Emma Wixom Nevada
At a glance:
Birth: February 7, 1859, Alpha mining camp near Nevada City, California
Emma Wixom was born February 7, 1859 in the Alpha mining camp near Nevada City, California, but in the spring of 1864 she moved with her family to Austin, Nevada, where her father, Dr. William Wixom, started a practice as a physician. Emma soon became a center of attention in what was then Nevada’s second-largest city, an isolated silver mining boomtown in the rugged mountains of central Nevada.
Emma first received public applause at age five, when she marched in the historic Gridley Sack of Flour Parade. The parade is significant because it may have led to the first national fundraising gimmick for a charitable organization. The Gridley parade started as a result of a political bet between Austin grocer Reuel Gridley and Dr. R. Herrick. The loser of the wager was to buy and deliver a fifty-pound sack of flour to the winner. Gridley lost the bet, and consequently, with the Austin Brass Band tooting, city officials cheering, flags flying, whistles blowing, and an assembly of enthusiastic, fun-loving Austin residents following him, Gridley marched the length of the city’s main street to Clifton in Lower Austin. Little Emma Wixom joined this entertaining parade and sang “John Brown’s Body,” to the great pleasure of the crowd. In Clifton, the parade stopped at the Bank Exchange Saloon for refreshments and then retraced its steps back uphill to the Grimes and Gibson Saloon. Here the patriotically decorated sack of flour was auctioned off, then given back to the auctioneer and sold repeatedly, raising $4,549 for the Sanitary Fund, a fund to help Civil War wounded and sick. Emma’s father may have been one of the auctioneers.
This story hit the newspapers, and upon the urging of Mark Twain, an old friend from Missouri, Gridley brought the sack of flour to the Comstock area and, with great pomp and hilarity, again sold the sack of flour many times. From the Comstock area he proceeded to Sacramento and San Francisco, where he sailed to the East Coast. His journey ended one year later at the St. Louis World’s Fair. In the interim, Gridley had raised as much as $275,000 for the Sanitary Fund, forerunner of the American Red Cross. The Gridley Sack of Flour can be seen at the Nevada Historical Society in Reno.
After Emma’s debut in the parade, her father encouraged her singing, and she was often found vocalizing in the doorways of the town’s streets. At age ten, her pure soprano voice was again noticed when she sang with international vocalist Baron von Netzer in Austin’s Methodist Church. Emma was a member of the church choir and attended Sunday School there.
Emma was only twelve when her mother died, so Dr. Wixom sent Emma to Mills Seminary (College) in Oakland, California, where she was further educated in music and language. She studied German, French, Italian, and Spanish; this background as a linguist eventually led her to learn to sign for the deaf and to speak Washoe, Paiute, and Shoshone. It was at Mills that Emma Wixom, not too scholarly, not too pretty, near-sighted, and somewhat stout and having questionable taste in clothing, sang whenever and wherever she was asked. Soon she was attracting enthusiastic crowds from Oakland and San Francisco to listen to her beautiful crystalline soprano voice.
Emma became friends with a music teacher at Mills, Dr. Adrian Ebell. Dr. Ebell and his wife arranged to take Emma with them to Europe, where she could receive serious training as a singer under the direction of Madame Marchesi in Paris and Vienna. When Dr. Ebell died during the trip, Emma remained in Europe to complete her training. She was sustained by funds given by friends in California and Nevada. In 1880, Emma made her singing debut in London and adopted the stage name of Emma Nevada in honor of her birthplace and home state. She continued touring engagements in France, Germany, and Italy. Her father went to Europe to handle Emma’s tours, and she became an instant success in operatic and musical circles throughout the world, often singing for kings and queens. Once, Queen Victoria gave Emma, a favorite of the queen, a diamond necklace said to be valued at $100,000.
In 1885, she returned to the United States with the Mapleson Opera Company. Dr. Raymond Palmer, an Englishman living in Paris, was now her manager. She sang to sold-out crowds throughout the country. Her performances in San Francisco were met with wild enthusiasm. She returned to her beloved Austin on a special train and was met by all the townspeople. Emma gave a concert to an overflowing crowd in Austin’s Methodist Church, where old-time miners again came down from the hills to hear her sing.
That same year, Emma and Dr. Palmer were married in Paris. Emma returned to the United States several times with opera companies and concert tours. In 1902, she honored Nevada City and Mills College with concerts, again attracting old-timers who had heard her as a child. Soon after, she retired from her brief but brilliant operatic career – with the one exception of singing at the coronation of George V in 1910. Emma had a daughter named Mignon whom she trained for a singing career. Emma Wixom Nevada lived in quiet retirement until her death in Liverpool, England, on June 26, 1940, at the age of 81.
Researched and written by Doris Drummond.
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