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‘Everyone likes a good story’
by Garrett Valenzuela
Oct 26, 2012 | 3170 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune photo/Garrett Valenzuela -- Sparks historian and storyteller Fred Horlacher prepares for his Halloween show Thursday evening where he told chilling stories from Nevada history at the Sparks Heritage Museum and Cultural Center.
Tribune photo/Garrett Valenzuela -- Sparks historian and storyteller Fred Horlacher prepares for his Halloween show Thursday evening where he told chilling stories from Nevada history at the Sparks Heritage Museum and Cultural Center.
When Halloween rolls around each year, former Reed High students and Nevada history buffs have come to expect the chilling true stories from the mouth of Fred Horlacher.

He entertained Reed students for 20 years in the classroom, beginning when the school first opened, using a simple philosophy: make history memorable by bringing it to life.

“To sum it up, when I taught history I did it in story form using personal anecdotes trying to make that person or event come alive,” Horlacher said. “That image becomes very strong in the mind. Everyone likes a good story. I don’t care if you’re 95 or 4 years old, that story type approach kind of opens the door.”

Horlacher, 79, has lived in Sparks for 30 years and has become an expert on Nevada history during his time spent in the state. Last Thursday, Horlacher partnered with the Sparks Heritage Museum and Cultural Center to present some terrifying tales from Nevada history.

Armed with a mess of props, Horlacher presented classic Nevada horror stories such as “Red” Wood being hanged in Hazen in 1905, Elizabeth Potts’ hanging in Elko in 1890, Chief Winnemucca and his daughter being killed and the tragic tale of Paiute “Poker” Tom.

“For this show I will use a part of a pig’s foot, but when it is cut off it looks like a finger and it is going to be Poker Tom’s finger. I’ll be able to reach in the pot and say ‘here’s his finger, would you eat this?’” Horlacher said. “Chinaman Au Quong Tai sold parts of Poker Tom to other indians as goat meat and when they found out they were not happy. Not only because Poker Tom had been murdered, but because the Chinaman fed them his parts. “When (Tai) was acquitted and came out of the courthouse the Indians were waiting. He turned around and said ‘lock me up, they’re going to get me.’ And he was right, they got him.”

Horlacher said part of the reason he enjoys Halloween storytelling stems back to his days at Reed High when he helped create the History Club for students. The year before he retired, the club had 180 members that Horlacher said became a status symbol. The club’s base was ghost towns and Nevada history, but its highlight was Fright Night.

Horlacher arranged for students to load up on a bus, drive to a piece of land or town in Nevada with rich history and unleash frightening walks through cemeteries and vast deserts using a secret team of students. From popping up out of sunken grave sites to giants running with chain(less)saws in the pitch black, Horlacher tried to give his students a Halloween to remember.

“The kids I had in the history club for fright night had creative minds,” he said. “I mean sometimes I would have to tell them to tone it down a little. We had fun, a lot of fun.”

Though Thursday night’s show did not feature any chainsaw-wielding theatrics, Horlacher said before the show he would likely have an audience that wouldn’t be too frightened because they already knew him too well.

“Some of the people won’t jump because some of them know me. Quite a few of them probably, but they come more to reminisce and converse with me,” he said. “There is one eighth grader who is going to come with his dad and he said ‘he won’t scare me’ and, well, I accept that as a personal challenge. He doesn’t know about some of the things I have planned and I want him to sit here in front, and if he only jumps once that’s good enough. That’s all it takes.”

Horlacher still speaks and teaches as a guest in schools around the community to deliver more Nevada history in story form. He will be speaking to students at Nancy Gomes Elementary next week about the Donner Party. He will then meet the kids at Donner Lake on their field trip to finish off his lesson.

“When I tell stories in the classrooms there should be a point, you know, like courage, ingenuity, ability to carry on in spite of adversity and how sometimes you have to do anything to survive,” he said. “I have done the Donner Party for 40 years because it is a terrific story. There are a lot of elements in that story. Of course cannibalism has the Donner Party in a category by itself.”

Horlacher said he enjoys focusing mostly on Nevada history because it is where he lives and he attempts to spread that message, in one way or another, to everybody he speaks to.

“I want to create interest in the museum and the city of Sparks because it does have a vibrant history that is unique, as opposed to Reno for example,” he said. “And (the people) need to know it. Nevada history is taught a little in fourth and seventh grades, but because of all the other elements of the curriculum now, Nevada history gets so compressed or not done at all. And that’s a shame because you should know about the area you live in, take pride in it and learn from it.”
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