Saturday, October 23, 2010

Play That One Again, Eli

Note: Bob Foster is a frequent guest author on Western Americana Blog. His last article , "Yuma Territorial Prison 1875-1909" appeared in June, 2010. Bob’s following article is an interesting side of Mormon history that provides insight into some cultural aspects of Mormon country in which Bob’s family lived since early settlement in 1852. I hope readers enjoy this piece as much as I did….SUE

Wild, foot-stomping Barney music came to the remote silver mining town of Pioche, Nevada, around the turn of the century, in a rather round about fashion. Barney musical talent crossed the plains from Illinois in 1852, in the person of my maternal Great Grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Barney.

Twenty years old, married, with two small children, he and his wife stopped their wagon alongside a muddy Iowa trail for a brief moment to bury one of their babies who died of fever, then pressed on another thousand miles to the safety of the towering Rocky Mountains of Utah.

Benjamin could sing and play the push button accordion, the fiddle and guitar. At night, around the campfire, musicians in the wagon train would take out their fiddles, guitars, banjos, harmonicas and accordions and play some rousing tunes.

People from all over camp quickly gathered about, the fatigue of the long, grueling day on the rough trail slowly fading away as the lively music enveloped them.

Hands clapped and feet thumped as Great Grandpa called out "Old Dan Tucker”-- talking, laughter, mingling together, many dancing. The music had wings to it. Bow to your partner and doe-se-doe and swing. The stars smiling, the night crowding in, the wild mountain music with the high beat of the heart in it, the feet moving of themselves on the prairie grass.

"Play that one again, Benjamin," someone would holler. Benjamin lined up a Mormon Quadrille, in which the man leads out with two partners. The music starts, the dancers whirl. Then followed a square dance, the moves being called out in cadence by Great Grandpa.

Music was a Mormon tradition and was pushed along by talented musicians, whether on the vast rolling plains of Iowa and Nebraska or in the beautiful Social Hall in Great Salt Lake City. Brass bands, choirs, solos and playing musical instruments were the major forms of musical art in early Utah. In the 1860's tastes in music were improved by immigrants from England.

Benjamin settled in remote Elsinore, Utah,

Elsinore is about one hundred fifty five miles south of Salt Lake City, and raised a very large family, passing on his musical talents to several of his sons, some of whom formed a western band. His son Elias, my Grandfather, never had a music lesson, but he learned to play the fiddle, the push button accordion, guitar, banjo, and harmonica.

Whenever word spread that the Barney Brothers would be playing on Saturday night people came from miles around for a good old rip-snortin' night of music and dancing. But there wasn't much money to be generated from those poor country folk. By the time the four brothers divided up the take for the evening it was almost the same as playing for free.

At one of those shin-digs Elias ran into some gold miners from Kimberly,

a wild, rowdy gold camp high in the Tushar Mountains of Piute County, just twenty five miles south of Elsinore. "Hell, Elias," one miner told him, "you could make more off'n your music up in them Kimberly saloons in one night than playing at Church socials or dances down here in a year!""I'd never even thought of that!" Grandpa said. So he and his brothers sought the counsel of their religious father, Benjamin, asking what he thought about them playing in saloons. "No, absolutely not! You're not going into those dens of iniquity, full of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion!" he growled.

But the boys were free spirits, not given much to religion, nor advice from their father for that matter, so they loaded their instruments in a wagon, pointed the team south, and headed up the mountain to Kimberly, 9500 feet above sea level.

Their band was an instant hit in the gold camp, sometimes playing all night in saloons, stores, and even in cabins with wooden floors. Folks in Kimberly were happy for any kind of music and especially loved some of the old tunes like Old Zip Coon, Bonnie Doon and Turkey in the Straw; and they absolutely loved fiddle music. One elderly woman told Elias, "you fellers sure can play them fiddles. Some fiddlers come up here last year and they sounded just like a bunch of bees in a beer bottle!"

Grandpa grinned as he told it. "When them miners get liquored up, they were mighty free spenders, I can tell you! We'd often make over a hundred dollars on a Saturday night. But sometimes they'd get mean and want to fight. I'd accommodate them, always betting on the outcome--me of course! I never met a drunk man I couldn't whip with my fists, out wrestle or outdraw with a gun!" I believed him, too, because he was six feet tall, one hundred eighty five pounds of pure grit and muscle, with sandy red hair, big hands--and a gunsmith in his spare time!

One cold, fall night Grandpa stopped at a saloon in Kimberly for three fingers of whiskey and ran into some miners from Pioche, Nevada, a much larger camp than Kimberly, who told him Barney music would fit right in with that rowdy Pioche crowd. After hearing how many saloons Pioche laid claim to and learning of the wide open opportunities for talented musical entrepreneurs Grandpa and his brothers again packed the wagon with their musical instruments, some grub and blankets, and headed 250 miles southwest to find out what the legendary Nevada silver camp had to offer.

Grandpa Eli loved Pioche at first sight! Saloons glittered with their gaudy bars and fancy glasses, and many colored liquors, and thirsty men swilled the burning poison. He told me, "now that was my kind of town. If I wanted a hot whiskey toddy I could have it. If I wanted to sleep in til noon I could. I could come and go as I pleased, free from all fashions and social conventions of society." About half the community were thieves, scoundrels and murderers, while the other half were the best folks in the world. Among them, he said, our lives and property were as safe as they were back in Utah. But Grandpa found more excitement among the scoundrels and thieves! And they all loved Barney music!

Grandpa could walk into any saloon in town--tell them who he was, and he and his brothers had a job playing music if they wanted it. So they played their wild, western style of music in many of Pioche's smokey saloons. Where they'd made a hundred dollars on a good night in Kimberly they could make from $300 to $500 on a good Saturday night in Pioche, not so much for their fine music, but because of the miners' state of complete inebriation!

At one of the larger dens of iniquity, I believe Grandpa called it the Edwards Saloon, around midnight when the miners and the Barney boys were well liquored up, they would really cut loose with that wild mountain music the miners could stomp their boots to. Drunk or sober, those four brothers could make their instruments talk! At the conclusion of a savage, stompin' dance hall tune the miners would shout, clap, and toss gold coins onto the stage shouting and hollering, "Play that one again, Eli!"

Those golden coins were most interesting. A $20 gold piece was about as large as today's silver dollar; the $10 gold piece about the size of today's 50 cent piece; and the $2.50 gold piece about the size of today's dime. There were also three different $1 gold coins in circulation. The Barneys had to keep a sharp eye out to see where some of those smaller coins rolled. Grandpa was often surprised at the number of $20 gold pieces they gathered up after a performance. There was also a $3 gold piece, about the size of today's nickel. If you happen to find one, get to a coin dealer fast; for they are very rare and extremely valuable!

Once in a while the Barney Brothers would slow the tempo, playing a sad, nostalgic piece, sometimes harmonizing and singing the sad, lonesome words of love, life, hard times and death. Miners ceased talking as the music filled an empty void, and they each contemplated their difficult, laborious lives, working grueling ten-hour shifts, deep in dark, dangerous underground tunnels, trying to make enough money to support a wife and kids, vainly hoping to save enough of a grub stake to transfer to something better for them and their families, many knowing full well they were trapped in a situation they could never get out of.

Grandpa said a Paiute Indian led a Mormon missionary, William Hamblin, to a large silver deposit in the vicinity of Pioche in 1864. But because of Indian troubles and technical difficulties in reducing the ore nothing much happened. By 1869 several men, including San Francisco entrepreneur Francois L.A. Pioche, who never visited Pioche, though the town was named after him, purchased property in the area and formed the Meadow Valley Mining Company. In 1870 they successfully separated the silver from the ore using chemical processing, thereby opening the area to a flurry mining activity; and Pioche was born.

Though leery of lawmen the Barneys knew it was in their best interests to obtain the blessing of local law enforcement officials before they played any music or gambled. In the West, in those days, especially in Nevada, lawmen got a cut of any revenue made by anyone in the saloon business. A saloon owner in Pioche told Grandpa the Sheriff's office in the 1870's was worth $40,000 a year in bribes alone. If a sheriff turned in an expense account of $15,000 for a 200-mile trip it was paid without question. The saloon owner also told him of a deputy sheriff who killed three desperados on three different street corners within seconds.

Most of the violence in Pioche resulted from questions concerning the exact location of mining claims and the presence of ore-chutes that extended through a series of claims. There was great temptation to "jump" other miners' claims or dispute them in court. To protect their claims mine owners formed vigilance committees, then finally resorted to hiring guards, professional toughs and gunmen, at $20 a day. Sometimes twenty thugs were hired in one day, and they used brute force against claim jumpers.

Pioche Jail

Elias Barney enjoyed living in the wild environment created by tough lawmen and outlaws. Being quite young he was independent, untidy and hard living. He seriously thought about settling down in Pioche but was unable to find a good woman to marry. I'm sure he could have if he'd played at Church socials instead of in saloons! But I never dared say it to his face!

When the Barney Brothers arrived in Pioche at the turn of the century to introduce their particular brand of music, the town was partially civilized, slightly tamer than it was in the 1870's and 80's. From it's start its official start in 1870 the town grew rapidly until 1873, when its population peaked at 10,000. During that boom period, there were seventy two saloons, three hurdie-gurdies, two breweries, and two daily newspapers with wire service. Guns were the only law and Pioche made Bodie, Tombstone and other wild western towns pale in comparison. That became evident to Grandpa when he visited Pioche's famous "Boot Hill Cemetery" where many rows of gunshot and knifing victims lay buried under wooden markers.

Like all young men, Grandpa enjoyed visiting with the old timers in Pioche who all claimed that seventy five men died violently before anyone died of natural causes! Most had witnessed gun fights in the streets, and saw lawmen and outlaws come and go, many exhibiting their expert skills as gunfighters.

After spending some very interesting and memorable months in Pioche, Elias Barney returned to Elsinore, Utah, to become the farmer and rancher his father always wanted him to be. But it was tough to return to the sedate life of a rural Utah farmer, after sampling the excitement of Pioche's noisy, smokey saloons. There wasn't a good old smelly saloon within a five day's ride in any direction from that central Utah town. So he settled down, bought some land and married a lovely young lady, Jane Green, from Parowan, Utah, on January 31, 1901. They were married for sixty years, until Jane died in 1961. They had eleven children, all of whom lived to adulthood, married and gave Elias and Jane 37 grandchildren and 105 great grandchildren

Grandpa Eli's musical talent was passed on to some of his children, with whom he formed a band. They played Barney music at dances, church socials, and other functions in the Elsinore area. Grandpa usually played his push button accordion or the fiddle. His son Larcell (Lars) played guitar and banjo, daughter Wanda played piano accordion, and daughter Betty played guitar.

During the 1950's Elias' family band sometimes played on Saturday afternoons on radio station KSVC in Richfield, Utah, the County Seat of Sevier County. Grandpa Barney's brothers also passed on musical talents to some of their children, and those nieces and nephews often played with the Elias Barney group.

In the 1960's, when Grandpa Elias was in his late eighties, living alone on the old homestead, I'd stop by from time to time to see how he was getting along.

He'd always ask, "did I ever tell you about the time me and my brothers played over in the Pioche saloons, and them drunken miners would throw twenty-dollar gold pieces on the stage and holler, 'play that one again, Eli?'"

Though I'd heard his Pioche tale many times, out of courtesy I'd always say, "no, Grandpa, why don't you tell me about it?"

His face beamed and his eyes sparkled as he lit into a tale of the old west and his particular part in it. I sat quietly, looking up at the old double-barreled shotgun on pegs in the wall, a memento of those exciting days, Grandpa's "other life," as he called that long ago time.

When he finished his tale he'd ask, "would you like me to play you a tune?" He was already opening the battered old accordion case. Out came the old push button accordion and I watched his knurled, aged fingers, now severely crippled by arthritis, try to find those tiny button keys. Grandpa closed his eyes, as if remembering pleasant memories from long ago, squeezed the old squeeze box, tapping his toe on the floor, keeping time with the music. He made a few mistakes, sometimes pushing two buttons at a time. Music filled the room.

Finishing his rendition of the Yellow Rose of Texas, and shaking his head sadly, he placed the instrument back in its case, and apologized. "I ain't near as good as when I was young."

A nostalgic look crept into his gray eyes and he smiled at me. "Ah Bobbie Boy. What grand times those were! I sure wish you could have been there in Pioche to share them with me and my brothers.”

Me too, Grandpa!

The End


Personal recollections of Robert L. Foster as told to him by his Grandfather, Elias Barney

Pamphlets and other interesting Pioche literature, furnished by Peggy Draper, Head librarian, Lincoln County Public Library, Pioche, NV.

Some Dreams Die, Frisco: by George A. Thompson, P. 128: Dream Garden Press, Salt Lake City, UT, 1982

Utah's Heritage, by S. George Ellsworth, pp.166-236-237: Perigrine Books, Salt Lake City, UT

Mormon Country, by Wallace Stegner, P. 13: University of Nebraska Press

An Enduring Legacy by Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Volume 12, 1989
Ghost Towns of Nevada by Donald C. Miller, pp.104-107: Pruett Publishing Co. Boulder, CO, 1979


  1. Enjoyed this one. I've read about the old mining towns of the west, and none of this sounds like an exaggeration. Many thanks!

  2. This is great, Sue. It makes me want to explore all the places you've described so beautifully in writing as well as with pictures.

  3. This was great; you brought the Old West a live. I'm also a descendant of Benjamin Franklin Barney via Caroline Beard; loved learning about my distant cousins down in Sevier County.