The late Judge Roscoe Wilkes notes in his book High Desert Tales, that if a person goes to the Million Dollar Courthouse in Pioche, “then across the street to the east, and look down over the embankment, below you will see the general area where our mine should have been or might have been had intervening circumstances not occurred.”
Pioche was a mining town of the rip-roaring days of the old west and still operating to some extent at the time of Judge Wilkes’ boyhood in the late 1920s.
Jack Steward was one of Wilkes’ friends. His mother, known as Ma (Ellie) Steward, plays prominently into the story a bit later.
Ma Steward was, as Wilkes writes, without doubt, one of the most colorful characters that may have lived in Pioche since the days of the gunslingers. But those men were 19th Century characters, and Ma Steward was somewhat like a crossover from one century to the next.
Wilkes thinks she was in her 50s when he knew her. “A portly woman most always attired in Levis and with a self-rolled Bull Durham cigarette dangling from her lips. On Labor Day, she strapped a six-shooter on each hip to compliment the dozen or so plastic bracelets, each of a different color, worn on her wrists and arms.”
“Ma was friendly, outgoing and outspoken,” Wilkes wrote, “but she marched only to her own drum and took nothing from anyone when her point of view was called into question.”
She was the mother of five boys. Jack was one of those. He was 15, a sophomore in high school, a bit older than Wilkes and some of the other boys who hung around with him. Jack even had a Model T, created like Frankenstein’s monster, from parts scrounged together from wherever he could get them. “Not a great car,” Wilkes notes, “but it ran, sometimes.” Jack was a boundless ball of energy Wilkes adds, Never a dull moment. “And he got things done. He was flat out interesting and fun to be around, a leader.”
Since mining was part of the culture and environment of Pioche in which the boys grew up, behind Jack’s leadership it was decided they needed to have a mine of their own. It didn’t matter what the mine might produce, if anything, just the excitement of doing it.
With pick, bar and shovel they selected a location, the one mentioned above, a little over the embankment across the road from the Million Dollar Courthouse, and dug a square-shaped hole about a foot deep. Every mine had to have a hoist, they reasoned, so they found one and set it up. Now they could bring the excavated dirt up more efficiently. When the five gallon bucket was filled, the miner would pull an attached string to ring a bell up top. The hoist man would winch up the bucket to the surface where the top man would empty it. Ring the bell twice meant the bucket was coming back down again. All very efficient. One bell up, two bells down.
Following these procedures religiously, the boys got the hole to about three feet deep. Three feet is not very deep, but the boys paid no attention to that.
However, at three-and-a-half feet, they hit a rock. Wilkes writes, “A big one, too, filling the entire shaft. ‘We’ll have to blast,’ Jack ordered.” One problem though, no powder, no drills either, and no real way to procure either of those, having no license for such equipment.
“Well, winter is coming on,” the boys all thought. “Shut it down and we’ll pick it up in the spring.” And so they did.
Six months later, the weather had improved enough the boys asked Jack “Why don’t we start up our mine?” “Can’t do it,” he said. “Why not?” was the response.
“C’mon, I’ll show you,” Jack stated. Wilkes writes when they reached the mine site, there, square on top, stood a two-seat outhouse! “Who did that?” was the question. “Ma did it,” Jack said. “She can’t do that, it’s our mine!” Wilkes claimed, feeling very indignant. “Yeh,” Jack replied, “well, why don’t you try telling that to Ma.”
Here endth the lesson.