It’s State Things time again

State Things are back in the news. This is not surprising. Anytime state legislatures are in session, the public faces a threat from new State Things.

At the Nevada Legislature, an amendment has been attached to a state parks bill. The amendment reads, “The traditional Basque drink known as the Picon Punch is hereby designated as the official state drink of the State of Nevada.” Assembly man William Horne of Las Vegas is the champion of the punch.

After Horne’s amendment came along, one Basque news website reported, in an article on the Nevada legislation, “Picon Punch is the drink that is most closely associated with Basques in the United States. It’s a concoction that includes grenadine, club soda, a bit of brandy and Amer Picon, a bittersweet aperitif made in France with herbs and a peel of orange.”

My colleague John L. Smith has proposed that the jackass be named the Nevada state animal. As part of his case for the notion, he points out that “one particularly talented burro helped found the bustling mining town of Tonopah.” This is a reference to the story that Tonopah founder Jim Butler picked up a rock to pitch it at his burro to punish it for wandering off only to discover the rock contained rich ore.

I am always reluctant to argue with John, given his annoying habit of usually being right. But he cites Wikipedia as one of his sources, which always sets off alarm bells. Aesop was more reliable than Wikipedia.

Granted, the burro story appears plenty of other places besides Wikipedia, but that’s not the only flaw in the Tonopah story. Wikipedia mentions only silver while the Butler ore sample reportedly contained both gold and silver. For another thing, a burro and a jackass are not the same thing. Jackasses have a reputation for being nastier, if for no other reason than that jackasses are all males.

Then there are reports like one found by historian Guy Rocha in the White Pine News of Aug. 6, 1911, that “the rock looked so much like the real thing, that instead of throwing it at the donkey Butler took it to town for assay.” We have a donkey, a jackass and a burro at the scene of the crime.

And not only do we have more than one variant of an ass in the story, but we have more than one instance of the story in the West. Fifteen years before Butler discovered Tonopah, Noah Kellogg started the mining camp of Kellogg, Idaho, with the help of a similarly truant burro.

In addition, Rocha has pointed to Butler’s own account of his discovery of Tonopah, which never mentions a jackass/burro/donkey. It does, however, mention Native Americans, and historian Sally Springmeyer Zanjani has made the case that a Shoshone, possibly named Tom Fisherman, told Butler where to find the ore, which prompted Rocha to write that “people in the early 1900s were more than willing to credit a burro over an Indian in playing a role in the discovery at Tonopah.”

Oh, and one more thing. As John pointed out, Nevada already has a state animal, the bighorn sheep. Nevada also has a state artifact, bird, colors, fish, flag, flower, fossil, grass, insect, locomotive, march, metal, nickname, precious gemstone, semi-precious gemstone, reptile, rock, seal, slogan, soil, song, tartan and two state trees.

The Texas Legislature is considering legislation to designate a state sea turtle. It’s not known, at least by me, how many kinds of sea turtles there are off Texas from which state legislators chose. Colorado has just designated shelter dogs and cats as the official state pets.

Gail Collins of the New York Times likes to keep track of State Things and of what she calls symbol creep. Fourteen years ago she devoted a column to Rhode Island’s decision to install dozens of statues of Mr. Potato Head and Mrs. Potato Head around the state, an official imprimatur for a commercial product that was pretty unusual.

“What this country needs is a mandatory sunset law for State Things,” she wrote. “We could wipe the slate clean every 5 or 10 years and start over. Refilling the symbol supply might give citizens a new interest in state government. …”

Last week she suggested that Congress, to rebuild cooperation and bipartisanship, designate a national rock as a noncontentious initiative. “Committees could hold hearings about the relative merits of slate and granite. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would threaten to filibuster unless his colleagues considered coal. But, in the end, I believe everybody would rally around a grand compromise for marble. And the country would feel much, much better.”

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.

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