1868 press used to mint Nevada anniversary coins

CARSON CITY — Nevada Coin Press No. 1 is like its volunteer operator, Ken Hopple: Both just keep going and going.

“Give it a little grease and keep up with the repairs and it will last forever,” said Hopple of the antique press in the Nevada State Museum that on Friday manufactured the first of the 1,000 silver medallions commemorating Nevada’s 150th birthday celebration.

The Morgan and Orr press made coins way back in the 1870-93 period when the U.S. Mint operated in Carson City. Those coins carried the numismatic-cherished “CC” mint mark. The mint building since 1941 has housed the Nevada State Museum.

At a six-medallions-a-minute production rate, Hopple made the first medallions in front of crowd that included Gov. Brian Sandoval.

At 68, Hopple still is a full-time tool and die maker in Reno. He spends the last Friday of each month running the press to make state medallions and to talk to schoolchildren about coin-making, coins and their history.

His fee: One of each medallion that he makes.

“My work is basically like a donation to the museum,” Hopple said.

Not only did Press No. 1 make coins — at a 100-per-minute rate — in the Carson City Mint, but it also went on a long road tour to work in the mints in Philadelphia in 1899-1945 and then to the San Francisco Mint, 1945-55. It was manufactured in 1868.

It was destined for a salvage lot in San Francisco until a smart mint worker noticed it had a Virginia & Truckee Railroad plaque, a plaque placed on it when someone in the historic Carson City railroad yard repaired it in 1878.

Because of his intercession, the press was returned to Carson City — for $255 — where it was put on display in the state museum until 1964.

Then U.S. Mint Director Eva Adams, a Nevada resident, requested the press be put back in service at the Denver Mint. Three years later, after making 188 million more coins, the press was returned to Carson City. Since then, it has been making state medallions.

“It’s like old cars; it is built to last forever,” said Hopple, who talks about the press as if it were a friend.

One question he receives from every batch of school kids he meets is, “Have you ever lost a finger?”

Nope. Not as a press operator or as a tool and die maker. The press uses 160 tons of pressure to make the silver medallions.

“There wouldn’t even be hamburger left,” he said. “It just would be gone.”

Hopple is a coin collector himself, with quite a few Carson City coins in his collection. He also has Egyptian coins dating back to 225 B.C., which sell for $25 to $35 each, but aren’t very attractive. Each emperor had his own coins, coins that were made in the millions. In those days, screw presses were used to make coins. Children were used to move the coins in and out of the presses.

It wasn’t until about the 15th Century that design and press techniques were advanced enough to make attractive coins, he said.

His first piece of advice for any new collector is never clean a coin. That immediately will diminish its value.

The most medallions Hopple has made in a day is 535.

But that was with three people feeding him material. He ended up physically beaten. Now he limits his work to about 250 a day. So he will be working a lot to keep up with the demand for state medallions.

The silver medallions sell for $100.50 each, while copper medallions — made at the private Northwest Territorial Mint in Dayton — go for $15.

While most people refer to the medallions as coins, the U.S. Constitution prevents states from making any form of money. So call them medallions.

That doesn’t mean the medallions don’t have value. The 1-ounce silver medallions contain about $22 worth of silver. And Hopple has noticed on eBay that many of the medallions he has created now sell for more than their original prices.

As for the sesquicentennial coins — with the state seal on one side and a state map with “150” stamped on the other — Hopple doesn’t think they are up to a high enough standard. He hopes that the Sesquicentennial Commission takes more time and uses more imagination in the designs of the three other 150th anniversary coins that it will create over the next year.

He said the state treasurer’s office did it right in 2005 when it held a contest to select the design of the state quarter. People picked a design of wild horses running across the desert. The U.S. Mint made the Nevada quarter in 2006 as part of the 50 state quarters program.

Hopple became the operator of Press No. 1 by his tool and dye skills.

In 2002, the old machine broke down. State Archaeologist Gene Hattori knew of his background and asked him to make a part to fix the press.

“I made the part and fixed it. He said ‘How would you like to run it? You run it, you break it, you fix it.’”

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.