Great Grandmother was a bootlegger

Like many Native Nevadans, I have attempted to collect interesting stories about my own ancestors and write them down before they are lost and forgotten forever. I have searched many old newspapers for snippets of stories that mentioned the “Cassinelli” name and some of the antics they performed.

Grandma Was A Bootlegger

In my book, Chronicles of the Comstock, I described how my ancestors started out as a farming and ranching family in Dayton in the late 1800s. They were engaged in supplying livestock, hay and produce to the Comstock and surrounding area.

My Great Grandfather, Pietro Cassinelli, arrived in Dayton about 1889 after working his way across the country from the east coast and working for a time as a cowboy on the old Chisholm Trail. He soon married Theresa Deluchi and acquired a ranch along the Carson River where the couple raised a family of 12 children. About 1910, the family left Dayton and a few of them started ranches in the Reno area. I grew up on a ranch on Glendale Road owned by Pietro and Theresa’s son, Pete.

I recently learned from Kim Henrick, Sharon Honig-Bear and Debbie Hinman that they had found an article in the Nevada State Journal about my great grandmother, Theresa Cassinelli, being arrested for bootlegging during the prohibition days. I was very surprised to learn that this had ever happened, since the old timers were always tight-lipped about things that had happened years ago and the more I learn about them, I can easily see why.

During the prohibition days, federal and City of Reno law enforcement officers, sometimes called prohis, conducted what they called “Dry Raids” to apprehend people possessing or selling alcoholic beverages. The following article appeared in the Nevada State Journal on March 30, 1931:

Reno Dry Raids Net Local Woman

Another raid and one arrest were added yesterday to the list of six raids and seven arrests made Saturday night in Reno by the local prohibition force, when a residence at 345 West Third Street was entered about 2:30 o’clock and Theresa Cassinelli was taken into custody.

The woman had about 100 gallons of wine in her possession, local officers said. The wine was hauled away and stored in the government vaults in the basement of the city hall. Mrs. Cassinelli will be taken before the United States Commissioner, Anne Warren for arraignment sometime this week, it was stated.

When I was a kid, I remember Pete Cassinelli telling me that the family took a Motel A flatbed truck down to Napa California every fall to bring back a load of grapes for making wine. No one ever did tell me that his mother was arrested for being in possession of 100 gallons of bootleg wine. I have since learned that The Italian families were the leading suppliers of illegal liquor in the Reno area during prohibition. Since wine was an integral part of their culture, many Italian citizens were arrested for making the vino. In 1921, a Reno newspaper reporter commented that the grand jury indictment list “looked like an Italian telephone book.”

I remember being told that Theresa Cassinelli had been hit by lightning when visiting at the Glendale Road ranch as she stood by a well that was located near the corner of Glendale Road and what is now 21st Street in Sparks. Perhaps this was her punishment for some of her escapades during the prohibition days.

Dayton’s Odeon Hall and Saloon

Dayton, Nevada is the oldest town in the Comstock Historic District. The largest and most prominent building still standing in Old Town Dayton is the two-story brick structure known as the Odeon Hall. In my search to find who this old building was named for, I found it was simply named Odeon as a shortened version of “Melodeon.”

The Odeon Hall is a local treasure in historical downtown Dayton, Nevada.

The Odeon Hall is a local treasure in historical downtown Dayton, Nevada.

This was probably due to the building being used for entertainment purposes including theatrical performances, musical presentations and community dances.

The original building to occupy this site at 65 Pike Street was a community building built by the Odd Fellows Lodge in 1863. It had a full basement and there was a saloon on the left side of the ground floor with a hardware store on the right side. Upstairs there was a meeting hall and offices for the lodge. The building has been destroyed by fire at least twice and rebuilt on the same site. The 6,500-square-foot brick structure seen today dates back to about 1870.

Historical marker placed outside of the Odeon Hall.

Historical marker placed outside of the Odeon Hall.

There is a historic marker placed by the Julia Bullette Chapter of E Clampus Vitus on the front of the Odeon. It proclaims that President Ulysses S. Grant spoke from the upstairs balcony during his visit to the Comstock in 1870. This is just one of the mythical stories about Nevada that is simply not true. In fact, President Grant and his entourage hurried through Dayton on his way to meet with Adolph Sutro at the Sutro Mansion and to take a tour of the famous tunnel Sutro had built. Though President Grant did not visit the Odeon, it is generally accepted that Mark Twain and Adolph Sutro regularly patronized the Odeon Saloon.

In the 1940s, my father, Raymond Cassinelli, had a dance band and his group regularly played for dances at the Odeon Hall in the upstairs ballroom. This room was also used for wedding receptions and school dances. It is still used occasionally for plays and melodramas. Dad told me that Deputy Sheriff Chester Barton came to all the dances to keep the crowd in line and to bounce out any trouble makers. Barton always carried a carbine with a banana clip just to command respect. Dad also liked to tell the story about a dance job he played one time in Stockton, California. The only people in the dance hall with any clothes on were the members of his band.

In 1961, Dayton and the Odeon Hall became a hot spot of activity when the cast and crew of the movie The Misfits came to town. Scenes of The Misfits featuring Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Clark Gable were actually filmed inside the Odeon Hall. The Misfits was the last movie for each of these three actors. In 1982, Clint Eastwood made an appearance at the Odeon during the filming of Honkytonk Man.

In 1984, Max and Mia Kuerzi bought the Odeon Hall and opened up Mia’s Swiss Restaurant and Saloon on the ground floor. For over twenty years, they served fine Swiss and German cuisine and entertained customers with Mia’s yodeling and Max’s opinions on world affairs. In 2007, it was leased out to become Chuck’s Old West Grill. This lasted but two years and the place is now being offered for sale.

Years ago, before my mom and dad passed away, I took them to dinner at Mia’s Restaurant. This was the first time they had been in the Odeon Hall for over 50 years. As was her custom, Mia yodeled for us during dinner. She then took us on a tour of the old dance hall upstairs where Dad had played for dances so many years ago. This was a special treat for them.

Perhaps someone will come along with an appreciation for Comstock History and sufficient energy and resources to revive the Odeon Hall to its former glory.

Someday — when the depression is over.

Dayton’s Historic Cemetery

Downtown Dayton is located along the Carson River where Gold Canyon empties into the river on the rare occasions when water actually flows down the canyon. This is the location where in 1849, gold nuggets were first found by prospectors who tried their luck at gold panning while resting along the California Trail on their way to the California gold fields. Later, many of these same miners returned to the area when they found the streets of California were not paved with gold.

Just west of downtown Dayton, near the community water storage tank, lies the historic Dayton Cemetery. It is very near where Spafford Hall’s Station and trading post were once located. Hall’s Station was the first business establishment in the community which has arguably been called Nevada’s oldest settlement. At Dayton, the Old California Trail turned west from the Carson River and headed toward Carson City. The trail passed just north of the Dayton Cemetery which became the final resting place for several of the early emigrants who had died along the trail. The same trail was used by the Pony Express between April 1860 and November 1861.

Between 1850 and 1859, Dayton became very active as several hundred prospectors including many Chinese panned for gold along Gold Canyon and up through Johntown and the Silver City area. During this time, whenever someone died along this route, they likely were buried in the Dayton Cemetery. The Chinese population was so prevalent for a time that the community of Dayton was known as Chinatown.

Several prominent Nevada citizens have been buried in the Dayton Cemetery. Many of the earliest graves that had wooden grave markers can no longer be identified, since the markers have rotted away or were taken by vandals. There are several graves marked “Unknown” in the older western half of the cemetery. Maintenance personnel have told me that these graves were uncovered in recent times when seemingly unoccupied plots were dug into in order to make new burials. When bones were encountered, the graves were re-buried and marked “Unknown.” The policy is now to not attempt to bury people in the old section except in existing family plots. The newer section on the east half of the property is still being used for new burials. I have recently purchased one of these for my own family plot.

Perhaps the most notorious person buried in the Dayton Cemetery is James Finney, also known as “Old Virginny.” The story of Finney is a matter of Comstock folklore. The story that Virginia City Nevada was named for him after he christened the ground where he had broken a bottle of whiskey “Virginia Town” has become an accepted fact.

Finney, a native of Virginia, died in Dayton (Chinatown) at the age of 44 after being bucked off a mustang horse and landing on his head. Other Comstock miners revered him so much they voted at a community meeting to name Virginia City after him. What little is known about him indicates that he was a hard drinking but skillful miner who located the first quartz claims on the Comstock Lode at Gold Hill and at the Ophir Diggings in 1859. Virginia City and the entire Virginia Mountain Range carry his name. Citizens of Dayton buried him along the Carson River near where he had died. Later, several years after the new cemetery was established in 1851, his remains were re-interred in the present cemetery along with several other persons who had been interred in an area where commercial development was taking place.

Other prominent Nevadans buried at the Dayton Cemetery include Judge Clark J. Guild and members of his family and Governor Charles H. Russell and members of his family. Many of the graves in the cemetery have Italian names due to the large number of Italian ranchers who settled along the Carson River and the many Italian brick masons who found work in the region during the Comstock boom.

The views from the Dayton Cemetery are scenic. To the northwest, the peak of Virginia City’s Mount Davidson can be seen. Also visible along the road to the cemetery is the California Trail and Pony Express route ascending a steep slope toward a trail marker at the top of the hill. To the northeast the Flowery Range, the lower reaches of Gold Canyon and the quarry where Hall’s Station was located can be seen. Off in the distance, you can see the huge yellow band of material that was removed from the Sutro Tunnel when it was being constructed. Directly East is a panoramic view of the entire town of Dayton and beyond. Toward the southeast is the mountain peak marking the location of the ghost town of Como. The Carson River lined with Fremont Cottonwoods marks the corridor where over 25 farms and ranches operated by Italian farmers became known as the breadbasket of the Comstock.

Few other places in the State of Nevada are surrounded by as much history as the Dayton Cemetery.

Historic accordion donated to Dayton, Nev. museum

Between 1889 and 1910, the Cassinelli family settled on a ranch across the Carson River from downtown Dayton. The ranch they acquired is now the location of the Ricci Ranch. Pietro and Theresa Cassinelli raised a family of 12 children while they lived in Dayton. Pietro and his brother, Bert and cousin Vitoria built a dam across the river and constructed ditches to irrigate their fields.

The crops they raised were taken to Virginia City, Gold Hill and Silver City to provide hay, potatoes, garlic, corn and other vegetables for people on the Comstock. Pietro Cassinelli was my Great Grandfather. His son, Pete owned the ranch where I grew up near Sparks. My father, Raymond, operated the Cassinelli Hog Ranch during World War II. In addition to ranching, Raymond and a group of his friends formed the Raymond Cassinelli Dance Band.

Raymond Cassinelli played accordion at the Odeon Hall in Dayton, Nev.

Raymond Cassinelli played accordion at the Odeon Hall in Dayton, Nev.

Before the War, Raymond went to San Francisco for a few years to study music and became an excellent accordion player. Raymond’s dance band with accordion, xylophone, piano and saxophone traveled around western Nevada and eastern California playing for dances and New Years celebrations during the late 1930s and early 1940s. I can remember them playing in Vinton, Stockton, various Grange halls, Virginia City and the Odeon Hall in Dayton. Raymond once told me that at one dance he played for in Stockton, the only people in the place who wore clothes were the members of his band.

After Raymond passed away a few years ago, my brother, sister and I decided to donate his accordion to one of his favorite dance halls. We had heard that the upstairs ball room at the Odeon Hall in Dayton may be converted to a museum someday. When this was the location of Mia’s Swiss restaurant, I took Raymond there to visit the old upstairs ball room. This brought back many memories for him of the days when he and his band had played there. He remembered that security was provided by deputy sheriff, Lester Barton. He kept order with a rifle equipped with a banana clip.

The idea of putting a museum in the Odeon Hall never did materialize. A few days ago, Grace Ricci called to ask me if I could bring some of the books I had written to the Dayton Historical Museum so they could sell them in their gift shop. I went to the ranch where she lived that was once owned by my ancestors to talk to her about the books. While I was there, I asked if the Dayton Museum would be interested in a donation of Dad’s old accordion.

I took the symphonic console accordion made by Guerrini Co. in San Francisco and some photographs to the museum to put them on display. The Dayton Historical Museum is located at Shady Lane and Logan Alley in Dayton. The building is the second oldest school house in Nevada, built in 1865. One of the photographs I gave to the museum was the Dayton class of 1906 taken alongside the building that is now the Museum. In the photo there are eight members of the Cassinelli clan who were students there in 1906. One of them was my Grandfather, Pete Cassinelli, Raymond’s father.

The Dayton Historical Museum is located at 485 Shady Lane in Dayton, Nev.

The Dayton Historical Museum is located at 485 Shady Lane in Dayton, Nev.

The Dayton Museum contains hundreds of artifacts from the Dayton area including local ancient Indian artifacts, mining equipment, old farm and ranch equipment from the Dayton Valley ranches, and now the accordion my father used when touring with his dance band over 70 years ago. The museum is open from 10am to 4pm on Saturdays and 1pm to 4pm on Sundays. The museum is closed December, January and February, except by appointment.

The Historical Society of Dayton Valley is responsible for not only the schoolhouse museum but also for the historic Dayton firehouse and 1860s jail. In partnership with the Chamber of Commerce and Lyon County, they have acquired and plan to restore Dayton’s 1881 C&C Railroad Depot at Main Street and Highway 50. This is the only Carson and Colorado Railroad depot still in existence in Nevada.


The Remains of the Rock Point Mill


You wouldn’t know it driving past, but this scenic, cottonwood-shaded area alongside Highway 50 through Dayton was once home to a spellbinding ore-processing operation. And though nature’s started to reclaim it, the Rock Point Mill still stands as one of the many reminders of the Comstock mining district and the tremendous wealth it generated.

The Rock Point Mill site in Dayton, Nevada

The mill was built in 1861 by Charles C. Stevenson, who also served as Nevada’s governor from 1887 to 1890. Forty stamps crushed the ore that came from Gold Hill, Silver City and, of course, Virginia City. Flumes carried water from the nearby Carson River to the mill site. At one time, the mill had the capacity to crush 40 tons of ore per day.

A fire ravaged the original mill in 1882, and another fire wreaked havoc in 1909. Though it was immediately rebuilt, the new mill closed in 1920 and was moved to Silver City. Between 1920 and 1954, the site was used a dump.

Now part of the Dayton State Park, the remains of the historic Rock Point Mill include rock walls strung along the hillsides and concrete slabs sprouting from the earth. A wood-framed doorway leads into a room enclosed in rock. Outside, a stone staircase winds up a hill that provides amazing views of the surrounding town. An earthen dam still exists and provides a scenic basin hidden from the highway.

A sign near the base of the ruins tells the mill’s story through words and photographs. Rock-lined pathways wind uphill toward the dam, around the dump and to a round concrete structure at the top of a high hill. A convenient bench allows visitors to sit and admire the view. In addition, the site is connected to the Dayton State Park through a tunnel that runs underneath Highway 50.

Venturing among the ruins, you get a sense of the operation’s vast scale. As one of three ore-processing plants in Dayton, The Rock Point Mill was a crucial fixture not only of the town, but of the Comstock mining district as well. Today, it serves as an historical remnant of a bygone era, reminding contemporary Dayton of its roots and the role it played in the shaping of the west.