It's noon on Constitution Day in Minden Park but people ask the time, because in recent weeks the siren that announced noon and 6 p.m. in the Douglas County seat has been silent.
For some, the siren has kept time in Minden through their entire lives, for others it is a symbol of racism enacted into past law. Either way, its silence hasn't gone unnoticed.
County Manager Dan Holler said the siren was turned off as a gesture to improve relations between the county and the Washoe Tribe.
Tribe members connect the 6 p.m. siren with a Douglas County ordinance enacted July 7, 1908, requiring all Indians to be out of Gardnerville by sunset. The ordinance remained on the books until it was repealed along with 66 other provisions on June 27, 1974.
The original ordinance said that any Indians remaining in Gardnerville, except those employed as servants, would be declared a public nuisance after sunset.
The sun rarely goes down precisely at 6 p.m. in Carson Valley. According to the U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department, sunset on the day commissioners approved the ordinance in 1908 was at 7:26 p.m., which was prior to the implementation of daylight savings. Sunset on the day they repealed the ordinance was 8:26 p.m. The last time the siren and sunset coincided this year was March 9.
"The Washoe Tribe has often brought it up as a concern," Holler said. "It's not unique that we've heard it is a connection they've made to it. It is a cultural issue for them."
Like the ordinance, the siren was a product of a bygone day, according to East Fork Fire & Paramedic Districts Chief Tod Carlini.
"A lot of the volunteers worked at the phone company back then," he said. "They took bits and pieces and built the controls for it at the phone company."
That meant the mechanism that controlled the timing of the siren was locked inside the Verizon building, which is now automated, making getting in for the time change an issue. That's why county officials couldn't just silence the 6 p.m. siren.
"The system itself is quite antiquated," he said. "The whistle is more nostalgic, something we're used to hearing. It doesn't serve a public safety purpose."
Minden resident Marlena Hellwinkel said the siren was part of what makes the town special.
"It's a tradition," she said. "I don't think this is something we should lose. I miss it."
Minden town board member and former County Manager Bob Hadfield said he has heard from numerous residents asking why the siren was silent.
"Our position is that the county's negotiations with the Washoe Tribe have nothing to do with what we believe is an important part of Minden's cultural heritage," he said. "None of us know the history other than to let people know when noon and 6 p.m. come."
Hadfield questioned the connection between the ordinance and the siren.
"It has been 99 years since the commissioners passed some ordinance relating to tribal members having to be out of town at sunset and that ordinance has long since been repealed. Nobody we talked to knew any connection between the fire bell and any ordinance. Conceding that this is somehow related to a demand by the Washoe Tribe to make some sort of concessions simply raises an issue that has long since been dead."
In a Sept. 11 memo to Douglas County commissioners, Holler said there are several issues the county is working with the Tribe on, including a new road between the Gardnerville Ranchos and Highway 395, commercial interest near the Smoke Shop on Highway 395, commercial development of tribal lands in north Douglas County and a variety of other issues.
Besides those issues, Holler pointed out that the Washoe are constituents in the county.
"They are just like any other county constituents," he said. "We tend to talk about embracing diversity and mutual respect for all of our residents. If a large group of residents came to us with a concern like this, we would attempt to address that concern."
Hadfield said the town is willing to take control of the siren to keep it going because it is important to them.
"That's how we know to start our meetings on time," he said. "It's an old whistle, the controls are in need of repair anyway. But if the county doesn't want to accept responsibility for that, we'd be happy to participate, We've made the offer to participate financially."
Hellwinkel said the siren was an important part of Minden town life for many decades.
"Everyone at my house was glad to hear that siren blow," she said. "It blew at noon and 6 p.m. to let us know it was time to eat. I don't think it is something we should lose and I miss it."
Former Carson Valley fire chief Dar Ellis said the siren has moved all over Minden, starting out on top of the Minden Flour Mill.
"It was first put up on the flour mill building," he said. "You could see a platform unless they've taken it down. Then they moved it to the old Minden Bank. It was a different siren then, a horizontal type. They bought the one they have now a long time ago."
Ellis said the noon and 6 p.m. siren confirmed the device was working. Fire stations all over the East Fork district have sirens to alert the volunteers when there is a fire.
"They ran it at noon and at night as a test only," he said.
Holler said there is no objection to the noon siren blowing, but that a new mechanism would be required to operate it.
Carlini said the cost of purchasing the equipment to operate the siren at noon would be about $400.