United States Gypsum, which has been the mainstay of the economy of those two unincorporated communities, decided that producing sheet rock at the plant in Empire was no longer profitable because of the downturn in construction nationwide. The company decided to close the plant on Dec. 31, laying off 92 workers. The plant has been in operation for 87 years. Several generations of workers and their families have called the area home for a long time. Although the plant is allowing workers to remain in the company-owned housing until the end of the school year in early June 2011, many of the workers and their families will leave before then, I’m sure.
The first time I went to the area was in the mid-1950s. In those days, the road was gravel once you got past the sand dunes north of Nixon, an Indian community 50 or so miles south of Gerlach. Now, the road is paved all the way to Gerlach and beyond.
In those days, the gypsum ore was brought to the Empire plant in huge buckets strung gondola fashion on a huge cable system supported by towers. As the buckets went over the towers they would often lose ore onto the ground below. Those white piles of ore can still be seen periodically along the course from the mine to the plant. The cable system was done away with sometime in the 1960s in favor of the huge Haul Pak trucks, which proved to be a more cost-effective method of delivering the ore to the plant for processing into sheet rock. The old system was a mechanical nightmare from the get-go anyway.
United States Gypsum was proud of the fact that it owned the longest private railroad in the country. It ran from Empire to the Union Pacific spur in Gerlach and was used to haul completed product on its way to market. The only engineer, Ray Englebert, was married to one of my fellow teachers in Empire, Helen.
I taught school my first year in Empire almost 40 years ago. I had never taught elementary school. I had all the 20 kids in the fifth grade and the sixth grades — 10 boys and 10 girls. I never had anyone leave or any new students the whole year I taught at the Ernie Johnson Elementary School. The school was named for Ernie Johnson, a well-respected plant worker who had also been on the Washoe County school board. My parents and I had a piece of pie and a cup of coffee with Ernie at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks on the fateful night when he was killed after he hit a cow with his car on the way home on the highway south of Gerlach. He was a well-respected man all over the county and he especially stuck up for those in Gerlach.
When I taught in Empire, the area had seven bars, two restaurants, two gas stations, two post offices, a grocery store, a hotel, a motel and the elementary and high school. There was a permanent deputy sheriff, a county road crew, the U.S. Gypsum plant, a railroad maintenance crew and ranchers from the surrounding area. All told there might have been 500 people in the whole area. The year I taught there, the high school graduated three students. The graduates all sat on the stage with the dignitaries who were there to send them on their quest for their futures.
The year I was in Gerlach we were in a recession, as well. Housing starts were down all over the country. To add salt to the economic wound, the price of oil and sugar were out of sight. Oil fired the ovens to cure the sheet rock and harden it while the sugar was used as a hardening agent. Then a further hit came when the sheet rock would fail once it got to the work site. The rumor around town was that the ore was about to play out in the mine. The three shifts were cut back to two and, of course, some workers were laid off.
Over the years, the residents of Gerlach and Empire have struggled together to create a life for themselves in the unforgiving Nevada desert. An example of their tenacity was the nine-hole golf course that was built in Empire. The greens were grass and the fairways were dirt. A slight change to the standard rules of play was that golfers could tee up on the fairways if they desired. It was always a hoot to see one of the plant workers in bibbed overalls out playing 18 holes after his shift at the plant. You have to love a place like that and the people who make up the area.
I have a special place in my heart for that God-forsaken spot in the Black Rock desert called Gerlach. No doubt I and others will shed a tear at its ultimate demise as it is relegated to the history books.
Larry Wilson is a 50-year resident of Sparks and a retired elementary school teacher. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.