Party like it's 1899
Expanded from the 10-15-2006 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

If you didn't have an invite to the Plumbers Union's centennial bash last Friday night, you missed one helluva party. I can't remember when I've had a better time after a bit of a trying week.

I was honored to be put in charge of the event's official publication, as I was for the 100th anniversary of Painters Local 567, another Sparks-based union, in 2002.

Putting out a printed piece is like trying to herd cats. Ask any beleaguered editor of this paper who's ever had to put up with me over the past couple of decades.

We all know that if it can go wrong, it will, and you have to allow for human foibles. Anyone can understand a printer with a bad back. But this week marked the first time in my very checkered media career spanning five decades that I ever fell victim to a cat.

That almost sounds like the old "dog ate my homework" excuse, but in this case, it was true. One of my key graphic designers had his cat die. He and his family were apparently so distraught over the critter's crash that they crashed on my project.

Wherever that cat is, I hope he or she knows that his/her demise indeed affected a lot of lives. If the feline is ever reincarnated, it will probably be as a newspaper editor.

The Peppermill's Grand Ballroom was already buzzing by the time I arrived. It did my heart good to see the Centennial Book being distributed notwithstanding pains in the back and southward.

Local 350 Centennial Photo Gallery and Award Winners

And there wasn’t a cat in sight.

I saw some old friends I hadn't seen in many years and was honored to be invited to sit with Melvin Maitoza, 90, the senior member of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 350, and his family.

The union's business manager, Bob Lopes, and I had tried every trick in the book, even marshaled the help of a couple of oldtimers, but utterly failed to convince Brother Maitoza to attend. To make a long story short, his family invited him out to dinner Friday night, he said yes, and they simply took him to a rather unusual dinner where he received a 60-year union pin from Plumbers Union International President Bill Hite.

I was honored to introduce Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., to both Melvin and the best welder ever to hold a torch in these parts, longtime Sparks resident Neal Ballard, who will turn 90 next month. Neal attended with his daughter, Cheryl Ruiz, wife of perennial funny car drag racing champion Ricky Ruiz of Spanish Springs. I asked Mrs. Ruiz about the conspicuous absence of the star of the Blue Ribbon Meat Co. Rattler Racing national team: "He's babysitting."


Although we narrowly averted mishaps with the Centennial Book, not everything went smoothly. The band hired for the occasion never got a chance to play before dinner as scheduled. A hotel elevator got stuck, imprisoning their instruments for two hours. (Where's Bruce Willis when we need him? Failing the diehard, what about somebody from Local 8 of the Elevator Constructors Union?)

I don't recall the name of the band, Freddie and somesuch, but they played kickass good rock 'n' roll and also presented a lost public relations opportunity: A band led by a guy named Freddie playing a gig on Friday the 13th.

The date dictated the location of the event, as the Peppermill was the only local facility available to host the dinner on exactly the 100th anniversary of the chartering of the union.

In researching labor history, we soon found out that there was actually a plumbers union before there was a Plumbers Union in northern Nevada. Historians have dated the critical mass of labor organization for the Truckee Meadows to 1902, when so many of the unions still with us today were formed.

The United Association, the international umbrella body of the pipe trades, was officially born in 1889.

Reno Mayor Bob Cashell attended. Sparks Mayor Geno Martini read a proclamation in honor of the occasion. They didn't dance late into the night, but I did. Freddie and the Slashers, or whatever their name is, kicked butt.

To the delight of future term paper plagiarists, much of the historical research will be posted at Reviewing the ancient records of both the Painters and Plumbers, you soon realize that you are not just reading the history of labor organizations, you're reading the history of Nevada from a perspective that is largely unpublished. Because of the efforts of historians like Guy Louis Rocha, Dennis Myers, Dan Rusnak of the Laborers' Union and George Foster of the Plumbers, those stories are being written at long last.

I particularly enjoy the quirks and anomalies, like the entry in the Painters meeting minutes of Jan. 29, 1904: "Moved and seconded that paragraph pertaining to the tapping of keg of beer last meeting be stricken from the minutes." History is richer because somebody forgot to strike the motion to strike.

On April 5, 1926, the plumbers "moved, seconded and carried that $10.00 be donated to Bro. Eustis with the understanding he leave town." When was the last time anybody offered you money to get out of Dodge?

Ricky Ruiz would have felt right at home at the original Hot August Nights held over an until-now forgotten Labor Day weekend. "USED AUTO BLAZE IS LABOR EVENT," headlined the Nevada State Journal of Sept. 2, 1929. 

"Celebration will end after big program in Reno today," the paper trumpeted, adding that "with a huge bonfire for which out of date automobiles that first paraded through Reno were used as fuel, the second day of the city's Labor Day celebration was concluded last night…"

Back then, if you wanted flames on your car, you had better be specific about what kind of flames.

Sen. Reid and UA President Hite addressed the rowdy gathering. I didn't take notes. I was having too much fun with Melvin Maitoza and Neal Ballard.

I think I can sum up what they said in four words:

Be well. Raise hell.

Smoking Guns

Local 350 Centennial Photo Gallery and Award Winners

PLUMBING THE DEPTHS OF LABOR HISTORY. I'm still open to receiving any and all historical items having to do with construction in Sparks and Reno, organized labor in general and plumbing and pipefitting in particular, especially including photos.

State of Nevada
Secretary of State

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Copyright © 2006, 2007 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 38-year Nevadan and editor of As always, his opinions are strictly his own. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.

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