Jebb Harris / Orange County Register, 2003

A portrait of Mark Twain looms near his desk in the basement of the Mark Twain Museum in Virgina City, Nev. Souvenir hunters note: Original knobs from the desk already have been stolen.

Discoveries: Virginia City's dusty Mark Twain Museum fits its subject

Published: Sunday, Jun. 10, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H

VIRGINIA CITY, Nev. – So much of this propped-up Old West town simply tries too hard to be realistic, as if creaking, warped wooden walkways and scruffy men moseying along in full period costume, right down to the clacking spurs, could truly plunge a visitor back in time.

Yeah, there's the Bucket of Blood Saloon, good for a snort and a laugh. And there's the Mackay Mansion and Piper's Opera House, well preserved but somehow too preserved for verisimilitude. All the original blacksmith buildings have newly rustic facades and sell assorted trinkets. It's artifice passing as authentic.

Then again, making a buck always was the local pastime in this silver-and-gold boomtown.

So just, you know, go with it.

But when I reached the door to a gift shop that leads to a cellar that once served as the offices of the Territorial Enterprise, the newspaper that employed one Mark Twain from 1861-64, I so wanted it not to be fake and gussied up.

I didn't want some Hal Holbrook wannabe to jump out at me dressed as the man himself.

I didn't want gout- inducing amounts of tourist cheese shoved down my throat.

I wanted realism, dirty and gritty.

I got it, mostly.

Sandie Sweetwater, who runs the gift shop and curates the Mark Twain Museum, took my $4 and led me down the stairs. The cellar was cold, damp and dingy, with worn-away bricks and rust everywhere.

It was just about perfect.

"This was the press room from 1863, one of the oldest surviving buildings in town," she said. "It's the only portion of the building that survived the 1875 fire that destroyed most of it. It's been a museum since 1947, although (newspaper people) were still working down there at the time."

Sweetwater is no Twain scholar, but over the years she's picked up quite a few tidbits about the famous author as a young newspaper hack. You can't live in this town without being immersed in Twainabilia.

She shows off his desk, scuffed and pitted as you'd expect it to be after 151 years. I pictured Twain hunched over his desk, stubby pencil in hand and metal flask close by, trying to make deadline by making up his copy.

"In 1939, the World's Fair committee came and picked the desk up," Sweetwater said. "It was put on exhibition in Treasure Island in San Francisco, along with the printing press over here."

She motions me closer, near the roped barrier.

"See, here, somebody stole all the knobs off the drawers. They replaced the knobs, but now we're down to two. I laugh because people think they're stealing Mark Twain's knobs, but they aren't."

In a twist that no doubt would've pleased Twain, who reveled in contrived controversy, a local in town has been spreading rumors that the Twain desk is a fraud, that he never toiled there, that the desk actually was made in 1920.

Sweetwater said various state historians have confirmed the age of the desk, based on photos.

"I say, if the World's Fair committee in 1939 came and picked it up, they would've known the desk was only 19 years old and not put it on display," Sweetwater said. "Don't listen to that guy. He still holds a grudge for something. He tells people the museum is all made up. Oh, well …"

No one has disputed the authenticity of the toilet Twain sat upon, located in the far corner of the cellar. It's as intact as it was in Twain's time. Who knows? It might have even been the spot that inspired some of his best writing.

The hand-lettered sign over the commode stating "Mark Twain Sat Here" may be a touch cheesy, but remember, potty humor was not below Twain himself.

"In the photos we had from the 1800s, it's still in the original place; they just put a curtain around it," she said.

Twain devotes much of his book, "Roughing It" to his time as a reporter in Virginia City, where, thankfully, fact checkers had yet to be employed, because much of his writing was fiction. He expanded upon his journalism days in his posthumous autobiography, released in 2010.

How he wound up in Nevada and why he left after four years is vintage Twain. He fled the Confederate home guard in his native Missouri at the start of the Civil War to join his brother here in a failed attempt to strike it rich – which certainly didn't happen at the Territorial Enterprise.

He left to avoid prosecution for a duel with a nasty newspaper editor that never actually took place. Twain, not a marksman, wrote that he was "practising with the revolver and finding which end of it to level at the adversary." Twain's "second," Steve Gillis, at the same time had shot the head off a little bird from a great distance. When the editor's "second" came to get Twain for the duel, Twain and Gillis made it seem as if it had been Twain whose ace shot had felled the bird. Intimidated, the editor chickened out, as editors are wont to do.

"Well, my life was saved – saved by that accident," Twain wrote. "I don't know what the bird thought about the interposition of Providence, but I felt very, very comfortable over it – satisfied and content."

It's a great story, though not the kind likely to be re-enacted during some Mark Twain Days celebration.

Which is just fine. The dank cellar, left pretty much as it was, is a fitting tribute to Twain. It needs no embellishment. Lord knows, Twain did enough of that himself.

A FINE TELLING OF MARK TWAIN

The Mark Twain Museum at the Territorial Enterprise, where Twain was first employed as a reporter, is at 53 South C St., Virginia City, Nev. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $4, $3 for children under 12. For more information on attractions in Virginia City, go to www.visitvirginiacitynv.com.

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