Monday, March 23, 2009

Staff Book Review: The Best of Cobbwebs by Ty Cobb

By: Ty Cobb
Edited by: C.J. Hadley
Call Number: NEV 818
Reviewed by Val Brady

Many of us are ‘move-ins’ to Nevada. We’ve come from all over the country attracted by the climate, scenery, economic opportunities, or whatever. We know Northern Nevada as it is now and we wonder what it was like ‘then.’ We envision cowboys, stagecoaches, ranches, mines and miles of sagebrush and tumbleweed. We get a glimpse of old Nevada when we visit Virginia City and can’t help but wonder what it would have been like growing up there.

Ty Cobb did grow up in Virginia City. He was born there in 1915 and attended the Fourth Ward School. As a young man, he graduated from UNR and went to work for the Nevada State Journal as a reporter in 1938. He retired as associate editor in 1975. In 1965, he began a folksy column entitled Cobbwebs. By the time he retired, he had written over 3,000 Cobbweb columns.

The 103 best of these columns have been reprinted in The Best of Cobbwebs, a book housed in the Nevada Collection of the Fernley Branch Library.

Each Cobbweb is a mini slice of Nevada life in decades past. The articles cover a myriad of subjects from amateur boxing to careening down Union Street in an old horse buggy. I learned a lot about growing up in northern Nevada, what youngsters did for fun, what grown-ups did for work, and what families did to brave the depression years. Ty Cobb vividly describes the main street of Virginia City in the 20s and 30s and Reno’s main drags in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Not so long ago, perhaps, but reminiscent of a gentler, happier time.

In his columns I met many characters from Ty Cobb’s past: his dad, Will, who did the stage run, his mom who worked in the bakery, the Virginia City blind phone switchboard operator, Suzie Davis, the mail pilots who flew into the dusty little strips, the boxers of his day, and Professor Silas E. Feemster, the eccentric professor of UNR who gave Cobb a B after his test papers blew out the window.

I learned about the ups and downs of owing a Shetland pony, the tribulations of owning that first car with a cracked block, the dangers of working in the tailing pond of a big mine, and the joys of singing Christmas carols from the top of an old horse drawn hay wagon as it traveled the streets of Virginia City.

Ty Cobb also wrote of famous people who crossed his path. Did you know Frank Sinatra had a blue vocabulary? Mary Pickford’s divorce attorney was Pat McCarran? Bill Harrah had a passion for fast cars? G-Man John McLaughlin was sent to Reno to track down Baby Face Nelson, Jake Lawlor (for whom the UNR Events Center is named) was a basketball coach with a furious temper, or Diamond Lil was the first woman dealer in Nevada?

I think my favorite column is “We hustled to procure a dime for admission,” because it brought back so many memories. Cobb describes a typical Saturday afternoon at the movies. The admission price was ten cents and that provided a whopping four hours of screen entertainment. First the commercials for local businesses, then the news (remember this was way before television), then a series of shorts, usually featuring a comedy, a cartoon and a serial. The serial was usually captioned and always ended with a cliff hanger. The main movie, of course, was a cowboy film, usually staring Tom Mix. The theater Cobb attended was the old Majestic in Reno, but it could have been any movie theater in the country.

So come take a stroll down C Street in Virginia City and stop at the post office as it was in the 20s. Have a beer at the Dog House, Reno’s most-known and patronized honky-tonk in the 30s. Meet the chiropractor who chased his wrestling opponent up to the cheap seats with a bucket of water. Gasp with New Yorker Euphenia Clark as she gets her first glimpse of Nevada…the Humboldt Sink. Learn how teens siphoning gas foiled a Virginia City bank robbery. Go a round with Tony Galento, the almost world heavyweight champion. Glimpse Nevada as it was then: wild and gentle, tamed and raw, humorous and sad, filled with hard-working, fun-loving, good people. Hmmm, perhaps not so much has changed after all.

The best of Cobbwebs by Ty Cobb is found in the Nevada Section (NEV 818) of the Fernley Branch Library. Check it out.