Weather historians in Nevada note the winter of 1869 was particularly hard. Bitter cold and snows held all of central Nevada in its grip.
Since 1865, the bustling mining camp of Eureka, an offshoot of Austin, was rolling along nicely, producing a wealth of ore for the stamp mills. But the camp had its problems, too. One being that it seemed to attract some pretty rough thugs and toughs, just like the mountain mining town of Pioche in eastern Nevada was doing too.
Major Dennis was the part-time Sheriff of the community. When an arrest was made and jail time needed, there was another problem: Eureka didn’t have a jail. Prisoners had to taken 90 miles west to Austin. That took time and money by horse and wagon.
Dennis had pleaded with Lander County Commissioners, Eureka was in Lander County then, to build a jail in his town. But the commissioners were not inclined to feel the need, the town wasn’t big enough yet. Maybe someday, but not now, was the thinking.
Over and over Dennis made his appeal. Over and over again, he was turned down.
An amazing incident was about to happen to break the stalemate.
Soon after another rebuff to the community of Eureka, an unnamed county commissioner, an Austin businessman, drove the rough road to Eureka to make a delivery of a big load of barley. As was customary, he brought along his own food and blankets. Camping on the edge of town one evening, he unhitched the fourhorse team, tied them to the wagon, put his bedroll under the wagon, finished his dinner and went to sleep.
Sheriff Dennis was informed on the merchant’s coming and whereabouts and hit upon a bright idea. There were a lot of 80-pound sacks of barley on that wagon. What if a few sacks got stolen, even that night?
Dennis picked two men, local toughs he knew to be experienced thieves, and told them of his plan, promising both a reward and immunity from prosecution if the plan worked.
At dawn the next morning the commissioner awoke from under his wagon to find that during the night, thieves had stolen four sacks of grain right from under his nose, and he was furious about it!
He stormed into the sheriff’s office, demanding justice and the return of the sacks of grain!
Historians say Dennis appeared calm at this intrusion, even unsurprised. “Lack of proper facilities indicated an inability to preserve law and order in Eureka,” he replied. He even told the commissioner it was lucky the thieves hadn’t taken the horses as well or even shot the man and taken everything!
The commissioner was outraged at this occurrence and after making his delivery, drove back toward Austin, still steaming under the collar. He didn’t even stop for the night until he was 25 miles out of town, spending the night with one eye open and his loaded revolver at the ready.
Back in Austin, he called for an immediate emergency meeting of the board of county commissioners. First order of business, a jail for the “lawless camp of Eureka!”
Even before the meeting was adjourned a messenger had been dispatched on horseback to Sheriff Dennis to start construction of a new jail “immediately.” And so it was.
Historians don’t say though, what became of the four sacks of stolen barley.
(adapted from a story by Harold’s Club, 1953)