Michael J. Makley: Bringing history to life
Michael J. Makley made a career out of teaching history to high school students.
Today, the longtime Woodfords resident continues to teach as he brings history to life as an author who over the past quarter-century has written eight books on the Lake Tahoe region and Western Nevada.
Among his highlights is “Infamous King of the Comstock: William Sharon and the Gilded Age in the West,” which won Foreword magazine’s 2007 Silver Award for biography. In 2010 Makley collaborated with his son, Dr. Matthew S. Makley, a Douglas High School graduate and currently a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
For Makley, who taught high school social studies and English for 34 years in South Lake Tahoe, writing and history are two of his passions.
“Actually, yes, this something I thought I’d like to do,” said Makley, a 1966 South Tahoe graduate who also served as an assistant football coach at his alma mater and at Douglas High. “As I got more toward the end of my career, and especially if I wasn’t coaching, I would be writing because it was fun. Since I retired, I’ve really been able to devote time to it and I’ve been able to do these books as well.”
His writing does bring history to life. Just ask Mark Twain impressionist McAvoy Layne, who was quick to reference “Infamous King of the Comstock” and “John Mackay: Silver King in the Gilded Age,” which chronicled the lives of Comstock legends William Sharon and John MacKay.
“Oh, absolutely; I think he really identifies with the subject he’s writing about,” said Layne, an Incline Village resident. “After I read Mike’s two books, I disliked Sharon every bit as much as I liked Mackay.”
Sharon is remembered as a Comstock businessman (the Bank of California representative on the Comstock) and later U.S. Senator from Nevada in 1875-81. And Mackay was one of the Comstock Lode’s bonanza kings. The two represent a stark contrast when it comes to their legacies.
“William Sharon was a shrewd businessman, but in a way, he was the biggest villain on the Comstock,” Makley said. “And Mackay was the biggest hero on the Comstock; he worked his way up from being a day wage miner to one of the richest men in the world.”
Another study of contrasts can be found in “The Hanging of Lucky Bill,” a story Makley tells about William Thorington and his 1858 hanging at Clear Creek Ranch in Jacks Valley.
“For well over 100 years, people have argued whether his execution was an act of justice or murder,” Makley said. “Lucky Bill was brought before a vigilante court (on murder charges), but he was a Robin Hood, people loved him. Finding two opposite accounts of the same event, I realized what a fascinating story it was.”
Makley then referred to a letter of support that was written for Lucky Bill during the trial.
“That’s what’s fun about these things. You start doing the research and you’re holding this kind of letter and it brings the past right into your hands,” he said.
“Cave Rock” was the culmination of research into a dispute between the Washoe Tribe and rock climbers that extended over a period of at least 15 years. On one side, the Washoe hold Cave Rock as sacred grounds. On the other was the right of climbers to use public lands.
“It’s such a beautiful spot, right on the shore, but it was so sacred,” Makley said. “And to the climbers it was a world class climbing spot. People from around the world were coming to use it.”
The case was ultimately heard by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals before a decision was made in favor of the Washoe, based on Cave Rock’s cultural significance.
Layne recalled one experience he had after reading Makley’s book and was on his way to South Shore — dressed as Mark Twain, of course.
“He got me worked up so much,” McAvoy mused. “One day I saw these guys in climbing gear at Cave Rock and I said, ‘You shouldn’t be climbing on someone’s church.’ One of them said, ‘I know who you are.’ I thought he was referring to my white suit, but then he says, ‘You’re Mike Makley’s friend.’ And it turned out they had been hired to climb up there and take the metal out of the rock.”
The issue of public lands is also the topic of Makley’s most recent book, “Open Spaces, Open Rebellion: The War over America’s Public Lands,” which he says will be published by the University of Massachusetts Press in the spring or fall of 2017.
“It starts with Theodore Roosevelt protecting parks and lands and comes through all the way forward to the Sagebrush Rebellion and through the other conflicts that have gone on through the years,” Makley said. “That really is an interesting issue across the nation, especially the West. The Sagebrush Rebellion didn’t end, it just sort of petered out. That’s why it’s never been resolved to a lot of folks.
“There have been efforts since Theodore Roosevelt to get this (lands bills) through; two presidents have looked to move public lands to states, Hoover and then Reagan, and neither was successful. Which lands are to be turned over to the states is a huge question. Which lands are we talking about?”
Makley continues to enjoy reading — he refers to “Morgan’s Tahoe,” written by William Morgan (formerly of U.S. Forest Service and executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency) and “Lake Tahoe’s Rustic Architecture” by Peter Mires as two of his favorite books on Tahoe — and he continues to search for his own next project.
“It has been book to book,” he said. “That’s the way it was in writing about William Sharon, which then led me to John Mackay. So each book has been a progression.”