BATTLE BORN BIRTHDAY CAKES

In 1964, Nevada celebrated its 100th birthday in ‘stupendous’ fashion. It plans to do the same in 2014.

BY MATTHEW B. BROWN | MARCH/APRIL 2014

In 1964, Nevada celebrated its 100th birthday in ‘stupendous’ fashion. It plans to do the same in 2014.

BY MATTHEW B. BROWN | MARCH/APRIL 2014

The Nevada Centennial Commission Final Report of 1964 declares, “It’s unlikely that anyone will soon attempt to repeat the feat of making so gigantic a cake.” If they could only see the Silver State now…

On January 4, 1964, Nevadans “held what was probably the most stupendous birthday party in the state’s history in the Assembly chambers at Carson City,” the centennial report continues. On March 21, 2014, a similar party will occur in Carson City at Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center’s Sage Café. The Nevada 150 signature event is free and open to the public.

CENTENNIAL BIRTHDAY PARTY

Nevadans who were not able to physically attend the 1964 celebration in the Assembly chambers were able to enjoy it courtesy of the new-at-the-time Silver State Century radio and TV network. Those that were on hand were elected officials, legislators, chairmen of various committees, and celebrities such as Jack Benny and Ray Eberle.

Nevada native Ben Alexander, known for his role in the “Dragnet” TV series, read a brief history of each of Nevada’s 17 counties. As the stories of each county were narrated, Miss Carson City Jackie Darrigrand directed a group of young “map makers,” who put 17 cake segments together to form a huge shape of Nevada.

Once Alexander finished, a committee of hostesses—women chosen from pioneer families in the state with last names such as Guild, Lampe, Settelmeyer, and Winters—began serving one of the largest birthday cakes the world had ever seen. But not before First Lady Bette Sawyer cut the first slice of the gargantuan cake with a sword once owned by Henry Blasdel, Nevada’s first governor. Punch was served, appropriately, from a bowl that once made its home on the U.S.S. Nevada.

The 13-foot-wide, 21-foot-long cake, adorned with 100 long brightly burning candles, was baked and donated by Sewell’s Bakery of Reno. Ball Sign Company, also of Reno, produced the county segments and symbols (woodcuttings in the form of a bullet or wagon, for example) that topped the cake.

Lieutenant Governor Paul Laxalt, stepping in for an ill Governor Grant Sawyer, gave the first reading of the Centennial Proclamation. “It was a wonderful party, one worthy of the dignity and promise of a state that was just about to become officially 100 years of age,” the centennial report concludes.

1964 CENTENNIAL CAKE

By the Numbers
13 feet wide x 21 feet long
70 working hours to make
1,152 eggs
200 pounds of sugar
600 pounds of icing
21,000 ounces of cake
$1,400 (estimated cost)

BATTLE BORN BIRTHDAY CAKE

Following tradition to a tee, the cake that is to be served on March 21 in honor of Nevada’s 150th birthday will also be 13-by-21 feet. “That equates to about a 1,300-pound cake,” says Heidi Englund of the Nevada Historical Society in Reno. She is overseeing the logistics of the Battle Born Birthday Cake, but her husband, Eric, may be under the most pressure. A professional chef, Eric runs the Sage Café kitchen. He is largely responsible for making sure the estimated 1,600 sheet cakes come together successfully in the shape of the Silver State.

Englund is quick to point out the significance of March 21. That’s the day, 150 years ago, that Congress approved an Enabling Act for Nevada, which set in motion an official state constitution and government. “March 21 is the marker for the very beginning of when we came to be, so I think it’s a great birthday,” she says. Nevada became a state during the Civil War on October 31, 1864, helping lead Abraham Lincoln to reelection shortly thereafter.

While Englund’s husband is in charge of the baking, the vision of the Nevada 150 cake belongs to Misti Gower of Carson City. “She is experimenting with different cake mixes, and we’re going to see which one is going to hold up best,” Englund says. “We’re still working out the flavor, too.”

According to Englund, an estimated $1,800 worth of cake mix is to be used. Like the centennial cake, she is under the impression the Nevada 150 cake will be organized by counties. She also envisions incorporating the state constitution, as well as the official Nevada 150 “Battle Born, Nevada Proud” logo. Expected during the daylong March 21 celebration are Civil War re-enactors, a flag salute, a Sesquicentennial Proclamation read by Mark Twain impersonator McAvoy Layne, an appearance by Sarah Winnemucca impersonator Dianna Borges, and a rendition of “Home Means Nevada” by The Reno Philharmonic.

Also, just as Mrs. Sawyer did 50 years ago, First Lady Kathleen Sandoval is expected to cut the first piece—only this time around with former Nevada Governor Charles Stevenson’s sword. Stevenson, the fifth Governor of Nevada, died of Typhoid fever in 1890 while still in office.

Those interested in donating to the Battle Born Birthday Cake Celebration can do so via an account that has been established through Greater Nevada Credit Union. Contact Englund at henglund@nevadaculture.org or 775-688-1190, extension 224, for more information.

Thanks to the Nevada Historical Society for its assistance with this article.

 

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PLAN YOUR TRIP

Battle Born Birthday Cake Celebration
When: Friday, March 21, 2014
Time: 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Location: Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center’s Sage Café. 1600 Medical Parkway in Carson City
Admission: Free
More Info: nevada150.org, 775-687-0608 775-687-0608

 

St. Thomas, Nevada: A History Uncovered

New University of Nevada Press book explores the unique story of a town that went under—literally.

The history of St. Thomas, the remains of which today lie under the high-water mark of Lake Mead, begins in 1865 with Mormon missionaries sent by Brigham Young to the Moapa Valley to grow cotton. In 1871, the boundary of Utah Territory was shifted east by one-degree longitude and St.Thomas became part of Nevada. New settlers moved in, miners and farmers, who interacted with the Mormons and native Paiute.
The building of Hoover Dam in the early 1930s doomed the small settlement, yet a striking number of people still have connections to a town that ceased to exist three-quarters of a century ago. Today, the ruins of this ghost town, located 60 miles east of Las Vegas, are visible due to the low water levels of Lake Mead. The National Park Service preserves and interprets the remains of St. Thomas, located in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, as a significant historical site.
Following is an excerpt from St. Thomas, Nevada: A History Uncovered, by Aaron McArthur.

Chapter Seven: Coup de Grâce?

St. Thomas resident Hugh Lord did not believe that the waters of Lake Mead would ever actually reach St. Thomas. In early June 1938, Lord went fishing, driving his car down the Muddy Valley and parking about 100 yards from the water on a gentle slope. He had some success fishing, spending several hours out of sight of his car. About nightfall, he decided to pack up and go home. He went to where he thought he had parked his car, but it was gone. Looking out into the water, he discovered his car with the water swirling around his running boards. Driving back to St. Thomas, he began to reconsider his position on leaving.

We have previously discussed the decree of death for St. Thomas. Now, its execution: the disbanding of their ward, the salvage of buildings and railroad, as well as ongoing legal battles over land valuation. Plans for Lake Mead killed St. Thomas, but it took several years before the reservoir filled and delivered the finishing blow. As journalist Jori Provas later described it, “St. Thomas did not die. It was murdered. Not maliciously, but definitely with aforethought. St. Thomas was surrendered, given up, sacrificed, if you will, for the good of the many.” For some, their suffering was greater because the element of surprise was absent. They could sit and watch the water inexorably engulf their beloved homes.

Before the water arrived, there were things that needed to be done. One took place on May 14, 1933, when the St. Thom- as Ward [a local unit presided over by a bishop], which had once recovered from virtual extinction, permanently disbanded. The program for the meeting called for that purpose included Bunker, Syphus, and other significant area names. At the end of the meeting, the members present raised their right hands to consent to the dissolution of the ward. Many tears fell as the meeting ended and people returned to the business of leaving.

Other more mundane, earthly matters required attention before water came as well. Valley residents and Civilian Conservation Corps workers of the Overton camp cut down trees. A few of those who stayed leased farmland from the government and grew crops up through 1937. Nevertheless, by 1935 the town was a virtual ghost town, leaving only a handful of people who believed that the water would not actually ever reach them.

As St. Thomas residents evacuated, it was not just the living that made good their escape. In 1934, the government began preparations to move the cemetery in St. Thomas, as well as smaller burial grounds in Kaolin and Rioville. Though the federal government moved the bodies, they still needed permission from Clark County to open the graves and transport them. After obtaining permission in late December, the government’s mortician, Howell C. Garrison of Boulder City, moved the few bodies in Rioville, being the closest to the Colorado and subject to inundation earlier. Garrison moved the St. Thomas and Kaolin cemeteries in February and March 1935. The last graves, including Harry and Ellen Gentry’s, arrived at their new final resting place on March 4. The most recent grave belonged to June Syphus, who died in Las Vegas in 1931.

Completion of Hoover Dam in 1935 began the final deathwatch of the town. One front page of the Las Vegas Review-Journal stated Lake Mead’s waters were “only” 16 miles away from St. Thomas. Another front-page article a year later reported that the town would remain dry for at least another year since the water level was 78 feet below the contour that would begin the flooding of the site. In 1937, 12 miles separated the water from the town, and the fields were still in use to grow crops. The railroad, whose arrival was heralded in 1912, was taken up by crews to save the valuable rails from the lake. In June 1938, the clock for St. Thomas ran out.

Bureau of Reclamation engineers watched the water rise with great attentiveness. Recognizing the interest the public had in the story, they estimated the town’s submergence as June 17, 1938. Heavier-than-expected runoff from snowfall in the Rockies made it clear that the town would not make it that long. The last few holdouts finally admitted that the flooding was going to happen.

John Perkins, one of those who believed the water would never reach the town, spent several days trying to save as much as possible from the houses he bought from the government for salvage. By June 8, Perkins realized that he would not have time to save at least three or four residences he had planned to raze or move elsewhere.

About the same time, Lord was rethinking his wager against the arrival of the water. Arriving back in town, he sought out his friend and fellow holdout, Leland “Rox” Whitmore, and told him that the time had probably come for them to leave. Despite the fact that he once gave 10-to-1 odds that the water would not come, he spent the next several days getting every worker he could lay hands on to help him move his shop and vehicles to higher ground. On June 11, Lord awoke to water swirling around his bed. The day to leave had come. Loading his last few possessions into a rowboat, he lit his house on fire and rowed away.

Lord, Whitmore, and Perkins were not the only ones forced out by rising waters. Frank Guetzill stayed with his herd of burros. The Bunker brothers—Brian, Berkeley, Wendell, Martin, and Vernon—all left on the last day of the town’s existence, though they had already moved their belongings to Las Vegas. Berkeley later served as a U.S. Senator from Nevada. Interest in the event was so keen, one reporter considered the fact that two of the holdouts were abandoned dogs newsworthy enough to warrant a front-page story in the Review-Journal. Whitmore and his wife were the only other holdouts. Whitmore was the postmaster and spent the last day of the town’s existence busily canceling letters and postcards. In June 1935, stamp collector H. D. Sterling made note of editorials in several newspapers saying that St. Thomas was going underwater soon.

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Because last-day covers are valuable to stamp collectors, he hatched a plan. He designed a postcard showing the town go- ing under and placed ads in philatelic papers and magazines, announcing the last-day covers. Within a few days, Sterling’s mailbox overflowed with dimes, quarters, checks, dollar bills, money orders, and requests for credit. He carefully made out the orders to wait for the last day stamp and sent them to St. Thomas for a long vacation. When the town did not go under that year, more orders poured in.

Sterling began receiving mail of a different sort. One said, “I want my ‘ghost town’ covers. If you can’t deliver at once, then send my dime back.” Another read “I sent you one dollar for covers from the Nevada ghost town…where are they? Either send me the covers or my dollar. The government takes care of cases such as yours.” By June 1936, Sterling answered 240 letters and refunded $23. The next year the letters got even angrier. “My little boy sent you a dime for a ghost town or submarine cover and he didn’t get either. I am going to report your activities to the post office department.”

And, “You send my half-dollar back or you’ll be up there with the rest of the fish. You can’t stall me any longer. The dam is full of water and I know St. Thomas is underwater.”

Refund or no refund, the letters stayed in St. Thomas, where some of them ended up being chewed on by mice who had taken up residence in the post office. Sterling must have been mightily relieved when the day to cancel the mail that had been waiting for three years finally came. Sterling may have been happy, but it must have been a daunting task for the postmaster and his wife. They spent the entire day canceling nearly 5,000 postcards and letters sent to them by Sterling and other philatelists around the world. When they finished, they had to wade with the mailbags to their waiting vehicle to take the mail up the valley. To put a note of finality on the affair, Whitmore threw the canceling stamp out into the advancing waters of Lake Mead.

When the sun rose on Moapa Valley on June 12, 1938, it did not rise on St. Thomas. Buried by water and progress, the town was no more. In the 73 years of the town’s existence, it died twice. This time, however, it appeared permanent. The death was even harsher for some by the fact that they still held legal title to land now underwater. The next several years saw legal wrangling that refused to let St. Thomas rest in peace.

 

 

 

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