Was life better 100 years ago? They did have Emma …
This week in my U.S. history class at the Grass Valley campus of Sierra College, our instructor posed this question in reference to a book we had just read, “Diary of a Pioneer Boy”: “Was life better in 1905 or today?”
Many agreed that people of the past seemed more content with their lives, and today we always seem to be searching for something.
Historians, social historians, writers and genealogists frequently search old newspaper archives to learn about events and people of the past. There is no other single compiled source that can provide us with such a complete picture of local past events, people, and commerce and community news, both mundane and sensational in nature.
One hundred years ago, 1902 in Nevada County brought news of, and visits by, many individuals who are still familiar to us today. It also shows that basically the people who lived here led lives not so very different from ours. In April, notices began appearing in the daily papers that taxes were due and payable, there being both a state poll tax and city tax at that time.
It was also time for local people to start gardening, and the papers abounded with ads for seeds, trees and plants. I wonder if they, too, waited until after the first day of May to miss the unavoidable April snowstorms Nevada County is famous for.
Trout season opened and the twin towns may have seemed deserted as The Union reported that everybody who could get together a pole, line, hook and a piece of bait was out looking for the elusive trout. Local streams, lakes and reservoirs were descended upon, with Wolf Creek swamped as fishermen appeared as early as 4 a.m.
Others appeared to have stayed out all night in order to be first when the clock struck midnight and the official season began. There must have been much success, as evidenced by the smoke and aroma of trout hanging over Nevada County.
Baseball was becoming so popular that it was referred to as “baseball fever.”
“Nevada City at the present time has reached the high temperature point and is in the throes of baseball fever,” The Union reported. “The merchants, clerks, hotel men, bakers, small boys, city and county officials, saloonkeepers, Sunday school scholars and even ministers of the gospel in this herefore staid community are talking baseball. But the latest converts to the great national game are the inmates of the county hospital.”
California led the country in fruit production in the early 1900s. The 1900 census reported that “California is called the Golden State, but in the last census the yearly value of its fruit was nearly twice that of its yield. Miners dug $15,197,800 from the hills, and fruit growers coaxed $28,280,105 from their trees and vines. Incidentally, California wheat was worth more than her gold, and so was her hay …”
In 1902, produce, nuts and fruit were shipped out in box cars on the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad. Peardale, the community between Cedar Ridge and Chicago Park, was named for the large pear production this area was known for. Later, blight would bring an end to this major crop, while peaches and apples hung on.
Probably no other event stood out in the minds of Nevada Countians in 1902 as much as the appearance of Emma Nevada, said to be the greatest living lyric prima donna of her day. Nevada was beloved in this county, and her return visit and performance at the old Nevada Theatre was talked about years later.
“Never was a queen given a prouder ovation than Emma Nevada, the peerless, last night. Words are mere idle things when the attempt is made to describe the scene, the singer and the songs,” wrote The Union the morning after her performance.
Nevada, being one native of Nevada County to gain world fame, was born in the little town of Alpha (two miles south-southeast of Washington), the daughter of pioneer parents Maria and Dr. W.W. Wixom.
Dr. Wixom crossed the country by wagon train in 1851 and kept a detailed journal. Nevada made her singing debut at the Baptist Church in Nevada City. She was so small she was placed on a chair with the American flag draped about her as she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Nevada was especially beloved by the early miners, who were starved for both entertainment and the female presence; they surely missed her when she and her family moved to Austin, Nev., in the mid-1860s. Nevada’s mother died and in 1877, Nevada went to Vienna to study under Madame Marchesi, a world-renowned vocal instructor.
As Nevada’s talent became apparent, Madam Marchesi asked Dr. Wixom that Nevada be allowed to stay for three more years. At age 21, Nevada made her operatic debut in London at Her Majesty’s Opera.
Nevada chose the stage name “Emma Nevada,” paying tribute to both the county where she was born and the state she later made her home. The people of Nevada County followed her career in the newspaper throughout her life.
Maria Brower is a member of both the Nevada County Genealogical Society and Nevada County Historical Society, and works at the Doris Foley Historical Research Library in Nevada City. Visit both the Foley and Searls libraries on May 4 as part of Museum Day in Nevada County. There will be special historical displays at the Foley library, including a collection of antique porcelain reproduction dolls portraying several early Nevada County pioneers, including Emma Nevada, Niles Searls and Mary Hallock Foote.
The Nevada County Historical Society’s general meetings are held at 7:30 p.m. the last Thursday of the month in the community room of the Madelyn Helling County Library, 980 Helling Way, Nevada City. Thursday’s meeting will feature local writer and author Brad Prowse, who writes the monthly “100 Years Ago “columns in The Union. He is also author of “Jerky Making for Home, Trail and Campfire.” All society members and the general public are invited to attend. Please call Priscilla Van der Pas at 273-5154 for further information.
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