NevadaGram #85 – September 2008 Meet Squaw Tom and Halloween around Nevada

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Here’s a man I’d like you to meet: Tom Sanders. Squaw Tom he was called, because he married Indian women, and he wore the name with pride.

Squaw Tom Sanders.

Tom was born in Lake County, California, on May 4, 1900 to parents who were “deef and dumb”, and lived high in the hills, far from other people, in a home without language. He hated his father the way Huck Finn hated his pap and for the same reasons. When he ran away before he was a teen-ager, an elderly Indian couple took him in. “I was always afraid of other people, but I knew I could get along with the Indians even though I was a little, little boy.”

His affinity with the Indian people lasted all his life, and from them he learned the story-teller’s art.

He was on his own at nine, a cowboy at 14 and a working stiff all his life: he was a miner, a logger, a welder; he bucked hay, laid track and built roads. And he told the stories that this life gave him to tell, stories as earnest and unassuming as home cooking, and as satisfying. They are folk art depicting aspects of the Nevada adventure almost never written about, in a voice almost never heard.

Tom died in 1980, in his little trailer in Johnnie Nevada, and I miss him still. I loved Tom, and I love his stories. I find that every time I try to choose a ‘favorite’ from among them, I pick a different one. Here’s one I’ve picked often over the years since I first heard it 35 years ago:

This story I want to tell you about happened in 1917. I worked at Mono Lake there. It was team days back then, and we was buildin’ highways. We had rippers pulled with horses to loosen up the dirt. We had about eight, ten teams on this ripper, made out of heavy iron like a plow. And then we worked with Fresnos getting the dirt out of there, and then we had horse blades. Everything was pick and shovel.

They built a camp with a corral where a little stream of water come into Mono Lake there. Mono Lake had 23 minerals in there, heavy minerals. We lived in Army tents, with a out-house. And they built a cook house out of tents; no floor, just a frame and planks sittin’ on sawhorses for tables.

Wal, one day when I went to work Monday morning, there was a horse died on the job. And the boss decided that he wasn’t going to bury the horse. He’d just get a team and drag him out in the lake and let the water take him way down to the other end.

So he tole me, “Tom, you hook up the team and drag this dead horse out of the corral. Drag him into deep water and the wind’ll take him out.”

I said, “Why don’t you bury him and git done with it.”

“Naw,” he says, “we ain’t got time.”


So I drug the horse out, way out in the lake as far as I could drag him. Had a pair of stretchers and doubletrees, and I just drug him out and turned him loose. Well that horse drifted across that lake and we didn’t see him no more.

photo by Jim Crandall
When the Lyon County engineer ordered a historic church demolished in Dayton, Tom was so incensed that he challenged any Lyon County official to a fight to the death.
photo by Gary Elam
“My birthday is May the fourth; I’ll be 75 years old. And I’ll challenge them all to fight me, one by one, down there where the old church was. We’ll get an Inian Police to handcuff us together by our left wrists I don’t want to have to chase you fellers all over the desert to catch up with you. And I’ll beat them buggers right down to the graveyard with one hand.“We’ll charge a dollar admission to see Squaw Tom beat some respect into those monkeys, and we’ll use the money to build the church up again. And what’s left over we’ll give to the Orphan’s Home in Carson City.”Tom was there at the appointed time. Constable Rocky Adamson was there to provide the handcuffs, keep order and see to fair play, but the Lyon County bureaucrats hid under their desks and wouldn’t come out.

Ten days later, we got a wind coming in from the other end. And by golly next morning, there was that dead horse back to camp again. The wind drifted him right back to camp.

Man, did that horse stink! He was bloated, and he was full of maggots.

And the boss, he had another bright idea.

He borrowed a rowboat. And he got the powderman. And he got some dynamite. And then they went and got a chain and wrapped it around this horse’s feet. And this powderman rowed the boat way out there in the lake, rowing that horse out there.

And they got a powder stick, and some powder, about eight sticks of powder. And they loaded that horse up. They put eight sticks of powder up his ass. And they got a fuse, not too long of a fuse but long enough. And they lit the fuse. And they unhooked the chain from the horse’s leg and just let the free end hang loose. The other end was tied onto the boat, see. And the boss, when they unchained the horse’s leg, he hollers, “Come on, let’s git out of here!”

Well, that powder man he started rowing for shore. And this superintendent he was an Englishman, his name was Gibbs, was hollerin’ to the powderman, “Row! Row!! Row, damn you, row!”

Well, the wind was coming back, and it began drifting the horse back to the rowboat. And the fuse was aspittin’, and agoin’. And man that powderman was rowin’ like hell. But he didn’t seem to make any time.

And this Gibbs he was shoutin’ at the powderman: “Damn you, row! Row! Row!!” And the powderman was arowin’ like hell. Boy, he was really rowin’. But the boat wasn’t going anywhere, see, because when they dropped that chain it caught on some old snags down under the lake there.

And the wind blew that horse right up to the boat where Gibbs was ashoutin’ and the powderman was arowin’.

Cover Design by White Sage Studio, Virginia City
34 of Squaw Tom’s stories have been collected in book form. “Squaw Tom Speaks: Stories From Old Nevada” is available at bookstores around the state and at our online book store, and is guaranteed to make you laugh out loud.

And Christ, that damn horse blowed up. And just as it went, them two guys jumped overboard.

And when they popped their head up out of the water, the sky was full of horse guts. It fell all over them.

Well, they was a bunch a these teamsters up on the bank, and they laughed and laughed and laughed. Why, it was a circus. Even the cook was outside watchin’ and laughin’ while them two guys swam to shore. And that Gibbs, he got so made seein’ the men laughin’ at him that he fired us all. Oh man, he got insulted. Well, he was an Englishman, see. And nobody could laugh at him, see.

And that powderman, he said, “I quit.” He still had debris from that dead horse all over the top of him, and man did he stink. He jumped back into the lake again to get some of that crap off him.

Well, we was fired. And we rolled up our beds and we camped on the hillside above the old camp. We’d been laughing so hard we didn’t have much strength left in us, so we bought food and camped there for two or three days. Washed our clothes and rested up. And at night we’d build a big fire and all we could talk about was the horse debris falling down on that boss.

Tom is buried in the reservation cemetery at Stillwater, finally at rest.

He hired a new crew from Reno. And from then on that story circulated from one camp to another, construction camps and hobo camps, about the boss that blowed up dead horse all over himself.

And that powderman, them hoboes give him the nickname: Row-Row. He had the name of Row-Row. I met up with him several times, and I’d tell him about that dead horse. He’d get so mad he wanted to fight. Called him Row-Row: “Row, damn you, row!”

Even after all this time I have to laugh thinkin’ about that debris fallin’ out of the sky on them guys. Hittin’ that smart superintendent over the head.

That was back in 1917, down at Mono Lake where we was buildin’ a road.

Quick notes from beyond the mountains: Sand Harbor’s boat ramp is closed because of

low water at Lake Tahoe. The parking lot is open for carry-in boat access only. All other boaters should use the Cave Rock boat ramp facility . . . There’s an outdoor Farmers Market at the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas every Thursday in October from 4 – 8 pm: sustainably grown regional produce, local artisans and artists with handmade arts and crafts and live music. The Springs Preserve is at 333 S. Valley View Blvd between US 95 and Alta Drive . . . And you can bid on Las Vegas shows, dining, shopping trips, psychic readings, wedding ceremonies and more at a new eBay store . . .

There’s a glow around Joe Robinson’s house in Hawthorne these days — his son Rocky set a new world’s record motorcycle speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats last month, and Joe can’t get the grin off his face.

How often do you get a chance to play Faro? Seldom, I’m guessing, as no-one deals faro in Nevada any more. But if you’re willing to go online to buck the tiger you can play faro (for fun) here . . . McAvoy Layne is now posting audio commentaries to his website. Check it out and hear The Master’s views on today’s issues . . . Las Vegas hosted nearly 24,000 meetings, conventions and trade shows in 2007, attracting more than 6.2 million delegates . . . Somebody with a lot of time on his hands has created a terrific website devoted to “time machines” — not the H.G. Wells variety he is quick to point out, but places that evoke an earlier era. Here are his pages devoted to Las Vegas and southern Nevada and Reno and northern Nevada . . . the Nevada Commission on Tourism has created a new website to provide skiers with information on road conditions, ski conditions, hotel packages and ski resort information on their mobile phones. The technologically disadvantaged can get the info on a regular website . . .

Elko‘s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is bringing two of its favorite performers to Reno on Tuesday October 28 for a performance at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts. The show will feature the mind-bending poetry of Polish hobo rodeo poet Paul Zarzyski and the vocal modulations and swingin’ cowboy tunes of yodeler Wylie Gustafson and his good-time cowboy band Wylie & The Wild West . . .

The Carson City Ghost Walk, 2006 edition.


A Whole Lot of Halloween: In Reno there are two nights of Halloween doings, October 30 and 31, 5-8 pm, along the river downtown, $3 per kid . . . In Las Vegas, the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park is hosting its annual family friendly “Nevadaween” celebration on Saturday, October 25, 9 am – 2 pm: pumpkin decorating, door prize raffles, Nevada’s birthday cake, Daughters of the Utah Pioneers soup cook-off, homemade root beer, archaeology muck digs, pioneer activities and games. Costumes are welcome. It’s at the southeast corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Washington Avenue. For more information: 702-486-3511 . . . Virginia City goes in for Halloween in a big way: The 4th annual Goblin Parade, begins at 5 pm Friday October 31 on South C St., with awards for Best Costume, Scariest Costume, and Most Original Costume, in adult and child categories (entrance to the parade is free). There will be Safe Trick Or Treating on C Street beginning at dusk, with many stores, saloons and restaurants handing out candy for little goblins. From 6 to 8 pm the Fourth Ward School offers its traditional “Haunted Hallways” tour ($5 for adults; $3 for kids ages 6-16). The Silver Terrace Cemeteries on the north end of town will be open for the brave-hearted to wander through from 6 to 10 pm ($4 for adults; $2 for kids). Bring a flashlight. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad will have its annual “Haunted Train,” at 6, 7 and 8 pm ($10 adults; $4 kids). Who knows what may pop out at you in the tunnel! At the new Comstock Gold Mill across from the train depot is the “Haunted Mill on the Hill” with frightful tours for 10 hardy people at a time ($4 adults; $2 for kids; $10 families of four) from 6 to 10 pm. More? Absolutely: The Ramada Inn and Piper’s Opera House are combining for an adults-only party that includes the 7 pm Haunted Train Ride, and an 8 pm dance and costume contest at Piper’s Opera House. Call the Ramada for room and event package price . . .

Out of the wild: calming captured horses.

In Tonopah a scary Haunted House is being created at the Mining Park, located directly uphill behind the Mizpah Hotel off Main Street. It’s free and open to children of all ages starting at dusk. The evening includes a haunted house complete with Frankenstein’s workshop held in the Mizpah Mine and a spooky walk through the “Burro Tunnel,” which is definitely not for the faint of heart: at the end of the tunnel, visitors can step into a steel viewing cage and look down the 500′ deep mining stope. Candy, snacks and drinks will be provided . . . And in Dayton you can attend Frightnight at the Dayton Valley Country Club October 30 and 31, 7:30 pm with the Friday performance a dinner show to benefit the Wild Horse Preservation League ($30). Information: 775-315-2165 . . .


In Beatty the annual Beatty Days celebration begins on Nevada Day and includes Halloween events but also features wild west activities, car and motorcycle shows and a chili cook-off, as well as chicken poo bingo and the ever popular Pickle Liquor Hoot-n-Holler. You don’t want to miss this one. Did I mention the Rootbeer Drinking & Belching Contest? Or the Bed Races. You have to admit it, these people know how to have fun . . .

Overheard at the Oasis Bar at Ryepatch Dam: “There’s so much pollution in the air now that if it weren’t for our lungs there’d be no place to put it all.”

Happy Highways,

David W. Toll



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