Tragic family mystery solved

In this working ranch, lush, green fields lay beyond a thick hedge of sagebrush with a long row of tall trees standing in the distance.
Pietro Cassinelli operated this ranch in Dayton, Nevada, from the late 1880s through the early 1900s.

Several times in the past, I have written stories about my family when they owned a ranch across the Carson River from Dayton, Nevada. My Great Grandfather, Pietro Cassinelli, owned and operated the ranch — now known as the Ricci Ranch — from the 1880s until about 1910. These stories included family squabbles, bar fights, Pietro being shot in the back while taking water from an irrigation ditch and lawsuits among some of the family members.

I had done some research on the family, and — with assistance from family members and others — was able to make a list of the family members who had lived on the ranch and the dates they were born and died. The list was fairly complete, except for one child who was listed without a birth date or a date of death. This person, named Angelo, was listed with an unknown birth date and a death date of “as a baby.” No one in my family could tell me anything more about the boy until my brother-in-law, Phil Hanna, sent me the following newspaper article:

“Pietro Cassinelli, an Italian rancher on the Carson River across from Dayton, while running a hay mower Tuesday afternoon, fearfully mangled his little three year old son. The child had wandered into the alfalfa field where the mower was in operation, and was probably asleep in the tall grass. The machine struck the little fellow before his father observed him and could not stop the team (of horses). The sickle of the machine severed one of the child’s legs and nearly cut off another, besides cutting and bruising him on other parts of the body. A physician was immediately summoned and rendered the proper medical care, but it is doubtful if the child can recover.”

Lyon County Times, July 2, 1904

Sadly, the little boy did not survive the injuries from the mowing-machine accident. His name was Angelo Cassinelli, and he was born to Theresa and Pietro Cassinelli sometime in 1901. He was the ninth of their 12 children. I have searched the Dayton Cemetery, but because there were so many unmarked graves, I was unable to find Angelo’s grave. However, it’s possible the family buried his remains at the ranch. 

Angelo’s older brother, Bill Cassinelli, suffered a similar tragedy several years later, when he was a solider in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. He lost a leg when he was hit by a Japanese artillery shell and surely would have died if fellow soldiers from Nevada, Paul Laxalt and Leon Etchemendy, had not helped take him to a field hospital.

At the Dayton Museum, I donated a 1906 Dayton school photograph picturing several of the family members, including Bill, who had attended the school. I also donated an accordion my dad had played at dances held at the Odeon Hall

I had seen Pietro and Bill a few times when I was a child, but I had never heard anyone in the family talk about the tragedies. It was my experience that the old-timers were very tight-lipped about some tragic events, and now I can understand why.

Guest Post: An exclusive interview with my great-grandmother

This is my favorite picture of my great-grandmother, “Gram.” I never knew her at this age, of course, but to me this photo depicts everything I loved most about her. She was happy, vibrant, full of life and adventure, and always cherishing the moment. She carried that youthful zeal with her throughout her entire life, even as she was approaching 100. She was always happy, always savoring life, and that sprightly demeanor she’s showing in the photo will forever be my memory of her. On the back of this photo, Gram wrote: “I took this out of Frank’s album. That’s why it’s cracked. Don’t die laughing. The highest one up is me. Yee-haw! Mary 16 years, taken at McNutt’s ranch.”

In September 2010, I got the idea to film my great-grandmother telling stories. 

The timing was perfect. I had just gotten a wireless microphone for my high-definition camcorder, and I needed a subject to test it on. 

And what better subject than my family’s near-centenarian matriarch? 

That’s right: Gram was 99 at the time, just five months shy of her 100th birthday. And although her grasp of the present was slipping (she often repeated herself and sometimes would forget where she was), her memories of the past were not only intact — they were razor-sharp.

She never lived in a nursing home. Each of her surviving children took turns staying at her house, so that she could be in a familiar environment. 

My grandpa, Dennis Cassinelli, and my grandma, Mary, often would invite us for dinner when it was their turn to stay with Gram. (Gram was Mary’s mother.) On such a weekend, I went over for an impromptu recording session — as well as a delicious meal. (After all, a well-fed interviewer is a happy interviewer.)

My parents came, too. And after dinner, we settled in the living room, with Gram taking her usual seat near the front window. 

I set the camcorder on a tripod, then attached the wireless microphone to Gram’s collar. I explained that we wanted to interview her, but I wasn’t sure if she knew what I was doing. And if she wondered why there was a blinking camcorder pointed at her, she didn’t say anything. 

When everything was set up and the camera was rolling, we started talking. 

I lobbed a few questions at her about her childhood, and her eyes lit up. Immediately, she launched into a familiar story about how her older brother, Bud, would tease her about being born in “the land of the lemon, the prune, and the nut” — which was his way of describing California. 

He, on the other hand, had been born in the “gold and silver state of Nevada.” (Apparently, he liked to remind her of that a lot.)

After that first story, there was a pause. We had to prod a little more to get her going, but once she did, the stories unspooled like yarn. 

She talked about a Christmas morning when all the children had opened their presents. Her youngest sister started crying, because there were no more gifts to open. 

So Gram’s father took a rug into the kitchen and rolled himself into it. His wife and the other children helped lug him back into the living room, put him under the tree, and told the young girl that there was one more Christmas present — and it was just for her. 

She eagerly unfurled the rug, and her father rolled out. The girl squealed with joy, and for the rest of that Christmas day, he belonged to her and no one else. “That was her daddy,” Gram said. 

Another story took place when Gram was a schoolgirl. She got so mad at the teacher that she marched into the coatroom and tore all the children’s coats off the racks to stomp on them. 

In another, her mother admonished her for being a tomboy. “Why can’t you stay in the house and be a little lady like Virginia?” she asked, referring to the neighbor girl, who was prim and elegant. But Gram much preferred to be outside playing baseball with the boys. 

We recorded for well over an hour. Each of us took turns asking questions. My grandparents could prod deeper, as they knew more of the family history. My grandpa, Dennis, well-known for being the Nevada-history buff of the family, asked her a series of questions about growing up in Tonopah, Nevada. 

Gram talked about her first job, her children, and the first time she met her future husband, Cornileus. 

The session wasn’t without hiccups. At one point, Gram started toying with the wireless mic, as if it were a brooch. I had to pause the camcorder to move the mic. It’s a funny moment — the sound at that part gets real staticky — and it gives the interview character. I love it. 

She also repeated herself at times — the story about “the land of the lemon, the prune, and the nut” came up often — but each time we’d gently broach another subject, and away she’d go. 

The video starts out in bright, late-afternoon sunlight, and as it proceeds the room gradually gets darker, and darker, until someone finally turns on a light. 

However, Gram’s voice is clear — as it was fed directly from the mic to the camcorder. Her words are crisp and audible, her memories preserved in time for her family to enjoy. My hope is that the video will allow descendants who never met her to see what a cheerful, buoyant person she was. 

Gram passed away in December that year. In two more months, she would have been 100. The family had been planning a large celebration. I’d even scheduled my photographer friend to be there, to capture the occasion. 

But we captured our own special moment that day, and I’m so grateful we did. None of us knew that evening would be one of the last times we’d ever see Gram. 

I watch the video sometimes, and when I do, memories of that day come tumbling back. And I realize that although life is short, it can include so much. Gram had grown up in an era with horse-drawn plows and Model-T Fords. Yet she lived to see things like computers and cell phones and YouTube and Facebook. (Personally, I prefer the era with Model-T Fords.)

If you have an aging relative, I encourage you to record their stories. Capture them on video, like I did, or jot them down in a journal. Everyone has stories worth hearing, and everyone deserves to have a piece of their lives preserved. You don’t want all that knowledge lost. 

You and your family will be so grateful you did. I know I am.

Watching Gram’s interview, the video does more than replay an old woman’s memories. Rather, it paints a picture of a family sitting down after dinner to talk and enjoy each other’s company. It was something we had done so many times before that on that day it seemed so commonplace, so ordinary. 

But looking back, I can see now how extraordinary it really was.

I can see, too, how blessed I am to have those moments, being with the people I love. 

I’m grateful for them, and for the people in my life. 

Allen Coyle is Dennis Cassinelli’s grandson and the author of two books, which are available on Amazon. He’s also the webmaster for denniscassinelli.com.

Ice fishing in Nevada

Ice Fishing in Nevada

An ice fisherman taking a rest after an exhausting day on the ice.

It has been a Cassinelli family tradition for several years to go ice fishing when the lakes and reservoirs are safe for ice fishing. Ice must be a minimum of 6” thick to be safe. If there is corn snow above the solid ice, it may need to be even thicker. With the use of either a power auger or a hand auger, a 6” – 8” hole is drilled into the ice for each fisherman in the group. Those with a second rod stamp can use two holes.

Usually 4 to 6 or more of us pick a date in January or February and decide which lake or reservoir to try. Some of our favorites are Wild horse Reservoir north of Elko, South fork Reservoir south of Elko or Cave Lake southeast of Ely. We have also been known to go to Red Lake or Caples Lake along Highway 88 in California for day-trip fishing.

Layers of protective clothing must be worn, since the winter weather can be brutal. Waterproof boots with treaded soles, insulated gloves, earmuffs, long johns, and a warm jacket with a hood will help. It is always better to bring extra clothing than be “caught out in the cold.” Children dressed up in winter coats and mittens love to skate and run around out on the ice. Letting them pull out a fish is a treat they will never forget.

A family group will always have an ice sieve to clean snow and ice from the fishing holes when needed. The holes drilled are sometimes 24” or more deep. Some groups (including ours) may set up a portable ice fishing tent, a collapsable table with a propane stove, ice chests with no ice to keep worms and drinks from freezing and plenty of your favorite beverages. Simple wire or PVC rod holders to keep your pole at a 45 degree angle with the ice are nice to have. One year, I even made some wooden balanced and weighted trout decoys to lower down into an ice hole to attract fish to the place where we were fishing.

Every one fishing must have a license, trout stamp, extra rod stamp if wanted, short ice fishing poles, tackle box, worms, power bait, shrimp, jigs or whatever bait or lure you (and the fish) desire. Game wardens do check for licenses and go from group to group on snowmobiles. There should be a folding chair with a drink holder for each person. A trick we learned early on, was to attach a jungle bell or a rattlesnake tail to the end of the fishing rod so you can hear when you have a bite. You can then visit and tell lies to the other fishermen until the bell rings. An ice fishing sled or a large plastic box for your gear can easily be pulled across the ice to the desired place to fish.

A few times when the ice was solid and over 2 feet thick, we have taken the truck out on the ice. This must be done with extreme caution and is not recommended. The NDOW website usually has ice fishing conditions listed for each lake or reservoir. There is a humorous story about prehistoric ice fishing in my novel, Legends of Spirit Cave. Several ancient stone ice fishing picks were found at and near Lovelock Cave by the Humboldt sink, so we know that prehistoric people enjoyed the sport and the fish they caught.