Marguerite Patterson Evans – 1933
In 1933, Marguerite Patterson Evans wrote to her sister-in-law, Edna Patterson, that Contact consisted of two general stores, a crude family hotel, two saloons, a post office, ementary school building, and a high school occupying an old pool hall. She noted there were four regular salaries in town: three teachers and a highway maintenance man. Most of the 100 townspeople relied on welfare to make ends meet. Marguerite was the newly appointed high school principal and teacher.
When she arrived, poor times were haunting the town and its residents. Stagnation and sluggishness had come to Contact hand in hand with the Great Depression.
Contact is some 15 miles south of the Idaho border and 50 miles north of Wells, Nevada, on US Highway 93. Today, a few crumbling buildings, makeshift houses, house trailers and a sparse number of people are all that is left of the little mining camp that tenaciously lived through more busts than booms.
Although gold and silver were discovered in the 1870s, nothing much happened in the way of unearthing riches except during the district’s two production peaks. The first was from 1916 to 1918 followed by another from 1942 to 1946. Both were during times when the United States was at war and large amounts of copper were required for the war efforts. For those who treasure statistics, Contact produced 742 ounces of gold, 58,713 ounces of silver, 3,343,845 pounds of copper, 324,233 pound of lead, and18,400 pounds of zinc for a total of $702,760. Of Elko County’s 34 mining districts, Contact ranked 12th in overall production. The place even supported a weekly newspaper, The Contact Miner, for a time.
Between start and stop mining operations, other entrepreneurial activities occupied the local breadwinners. In 1979, an article in the Los Angeles Times claims that the town was, during Prohibition, the chief supplier of bootleg whiskey for Idaho. At a town reunion that same year, Virgil Church, a former resident said, “There were six major moonshine operations in Contact from 1917 until the repeal of Prohibition in 1932. Those were just the big outfits. I was a moonshiner. Hell, everybody in town was a moonshiner making grain whiskey in their cellars. Dad rolled into town in 1912 in a brand new Ford Motel T with Mom and 11 kids. He raised us in Contact with money he made bootlegging.”
John Detweiler added, “My father was justice of the peace here for years. He was never a bootlegger or moonshiner. Said he couldn’t risk the chance, said they’d throw away the keys to the jailhouse if the judge was ever arrested. But hell, he was the Number One supplier of everything needed to make whiskey. Dad hauled in all the coal, barrels, wheat and sugar to supply the moonshiners.”
Detweiler said his father, the justice, had the slot machine concession in town. “He would always take me with him when he collected money from the slots at Hard Rock Tilly’s sporting house at the south end of town. As long as I was with him, Mother figured Dad wouldn’t get in any trouble there.” When Prohibition ended so did another Contact boom. Life was again tough on the people. Marguerite came to town after Prohibition ended and Contact residents were mostly destitute. Her female students wore threadbare, patched dresses. She wrote: “I hung my prize ribbons in my front room to impress my sewing class. I am at least going to teach these girls how to handle a pattern and make simple dresses. None of the families have enough money to buy patterns and material for sewing so I went down to Elko to see what I could do for aid. I went to the Red Cross and requested enough material for underwear and three dresses for each girl. The girls are so thrilled that I have a difficult time sending them home after school.”
Marguerite wrestled with another problem. Daisy, a local baker, couldn’t pass her Wasserman test for syphilis. It was common knowledge that Daisy was generous with her affections but Marguerite decided she would have to do something more serious than eat Daisy’s cooking to be contaminated. There was no doctor in town. In March1934, Evans and the other teachers dealt with epidemics of measles, scarlet fever, impetigo, streptococcus throat, and flu. Once, when she needed to take the temperature of a little boy, she had to borrow a thermometer. She hiked down to a local saloon for some 100-proof whiskey. The thermometer was dipped in the booze and Marguerite hoped that few germs would survive the ordeal.
In her last letter from Contact: “Entertainment is in the Community Social Hall. The hall is the pride of the town with walls covered with lurid murals of the Contact that might have been – according to the dream of the men who raised money to build this substantial concrete building.” Years passed. Dreams died. Yet, there are still people living in Contact. I guess it can’t be called a ghost town yet. Marguerite Evans left Contact after her first year there. In her long career she taught at Montello, Halleck, White Pine High School in Ely, and was the librarian at Elko High School. During World War II she was director of the Enlisted Men’s Club at the Army Air Force Base at Wendover, Utah, where the atomic bomb crews were trained. She retired in the 1950s. Born in 1901, she died in Elko in 1985.
This story was taken from Howard Hickson’s Histories. Howard is Director Emeritus of the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko and his stories are true about Northeastern Nevada’s colorful past, written with wry humor and keen insight into the sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, sometimes downright eerie lives of cowboys, miners, and gamblers, villains and saints and men and women of both extremes, who’ve inhabited or passed through the region. The collection is a cultural treasure that Great Basin College has generously made available to the world via the Internet, for more information about Howard Hickson or to view more of his stories please visit http://www.gbcnv.edu/hickson/index.html.