When I was growing up in Tahoe City, a weekly newspaper column provided the knowledge I needed to understand my hometown. Tales of Tahoe, published in the Tahoe City World penned by David Stollery Jr., was an enlightening and lighthearted look at Tahoe history, myths, and legends.
David interviewed some of the true pioneers of Tahoe, like Stella Watson, from the namesake family for Watson Lake and Mount Watson. This one-time cattle driver told the story of how grasshoppers in Squaw Valley would be ground into a meal that was later cooked into a pancake. “Fried grasshoppers were a kind of delicacy to the Indians, and as you know, they are full of vitamins,” Watson told David.
In fact, Indian legends were such an important part of David’s repertoire that he created an alter ego, Chief Wananipa, to talk about important issues such as:
Why do blue jays squawk?
Originally the birds had great voices but were such gossips they got everyone who was where they were not supposed to be into trouble, so the Great Spirit reduced their vocabulary to a squawk so that no one could understand them anymore.
Why are there mosquitos?
Wananipa said there were not any mosquitos to bother the Indians until the white man arrived and caught too many fish out of Tahoe area creeks. Then the Great Spirit provided lots of mosquitos, so the white man couldn’t stand to fish for very long. Wananipa then said, “mosquitos were Indian so naturally they only bit the foreigners, like the white man.”
The Tahoe City World was a product of the Stollery family, with David’s brother, Stub, as the publisher and news writer; Stub’s wife Bobbie attempting to make the numbers crunch; and their son Rod, who did just about everything else that needed doing. The paper dished out news, but also plenty of irreverence and humor to boot. As a counterbalance to his brother David’s Tales of Tahoe, Stub took on alter egos: that of Sierra Sue, a sarcastic woman giving funny advice, as well as Old Beady Eyes, a cantankerous character who was Sue’s male counterpart.
David began writing Tales of Tahoe with the first edition of the Tahoe City World in 1963. He wrote over 600 columns in the next 12 years. A book incorporating some of those stories, Tales of Tahoe was published in 1969. After five printing runs of the first book, Stollery decided to give it another go, publishing More Tales of Tahoe in 1988. He gifted me one in 1989.
Tahoe was embedded deeply in David’s psyche. Born in 1907, he visited the area as a child, briefly piloting the famous S.S. Tahoe steamship under the close watch of Captain Ernest John Pomin in 1919; then in the 1920s he joined his brothers Ted and Stub at a summer job near Emerald Bay. At 16, David began studying at Stanford University, becoming the youngest student at the time to attend the school. After graduation he moved to Southern California where he spent several decades as an accountant, radio announcer, and actor in TV commercials before returning to his beloved Tahoe in the early 1960s.
David and his wife Mitzi had one child who, of course, was named David. He was David Stollery III, a child actor, appearing in a number of Hollywood features, including his best-known role as Marty Markham, in The Adventures of Spin and Marty, a 1955 rendition of the Mickey Mouse Club. He left Hollywood soon after that pivotal role and became an automobile designer who helped to create the iconic 1978 Toyota Celica. Today David III is nearly 80 years old and still running his own firm in Southern California, which is famous for designing the lifeguard towers used throughout the United States.
“My dad was enamored with Lake Tahoe,” David III said. “When we went on vacation when I was a child, the only place we went to was Lake Tahoe.” Eventually, his father gave up a lucrative career in Southern California because “he loved Tahoe so much.”
“He was just a nice guy and a gentleman, and that comes through in his writing,” David III said.
In addition to his native legends, Tales of Tahoe would often focus on the quirky characters that gave Tahoe its unique and hearty personality.
Here is one example from More Tales of Tahoe: “Martin Lowe was a big man, weighing over 250 pounds dripping wet, which was a good deal of the time. In his day he was considered Lake Tahoe’s salvage expert, diving without benefit of rubber suit or air tanks for most anything worth anything on the bottom of the lake … he was also a prodigious drinker, consuming at least two quarts a day of whatever alcoholic liquor he could get his hands on. He was a tremendously strong man, and a tough one. He was never known to wear shoes and he frequently slept on the ground outside his cabin at the mouth of Blackwood Canyon … without the benefit of bed or blanket.”
While some of Stollery’s columns were myths and tall tales, many told the true story of early life in Lake Tahoe. You could learn that the earliest occupations were hay farming and ranching in Tahoe’s high-altitude meadows like Paige and Antone near Tahoe City; how after the railroad was built the boom town of Boca popped up as a place that brewed beer and harvested ice. And that a decision made by the Fish and Wildlife officials at the end of the 19th century to stock mackinaw trout in Tahoe area lakes and streams decimated the once-prolific cutthroat trout.
I remember David Jr. because he looked like Santa Claus (which made sense since both he and his brother Ted were seen ho-hoing and handing out packages in a big red suit underneath Tahoe City’s Big Tree for several years.) He was a neighbor in Dollar Point and local real estate agent who all year round could be seen heading down to the beach for a swim.
As I look back now, what gave Stollery’s history lessons their power was that he was old enough to have been a young boy and ride on the steamer Tahoe in 1919, and yet he was still around spinning his stories in what we thought was the modern age of the 1960s and ’70s. It was a combination of history, legend, and longevity that could only have come from Stollery. And it was a fun read every week in the Tahoe City World.