Virginia City Bonanza

Traditions of the klondike trump the draw of Superbowl Sunday

Men stand at attention to honor Comanche, sole survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn | Photo: Candy Fresacher

A guest wears self-made dress, and her derringer is the real thing | Photo: Candy Fresacher

This sleepy little town of about 1,000 inhabitants lies nestled in the “hills” between Carson City and Reno in Nevada, USA. It is set literally on the Comstock Lode, the silver and gold mines that brought in a total of some $400 million in the mid 19th century and helped the North win the Civil War. Between 1850 and 1890, the 30,000 inhabitants of Virginia City lived in one of the richest towns in the world. It is also the town where newspaperman Samuel Clemens found his voice and first used the pen name Mark Twain for the humorous essays that would make him famous.

Here, too, is the America of the 1960s television show Bonanza (Spanish for gold mine) set at the Ponderosa ranch only a two-hour horseback ride away, near Lake Tahoe.

And on Super Bowl Sunday, its wooden boardwalks and 19th century clapboard houses still fitting that era are practically deserted. Even the tourists, who come in droves in the summer and number two million a year, are missing. Most on hand are local or from the nearby cities, and they aren’t on the streets. They are all jammed into the Bucket of Blood Saloon listening to a country band called “David John and the Comstock Cowboys,” who scheduled a performance during the annual football extravaganza has the rest of America enthralled.

The audience is an amazing mix, as fascinating as the old-time music being played. Most look as if they just walked off the set of High Noon – attire in which they obviously feel comfortable. And while it starts with jeans, it also includes holsters and guns, bowie knives, rifles, and shotguns a plenty.

Men stand at attention to honor Comanche, sole survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn | Photo: Candy Fresacher

Cowboy hats and boots adorn head and foot of both men and women, and for some reason that was never adequately explained, half way through the program, some of the women tucked raccoon tails into the back of their jeans. And some have gone all out – donning authentic 19th century period dresses, complete with bustles, frock coats, and fringe. And they haven’t done it for the tourists – because there aren’t any. They’ve done it for themselves.

One woman had a small derringer hidden in the top of her boot.

“I do have a permit to carry a concealed weapon,” she announced, not without pride.

Another woman offered one of her bullets.

“These are blanks, you know,” she confided. “I wouldn’t give you a live bullet. And my gun isn’t the real thing either.”

But there are plenty that are the real thing. The guy in the long riding coat, bandana, plaid shirt, and chaps was described as the one who always robs the train, and the gunslinger with two bandoliers of bullets across his chest was the one who always captures the robber. And then there are the twins, one dressed in civil war grey and the other with a fur-covered vest over his blue bib cowboy shirt and his brown jeans tucked into his black boots.

There is a famous local photographer and the former owner of the Ponderosa as well as the local sheriff. The waitress is married to the band’s lead singer. All seem to be one happy family, since many of these people are regulars at the band’s concerts and don’t take too kindly to strangers.

A guest wears self-made dress, and her derringer is the real thing | Photo: Candy Fresacher

Spurs jingle and the fringe on leather jackets sway as many couples twist and turn while doing the western swing down the small aisle between the bar and the audience. The music is catchy and those who aren’t dancing are clapping to the music. Although there are plenty of slot machines in the bar, no one is playing them. Attention is on the band – the lead singer, his brother, a back-up singer, a violin player who looked a little like George W. Bush, a bass player, and a drummer sporting a sombrero-wearing drummer, who would suddenly pull out two drumsticks and throw in a few licks as needed.

On the farthest side of the bar, there is a large plasma screen and the Super Bowl is on. But no one is watching. All eyes are on David John singing the song about the heroic horse Comanche, the only survivor of Custer’s last stand at the battle of Little Big Horn — who can still be seen to this day stuffed brushed to a shine in the University of Kansas Natural History Museum. Sentiment is strong and all the men stand at attention with their hands on their hearts – and their backs to the football game.

The afternoon passes quickly as the group sings song after song and the audience uses the breaks to go for a stroll down the C Street of legend, the present-day heart of the town. Time travel can happen anywhere and at any time – in the traditions of African tribesman, Austrian yodelers, or Chinese acrobats.

In this little town, for this short time, the financial crisis, credit card debt, hard times, and even the most ‘important’ football game of the year are forgotten, and the spirit of community is alive and well.

Next time, I’ll remember to wear my cowboy boots.

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