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Silver state of mind

With all the chatter about Nevada’s sesquicentennial, you’ve probably got the pronunciation nailed by now, but just in case: sess-kwi-sen-TEN-ee-uhl. (Hm, for no particular reason, here in the office, we’ve fallen into calling it the “sasquatchitennial.” Anyway.) Nevada became a state 150 years ago this month. Actually, it’s kind of a feelgood origin story. Nevada was shepherded into the Union for decidedly political ends, sure, but noble ones: to help President Abraham Lincoln garner a crucial re-election and to boost support for the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. (Who’d’ve thought that our state was once aligned with enlightened social causes? Sigh.)

Now is as good a time as any to bone up on Nevada history; it strengthens your psychic footing and steels your sense of place. A few recommended books, one new, one oldish. The new: Nevada: 150 Years in the Silver State, which serves both as a historical primer on Nevada and a crunchy grab-bag of personal essays, thinks and riffs on living in Nevada (I contributed one). The oldish: When I’m looking to séance with the mighty personalities of the state’s past, I still grab The First 100: Portraits of the Men and Women Who Shaped Nevada off the shelf.

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But history can be dry. That’s one reason we put together our own, slightly different celebration of the sesquicentennial, “The History of Nevada in 25 Objects.” Helmed by Scott Dickensheets, our feature ( p. 48) culls the collective brainpower of numerous Nevada historians (Michael Green, Eugene Moehring, Dennis McBride, Claytee White, Geoff Schumacher, Mark Hall-Patton, to name a few) to boil down Nevada’s 150 years into the everyday items and objects through which that history lives. In this virtual exhibit, our point of departure is the vivid thing rather than the dry fact, the concrete curiosities that resurrect those rote textbook dates. Among those curiosities: an outlandish showboat costume that snapshots a lively era of Las Vegas entertainment; a miner’s helmet that illuminated the subterranean depths; Liberace’s punishingly glittery pumps that aren’t so much shoes as small, wearable spaceships. If you love history, this is a compelling visual primer for diving in and familiarizing yourself with the broad motifs and big currents of Nevada history: mining, the dam, entertainment, the gaming industry. Underlining it all is a tireless pioneering spirit.

This issue also includes a bit of personal history in the piece, “The radioactive activist” ( p. 58). This memoir-essay by test site bomb mechanic Mike Kirby captures a knotty and troubled period of Nevada history — one that’s all too often wrapped in the snuggie of nationalist nostalgia: Nevada’s vital role in the arms race. After seeing up close and personal the power of the atomic bomb — and the alarmingly lax safety precautions — Kirby has a crisis of conscience that impels him to take a shocking step to express his opposition to America’s nuclear testing and stockpiling campaign.

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And then there’s personalized history in our travel piece about Ely ( p. 36), where a spontaneous preservation movement took root to save some old railroad cottages — and quickly blossomed into a community-wide renaissance. Whether it’s reflected in classic Vegas glitz, our nuclear past or an appreciation — and restoration — of the rural history that nourishes Nevada’s identity beyond the neon halo, our sesquicentennial marks an opportunity to celebrate the many facets of Nevada.

As a longtime journalist in Southern Nevada, native Las Vegan Andrew Kiraly has served as a reporter covering topics as diverse as health, sports, politics, the gaming industry and conservation. He joined Desert Companion in 2010, where he has helped steward the magazine to become a vibrant monthly publication that has won numerous honors for its journalism, photography and design, including several Maggie Awards.