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'A very nice place to grow up': Centenarian returns home to Nevada town

Estelle Atkinson, Las Vegas Review-Journal on

Published in Senior Living Features

GOLDFIELD, Nevada — On a breezy day in this tiny burg, Helen McLeod gazed up at her old school.

The steep, blue steps leading up to the entrance were built to look just like the ones she sat upon with school friends back in the 1920s and ’30s.

Just days before her 103rd birthday on Friday, McLeod had traveled to Goldfield to see the place where she was born and raised. Noticing exposed wood on the entrance’s ceiling, she shook her head.

“It’s all gone to pieces,” she said.

When McLeod was born as Helen Maroney on May 24, 1921, the population of the gold-mining boomtown, founded just 18 years earlier, had already begun to dwindle.

She was asked to start school at age 5, rather than 6, as she said the school “needed children.” Her early start meant she joined one of the school’s “larger” classes of eight students and began her senior year at the age of 16.

Today, her memories of life in Goldfield are just as vibrant as stories of the town’s golden years decades before, when it was the largest city in Nevada.

As she prepared for her birthday exploring the town about 180 miles from Las Vegas, McLeod said that she couldn’t help but remember little things from her childhood, like walking to school with her siblings. “A big school makes a big difference,” she said.

Returning home

McLeod had made the trip this week with her great-niece and caretaker, Janet Bell, to visit the local cemetery where her father and brother are buried.

McLeod and Bell laid flowers on their graves. McLeod doesn’t remember much about her father, who died in a mining accident when she was 11 years old.

After her father’s death, McLeod lived with her mother, who came to the U.S. from Austria in 1916, and her three older siblings. Her mother, who didn’t speak any English, struggled to adjust to life in Goldfield.

The family’s first home was on 5th Avenue, just down an unpaved road from a saloon called the Santa Fe Club, which stands today as one of Nevada’s oldest continuously operating bars.

Visitors to the bar may feel they’ve traveled back in time. Old photos, mine signal codes and bounty posters advertising a chance to avoid the draft adorn the wooden walls.

‘Married the guy across the street’

McLeod’s family moved to a home on the other side of town. This fortuitous move is how McLeod met her husband, Daniel McLeod.

“She married the guy across the street,” Bell said.

The couple were friends growing up. McLeod fondly recalled him poking fun at her favorite school pastime: basketball.

“My husband used to tease me,” she said. McLeod, a forward on her school’s team, remembers him exclaiming, “‘Oh, she made a basket!’ It was really funny.”

Also while at school, McLeod’s brother taught her how to drive. Once she was old enough, McLeod decided to head down to the local courthouse, which is still operates today as the Esmeralda County courthouse.

The Department of Motor Vehicles was located in what is now the assessor’s office. McLeod recalls declaring, “I’m old enough to get a license. Please give me a license.” And they did. “I was a big shot,” she said.

McLeod and her seven classmates graduated in 1938. They were close, and McLeod remembers everyone as being extremely kind.

 

While they didn’t have a traditional prom like a bigger school would, McLeod said they had a “little dance” that she enjoyed very much. According to a newspaper clipping from the same year, the class of 1938 celebrated their graduation in the Elks hall, a popular members club where McLeod attended many parties with her husband.

Life in The Gables

A few years after her graduation, she and Daniel McLeod decided to elope in the town of Mina, about 97 miles away. They had to wake up the local justice of the peace, “because it was late by the time we got over there,” McLeod said.

She moved into his Goldfield home across the road, a brown and white house with intricate woodwork around its exterior. Now worn, it is affectionately referred to as The Gables, according to Kim Henrick, Goldfield Historical Society member.

Daniel McLeod worked in a gold mill on the road to Tonopah, a larger town that, unlike Goldfield, had a hospital. McLeod, who had been born in her parents’ home in Goldfield, had her own children at that hospital.

She had a son named Danny, who passed away several years ago, and a daughter named Sheila, who lives in Arizona. The children began their lives in Goldfield, but when Daniel McLeod was unable to find work once the gold business had faltered, the family was forced to move to Henderson in the early 1950s.

“The mill was closed. It was during the war time,” McLeod explained. She has lived in Henderson ever since, and the gold mill is no longer standing.

‘Everybody knew everybody’

“We didn’t want to move to a big town,” she said. McLeod was used to living in a place where “everybody knew everybody” and neighbors spent time with each other.

While McLeod missed living in a small town, she said she found she grew closer to family members like Bell in Henderson. Bell now refers to McLeod as her best friend. McLeod also created a new community as one of the founding members of Henderson’s Order of the Eastern Star, a coed branch of the Freemasons, of which her husband was a member.

McLeod found ways to reconnect with Goldfield, such as attending her 50th high school reunion in Bishop, California, and bringing her children back to visit the town.

In many ways, the Goldfield that McLeod left no longer exists today. She said she still remembers dancing at the last party thrown in the historic Goldfield Hotel, which closed in 1945.

She and her friends also used to sneak up to the vacant third floor of the school to look out of the window. Not long after her graduation, the school closed its doors to high school students. Sitting outside of it this week, a gust of dry wind blew past. “The wind always comes,” McLeod said. “All we have is the wind.”

The beginning of Nevada

With nearly half of its homes vacant and a population of slightly more than 200 people according to census data, many refer to Goldfield as one of Nevada’s ghost towns.

McLeod doesn’t think this label is right.

“It’s the beginning of Nevada. They shouldn’t feel like that,” she said.

Although, she noted, she has heard stories about ghosts roaming the old Goldfield hotel.

McLeod, excited for her birthday, said she was glad she’d taken the time to visit the town.

“I enjoyed Goldfield, I really did,” she said. “It was a very nice place to grow up.”


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