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Community, tranquility, and preservation define this central Nevada town on The Loneliest Road in America.
Photo: Rachid Dahnoun
It’s towns like Austin that make you truly appreciate Nevada history—especially when you start talking to its residents.
Estelle Shanks has lived predominantly in Austin since 1939, but she has roots that go farther back than that. Her father, Matt Bertrand, was born there in 1880, 18 years after the town was founded. Although Shanks wasn’t born in the central Nevada hamlet, something has drawn her back ever since she arrived there at the age of 15.
Shanks has lived in California, Idaho, Battle Mountain, and Reno, but she couldn’t resist the pull to Austin, for reasons even she can’t pinpoint. “I just love Austin,” she says. “There’s something about it that’s really special.” Family has played a part—she stayed with her mother there, after she graduated high school in 1941, while her husband was serving in the war—but so has community, which inevitably ties into history in a lot of rural Nevada towns.
She was ordained as a priest at St. George’s Episcopal Church, one of 11 Austin sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in 1988 and still practices at the church (built in the 1870s). Shanks understands the importance of a tight-knit community. “We have our spats and disagreements, but if something happens we come together and work it out,” she says. “It’s a carry over from days gone by that you don’t find too much in other communities.” Shanks, 85, was the Lander County recorder-auditor for eight years, and her mother, Charlotte Bertrand, served as county treasurer from 1944-’56.
For some, respect for community comes out in their tireless work to preserve Austin’s history. The very school that Shanks graduated from, designed by George A. Ferris, sits in a state of disrepair, but Nancy Gordon and others are working to revive it. The town is also in the process of turning St. Augustine’s Catholic Church (1866) into a cultural and arts center, under the direction of owner Jan Morrison. Gordon and others also have hopes to spruce up the old railroad house.
As president of the Austin Historical Society, Gordon labors over writing grants that will help preserve the town’s old buildings. The Historical Society recently received more than $40,000 to put into the stabilization of Stokes Castle, but the money won’t stretch far enough to open the site for tours. “That will come later,” Gordon says. “We’re going to see what we can do with what [grant providers] gave us.” Gordon helps maintain the museum on Main Street seven months a year during the warmer months.
Like many, Gordon came to Austin in search of a simpler life. A transplant from Las Vegas, she and her husband moved to their Austin ranch in 2000. Having lived in rural upstate New York, they yearned for the same sort of slow-paced lifestyle. “Everyone here has been very nice,” says Gordon, whose daughter and youngest son also live in Austin. “The neighboring ranchers are always available if I need help.”
Mella Harmon, a Sparks resident who has owned a second home in Austin for three years, has also played an integral role in preserving the town’s historic sites. During her time working for the Nevada Historic Preservation Office, she visited Austin, fell in love with it, and even processed the bids that would help fund the restoration of some of the beloved landmarks.
After just one day there, Harmon was sold. “I think partly because it’s such a historic town,” she says. “It gives you a sense of what it was like to live in a remote town [many years ago]. It’s picturesque, quiet, the air quality is great, and there’s so many outdoor possibilities. It’s a good base of operations for fishing, or you can just drive around and see the beautiful scenery.”
An Austin resident for 18 years, Patsy Waits echoes Harmon’s sentiments when she’s asked why she moved to Austin from Las Vegas in 1992. “We love the outdoors,” she says. “We like to fish and hunt. I’m a farm girl from Wisconsin. I didn’t want the hustle and bustle anymore. I needed to be in the outdoors.”
Waits has been active in the community for all of her 18 years in Austin. For 10 years, she owned the well-known T-Rix mountain-bike shop (before her son took the business to Elko a few years ago); now she owns the Pony Express RV Park and triples as a real estate agent, court clerk, and EMT. “Most everyone here works several part-time jobs,” she adds. “Anything that helps out with tourism is important. The neat thing about Austin is that we really enjoy sharing it.”
Waits has participated in the annual holiday nativity event, which has featured real camels in the past. But the main events, she says, are the parades—including Gridley Days, Fourth of July, and Nevada Day. “The little parades are so cool,” Waits says. “Because we’re in the middle of [U.S. Highway] 50, tourists get dragged into them sometimes. The looks on their faces are priceless. It’s like coming home, because even weddings, baby showers, and birthdays are entire-town events.”
Other noteworthy annual events are the Lincoln Highway Car Show and Lions Club Fly-In, a plane-themed festival held at the Austin Airport. Three of the 14 nationally designated Nevada wilderness areas are near Austin, the town is a popular mountain-biker and ATV destination, and Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, an homage to the state fossil, is a short drive to the south (open Memorial Day to Labor Day). Spencer Hot Springs is an even shorter drive. If you want to stay in the city limits, there are several turquoise shops—most of it mined by locals—and a number of diners and old-time saloons.
Austin is the middle stop in The Official Highway 50 Survival Guide, produced by the Nevada Commission on Tourism to promote The Loneliest Road in America (a nickname given to the stretch of road from Fernley to Ely). After you get the guide stamped by five participating towns, you receive a certificate. For more information, visit travelnevada.com or call 775-687-4322.
TOUR AROUND NEVADA
*Nevada Magazine is proud to partner with Virginia City etching company Botcha-Caloop’s in the production of the Tour Around Nevada plaque.
The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce
122 Main St., Austin, NV 89310
WORTH A CLICK
Lincoln Highway Car Show, April 17
Gridley Days, June 18-20
Old-Fashioned 4th of July, July 4
Lions Club Fly-In, August 21