March – April 2018
’30’ is ticked off for Sam Davis
Sagebrush School journalist penned Silver State history.
BY CHIC DIFRANCIA
On March 18, 1918, the “Car-son City Daily Appeal” carried a front-page obituary for its former publisher and editor, Samuel Post Davis. The headline read: “‘30’ Is Ticked Off For Sam Davis.” Now archaic, “30” at the time was the symbol used by newsmen to indicate the end of a story. It might have been the end of Davis’ life, but it began a legacy that has endured.
At the time of his death, Davis was one of the last members of a fraternity of writers known as the Sagebrush School. Sagebrushers were a distinct breed of newspapermen, who in addition to regular reporting penned some of the best short stories and poetry in the history of American literature.
A LIFE IN TYPE
Born in Branford, Connecticut, in 1850, Davis began his trek westward at an early age and became a typeslinger for several newspapers before he became a writer. He was writing for a San Francisco newspaper in 1875, and when that paper folded he headed to Virginia City to write for the “Virginia Evening Chronicle.” The “Chronicle” at the time was owned by Denis McCarthy, who a decade earlier had been journalist Joseph Goodman’s partner at the “Territorial Enterprise.”
Davis and McCarthy were stalwarts at the “Chronicle” as they exposed corruption and ill-gotten gains by some of the biggest mining interests on The Com-stock. In all likelihood Davis would have remained at the “Chronicle” had it not been for the death of Carson City’s “Morning Appeal” publisher Henry Rust Mighels on May 27, 1879.
Not only did Mighels leave behind a newspaper, but also his wife, Nellie, and four children. Nellie was no stranger to a newspaper composing room and could stick type with the best of the compositors at the “Appeal.” Publishing a daily newspaper is not an easy task while raising four kids, and Nellie desperately needed an editor to manage the paper. Six months after her husband’s death she hired Sam Davis for the job.
Sam and Nellie made a great team and eventually their platonic relationship turned more serious. Sam made it official on July 4, 1880, when he married his boss and became part owner of the paper. Their marriage produced two daughters, Lucy and Ethel. Sam remained at the helm of the paper for the next two decades, where he became a relentless watchdog for Ormsby County. The clashes he had with his adversaries both in print and with his fists are legendary. Sam called ‘em as he saw ‘em. One of the guys Sam called out was U.S. District Attorney Charlie Jones, whom he criticized for his handling of a bribery case.
The men met by chance on the morning of Nov. 18, 1896, on the steps of the Carson City post office [now the office of Nevada Magazine] where fists flew and Carsonites were treated to more action than they had ever seen in the columns of the newspaper. Davis remembered well his baptismal reporting days on The Comstock—it was called writin’ and fightin’. You wrote what you dammed well-pleased, but you’d better be prepared to back it up when the offended party came-a-callin’.
SERVING THE PEOPLE
Two years after his scrape with Jones, Davis gave up his position as editor to run for state controller on the Silver Party Ticket. He won the seat in the election of 1898, and was re-elected to the office again in 1902. Throughout his career Davis penned some of the best short stories, poetry, and “quaints” written at the time. Quaints were short fictitious stories written to make readers believe what they were reading was true. Dan DeQuille of “The Territorial Enterprise” is credited as being the father of the quaint, but Davis’ pieces about the imaginary “Wabuska Mangler” newspaper and its editor equaled the best work that ever came from DeQuille’s pen.
Davis’ poem, “The Lure of the Sage-brush” and his short story, “The First Piano In Camp, Or A Christmas Carol” are so ingrained in our culture that they are still being read today by Nevada school children.
END OF AN ERA
Davis was in San Francisco in 1917 when he suffered a stroke. His condition was such that doctors had to amputate one of his legs to save his life. He knew his time was short and wanted to spend his remaining days at the Larkwood Ranch, that he and Nellie owned, just a couple of miles north of Carson City. Samuel Post Davis died there on March 17, 1918, a month shy of his 68th birthday.
Nellie Verrill Mighels Davis remained a prominent figure in Carson City after Sam’s death. Earlier in her life she had been instrumental in organizing the American Red Cross in Nevada during the Spanish American War, and was a founding member of the Leisure Hour Club in Carson City. She outlived Sam by 27 years, dying in 1945 at age 100. The couple is interred in the Davis family plot at Lone Mountain Cemetery in Carson City. Their tombstone, a 9-foot obelisk, is located near the southwest intersection at Roop Street and Beverly Drive.
Dynamic Davis Duo
Samuel Davis was largely responsible for the creation of the John Mackay statue located at University of Nevada, Reno. At the time of Mackay’s death in 1902, Da-vis contacted Mackay’s son, Clarence, in New York and was promised the financial backing for the enterprise. The iconic piece was sculpted by Gutzon Borglum at a cost of $30,000 and was dedicated on June 10, 1908. Bor-glum would later take on the greatest challenge in his career, when he and a team of carvers created Mt. Rushmore.
Nellie Davis reported on the Corbett-Fitzsimmons heavyweight championship fight in City on March 17, 1897. At the time it was not appropriate for women to attend such events, so Nellie used her maiden name for her byline and sold the story to a Chicago newspaper for $50.
The Lure of the Sage-brush
By Sam Davis
Have you ever scented the sage-brush
That mantles Nevada’s plain?
If not you have lived but half your life,
And that half lived in vain.
No matter the place or clime
That your wandering footsteps stray,
You will sigh if you know of her velvet fields
And their fragrance of leveled hay.
You will loiter a while in other lands,
When something seems to call,
And the lure of the sage-brush brings you back,
And holds you within its thrall.
You may tread the halls of pleasure
Where the lamps of folly shine,
‘Mid the sobbing of sensuous music
And the flow of forbidden wine.
But when the revel is over,
And the dancers turn to go,
You will long for a draft of the crystal streams
That spring from her peaks of snow.
You will ask for a sight of beetling crags,
Where the storm king holds his sway,
Where the sinking sun with its brush of gold
Tells the tale of the dying day.
And when you die you will want a grave,
Where the Washoe zephyr blows.
With the green of the sage-brush above your head,
What need to plant the rose?