Austin is a small town located in Lander County on the western slopes of the Toiyabe Range at an elevation of 6,605 feet is known for its colorful history. There was the famous sack of flour, the internationally known soprano, a castle, Nevada’s first female sheriff and a man who was hanged three times.
Sanitary Flour Power
The town is famous for an ordinary sack of flour that helped raise more than $275,000 for a fund hospitals during the Civil War. It all began as an election bet between Ruel Gridley, a local grocer and Democrat, and Dr. H.S. Herrick who was a Republican.
The bet was that the man supporting the losing candidate running for mayor would carry a 50 lbs. sack of flour through town. Gridley lost the bet and true to his word fulfilled the agreement. He was accompanied by a marching band and 5-year-old singer Emma Wixom singing a popular song in Union called “John Brown’s Body.” Ruel proudly carried the sack of flour from one end of town to the other. At the auction, the owner donated it back, and on that day the bag was auctioned multiple times with all the proceeds going to help Civil War Veterans.
Gridley so liked the idea he auctioned the sack all over Nevada. Each town tried to outdo contributions of the last town. The story caught the attention of a young newspaper editor in Virginia City named Mark Twain, who wrote about the The Great Austin Flour Sack. Ruel took the sack to other charitable auctions around Northern California and back East. At the end of the tour, over a quarter of a million dollars had been raised for a single sack of flour helping the Civil War wounded.
Little Emma Wixom and her family moved to Austin in 1864, shortly before Gridley carried his famous sanitary flour sack. After her mother died, Emma’s father sent her to Mills College in Oakland, Calif to study foreign languages and music. Her passion for music led her to study singing for three years in Vienna. She gained critical acclaim as an operatic soprano with performances for King George V and Queen Victoria. She adopted Emma Nevada as her stage name as homage to the state she grew up in. At the age of 26, she was world-renowned for her singing abilities.
George Crowell was Lander County Sheriff in 1919. Two years into his term, he passed away from an illness. His widow, Clare Dunham Crowell was appointed to assume the responsibilities of Sheriff after a petition was champion by many of the citizens in support of her. Clare was unanimously selected as Lander County’s first female Sheriff, a job she carried out diligently from 1919 to 1921. She was a woman ahead of her time, earning respect by breaking up saloon fights, arresting cattle rustlers and other criminals. After finishing out her term, she returned to work as a nurse at the Lander County Hospital.
One of the most interesting building in Austin is Stokes Castle. Stokes Castle is a three-story stone tower located just outside of town on top of a ridge line. Construction started in the fall of 1896 and completed in the summer 1897. The mine developer and railroad magnate, Anson Phelps Stokes, built the castle as a summer home for his sons but the family used the castle only once.
Stokes Castle is constructed using native granite. The huge stones were raised with a hand winch and held in position by clay mortar and rock wedging. The architectural model for the castle was a medieval tower Anson Stokes had seen and admired on an earlier Italian trip near Rome. It originally had three floors, each with a fireplace, windows, the first floor housed the kitchen and dining room, balconies on the second and third floors and a sun terrace on the roof. It had indoor plumbing for the bathrooms and kitchen. The structure stands as an enduring monument to the local men who built it and develop the mines of Austin.
To the Gallows, Again and Again…
Rufus Anderson was convicted of shooting and killing an unarmed man during an argument. He was sentenced to death by hanging. On Oct. 30, 1868, a day before Nevada’s fourth birthday, Anderson was led from his prison cell to the gallows constructed in-front of the Lander County Court House. After uttering a few words, he dropped through the trap door but landed on ground with the rope following right behind him. Apparently the rope was never secured to the gallows.
Once again, Anderson made his way up to the platform. The rope was secured to the gallows and for the second time the trap was sprung. This time the noose slipped off and again he crashed in to the ground.
Anderson was now unconscious laying on the ground. This time Anderson was carried up to the platform and tied to a chair. The noose was adjusted for a third time and Anderson was finally hanged. He placed in a bier and taken to the family estate.
Take Me to Church
Today Austin is a living ghost town, and is perhaps the best preserved example of an early Nevada mining town. It contains three beautiful churches. The Catholic Church, the last remaining structure of the first four Catholic Churches built in Nevada, and the Methodist Church were both built in 1866.
The Methodist Church is now used as a community center. The St. Augustine’s Catholic Church has been purchased and is being restored as a cultural center for Central Nevada. The St. George Episcopal Church, widely considered to be the prettiest frontier church still standing, was built in 1878 and is still in regular use.
These stories are just some of the stories that make Austin famous. Have you ever heard any of these stories?
GPS Coordinates: 39.49257 N, -117. 06723 W