what she calls her true calling as a Lake Tahoe ski instructor. When her children reached college age, she worked with children as a teacher’s assistant at Swope Middle School in Reno. The experience drove her back to UNR to obtain a teaching degree, which she uses today as a substitute teacher in Pioche.
Pioche, a former mining town, is located 175 miles northeast of Las Vegas. The town’s 750 residents, and those from neighboring Panaca and Caliente, make up the area’s 4,300 population.
The Shankses are the parents of four children, three of whom live in Reno and one in Elko, and they have 12 grandchildren. Nevada Magazine events editor Ann Henderson spoke with the Shankses in September.
Q Why did you move to Pioche?
C My family owned the Stever’s Store, and my dad asked us to come back for a year when my mother was ill. That was in 1989. We were actually interested in the ski industry and had plans to move to Telluride, Colorado, which hadn’t exploded yet.
D We ran the store for about five years, until 1995, during which time we became involved in the chamber, which led to our work with Nevada Commission on Tourism and the Pioneer Territory.
Q What is Pioneer Territory?
D Pioneer Territory is a region formed by the Nevada Commission on Tourism to promote our rural areas. We use the coalition of about 15 communities to advertise everything we have to offer.
I became involved when Pioche hosted its turn as a meeting site. They had an election of officers, and, as they say, the rest is history.
I really didn’t have an agenda when I began participating in the territory. Most of this part of Nevada had fallen off the map, promotionally speaking. We just wanted to help get people involved.
C We attended the meeting to wave the flag, not to capture the darn thing. Don chaired Pioneer Territory for many years and then decided he could be more help as treasurer.
About the time the territory was up and running, it also became apparent there was a need for a Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce to serve Pioche, Panaca, and Caliente. At a tourism meeting, a speaker, Roger Brooks, convinced us that we needed to keep a tourist at least three hours for every one hour of travel time. Not one of the towns in Lincoln County has enough infrastructure to do that except during events, or if you are fishing, hunting, or camping. We decided we could be more effective if we banded together.
Q Don, you recently made an “honest” woman of Carol.
D We were attending a tourism conference in Primm and Larry Friedman of NCOT and his cohort, Teri Laursen, planned a wedding fashion show in the mall. Larry asked me to be in the show, told me there was going to be a ceremony, and that I was going to be the groom! Then he cautioned me not to let Carol get wind of the plans. That almost backfired because Carol was outside the room gabbing, and when it was about to start, everyone was frantically trying to get her seated.
After we modeled our clothes, I proposed to Carol.
C He kneeled next to my chair and asked if I would remarry him. I said, “I guess we have been together too long now for me to turn you down!” At first I was totally shocked, then I started crying. Then everyone began crying. We had a real minister, the guy who drove the convention bus. He was so charming as a driver; we loved him even more as a minister. My ring had flashing lights, and we had a wedding cake. I’m drying the roses from my bouquet.
D It was amazing.
Q What should people know about the Lincoln County Trails Coalition?
D Congress mandated the Silver State OHV Trail. [The completed section] follows existing roads that are away from population centers. The project started when the Bureau of Land Management approached the Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce seeking our moral support and help, which we provided by forming the Lincoln County Trails Coalition. I made a presentation to the county commissioners and they backed the idea. The coalition sponsors National Trails Day in June with equestrian, hiking, ATV, and mountain biking events.
We also now have three trailheads, which are designed to have visitor facilities and parking, The trails run from the Oak Springs Summit on the south to Mount Grafton on the north. We are trying to get a separate trail system for mountain bikers.
Laws dealing with traveling on local roads have been changed to be more ATV-friendly. Now riders can use any gravel or dirt road in Lincoln County, legally. Riders will still be cited if they are just tooling around, but they are OK if they are on the road for a specific purpose, such as obtaining gasoline. They can also travel up to two miles on a paved road to gain access to facilities.
We still need the proper state legislation to control the users and provide for long-term maintenance of the trails. A registration tag has been proposed that would return some of the money for upkeep. I’ve been an environmentalist all of my life, and I’m convinced that by improving the trails, ATV owners are more likely to stay on them. Anybody that can afford these expensive toys can afford a small fee to help with their sport.
BLM is currently make brochures and maps of the trail system.
Q Explain the Pioche Heritage Plays.
C Don and I have been active in the plays for about the last eight years. He has played the villain, the desperado’s sidekick, and the sheriff. One year his role called for him to be onstage the entire time and never say a word.
The heritage plays consist of a melodrama and an original comedy based on local history. One of the town’s favorites was about a local character, Ma Steward, who wore six-shooters and dressed the part. She conned some kids by telling them where to dig for gold, and when the hole was deep enough, she put an outhouse over it.
The casts are made up of residents whose ages can range from nine to 90.
It always made me unhappy that Don got to be in the plays, and I, the thespian, had to play the piano for the melodramas. In the beginning, I did the choreography for the dance hall girls and participated as one of the Ladies of the Night. Starting about age 60, I kept getting hurt. One night, I was kicking my leg during a can-can and tore a muscle. It felt like someone had kicked me. I was hopping around, and the audience was laughing hysterically, thinking it was part of the show.
D Actually, we are not volunteers, we just never learned to say, “No.” We never signed up for the plays, the director would come fetch us.
The plays are fun, but they take so much time. It’s a shame they can’t do them on weekends all summer instead of limiting it to July and Labor Day weekend. Most of the time it is standing room only.
Q What are you trying to achieve with LCAT (Lincoln Communities Action Team)?
C Don and I both feel that if you don’t move forward, you’ll move backward, or even worse, someone will come and move you aside. Having grown up in the L.A. area, Don has seen firsthand how an area can be totally changed in a few short years by unbridled growth. We know that this area needs some growth, businesses, jobs, and recreation.
D LCAT was started by the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and one of the goals is to develop themed boutique tours, such as excursions that showcase the history, nature, recreation, and attractions. The number of people we can accommodate will be limited to our available facilities, then we’ll slowly try to ratchet up our infrastructure. We are copying a model that was used in Canadian, Texas, which revitalized the town and increased the number of businesses without changing the lifestyle. The driving force behind this is our new extension agent, Holly Gatske. What a blessing she has been.
C There are so many opportunities here. We think rural Nevada has some world-class attractions, the biggest of which is the empty space itself. People are getting locked out of many places, and we are wide open. LCAT is all about keeping us motivated and focused.
D Invited guests will be taking several trial tours this fall to help us fine-tune everything in time for next year’s spring, summer, and fall tourist season.
Q What did it take to create the Lincoln County Golf Course?
C Keith [Carol’s brother, who also lives in Pioche] and Maryanna Stever and Don and I had played in a golf league in Reno. Dick and Peggy Decker also enjoyed the game, and we discussed a course as a possible attraction. There had been one here in the 1930s. After a number of false starts, we jumped in with both feet with visions of a small executive course.
For a Labor Day tournament in 2000, the course was prepared using existing plans and a little rural ingenuity. Marland Chavis tied a tire on the back of his truck, lit it on fire, and burned the sagebrush where the course had been mapped out. Volunteers got the course ready for play.
D Today we have a league and a number of visitors who play the course. There are six state-of-the-art artificial greens. Real grass costs a fortune to maintain, and it is easy to lose. One bad winter and you have to start over again. There are 12 artificial T-boxes, three of the greens are still sand, but we’re working on that.
The Deckers are the main driving force behind the golf course. Dick has made it is his full-time job. All of us are down there weeding and hoeing.
C And scooping rabbit poop! You have to go out almost every day. My grandson asked why we scattered dog food around.
Q What is the status of Thompson’s Opera House?
D Oh, I wish I knew. Another grant is needed to finish it. We’re kind of in the mode where we’re jokingly calling it the Million Dollar Opera House [a take-off on the Million Dollar Courthouse].
C I wish that we could get the Gem Theater [next door] opened. Then we could use the stage for movies, talent shows, or plays. The opera house could have a coffee shop and be used for dances like it was during the 1920s and ’30s.
Q What is life like in Pioche, now that you are allegedly retired?
D We don’t know if we’re slowing down a lot or just working harder. We keep being asked, what is there to do in Pioche?
C When we first came, we used to go out in the hills all the time. In those days, we only had the kids, the store, and the chamber. Now we’ve got the kids, the chambers, the LCAT, the territory, the trails coalition, the golf course, and the heritage plays. I run the chamber cottage and I’m a substitute teacher at the elementary school.
One of our grandsons, Connor [age 13], has a serious illness, Batten’s Disease, so I spend an hour and a half every day talking to him on the phone.
D It took me about three years to get used to the quieter lifestyle. In Reno we were involved in the ski patrol, square dancing, bridge, tennis, and a gourmet-eating club.
When I started thinking about this interview, I thought you would be a great writer if you can make an interesting story out of our rather ordinary lives. I still think that. We have had some accomplishments but are probably both gross underachievers. We look back and think, where did all that time go, and what if we had taken a few different turns? I have always heard that seniors don’t have the mental capacity they once had, but are supposed to have gained wisdom.
I used to doubt the latter statement, but having arrived at senior status, I know it to be true. But the wisdom is of the variety that Winston Churchill talked about when he said, “The U.S. always gets it right, after they have tried everything else first.”
Read “Pioche Couple Receives Tourism Lifetime Achievement Award” here.
Greater Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce
Pioche Chamber of Commerce
Silver State Trail info
Bureau of Land Management, Ely
HC Box 33500, Ely, NV 89301-9408