Why I’m fascinated by silver dollars

silver dollarsMy mother, Phyllis, was one of the first female blackjack dealers in Nevada. She and her sister, Clare, worked for Harold’s Club in Reno in the early 1940s. General Manager Raymond “Pappy” Smith was the first Nevada casino owner to hire female blackjack dealers to work in the clubs. His reasoning was if casinos hired female dealers, more GIs from the Reno Army Airbase would be attracted to the clubs.

In those days, casinos used composition chips as much as they do today. However, they also used the common medium of exchange in Nevada at that time, the silver dollar, for many of their table games. Winnings were paid out in silver dollars and tips and even wages were sometimes paid that way.

When I started school in Sparks, hot lunch for the week was 20 cents per day or $1 for the whole week. Every Monday, Mom, being a blackjack dealer, would give me one silver dollar for my weekly lunch. I soon noticed in addition to the Peace Dollars minted from 1921 through 1935, many were the much older Morgan dollars minted off and on from 1878 through 1904 and again in 1921.

I was fascinated so many of the silver dollars given to me for lunch money were made back in the 1800s. One day, I noticed to my surprise one of the silver dollars she gave me was a Carson City silver dollar dated 1890. I went all week without lunch and kept the old silver dollar. I can honestly say I still have the first dollar I ever saved.

Later in my illustrious career, I worked on our family farm on Glendale Road in Sparks, weeding onions and working in the potato fields. My uncle, Chester, was the bookkeeper and paymaster for the farm/ranch. At that time, wages for farm laborers was 50 cents per hour. At the end of each workday, boys I went to school with and I, along with other laborers, were paid for our work. Uncle Chester stood at the edge of the field with a cowboy hat full of silver dollars. As each worker passed by, he gave each one of us five silver dollars for the 10 hours of work.

Now, before you think we were getting ripped off back in those days, you should consider this amazing fact. If I was paid those same five silver dollars today, each one would be worth approximately $20. This means the wages for one day of work would now be $100. I could almost live on that.

In 1999, my crew and I uncovered the amazing stash of coin dies that had been buried in the ground at the old Carson City Mint building, now the Nevada State Museum. More than 500 of the rusty dies were recovered and many of them that have been cleaned are now on display at the museum. I honestly believe that were it not for my fascination for silver dollars, the buried coin dies wouldn’t have been noticed.

If you visit the Nevada State Museum, you can see the original Coin Press No. 1 that was used to mint many of the Carson City coins and also the amazing collection of one of each of nearly all the Carson City gold and silver coins ever made. On the cover of my book, Chronicles of the Comstock, are color photos of several of my Carson City silver dollars, including the unusual Trade Dollars that were coined at the Carson City Branch Mint. The book has many stories about the Comstock era and the historic old mint.

Comments on the condition of burned rangeland in Nevada

Nevada rangeland deer

The impact to wildlife is a major concern when wildfires strike.

On a recent trip through areas of Northern Nevada rangeland that have been burned in fires during the past 3 years, I have made a few casual, unscientific observations. The purpose of my trip was hunting and camping in portions of Elko and Humboldt counties that had been heavily burned in recent range fires. I had hunted and camped in the same areas on different occasions in years before the fire damage had occurred and was saddened to see the destruction of the natural landscape that has occurred in recent years.

The most obvious damage occurred to the vegetation in the region where thousands of acres of rangeland and wildlife habitat have been lost. The Bureau of Land Management and other government agencies such as Department of Wildlife and U.S. Forest Service have been cooperating to revegetate as much of the area as possible. The methods being used are both aerial seeding with native grasses from aircraft and on-ground seeding in the flatter areas with mechanical grain drills. Seeding efforts are never a perfect solution for such disasters, but it is better than no action at all. Seeding in the high desert country depends on precipitation to be successful and water is a scarce commodity in the desert. If the rains come too fast before plants take root, heavy erosion occurs.

The impact to wildlife is the next major concern, since the native species that do survive the fires must relocate to places that were not damaged that are suitable for their survival. We cannot estimate how many birds and mammals simply do not survive this relocation. Most deer, pronghorn antelope, sage grouse, quail, partridge, coyotes, bobcats and other animals were obviously impacted by the fires. Until habitat for these creatures grows back, the range cannot support them. I estimate ten to twenty years before the range recovers even with revegetation efforts.

The extent of the destruction must be seen to be believed. When we observed the revegetation efforts in the older burned areas, I noticed the main seed used was the grass seed mix, probably crested wheat grass that has filled in quite well. The areas where the grasses had filled back in had numerous pronghorn antelope and coyotes, but no deer. Antelope feed quite well on the grasses and other small plants in the seed mixes. Deer, however, are herbivores that require vegetation that requires a longer period of time to mature in order to sustain a herd. These animals eat sagebrush, buck brush, bitter brush and others that require several years to mature to the point they will sustain many deer.

Sage grouse are the most affected by the fires. Sage hen habitat throughout the Great Basin has disappeared drastically from fire damage and human development in recent years. These creatures eat primarily sagebrush (artemisia) and little else. I have noticed that the sagebrush that has begun to grow in the reseeded areas does not look the same as the native sage brush. I have a fear that if it is not exactly the same as the native species, the birds will not eat it. The other problem I see with the sage brush coming up in the reseeded areas is that the individual plants are widely scattered. In original sage brush habitat, the plants are usually all sagebrush, not a mixture.

An up-close sighting of pronghorn antelope 

On a recent hunting/camping trip to Humboldt and Elko counties, my son, John, and I had a remarkable closeup experience with a group of the elusive pronghorn antelope abundant in the area. It is rare to approach very close to these beautiful animals, so this was a special treat to see them and their activities up close.

After camping for two days on the shore of Willow Creek reservoir in Elko County, we decided to return home, since the deer habitat in the area was in such poor condition due to recent fires which had devastated the area. We were traveling south between Midas and Golconda through a portion of the range that had been turned to scorched earth along the east side of the highway. On the west side there was the yellow grass from BLM revegetation operations.

During our trip through the mountains and desert country, we had seen many groups of from one to thirty or more pronghorn antelope running in the distance. It seems they always see us long before we see them, since their eyesight is so remarkable.

Suddenly, a small group of three antelope does dashed across the highway directly in front of us. They immediately stopped and looked back across the road where they had left two fawns behind. We stopped the truck with the camper to get a look at the animals. We noticed that the two fawns were still behind the barbed wire fence alongside the highway. Pronghorn antelope do not jump over fences like deer do, but rather, they prefer to crawl under the bottom wire of the fence.

Crawling under the wire of a fence was obviously not a skill the fawns had yet learned, since they just paced nervously back and forth waiting for the does to come back to rescue them. Amazingly, the does ignored us, parked just a few feet away and dashed back across the highway to rescue the fawns. After a few minutes of encouragement from the mature does, the fawns figured out they had to crawl under the wire and join the does.

The tiny heard then galloped back across the highway and took off through the tall grass.

The need to rescue the fawns overpowered any fear the does may have had of us parked in the highway just a few feet away. Their maternal instinct saved the tiny baby antelope from abandonment. We can be sure the fawns will know what to do the next time they need to cross a fence. The BLM requires that all fences in antelope habitat have a bottom wire high enough for the antelope to scurry under.

Dennis to give April 7 lecture at Gold Hill Hotel

Dennis Cassinelli book-signingDennis Cassinelli, award-winning Nevada historian and author, will present a lecture at the Gold Hill Hotel on Thursday, April 7.

Topics of discussion will include Dayton’s petrified forest that was mentioned by Mark Twain in Chapter 26 of Roughing It. Samples of this petrified wood, including black pieces that Twain believed were coal, will be shown.

Another topic will be the discovery of the oldest petroglyphs (14,000 years) ever found in the Americas discovered at Winnemucca Lake. Dennis has created many pieces of petroglyph yard art which will be on display and offered for sale.

For this event, all of the books written by Dennis Cassinelli will be signed and offered for less than half price. These include Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians, Uncovering Archaeology, Legends of Spirit Cave and Chronicles of the Comstock.

Exterior of Gold Hill Hotel

The Gold Hill Hotel

Details:

What: Petroglyphs & The Dayton Petrified Forest

Where: Gold Hill Hotel, 1540 Main Street, Gold Hill, NV

When: Thursday, April 7. Lecture takes place from 7 – 9 p.m. (Restaurant and bar open at 4 p.m.)

Cost: $25 dinner and lecture; $10 lecture only

For more information, please visit the Gold Hill Hotel’s events page. Be sure to call early for room reservations.

Celebrating Dayton Valley Days 2015

My awesome brother-in-law, Phil Hanna, has been helping me run my booth at the 2015 Dayton Valley Days event.

My awesome brother-in-law, Phil Hanna, has been helping me run my booth at the 2015 Dayton Valley Days event.

I reserved a booth in this year’s Dayton Valley Days event to sell my books and imitation petroglyphs. It’s been great getting to meet so many interesting people. The turnout this year has been amazing, and there are lots of food and craft vendors to visit. The downtown Dayton atmosphere offers an historic background as attendees explore the various booths.

I’m located across the street from the old high school on Pike Street.

The event continues tomorrow, so if you haven’t yet, come on by! Lots to see and do!

I’ll be at Dayton Valley Days Sept. 19-20

Rock Art 5Come see me at the 2015 Dayton Valley Days celebration in historical downtown Dayton, Nevada.

I’ll have a booth, and I’ll be selling copies of my books, as well as my own handmade petroglyphs. The petroglyphs make terrific rock art for your yard, and they’re ideal conversation-starters.

My family and I attend Dayton Valley Days nearly every year, and it’ll be exciting to participate in this year’s event. I hope you can come out to meet me and the other vendors, and I look forward to seeing you there!

Dayton’s petrified forest

My Great Grandfather, Pietro Cassinelli, an Italian emigrant, arrived in Dayton, Nevada in the late 1880s after working his way across America as a cowboy. Within a few years, he and his cousin, Bert, acquired a ranch along the Carson River. There, he and his wife Theresa raised a family of 12 children, one of whom was my Grandfather, Pete.

Roughing It

When I was a boy working on Pete’s ranch in Sparks years later, he told me about a petrified forest with many logs of petrified wood he had seen near the ranch in Dayton where he had grown up and went to school in the early 1900s.

My invaluable research assistant and brother-in-law, Phil Hanna, who recently moved to Dayton with my lovely sister, Rae, recently turned me on to something that Mark Twain wrote in Chapter 26 of his classic book, Roughing It. It seems that when describing some of the mineral resources of the Silver State, Twain remarked “Lately evidences of bituminous coal have been detected. My theory has ever been that coal is a ligneous formation” (Ligneous meaning resembling wood).

Twain was skeptical about the idea of coal existing in Nevada until he spoke to a Captain Burch on the subject and was told that in the region of Dayton, Burch had seen petrified trees the length of two hundred feet. This established the fact that huge forests once existed in this remote area. This firmed up in Twain’s mind that coal may also actually exist in Nevada.

Now, let’s jump forward to modern times. My family and I enjoy hiking, rock hunting and exploring the many hiking trails around the region. Occasionally, we find a few pieces of petrified wood but nothing like the two hundred foot trees described in Mark Twain’s Roughing It.

We did find some long trenches obviously dug over 100 years ago that were surrounded by a few small pieces of petrified wood. This is an indication that the petrified forest described to me by my grandfather and written about by Mark Twain did actually exist. All the huge logs obviously have been taken away and we have no idea who took them or where they ever ended up.

Amazingly, some of the pieces we have found are black and have the appearance of coal, except they have the wood grain typical of petrified wood. Our theory has always been that the black petrified wood was caused by the trees being in some ancient forest fires or perhaps knocked down during a volcanic eruption millions of years ago and being covered with hot volcanic ash. This would have turned the wood black like charcoal and buried it until it became petrified.

This year, Dayton Valley Days will be celebrated in downtown Dayton on September 19th and 20th. I have signed up to have a booth at the celebration where I will have samples of the beautiful petrified wood and even the amazing black coal – like wood described by Mark Twain. We will have these items offered for sale in addition to a selection of rock art collectible petroglyph replicas that make interesting yard art that will last for centuries.

Indian arrow straightener found 
at construction site

Arrow Shaft Straightening Stone Native American stone tools

Arrow Shaft Straightening Stone, on display at the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center.

Many, many years ago, I was looking at home lots being cleared in a new residential area along the Carson River southeast of Carson City. As I walked through the sagebrush across a rather steep slope, I noticed a smooth, fist-sized cobble on the ground that seemed to be out of place for the area when compared to the rough, broken natural stones that littered the hillside. Being somewhat of a rockhound and an amateur archaeologist, I picked up the stone and examined it more closely. I immediately recognized that the rock had been worked by the hands of man, and at first I thought it was a mano.

For those of you who may not know, a mano is a flat, smooth stone used by the American Indians with a larger flat or slightly concave stone for the purpose of grinding or hulling nuts, seeds or grain.

Upon closer examination, however, I determined that the stone was not the common mano, which really is quite abundant in the fields and places where prehistoric Indians were known to have lived. This stone differed from a mano in several distinct ways. These differences enabled me to identify the item as an arrow-shaft straightener rather than a common mano.

Carved or worn into the edge of the stone was a distinct groove that was highly polished. The groove was about 1/4” wide and 3” long. The stone was flat, and both sides were blackened from having been heated in a fire. During the process of making arrows, the wooden shaft must be perfectly straight in order for the arrow to fly straight and true for the desired accuracy. This was accomplished by using a heated stone to rub along the arrow shaft to work out the natural irregularities in the wood. The user held the hot stone with a piece of leather and rubbed it back and forth on the convex side until the arrow became straight. The hot stone also helped to smooth and polish the arrow shaft.

I since have seen other specimens of shaft straighteners from different areas around Carson City, Virginia City and Como almost identical to the specimen I found. The straightener obviously had been a tool that was widely used by the local Indians. This is just one example of the rescue of an unusual artifact from a construction site before it was buried by heavy equipment or hauled away during construction. I donated this specimen to the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center in Gardnerville, Nevada, where it remains on display with hundreds of other Indian artifacts in the Cassinelli-Perino Artifact Collection.

I have written a book about this and the other artifacts in the collection. The title is Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians. It is available at the Mark Twain Bookstore and the Gold Hill Hotel bookstore. There is a delightfully humorous story in the last chapter that tells how the local Indians made their arrows, including how the arrow straighteners were used. The book contains hundreds of illustrations and descriptions of arrowheads, tools and other artifacts found in western Nevada. Every spring, I do a lecture about prehistoric Nevada at the Gold Hill Hotel, where I display and discuss this and many other Great Basin Indian artifacts. I hope to see you there.

Rock art for your yard

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IMITATION ROCK ART FOR SALE: $40-$50, depending on size, complexity and quality of design. Local delivery within 30 miles of Carson City, Nevada, for additional $10. Small rocks also available.

For many years, I was a construction inspector for the Nevada Department of Transportation and for several consulting engineering companies providing inspection services on highway construction projects. This vocation took me to nearly every town in Nevada and to the surrounding states as well. Sometimes, out of boredom while waiting for the next load of pavement to arrive, I would gather a few of the chocolate-colored boulders covered with desert varnish that could be found alongside the highway.

With a sharp rock or even a hammer and chisel, I would carve petroglyph designs on the boulders by cutting away the thin layer of desert varnish. This resulted in a sharp image of lighter color just as one would see on a genuine Indian petroglyph. I would leave these works of art in the back of my pickup truck until one or more of the workers on the crew spotted them. The question usually asked was, “Where did you find those petroglyphs?”

The designs were convincing enough, I could have fooled some of the people they were genuine petroglyphs. I always fessed up that they were of my own creation and more often than not, the guys I showed them to offered to buy them from me. The attraction of owning one of these creations is to set it in a strategic location in your yard where visitors might think they were the genuine article.

I estimate I have made and sold hundreds of these imitation petroglyphs and given many others to friends and relatives. I never had a craft show, garage sale or yard sale where I did not sell out my entire inventory of rock art.

I have searched the various petroglyph sites to find interesting designs of petroglyphs from many sites around the American West. Some of the designs by the early native Indians were truly works of art. Some may seem crude by modern standards but they reflect the imagination and talents of hunters and craftsmen from hundreds and thousands of years ago.

In a previous article, I told about the various types of petroglyphs that can be found in the few remaining places where we can still go to see them. In addition to the unexplained images of spirals, parallel lines, zig-zags and curved lines, there are hundreds of other more recognizable images. Some of my favorite subjects are human images of warriors, shamans, and ghost-like semi-human creatures. Others seem to depict galaxies and even space craft-like conveyances. What inspired the creators of these type of images is anyone’s guess.

Animal figures drawn by the ancient hunters are always interesting topics. I have seen hundreds of images of deer, elk, bison, bears, lizards, bighorn sheep, mountain lions and other creatures drawn by the ancient hunters. It seems they liked to display the animals they hunted either as a wish for a successful hunt or as a way of displaying something they had actually taken.

I have considered going into the business of selling my petroglyph art work on a large scale to people who would appreciate an interesting depiction of art from our prehistoric past. A limiting factor to this venture is the logistics and cost of shipping a heavy boulder and still keeping the price within reason.

If prehistoric rock art is of interest to you, please contact me using the form below.