A rehab passion project in Ely grew into a community showcase of the town’s history, artistry and unlikely diversity
Haunted. At least three generations of children in Ely whispered that the Geraghty’s old place, a derelict collection of cottages, was haunted. On a dimly lit street on the northern fringes of town, below a steep railroad siding, underneath thick tangles of brambles lived Melba Geraghty, a wild-haired spinster in her nineties who was said to prowl behind the murky windows of one of the ramshackle clapboard bungalows. The Geraghty place was, notoriously, the perfect place in Ely for teenage pranks and dares, feigned scares and squeals in the dark.
Of course, it didn’t start out that way. The buildings were originally the pride and joy of Bill Geraghty, owner of a storage and freight company, mine investor, coal broker and landlord. In 1911, Geraghty moved his wife and two-year-old daughter Melba into a two-room house near Ely’s railroad tracks. By 1925 he ordered several catalog bungalows, delivered by train and erected next to his modest home, to rent out to the town’s rail workers. Each house had a tiny living room, an even tinier bedroom, a kitchen with a wood stove, and a modern bath complete with a claw-footed tub and flushing toilet.
Years of neglect had turned them into the stuff of spooky stories — and into a shame, an eyesore, and health hazard, according to Ely residents Donna Bath and Virginia Terry. So when Melba took sick, they rallied a group to purchase the property. To the surprise of some of their doubting neighbors, the group known as the Ely Renaissance Society tore into the place, doing what they do extremely well — effecting a makeover that would have made good reality TV, turning a crumbling property into a community attraction.
The town’s women enlisted the town men. (“Strong-armed and cajoled,” says Virginia, winking.) Ely’s roofers, electricians, woodworkers — practically anyone handy with a hammer, a shovel, paint brush or broom — were recruited. Even minimum-security inmates from the nearby prison were engaged to rip out brush, and to haul rotting wood out and new lumber in.
Underneath the prickly overgrowth, they unearthed nine 1920s-era mail-order cottages with peeling paint, rotting roofs and sagging front porches. Inside they found tattered wallpaper, curled-up linoleum and legions of mouse colonies. You might have thought they hit the jackpot. “When life gives you lemons, well?” says Donna.
As the cottages were repaired and spruced up, Ely’s long-standing families pulled pie safes, wringer washers and iron bedsteads from their garages, attics and barns, and they opened their trunks of family heirlooms and bric-a-brac. Crocheted tea towels, a delicate decanter, an infant’s baptismal dress, and grainy black-and-white photos were among hundreds of items donated. Within months, Renaissance Village (elyrenaissance.com) materialized into a historical museum, art center and gathering place for farmers markets, an annual wine walk, special performances, private parties and weddings.
Restored and refurbished, seven of the nine cottages now show off Ely’s broad ethnic history; the other two serve as a gift store and a studio for an artists-in-residence program. One cottage represents the Spanish Basque who tended sheep in mountain ranges surrounding Ely. Another, the Slavic House, offers up the story of Croatians and Serbians who set aside religious differences to work side by side in Ely’s gold mines. Other cottages represent Ely’s early Chinese and Japanese residents who folded laundry, nurtured vegetable gardens and worked as domestics for the area’s mine bosses; Italians who sweat-built charcoal ovens and railroad tracks, vital to the area’s mines; and the Greeks, English and French who recognized and invested in the potential of copper and, later, gold ore in this remote and up-and-coming Nevada town.
Bustle and bust
Ely, once a stagecoach station along the Pony Express route, became a thriving and bustling Western town after the discovery of copper in 1906. It quickly attracted men from around the world to the tiring work of wielding picks and wheelbarrows in the town’s open-pit mines, men who eventually relocated their families to Ely and the nearby small towns of Ruth and McGill. It was hard work, but decent wages. The economy thrived with ancillary businesses — railroad builders and operators who transported minerals out and supplies in; boarding houses and hotels that accommodated the influx of workers; hot-springs entrepreneurs who offered weekly cleansing soaks; and brothels that offered, well …
While the town bustled several times over the course of a century, it also went bust just as often. By 1999, after a series of mine start-ups and shut-downs, “Ely looked like a bomb had gone off,” says Donna. It was then that Donna and Virginia organized the Renaissance Society and what continues to be an ongoing town makeover. Their first project? An art trail through Ely’s decimated downtown using blank brick walls and vacant lots to showcase Ely’s history.
The idea, says Donna, was inspired by an oversize mural that nearly covers the side of the five-story Hotel Nevada — a simple cartoon, painted decades ago, of a donkey dressed as a cowboy holding a frying pan over a fire. That mural and the fact that small towns, like Twenty-Nine Palms in California, were mounting similar projects with great success got people in Ely talking.
“Point of clarification,” says Donna. “It was the women in town that first saw potential in spiffing up this place.” Women like Lorraine Theil and Margaret Bath, an Ely-area pharmacist, alongside dozens of other women latched onto the makeover idea and haven’t let go.
They started raising money through bake sales and by auctioning decorated Christmas trees. “You’d be surprised by how much we raised here and how well we paid the artists,” says Donna. Over 13 years, they commissioned 22 art installations, paying artists an average of $25,000 for their work. She laughs. “Hey, we’re not some sleepy old podunk town.”
Workers, riders and shepherds
Ely’s Art Trail is an eclectic mix — a finely shaped bronze sculpture of a strong Shoshone woman in front of the County Courthouse; paint-smeared images of mustachioed miners cavorting in Cherry Creek Springs on an Ely side street; a linear Western landscape of a cattle roundup on a downtown corner. Other paintings and sculptures depict railroad workers and Basque sheepherders, Pony Express riders, charcoal ovens used in mining and smelting, the benevolence of an Ely priest, and the glacial cirque of Wheeler Peak in nearby Great Basin National Park. Some of the artwork — such as Canadian artist E. Colin William’s color-saturated portrayal of an old-time 4th of July painted with a flattened perspective reminiscent of America’s famous folk artists — is startlingly sophisticated.
“We couldn’t have done any of this, without a whole lot of support from people who live here and know this place is special,” says Donna. Both women grew up in Ely. Both have a longtime history of showing up with casseroles and baked goods during a crisis, of helping out when the sheep are dipped and the cattle branded, and in conducting kitchen-table Mary Kay makeover sessions.
Donna — the daughter of a mine crane operator, wife of Jim who owns the local lumber and sporting goods stores, and former White Pine County Clerk — is relentless in her promotion of Ely and holds a vision that tourists will someday fill hundreds of Ely’s motel rooms that were once occupied by area mine workers.
Virginia — a former teacher, retired school administrator, and a current board member of the Nevada Humanities Council — has an artistic sensibility and might be called a serial renovator. Donna describes her as “someone who sees possibility in the down and broken” as she recalls the time Virginia turned an old chicken coop into a charming guest house. Virginia’s latest work-in-progress is a former brothel in downtown Ely, a two-story home with a small anteroom where the men waited to be let in and a spacious parlor where the women met their patrons. Virginia says she hasn’t yet figured out what she intends to do with the place once she fixes it up.
While Donna may be practical and Virginia may be considered conceptual, it’s clearly an odd-couple relationship that works. They’re on to their next project, turning a ’60s-era bank building into an art gallery and meeting space. Already they’ve made the most of the bank’s block-glass windows by orienting a display of local artwork in the muted light on a far wall they lined with the bark from felled aspen trees. They’ve also reconfigured the hardware from safety deposit boxes into signage that reads “Art Bank,” turned the old bank vault into a wine cellar, and incorporated bright orange Formica teller counters into the overall décor.
Says Donna: “We’re just doing our part, alongside our neighbors, to make the most of what we have.”
Take I-15 north to U.S. 93 north. From Las Vegas, it’s about a five-hour drive.