Q&A with “Sierra Stories” author Gary Noy

GaryNoyI recently spoke with Gary Noy about his new book, Sierra Stories: Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, Bigots, and Rogues. Who is Gary? Well, in the words of Heyday publisher Malcolm Margolin:

Gary Noy is a scholar, a teacher, a mentor, and a thoroughly decent man. He taught history at Sierra College in Rocklin for more than twenty years, and he is founder and Director Emeritus of the Sierra College Center for Sierra Nevada Studies. I’m happy to report that despite his education Gary can spin a good yarn, and indeed he keeps us well entertained. Read this book for the joy of the storytelling, but be aware of another current that runs through it. At the hands of some one else, the characters that spill out of these pages might be presented with mockery. If you are looking for mockery, looking for an easy sense of how superior we are to the fools on the page, you might look elsewhere. Something deeper is stirring—along with the fun we feel in these stories a sense of the courage of people, a compassion for those whose hopes were dashed, a rage against the assault upon native people and the brutal suppression of the Chinese, in all a love and respect that Gary as a native son has for the place in which he has lived so deeply and to which he has devoted so much of his life.…Let us gather around the campfire and look toward the kind and intelligent soul who is so patiently awaiting his turn. Hey, Gary! Tell us some good stories! 

MC: How and why did you begin collecting these stories?

GN: I can thank my parents for my interest in these unusual stories. I was born in the Sierra Nevada, specifically in Grass Valley in Nevada County, but my parents were not. My mom was born in Oklahoma and migrated to the Sierra during the Dust Bowl era of the Great Depression. My dad was from Montana and part of a Cornish gold mining family who traveled to Grass Valley to work in the mines. My parents met, married, and had me in Grass Valley, but much of the range was unknown to them. They were interested in learning as much as possible about their new home and that curiosity rubbed off on me.

We did not have very much when I was a kid, but we did have a car, and gas was cheap in those days. We traveled throughout the Sierra Nevada and Gold Country visiting many spots. We visited the well-known locations like Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, but we also spent a great deal of time in the lesser-known locales, and given my dad’s mining background, I can guarantee that I have visited every mining camp, Gold Rush ghost town, and abandoned mine relic at least once.

It was these less-visited locations that spurred my interest in the unusual and hidden stories of the Sierra. I was fascinated by the tales of how people came to the Sierra, how they coped with their new surroundings and their courage in setting out for an unknown fate in an unknown land. I was captivated by the quirky characters and the unusual occurrences of day-to-day living. I was moved by the resilient, hopeful people but often horrified by the inhumanity and injustice of how some humans treated other humans. Over the years, I began collecting these stories, both good and bad, and some of the hundreds I gathered ended up being the core of Sierra Stories.

We are all products of these stories, whether we arrived in the Sierra today or millennia ago, because this is where we live, this is our culture.

Is there a particular story that resonates the most for you?

The story that sticks with me the most is the very first story that caught my attention. Around the corner from where I lived in Grass Valley is a little street, an alley really, that climbs up the hill to the Empire Mine grounds. It is named Kate Hayes Street. I remember passing by that street as a little kid and being interested in its dark, cool nature but I did not know who Kate Hayes was until I got older. It was then that I discovered that Kate Hayes was an enormously popular operatic diva of the Gold Rush period celebrated throughout the United States and the world. Many spots in the Sierra Nevada were named for her, even a little street in Grass Valley. The first chapter in Sierra Stories is about Kate Hayes and Kate Hayes Street. I chose her because it was through Kate Hayes Street that I became interested in the uncommon Sierra Nevada. It seemed fitting to begin the book where it all began for me.

Are there any particular themes that you emphasize in Sierra Stories?

I had hundreds and hundreds of stories to choose from but I could only include a few dozen in the book. So, I set out to select tales that exemplified important themes of Sierra Nevada history. There are stories of adventure, resilience, personal reinvention, hope, heartbreak, quirkiness, courage, artistry, innovation, vision, wonderment, love of place, and, sadly, tales of hatred and prejudice. I would like to think that I chose well and that one can get a good idea of the Sierra experience through the readings. I firmly believe that we can learn much about our emotional and physical connection to the range from these stories of our journey through time. We are all products of these stories, whether we arrived in the Sierra today or millennia ago, because this is where we live, this is our culture, and we are all part of the grand historical continuum.

I am always learning from my audiences and being surprised and delighted by new stories.

Sierra Stories chronicles the “obscure accounts that bypassed the history books and became tangled in the shadows.” What was the farthest off the beaten path that you got—either metaphorically or geographically—to track down a story (or a source or an image)?

Well, for one I think I went back in time. One of the joys (and sometimes challenges) of putting Sierra Stories together has been tracking down images and historic photos to illustrate the book. To my knowledge, some of the images selected have not been published previously or for decades. Simply finding them was an adventure. I was helped immeasurably by Gabriel Schlaefer, a summer 2013 Heyday intern, in hunting for images. He was just great! But sometimes, I found particularly obscure photos on my own in surprising fashion. An example is the photo that illustrates the chapter on the 1911 Tahoe Tavern Auto Race, describing one of the first successful car trips over the Sierra Nevada. A photo of the event was difficult to obtain, I tried everywhere and often I hit a dead end. Then I went to the Searls Historical Library (part of the Nevada County Historical Society) in Nevada City. Entering their wonderful old building is like going back in time—back to the nineteenth century—I fully expected to see Charles Dickens standing in the corner. And there I found the photo now in the book. I think I hopped on the time machine to find that image.

Image courtesy of Searls Historical Library

Image courtesy of Searls Historical Library

And, in one instance, something totally unexpected happened. There is a photo that highlights the “Sierra Spotlight” on the General Noble Tree House, a story about a Giant Sequoia that was cut down for an exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and ended up as a gardener’s shed on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C. I knew there were photos of the tree house, but obtaining the rights to use them was proving impossible. I was about to abandon the story when I decided to take one last chance and I contacted the Smithsonian. At first, they echoed the discouraging news that I had heard before, but finally one of the curators said, “You know, I think I remember something we have in a file somewhere that you will find interesting. Let me go search for it.”  A couple of days later, they sent me a low-res image by email of a photo that had been buried deep in the Smithsonian Archives. I was told the photo had never been published previously. It was a photo of the General Noble Tree House in the foreground with the Smithsonian Castle and the Capitol Building in the background. It was perfect and a marvelous surprise. The Smithsonian really went the extra mile. What made it even better in the end was that getting the permission to publish and delivery of a high-res scan only cost $7.50.

Although you’re about to start touring Sierra Stories, you did some promotion work before the book even came out. Whether it was after a radio interview or speaking at an event, has anyone approached you with a correction or addendum to one of the stories you presented?

Oh, sure. It happens sometimes. One of the occupational hazards of writing history is that there is occasionally someone who will dispute a detail or disagree with an interpretation or find the inevitable typo or proofreading error in a heavily fact-laden article or book. You do the best you can to avoid all that, but it comes with the territory.

SSTOcover_web800pxI have been writing about and doing presentations on these hidden tales for quite a while now and suggestions for additional stories and offers of extra specifics are frequent. There are literally thousands of Sierra Nevada stories—every city, county, family or person has a story of an interesting individual or event. Thank goodness for historical societies and libraries providing repositories for many of these tales. I think it would impossible for one person to collect or even be aware of all these stories. So, it is pretty common for someone to ask me at a presentation, “Did you include such-and-such a story in your writing?”  There have been plenty of instances when I have honestly confessed to the person that not only did I not include the story in my book, I have never heard the story before. I am always learning from my audiences and being surprised and delighted by new stories. I find the rich diversity, breadth, and depth of stories endlessly fascinating.

If you were going to write a second volume of Sierra Stories, what might you include? What are some hidden stories of the Sierra going on today?

There are so many stories that I think the hardest part would be determining a theme. I think a book focusing on infrastructure stories would be interesting —there are lots of tales about bridges, roads, buildings and those who built them. Focusing on the personal stories of Sierra Nevada authors would be fun—a lot of the observers of the Sierra scene have remarkable backstories worth exploring. I have always thought an intriguing way to approach this would be to examine how we have dealt with the elements—fire, snow, wind, rain, and critters. There are plenty of contemporary issues and tales to concentrate on, such as the toxic legacy left by generations of mining or the continuing impacts of climate change, or, even something weird and wonderful like the recent story of the Nevada County couple who found tin cans buried in their backyard filled with dozens of nineteenth-century gold coins. Or, perhaps, I could just write about those stories that make you chuckle and smile, like the delightful story of “The Christmas Nugget” during the Gold Rush.

The Christmas Nugget

The Christmas nugget story was first told in William P. Bennett’s 1893 memoir of the Gold Rush.

On Christmas Day, 1849, Mrs. William George Wilson delivered a healthy, twelve-pound baby boy at Canyon Creek, near Georgetown in Placer County. A neighboring claim and the gold field grapevine quickly spread the tongue-in-cheek news that lucky Bill Wilson had struck it rich and found a twelve-pound nugget. However, many took the report of the massive gold strike literally.

“News of the big find spread like wildfire up and down the canyon where hundreds of men were at work,” wrote Bennett. “At once, there was a grand rush to Bill Wilson’s cabin. Every miner was anxious to see the twelve-pound lump.”

The Wilsons thoroughly enjoyed the moment. With straight faces, they lined up the eager visitors at the cabin door. Every few minutes, a handful of the men were allowed to enter to view the “nugget.”

“Each of the miners loved being had,” Bennett recalled. “As each squad came out of the cabin, the men solemnly asserted that the Wilson nugget was the finest ever seen.”

For three more days, the joke continued throughout the area. Bennett wrote of miners who came from more than ten miles away to see the giant Christmas nugget.