Submitted by (little) Karl Breckenridge
I’m off with Dad this morning to run some errands downtown. It’s a nice spring day, and since every store in Reno is within walking distance we drove the Dodge down Ralston hill to the Lincoln Highway, hung a left to Sierra Street, and found a parking place in front of the fish market by my buddy Jerry Fenwick’s parents’ art store in the Travelers Hotel building just south of Commercial Row.
We were stopped for a couple minutes when a train was heading up the hill to Truckee and its smoke is still swirling around the street when we park. Dad says that the steam locomotives are only going to be around for a couple more years, and we’re already starting to see some of the newfangled “Diesel electric” locomotives on the shorter trains.
It’s easy to park on most of the streets downtown, because they “diagonal park,” Dad calls it, and just drive right up to the curb. Across Sierra Street the cars are going north toward the tracks, but there’s the same parking deal.
The Traveler is one of the six or eight hotels that cater to the Basque sheepherders that moved to Reno before WWII. The hotels let them stay part of the year when they’re not out with the sheep, and take care of their mail and money. A lot of them don’t speak English yet so the hotelkeepers do some business for them. Our next-door neighbor Mr. Sala, the cute little red-head’s dad, is Basque. He works across the street at Brown-Milbery, a company that makes big motors for the mines.
Dad and I walk south on Sierra toward Second Street. He says we’ve got to go into the Pizorno family’s Dainty Cake Shop on the way back to get a cake Mom wants for her “bridge” party. Dad called it a “Hen” party and she got real mad. But I don’t think Dad cared. The Pizorno’s son Larry is my buddy. He lives down on Winter Street by the river and is nuttier than hell. Whoops. I can’t write that word.
We stop at the light on Second Street, by J. C. Penney’s. That store has a neat system for handling money – if somebody buys a pair of shoes or a sport coat, the clerk puts their $20 bill into a little can and drops it into a chute where compressed air takes it to the only cash register in the building. A few minutes later the can pops out of the tube with the change in it. Saves having cash all over the store!
Some of the sidewalks we’re on have a nifty feature: There’s a pattern of little round circles, each about two inches around, that reach in rows for quite a ways, like little round checkerboards. The circles are actually heavy glass, and let light into the basements of the buildings. And we’ve seen a couple sidewalk freight elevators open up – two big plates in the sidewalk that rise to let an elevator come to street level from the basement to load merchandise onto and take back down to the basements. Dad said to take a good look at them, because they wouldn’t be around much longer – the sidewalk lights or the elevators. And Mrs. Conrad, my teacher, would make me rewrite that last sentence: “the sidewalk lights NOR the elevators.” Grownups can be really picky about the way us kids talk…
We cross Second Street and look into the windows of Sears Roebuck. Dad doesn’t know I know it, but down in their basement is a toy store that carries Red Ryder BB guns. One of these days I’m going to get one of those. Across the street is the Emporium of Music, about the only musical instrument store in town. A BB gun from one side of the street, a kid-size banjo on the other – can life get any better? (Unless I can swing a J. C. Higgins bicycle with a speedometer from Monkey Wards, but that’s a reach – they’re almost $25!)
We walk past Bools & Butler, where all the real cowboys – they call themselves “buckaroos” in northern Nevada – buy their tack. Past Montgomery Ward we walk – it’s got a cool sporting goods store in the basement with “J. C. Higgins” bikes and baseball mitts and stuff. And the “Five and dime” – National Dollar Store, a loft in the rear, huge stairwell, and squeaky floors like all good sundry stores should have. Someday it will be filled with western wear by Parker’s, but this is still pre-1950. Then to the corner, and Dad’s friends the Ginsburg family’s Home Furniture. [hi Pam!]
We’re on the corner now, Sierra and First Street, the Federal Outfitters across First Street on the corner. Dad’s buddy Jim Slingerland is building his insurance office to the west. Neither Dad nor I knew it this fine May Friday morning in 1948, but nine years later a gas explosion would take out most of what we’re looking at right now, and Mr. Slingerland would be, er, sitting on the commode in that building and be blown clear off of it! Pretty funny, huh?
Actually, that gas explosion would burn every building between us and the Truckee River, and years later it would be determined that the gas came from a joint in Sierra Street when gas was hooked up to be taken south of the Truckee, with that joint being bum and slowly leaking for almost ten years.
Across the intersection kitty-corner is Gray Reid Wright, which Dad calls the best department store in Reno. The Elks Home is next to it to the south on the Truckee River; when that building was built it had a half-block courtyard with walkways and shade trees, a little park that went all the way north to First Street. The Elks sold that half-block to Gray Reids so they could build a new store and move off the northwest corner of First and Virginia Street. But that was before WWII.
We’re going to cross Sierra Street now. I just read that Sierra Street, beyond the Truckee River Bridge to the south, is called Granite Street, but would soon be changed to South Sierra Street. But still have traffic going in both directions, north and south. And the Riverside Hotel, across the river, was going to tear down a bunch of old crappy buildings along Island Avenue and build a new section with a swimming pool on the Truckee! Pretty neat. And I’ll catch
hell the dickens for writing “crappy” but can’t think of a better word.
We walk past the Sierra Bar, where Dad pokes his head in to see if any of his buddies are there. It’s got a real neat big ‘ol shelf behind the bar, with all the bottles in it and mirrors and stuff. I don’t know yet, it’s only 1948 but I think that “back bar,” Dad called it, would wind up ‘way out on South Virginia Street at a bar called the Liberty Belle, when the State of Nevada turned 100 years old in 1964. But I don’t know anything about that now….
Looking up Sierra Street on the east side I can see the Moulin Rouge dinner house, which Mr. Vasserot owned and just joined Mr. Patrucco, who was the bartender in the Riverside Corner Bar, and the two of them bought a restaurant a ways south of town called “Eugene’s.” Gilbert and Joe, their names were. Dad was going to the Riverside quite a bit, and to the Mapes Hotel after it opened a year ago, to start a new club for businessmen in Reno called the “Prospectors” – he took a lot of time on that project.
Y’know what? I’ve spent more time than I thought I would writing all this down, and I don’t even have any pictures back (I dropped the film from my Brownie Hawkeye off at Nevada Photo Service when we got back to the car) so I’m going to leave this project for another day to finish, as Mom’s calling us for dinner and then I want to listen to The Shadow on KOH radio before bed!
Back to May 8, 2020 – This preceding is an old story I wrote to that nutty nun great-aunt of mine from the Maryknoll Order in Dubuque when I was a little kid. Governor Sisolak relaxed the quarantine order a bit yesterday and I’ve already been asked if now Jody and I will quit writing stories for This is Reno. No; there’s still stuff to be told so we’re aboard for a while! See you back here mañana if the grammar police don’t catch me first, and hey, stay safe, huh?
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Karl Breckenridge was slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Now that it’s over he’s back to his usual antics, drinking coffee with the boys at the Bear and, well, we’re not sure what else. But he loved sharing his daily musings with you, so he’s back, albeit a little less often, to keep on sharing. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally.
Read more from Karl Breckenridge
Karl’s pal Jody shares the rich history of bootlegging, decorating, and engineering within the confines of the Truckee River’s banks and its picturesque islands.