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Minden’s “sundowner” siren under scrutiny again


A siren goes off in the town of Minden each day at noon and 6 p.m. It has, almost without stop, for 100 years. Recently, its purpose has become a topic of debate—and not for the first time. Is the siren a racist reminder of the past, or is it a broader tradition honoring first responders?

On Aug. 13, Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California Chairman Serrell Smokey addressed the siren in a video statement released to his professional Facebook page.

“I wanted to talk today about a recent issue that’s come up through the news reports and even through word-of-mouth has been brought to me, and it’s about the ‘sundowner’ siren in the town of Minden. A quick history for those of you who may not know—here in Minden, Nevada, this was known as a ‘sundowner’ town. If you haven’t heard about ‘sundowner’ towns, it meant that non-white citizens must be out of town at sundown after 6 p.m. And that siren goes off at 6 p.m. to remind everyone of that—and that siren still goes off to this day.”

“The original ordinance that declared this town a ‘sundowner’ town was actually not repealed until the 1970s, so it was less than 50 years that this actually was occurring,” Smokey added.

The siren was installed around 1920.The ordinance Smokey references in his video statement was put into place in 1917 by Douglas County and repealed in 1974. The ordinance specifically required “Indians leave and be out of the town limits of the towns of Gardnerville, and Minden, by the hour of 6:30 o’clock p.m.” 

It replaced a 1908 ordinance which read, in part:

“Any and all Indians (except such as are actually employed as servants in the town of Gardnerville) remaining in said town of Gardnerville after Sunset of each and every day are hereby declared a public nuisance and considered detrimental to the county in general and the town of Gardnerville in particular.”

While the 1908 and 1917 ordinances predate the actual installation of the siren in Minden, its sounding is nonetheless associated with Douglas County’s “sundown” ordinances. And it’s something that’s been a fight for the Tribe for a long time, as its sounding hasn’t stopped in the nearly 50 years since the last ordinance was repealed in 1974.

Members of the Tribe came together in 2006, Smokey said, and tried to have the siren silenced. And it was—for two months.

On Nov. 8, 2006, the Record Courier in Gardnerville reported on the siren, which had been silenced in September of that year by then Douglas County Manager Dan Holler after talks with members of the Tribe. According to the story, Holler had silenced the siren in respect of them. 

However, it was to sound again. This time, according to the Courier, in honor of Veteran’s Day.  

“The siren was the traditional method of alerting volunteers to emergency needs, but for the Washoe Tribe, it was a symbol of racism,” the story reads.

Locals complained after the siren went quiet. They said they were nostalgic for that daily signal—which can be heard for quite some distance in the Carson Valley surrounding Minden. Some told reporters it signaled lunch and dinner and symbolized pride in the community’s first responders. 

According to an October 2006 Courier story, “The Minden Town Board voted unanimously…to reactivate the community siren after hearing from residents” and informed Douglas County that it would like to take over the siren’s operation and maintenance. The story notes that the county said it would operate the siren.

Current Minden Town Manager JD Frisby said in a recent phone interview that the county did so for a brief time before turning operations back over to the town.  

More than two separate communities 

According to Smokey’s video statement, the Washoe Tribe reinitiated talks with Douglas County late last year in an effort to silence the siren once again. Talks were cut short when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Nevada.

He also took time in the video to address current events in Douglas County, including the recent protest of Douglas County Sheriff Dan Coverley that gained national attention when it was met with a large counter-protest in support of the police. 

Black Lives Matter protesters and counter-protesters in Minden on Aug. 8, 2020. Image: Trevor Bexon
Black Lives Matter protesters and counter-protesters in Minden on Aug. 8, 2020. Image: Trevor Bexon

The small group of Black Lives Matter protesters were far outnumbered by the largely older and heavily armed counter protesters. At least two incidences of violence were documented  and eventually led to BLM protesters cutting their demonstration short.

“I don’t know exactly what happened at the protest. I wasn’t there. But through the news articles and media and things that were put out there, there appeared to be a lot of hate—a lot of hate between two sides, like one side had to be right, and the other side had to be wrong,” Smokey said. “That’s not the case. That’s never the case.”

Smokey noted that he served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and as a military police officer in the National Guard. While not blaming either side, he said he had not appreciated the media portraying “everyone with American flags and Thin Blue Lines” as though they were against everyone else.

“My values have never changed in all the years of my service, and that is to protect my people—and that’s everybody when I say, ‘my people,’” he said.

He said he appreciates people speaking up about the siren but added he doesn’t consider it a matter of opinion or politics. He also referenced a Change.org petition that has been circulating on social media. The petition, as of Saturday, had more than 8,000 signatures. 

This Is Reno attempted but wasn’t able to contact its creator. The Tribe did not answer several requests to know if its members had been contacted to solicit their opinions and perspectives on the petition prior to its circulation. 

“It’s putting an end to this living piece of historical trauma,” Smokey said of silencing the siren. “And that historical trauma affects my people still to this day—the Washoe people. But it’s more than just shutting a siren down. It’s about acknowledging the history of this town, acknowledging the fact that there was a huge amount of racism against non-white citizens—mainly the Washoe people.”

Smokey said the community needs to do this together because the Washoe Tribe and non-Native people living in the towns in the Carson Valley don’t just share borders.  

“We’re not two completely separate entities,” Smokey said. “We are members of this community, just like anybody else—just like everybody else. We are all the same people here now. We have different cultures, but we grew up together. We went to school together. I graduated from Douglas High School, as did many of my other family and friends.”

He said the Washoe Tribe and the rest of the community have a history of working together, too, noting that his great grandfather was one of the first Native Americans to work as a peace officer in the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.

“We’re more than neighbors,” Smokey said. “We’re members of the same community. And we can work together to put a stop to this siren, this reminder of oppression.”

However, as was the case in 2006, not everyone is willing to say that the siren serves as such a reminder.

A divide in views

Frisby, who’s been with the Town of Minden for five years, said he associates the siren with first responders.

He said he’s looked but never found any documentation to connect the siren to the “sundown” ordinance in Douglas County.

“We’ve done all of the research we can do,” he said. “There’s not a lot of it on the siren itself.”

Frisby noted that the siren was not installed until sometime around 1920—first on the flour mill building and later on the Minden Fire House. However, the debate over the potentially racist history associated with 6 p.m. sirens isn’t limited to Minden. It’s been discussed in cities across the country—including during July of this year.

The sirens were always meant to be a means of community communication, not an offensive enemy.”

Frisby said he can see how some people might associate the siren with the old, racist “sundown” ordinances, “but that was never the intent of the siren.”

“It was for voluntary firemen,” he said. “And then, when we turned it back on in 2006, the county passed a resolution that it would ring going forward to commemorate the first responders. And that’s how it is now—a first responders’ siren…I’m trying to educate people now because it’s unfortunate that it’s painted as this negative thing when it’s actually something we’re really proud of with the first responders.”

His office supplied This Is Reno with digital copies of the 1908 and 1917 ordinances, as well as documentation from 2006 when the Minden Town Board voted unanimously to turn the siren back on after its two-month silence and more recent public comment submitted to the town.

A public comment letter dated April 19, 2019 is addressed to Minden officials from Carson Valley Native Marlena Hellwinkel.

In the letter, Hellwinkel writes that she’d been approached by two people who were researching the Minden siren who asked if she could help them. She was dismayed to learn they were doing the research in the hopes of having the siren silenced.

“With that in mind,’’ she wrote, “bear with me —-

“The first Minden fire siren was installed, approx. 1920, on the Minden Flour Milling Company building and was moved several times before getting to today’s location, for the sole purpose to alert the Minden Fire Department, made up of all volunteers, that someone’s property was on fire and they were needed. Gardnerville also had a siren for this purpose. The alarm was sounded by the local telephone operator. Two blast [sic] for a fire in town and three blasts for fire outside of the towns.

“To check that the system was working, the siren was blown at 12 noon and 6 p.m. daily. This became a tool for local ranch workers. When the noon whistle blew, it was time to come in for lunch and the 6 o’clock whistle was quitting time and time for supper.”

In her letter, Hellwinkel enumerates the purposes to which the siren has been put, noting that children knew it was time to get home when it sounded, that it was used to mark midnight on New Year’s Eve and that it “blew and blew and blew” on the day World War II ended.

She also acknowledges its former purpose as a reminder for Native Americans to leave town, though not its discriminatory nature, writing:

“In 1917 a resolution by the Nevada State Legislature stated that in all Nevada cities, with Gardnerville in parenthesis, the local Indians had to be out of town by 6:30. Here again the sirens were used as a friendly tool, hopefully helping everyone to know what time of the day it was.”

As mentioned early in the story, the ordinance came from Douglas County. While the Nevada Legislature did meet for its 28th session in 1917, “sundown” language is nowhere to be found in records from the session.

Hellwinkel ends her letter with a plea for the siren to remain on: “Should it ever come to pass that a request, through proper channels, that the sirens be silenced, I can only hope that the powers that be, recognize the significant historical value of this tradition and perhaps issue a proclamation that it not be silenced. The sirens were always meant to be a means of community communication, not an offensive enemy.”

Frisby said that if the siren really is tied to “sundown” ordinances, he’d “like to address it.” 

“But I can’t find that in anything–and I’ve only been here five years, so I’m not going to act like an expert on it–but I haven’t been able to find it,” he said. “Never once has it been a thing that they had to be out at 6 o’clock. The siren goes off at 6 o’clock. So there’s a bit of misinformation out there. And this petition, I don’t put much stock in it.”

He said he’d also seen Smokey’s video statement and felt he was “piggybacking off it.” He said Smokey had not been in contact with him or other Minden officials

“With the county…they have no control over the siren, so you would think he would talk to those who actually could do something about it,” Frisby said. 

He said he’d spoken with the county manager, and he’d acknowledge that control of the siren lies with Minden. 

“I just want the true facts to be out about the siren,” Frisby said. “If there was anything I could see that tied the siren to the ‘sundown’ ordinance, then we would be having a different conversation. Obviously, we can’t hide from our history. There was the ordinance in place that required the Native Americans to be out of town. That’s unfortunate. That should have never happened, but it did. But to tie to the siren just is–it’s not the correct information…A lot of good has come from that siren, and it should be remembered as that.” 

Douglas County did not respond to a media request prior to the publication of this story. It will be updated should we receive one.

Jeri Chadwell
Jeri Chadwellhttp://thisisreno.com
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.