Twenty Miles From a Match:
Homesteading in Western Nevada,

Sarah E. Olds,
University of Nevada Press, 1978

Twenty Miles From a Match tells the story of a pioneer family in northern Nevada from 1908 to 1923. They started homesteading in the horse and wagon era and carried through into the automobile age. It is a charming story that emphasizes just how much life has changed in the past 100 years.

Sarah Elizabeth Thompson came west to join her older brothers and sisters at the age of 21 in 1897. As the youngest daughter, Sarah had cared for her aging parents until they died in Iowa. An accomplished cook and seamstress, she sought work in the mining camps, ending up near Sonora. There she met A.J. Olds, an older miner from a distinguished California family. His grandfather had owned 8000 acres in Marin County near Olema, and his father was a member of the Constitutional Convention for California.
After they married, A.J. and Sarah Olds followed the gold strikes until silicosis made it impossible for A.J. to continue to work in the mines. As a result, their six children were born in Sonora, Arizona, Virginia City, and the last three in Reno. In 1908, they staked a claim on property north of Reno on the way to Pyramid Lake.

The house they built started as a simple one, with two rooms and an attached pantry. A.J. thought of it as a hunting lodge for him and his friends, but Sarah always planned to live there, too. She solved A.J.’s final objection to the move when she organized her four school-age children and three neighboring children into a school district. The State provided funds for a teacher as long as a schoolroom was available. This was quickly added to the house to serve as a classroom during the day and the teacher’s bedroom at night. Over the years, Sarah was successful in hiring a series of teachers who fit right in with the rustic lifestyle.

There were a few other neighbor families, but the area was mostly populated by cowboys who made a living herding cattle and breaking wild horses (whose progeny still roam the area) for sale in Reno. The neighbors looked out for each other, helping whenever necessary. They also created their own fun, organizing gatherings and dances as the children grew older.
The title of the book comes from an incident that occurred when Sarah was on her way to Reno with a sick child. Halfway there, she stopped at the abandoned Twenty Mile House to rest and water her horse. Hoping to make a quick cup of coffee, she got prepared to light the stove, only to realize that she was “twenty miles from a match!” This incident is representative of the almost complete isolation of the family in the early years on the homestead.

“Mom” Olds, as she was known, was the driving force behind the success of the family. She had a vision and limitless drive. A.J. was intermittently “bedfast” but also came through with significant contributions at critical times.

As time went on, the family extended its land holdings, enlarged the house, and increased the size of their herd. They did everything possible to be successful in the Nevada desert. The children kept poultry, trapped and shot game, grew hay and other crops, trapped and sold coyote pelts, and made their own clothes. This is a remarkable story of frontier ingenuity and perseverance in the face of great odds.

Reviewed by Tom Burns