Retha Downey immersed herself in local history
You would have expected to find Miss Retha Downey among the 50 people at the Colfax station, departing from Nevada County on May 9, 1969, for Truckee, to join in the ceremonies of the Golden Spike Centennial Celebration.
They were joining hundreds of others on a train ride that departed San Francisco that morning, picking up passengers en route at the many depots along the way. The celebration was in honor of the driving of the “last spike” at Promontory Summit, Utah, 100 years before on May 10, 1869, the famous spike that joined the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific tracks to form the transcontinental railroad.
The Nevada County contingent that included Downey was arranged by the Nevada County Historical Society for those interested in history and railroad buffs, and Downey was immersed in local history.
She was one of the most well-known and recognized daughters of the county. Her involvement in community service, historic preservation, fraternal organizations and civil defense found her driving from one end of the county to the other in her classic 1931 Ford Model A coupe.
Retha Austin Downey, both June 15, 1895, was the second of seven children born to George Washington and Emma S. (Austin) Downey. Being a third-generation Nevada County native may have sparked Downey’s interest in local history.
Her mother was born on the old Warner Ranch, where Emma’s parents settled in 1849. Emma Austin was said to have been “one of Grass Valley’s most beautiful and accomplished young ladies,” while George’s family was well-established in Nevada City.
Granddaughter Retha graduated from Nevada City High School in 1912, and after receiving her diploma went to work for the Excelsior Water and Mining Co, which was housed in a building next to Ott’s Assay office, now the site of the Nevada City Post Office. At that time, the company owned and operated 40,000 acres of land, including the old Rough and Ready and Excelsior ditches.
She began as an apprentice stenographer bookkeeper at $15 per month. She stayed with the company many years, until she moved to Washington, D.C., where she took a job with the War Production Board. It was at this time that she began to wear the hats that became her trademark. She was told by a medic there, “Wear a hat – this weather in Washington, D.C., isn’t good for you people in California.”
She joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1944 and served in Pennsylvania and then at Camp Beale (now Beale Air Force Base). After the war, she went to work for the Nevada-Yuba County Land Owners Association and then Nevada City attorney Frank Finnegan, who became a Sacramento County Superior Court judge. She also served as secretary to the Nevada County Board of Trade from 1959 until it disbanded in 1966 to make way for the chamber of commerce.
Downey’s interests and accomplishments at the local level were many. She served as Red Cross chairman to military families in the county. She rolled bandages in Washington, D.C., and was the agent in Nevada County for the Civil Disaster Committee. She sat on the ration board during world War II and assisted war-weary citizens as she issued food stamps, emergency gasoline rations or extra necessities such as shoes.
She was one of the charter members of the Liberal Arts Commission, where she sparked the group’s effort to restore the old Nevada Theatre on Broad Street, and was a charter member of the Nevada County Historical Society.
The local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Capt. John Oldham Chapter, was organized and formed in the Downey home on Broad Street in 1957. Downey was named first regent and later held various offices. She had joined the DAR in 1941 (probably while serving in Washington), where she traced her Revolutionary patriot ancestor Job Packard, born in 1762 in Bridgewater, Mass.
In 1968, the Nevada County Historical Society honored Retha Downey’s many accomplishments and years of service as the Citizen of the Year.
Maria E. Brower is a local researcher and member of both the Nevada County Genealogical Society and the Nevada County Historical Society. She works at the Doris Foley History Branch Library.
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