PANACA — Nevadans will celebrate 150 years of statehood on Oct. 31, but residents of a small town near the state’s eastern border are getting two sesquicentennials in one year.
Panaca, an agricultural enclave in Lincoln County, 165 miles northeast of Las Vegas, this week is celebrating the birth of Southern Nevada’s first permanent settlement in 1864, give or take a few years lost to a border dispute.
Mormon pioneers moved to the area when William Hamblin, a Mormon missionary to the Paiute Indian Tribe, established the Panacker Ledge silver mine, borrowing the Paiute word for metals, money and wealth. Francis Lee and his wife, Jane Vail Johnson, founded the town in May of that year, five months before Nevada became a state.
It’s no coincidence that Panacans chose July 24 — Utah’s annual Pioneer Day state holiday celebration — as the official date of the town’s founding because the community once was a part of Utah.
In 1866, Congress was petitioned to shift the Nevada-Utah border by a degree of longitude. That was just enough to move the town into Nevada.
Town residents reacted the way any independent-minded pioneer would — by refusing to acknowledge the border shift or pay taxes to Lincoln County or the state of Nevada. Residents came around by 1870 after a series of surveys and legal claims were filed.
The town grew as settlers built coke ovens to make charcoal for smelters and cultivated food for workers living in the nearby mining town of Bullionville, now a ghost town.
Today, many of the 900 residents of Panaca still live the agrarian lifestyle or provide services to tourists as the gateway to a cluster of state parks, including nearby Cathedral Gorge.
“Farming and ranching is really about the only real industry we have here,” said Nate Katschke, owner of the Panaca Market.
Katschke, who was born in nearby Caliente, reared in Panaca and attended Brigham Young University, decided to return to the town with his family because he enjoys the rural lifestyle so much.
It doesn’t bother him that the nearest movie theater is about 1½ hours away in St. George or Cedar City, Utah, because he and most of his friends and family enjoy the hiking and off-road vehicle trails the area has in abundance.
“It’s not a bad place to raise kids,” Katschke said.
The town’s most distinguishing landmark is Court Rock, a monolithic formation near Lincoln County High School that once was the site of the town’s jail. It’s not named for any courthouse building, but instead is a place where Panacans court their ladies.
Across Main Street from the Panaca Market is Panaca’s Town Hall, which is being refurbished and this week will be the site of the unveiling of a statue of Francis Lee and Jane Vail Johnson.
Linda Lee, who chairs the Panaca Heritage Center and is a great-great-great granddaughter of the founders, has been working for months to prepare for the Panaca sesquicentennial event, which began Tuesday but will be packed with events Friday and Saturday.
The celebration will be highlighted by a hot air balloon festival, a Main Street parade, a sesquicentennial quilt display, an art show, the presentation of an original play about Panaca, a series of races for children of all ages, book signings, breakfasts, dinners and a Saturday night fireworks display.
Lee wrote a book about the life and times of Panaca after 1964’s centennial celebration. She has a few laments about how the town has changed since then, but still wouldn’t trade if for a life somewhere else.
“I don’t think it’s as pretty as it was,” she said. “When we had the centennial, our main street was lined with cottonwood trees. They had to come down when the highway was widened.”
She enjoys the sense of community the town shares and insists that it isn’t all about the LDS Church’s strong presence, since 40 percent of the residents aren’t members of the Mormon faith.
“We have four seasons, and children can wander freely around town,” Lee said. “There’s no traffic, no lines, no congestion. What’s not to like about that?”
Contact reporter Richard N. Velotta at email@example.com or 702-477-3893. Follow him on Twitter @RickVelotta.