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Photo: Matt Smith (Nevada State Library and Archives)
Extended Online Version
Nevada State Archivist Guy Louis Rocha is passionate about uncovering the truth. In addition to his two books and many articles and book reviews, Rocha has written the “Historical Myth a Month” column for the Sierra Sage for 11 years—the column appears on the Nevada State Library and Archives Web site, nevadaculture.org—and his biweekly myth-busting column has appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal since 2000. Rocha is in his sixth year as a rotating host for the “High Desert Forum” on KUNR 88.7 FM, Reno’s National Public Radio station.
California born, Rocha grew up in Las Vegas and graduated from Clark County schools. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University in New York and a master’s degree from San Diego State University and did post-graduate study at the University of Nevada, Reno. In July, he received the 2007 Award of Merit for Leadership in History by the American Association for State and Local History. Rocha spoke with Nevada Magazine editor Joyce Hollister at his Carson City office in June.
Q What drew you to Northern Nevada?
A I first encountered Reno in 1968 as a high school athlete competing in the state championship in cross country and in ’69 in wrestling. I thought, “This is beautiful. This is very nice, and maybe someday I’ll live here.”
I started work with the Nevada Historical Society in Reno, my first job with the state, in December 1976. The state archives position opened up and I was appointed to that position on February 2, 1981. In 1992 I came to Carson City and found it very, very delightful.
Q What does an archivist do?
A As the State Archivist, I’m responsible for managing the state’s archival—historically valuable records—dating back to as early as 1851 but as recently as the last governor’s administration, that of Kenny Guinn. Today’s records will be tomorrow’s archival records. My job is to see that agencies, officials, and others are transferring their records to the State Archives to ensure that people who do research later will know what people did and why they did it, which can run the gamut of scholars wanting to do research to citizens doing background on their land or water rights or family history. We have records of all three branches of government: legislative, judicial, executive. It’s always ongoing.
We take hard-copy records and microfilm them or digitally image them, scan them, put them into CD or DVD form, and set up an index, so we have the ability to convert information and make it readily accessible.
Q Why are the archives important?
A The point is, if you don’t have the records, how do you prove your case? Where are the facts? Where is the evidence? We maintain that institutional memory, that evidentiary history of Nevada. If it’s not there, you have what I call institutional Alzheimer’s. People who look for answers to their questions can’t find them. Perhaps ultimately decisions will be made by people without the documentary evidence. A judge has to make a decision. If you have the evidence, you usually prevail. [In a court of law] if you don’t have the evidence, you may not prevail because someone else can make a better case than you can.
Another aspect is accountability. You keep records to ensure what people claim what happened in the past did happen.
Q You’re known as the “myth buster.” Why?
A I try to show the value of the record as evidence and demonstrate that what many people believe to be true is generally not true.
Generations of students believe that Nevada’s Capitol dome originally was made of silver [it’s now fiberglass]. Well, it wasn’t. It was what we wanted to believe. The truth is we had a tin-covered steel dome. I was given a panel of the original dome that I keep in my car and take to my presentations. It’s all rusted and messy with flaking silver paint. I say, “Here’s my forensic evidence.” Yet some people still want to believe otherwise.
I was on a tour bus with a group, and the driver was on his microphone. We slowed down in front of the Capitol, and he said, “See that dome? That dome is made of silver.” The tourists oohed and ahhed. When we stopped, I said, “You know that’s not true.” He said, “What do you mean? All the bus drivers told me it was true.” So that’s your authority—the other bus drivers? He looked at me and he said, “Really.” I said, “Really.” He said, “It doesn’t matter. They’re just tourists from Modesto.”
What I do as an archivist, and what I do with my column, is show that you can be an informed consumer and not be easily manipulated by people, particularly powerful ones. Everybody can succumb to the seduction of power. How might we hold them accountable? Because we’ve got the records. Ultimately I believe the truth matters.
Q What are some of the challenges for today’s historians?
A The World Wide Web is one. It is an unregulated, unvetted venue. Anybody can post a Web site. I could put up on the Web, “Abraham Lincoln visited Carson City in 1864,” although Lincoln never visited the state. Someone could cite it and put it in an article. I could put up quotes from Mark Twain that are not quotes from Mark Twain, and I could get a thousand hits. Then people would say, “Mark Twain said so-and-so. I found a thousand hits.” I say, “It was wrong a thousand times.”
Q Have you always loved history?
A When I was in second or third grade, a family across the street threw out books, and a lot of them were history books. I took them home. I always had a questioning mind, an inquisitive mind, and so from an early age not only did I read the books but as soon as I could go places and had a car, I would go to mining ghost towns. Nevada’s mining history was the first thing that intrigued me.
I’ve always wanted to see the past because the past was a foreign land to me. So in many ways I was always a tourist. I wanted to get in a time machine and take a look at how we did things. I lived in Southern Nevada, so my first ghost-town trips were to Rhyolite, Delemar, then virtual ghost towns—I got out to places like Searchlight and Goldfield, where there were only a few residents.
Q What did you find?
A What I found was Nevada wasn’t like TV westerns. This wasn’t Bonanza. I watched Bonanza as a kid. I enjoyed Bonanza, but much of what Bonanza’s about is an invented past. The people who wrote Bonanza episodes did much to shape our perception of Nevada throughout this country and the world, yet I would argue Bonanza had very little to do with reality. Entertaining, yes, and I still look back nostalgically on Michael Landon, Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, and Pernell Roberts.
But it wasn’t the real Nevada. I wanted to know the real Nevada. What was it like to be an underground miner? Oh, boy, it was a tough, tough life. Generally you didn’t get through your full life. If you stayed in the industry, you died in the industry.
Q What are your interests outside of work?
A I play a competitive brand of slow-pitch softball. I’ve played all over the United States in national championships. I have my own production company and produce historical documentaries, including a Nevada state labor history series for the AFL-CIO. I work with A&E, PBS, the History Channel, MSNBC, National Geographic Channel.
I’m involved in a feature film, called Bear at the Gate, for the 60th anniversary of the Berlin airlift. The “bear at the gate” was the Soviets at the Brandenburg Gate. The feature film captures a time when the United States stood up against the communists and Stalin and his generals. What we’re trying to do is share with Americans that there was a time when the free world looked to us as an honest broker.
Q After retirement, do you plan to stay in this area?
A I don’t like big-city environments, and I’ve tried to stay ahead of the major growth spurts. Arguably we’ll hit more than a million people in Northern Nevada in the next 10 to 15 years. When I grew up, Nevada was the smallest state in the Union. We used to talk about two people for every square mile.
We’re now a mid range-sized state. We’re now a player politically in terms of presidential races. Clearly there’s a lot more action here, a lot more activity here. Again it’s the pace of change and the pace of life, and I prefer slower than faster.
One place in Nevada I really like is Yerington. I would consider retiring in Yerington. Mason Valley has not been overrun yet. I call it Nevada’s version of Mayberry R.F.D.
Q What are some of your other favorite Nevada places?
A I’ve got to make my pilgrimage to Jarbidge and see what that part of Nevada is like. I visit Goldfield nostalgically. A lot of my writing has been about Goldfield. Sadly most of it’s gone, burned in the 1923 fire. People are doing some good things in Austin. Eureka’s done a good job with the opera house. Belmont is a very pleasant little place nestled in a little valley, and it has become a Nevadans’ getaway.
Another place I like to visit is Boulder City. That dam city has essentially maintained its integrity. You go downtown, and there’s that 1930s feel in the businesses and restaurants and the Boulder Dam Hotel and the museum. When I go to Boulder City, I feel like I’ve gotten in that time machine, and I look around, and this is the 1930s, and it’s great.
Q What keeps you sane?
A The “other Nevada” that [famed Nevada writer] Bob Laxalt referred to is out there, and I think that, to keep my sanity, it’s good to commune a little bit with some of the old Nevada. You generally have to leave urban Nevada to find it, and when you do, for a moment you’ve left the rat race and craziness. I suppose that’s what makes me a Nevadan. Perhaps I’m trapped in a way in the past, and not a long-ago past. I enjoyed Nevada of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and I still have fond memories.