KITTIE WELLS BONNER
The information below has been compiled from a variety of sources. If the reader has access to information that can be documented and that will correct or add to this woman’s biographical information, please contact the Nevada Women’s History Project.
At A Glance:
Born: January 3, 1901, Chiloquin, Oregon
Died: January 27, 1985, Fallon, Nevada
maiden name: Kittie Wells
Race/Nationality/Ethnic Background: Caucasian
Married: George Bonner, 1926
Primary City and County of Residence and Work:
Smith Creek Valley and Austin, Lander County, Nevada
Major Fields of Work: community activist and volunteer, deputy sheriff, newspaper correspondent
Other Role Indentities: Boardinghouse owner, cook, town barber, honorary constable, Past Worthy Matron of the Order of Eastern Star, 1977 UNR Distinguished Nevadan Award, Wife, Mother, Grandmother.
Kittie Wells was born on January 3, 1901, in Chiloquin, Oregon. As a young girl, Kittie came to Nevada in a covered wagon with her aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Bill Spencer. The family settled in the Dixie Valley area. There, Kittie met George Bonner, a foreman on the Williams ranch at Clan Alpine. Kittie and George were married in 1926. Soon after their marriage, Governor Balzar selected George to establish a fish hatchery at Smith Creek, and in September 1929, the Bonners and their year-old son Richard moved to the Valley. The hatchery was 42 miles from the nearest town. When they first arrived at the hatchery site, construction of the hatchery was the first priority. Housing for Kittie, George, Richard, and the eleven-man crew hired to help in the hatchery was a distant second. Everyone lived in tents, and Kittie cooked for the whole crew. Fortunately, they had plenty of good fresh water.
The family enjoyed life at the fish hatchery and things were running smoothly until Christmas week of 1931, when a blizzard set in. it was just the beginning of a bitter winter. When the weather finally cleared, the snow was six feet on the level and up to sixteen feet in drifts. They couldn’t even get as far as the nearest ranch, five miles away.
Kittie thought they had plenty of food supplies, but they were not prepared for the length of the hard winter. George had brought supplies from Austin just before Christmas and also brought back a trapper named Manuel. In January, a wild mare, a mule colt, and a gelding showed up at the ranch and were fed what hay and grain the Bonners had on hand. During a lull in the storm, Manuel rode the gelding to Reese River Valley to get help for the Bonners, but no one listened to his appeal. Instead he was pressed into a road clearing crew. Twenty days later Manuel was finally able to return to Smith Creek Valley with supplies. The snow seemed to continue forever. Manuel made it out again on a pair of homemade skis, taking with him a letter Kittie had written to a radio station telling of their desperate situation. At this point they were down to just a few beans. A Southern California station picked up the story, and it was through this broadcast that the Lander County Commissioners finally heard of the family’s predicament.
The hatchery was closed in 1942, and the family moved back to Austin. They lived in an adobe house George inherited from his mother. Soon Kittie turned the adobe into a boarding house that served a family-style dinner for just 50 cents a person. The mines had reopened to produce minerals critical to the war effort, but the cafes had all closed. Once again, Kittie came to the rescue.
The Bonners lived in the old family adobe house for the remainder of their lives. After George’s death in 1964, Kittie became quite a collector and the recipient of almost everything people in the town didn’t want. One item was the town barber chair, which the executor of the barber’s estate said was “too good to throw away.” That is how Kittie became the town barber! She couldn’t charge for haircuts because she wasn’t a licensed barber, but she had a plate on a table near the door for donations.
Kittie was the only aid to the volunteer ambulance service, as well as a deputy sheriff, and until her death she held a badge as honorary constable. Kittie was always there to help those in need. She was the chairman of the Austin Chapter of the American Red Cross and was a longtime member and Past Worthy Matron of the Order of the Eastern Star. She was a talented poet and painter, and worked as a correspondent for the Fallon newspaper for 30 years. She was a great cook, providing a hot meal for anyone in need. The people of Austin remembered her for the birthday cakes she used to bake and for the way that she always brought a bit of cottage cheese to friends and neighbors.
Kittie once appeared on the television show “To Tell the Truth.” The panel had to choose which of the three women questioned was the real sheriff of Austin, Nevada. In May of 1977, Kittie Bonner was chosen to receive the Distinguished Nevadan Award. At the UNR commencement exercises that year, Mrs. Bonner was presented with the award and was commended for her “…significant achievements contributing to the advancement of our State and Nation, and for exceptional service to the well-being of humanity.” The Austin newspaper editor published a letter from a fan who said, “If everyone were like Kittie Bonner, this would be the most beautiful world in which to live.”
Kittie Wells Bonner died on January 27, 1985 in a Fallon hospital and was buried in Austin. She was survived by her son Richard, four granddaughters, one grandson, and fourteen great-grandchildren.
Researched and written by Jean Spiller. Posted to the Web site January 2011.
Sources of Information:
- Blair, Minnie P. Papers, 1914; 1947; 1961-70. Special Collections. University of Nevada, Reno.
- Distinguished Nevadans, Commencement Exercises, University of Nevada, Reno, May 14, 1977.
- Doughty, Nanelia S., “Kittie Bonner and the Comical Town.” The Nevadan, October 8, 1972.
- Miles, Evelyn Madsen, “A Teacher’s Perspective of Austin, Nevada: 1932-1936.” Oral history conducted by Nancy Myers, Oral History Program, University of Nevada, Reno. C1983.
- “Services are Held for Kittie Wells Bonner.” Reese River Reveille, Vol. 121, No. 6, February 7, 1985.