Nye County Cultural
Founded in 1864, Nye County is the largest county by area in Nevada, the third-largest in the United States and larger than the four smallest States. Only 7% of this vast area is privately owned, but the sights from north to south range from long stretches such as the Big Smokey Valley, with its hot springs and snowy mountaintops, to the dry Amargosa Valley as a true desert. Some stretches of Nye land are comparable to the notoriously dry Death Valley, which borders in California, but often in Nye, among the sand and rock, rangeland makes its appearance. Between the open spaces of land along the roads and highways, each town in Nye County is a historical oasis. Hadley rests at the base of Mahogany Mountain and under cloudy skies, Manhattan sits higher in elevation and has deeper roots of geology and vegetation, and fifteen more towns with their own stories are plotted across the county.
Nye is unique in Nevada because of the way the county is split into a north and south. Nye’s two main towns are Tonopah (North) and Pahrump (South). The former is the county seat, and the latter has the highest population in the county, at more than 36,000 people. Up north, Tonopah averages a very warm 92° in the summer, with highs in the hundreds, and chilly 10° to 15° lows in the winter months. Located here are several tourist destinations, like the Tonopah Historic Mining Park with its drops, views, and mineshafts, or the famously haunted Mizpah Hotel. At the center of town, Tonopah’s Historic Downtown is a great place to take a stroll and take in the small-town nightlife, or maybe stop to grab a bite to eat. Tonopah was also rated among the top stargazing destinations in the U.S. by USA Today, since its distance from any nearby town prevents light from fogging the night sky. In Tonopah, as in a lot of the open Nye County, one can take in the sight of the night’s thousands and thousands of bright stars and the Milky Way.
Tonopah is also home to annual events that draw people from all over the state and other parts of the country. For fifty years, Jim Butler Days has celebrated cowboys and ranchers with the mining championships, street dance, parade, alcohol tastings, and stock car races. Twice a year, Ghost Walks are held to share the detailed history of Tonopah’s hauntings. But more than a tourist town, Tonopah offers resources to the community, such as employment opportunities and civic organizations like 4-H Youth Development and the Community Youth Advisory Council. One can tell by daily involvement, outreach online, and the collaboration with other counties that Tonopah’s community is active and strong.
At Nye County’s southern tip lies Pahrump. Here the winters are a little warmer but still chilly, with an average high of 26° in December, with lows just below 0°. The summers on the other hand are very hot, averaging 102° in July, and reaching as high as 117° at points. Located an hour away from Las Vegas, Pahrump is home to exciting daily adventures like Balloons Over Pahrump, Motorsports, Lake Spring Mountain, Wineries and Coffee, Adventure Tours, and fireworks retailers and shows. Like Tonopah, Pahrump is more than a tourist town. Online and in person, the town of Pahrump is involved with community and communication. Veterans Services, local Health and Human Services, and an engaged part of the Nye County School District show that the town of Pahrump takes pride in providing access to all of its citizens and visitors.
As part of the Nye County Town History Project, historian Robert D. McCracken has written a dozen books on Nye’s landscape, history, and culture. He covers Amargosa Valley, Beatty, Pahrump, Manse Ranch, Smoky Valley, Tonopah, and Manhattan in separate well-researched volumes that are all available free online. Along with these factual histories of these towns, McCracken has sat down with citizens of Nye and conducted oral history interviews which recount life in Nye as the citizens have known it. These extensive interviews are a great source for experienced histories of Nye, but, as McCracken in the preface to the Nye County Town History Project says, “In themselves, oral history interviews are not history. However, they often contain valuable prime source material, as useful in the process of historiography as the written sources to which historians have customarily turned.” These oral histories are filled with anecdotes and descriptions of how Nye is and was. Here is a half a page excerpt (from one of the dozen interviews), which paints a scene of Nye, and is also educational in agriculture and geography:
RM: What was her thinking? Was she going to grow barley here?
BF: She grew barley. But in one particular case, which I know is true, she grew a field of barley and it was beautiful. Well, it was just so beautiful that she never harvested it. She did the same thing with her hay. When you cut alfalfa hay, you have to let it cure before you bale it because if you bale it green, it will actually burn. Well, she loved the sight of beautiful green hay, so she had her men bale this hay green because it was beautiful. And her stacks went up in smoke [chuckles]. Her living quarters, strangely enough, were on past her mill in a little adobe building at Mound Springs. A group of kids from Las Vegas came out and had a party and burned the thing down a few years back, but the walls probably still stand. But that was her living quarters, a little adobe house a mile or two from her farm. It was part of her ranch and there was a spring there - the old Mound Spring - and that was where she lived (pages 9-10).
Just from scanning the interviews, one can learn a lot about historical landmarks that could only be mentioned by residents of Nye County. Younts’ Ranch, or present-day Hidden Hills is not mentioned as much as Manse Ranch. “How did the Pahrump ranch get so big?” McCracken asks his interviewee, who replies: “I just have no idea.” Other tidbits that jump out at the reader include Nye land advertised in the Wall Street Journal, and mid-twentieth century millionaires like Doby Doc coming through Nye with intentions of building a “western frontier town.”
Along with more than 1,000 photos of historical Nye, these online histories and compendiums show the county’s relationship with mining, general business and economy, government, and health care. Beatty, for example, is described from its earliest inhabitants 11,000 years ago. The history then continues up into settlement and exploration into the twentieth century, followed by the mining boom, and then the history branches out into several stories throughout the twentieth century, which summarize how major early families played key roles in forming the beginning of the county.
Each town has its own story. Beatty, bright and sunny, with its long history of mining, is also home to tourism as the gateway to Death Valley. Manhattan, known for its special vegetation and shrub growth, has also always had a history of geology, and now gold is being mined on a small scale. Hadley too has a history of mining and outdoor recreation. Nye County’s larger cities remain as hubs that support the more spread out communities. Yet all of them remain connected to the state as a whole through an online presence. Meanwhile, the Nye County History Project has done a marvelous job at tracking stories through interviews, observations, photographs, books, and journals, all available online. A look at the county through data can only strengthen the region’s existing community efforts.