Margaret (Peg) Marean Wheat
At a glance:
Margaret Marean was born September 9, 1908, in Fallon, Nevada. Her parents were Stanley and Ruth Marean, pioneers in the Fallon area. Her father was born in Washington, D.C., in 1885. Upon completion of his education, he was offered an opportunity to work at the Newlands Reclamation Project in Western Nevada. He eagerly accepted. Later, he was to become the Water Master on the Newlands Project. He was an important figure in the Fallon area. Ruth followed later, arriving at the age of eighteen from Washington, D.C. and bringing in her belongings a twelve place setting of Haviland china. Stanley met Ruth at the train station in Reno and they traveled the sixty miles to Fallon by wagon. There they settled and raised their family of three children. Margaret , or "Peg," was the middle child. In later years, they moved to a farm out on what is now Highway 50, just three miles west of town.
Peg received her education in the Fallon public schools and at the University of Nevada, Reno. Completing two years of college in the field of geology, Peg left school to marry. Recognized as a self-taught geologist and anthropologist, her field work experiences ranged from working for the U.S. Geological Survey to protecting important cave sites from vandals. Nevada State Museum hired her for archaeological field work. She also worked on water resource projects for the Desert Research Institute. A special interest in the Ichthyosaur area near the mining camp of Berlin, Nevada, involved her with the Nevada State Park System. The major portion of Peg's research was devoted to the Northern Paiute Indians. She recorded a history of these people, their arts and their lifes' ways.
Peg married William Hatton, the son of Judge Hatton, of Tonopah, Nevada. Her mother-in-law was not supportive of the marriage because it interrupted her son's education. The couple lived in the Fallon area. They had four children; Bill, Jack, Sylvia, and Don. Two years after Don's birth, Peg and William were divorced in 1937.
Not long after her divorce, Peg married Wendel Wheat. They stayed in the Fallon area, buying a place on the Carson River. Mr. Wheat was a modern day version of a mountain man. He had been with the Civilian Conservation Camp (CCC) camp when he met Peg. He and his new wife wandered the desert together and he introduced Peg to a broader view of the Great Basin. She began to develop her interests in caves, fossils and the Indians.
Peg's field work took her out of her home almost daily. She left many of the housekeeping jobs to her daughter, Sylvia, who, by the age of nine had the main responsibility of her younger brothers. It was said that Peg never cleaned house. One year the river flooded their home, and it was commented that now maybe Peg would clean out the front room. One of Peg's boys showed up for a school graduation without the required white shirt. A correct shirt was quickly supplied from someone's home. Peg probably never knew about the incident or even attended the ceremony.
The Wheats were always short of money, so Peg hired out on odd jobs. She worked for the telephone company during World War II. She also house-sat at Lake Tahoe for a year or so. Once, when she needed to be in Los Angeles, she took a "nanny" position with friends. This enabled her to spend time at the Southwest Museum-the oldest museum in Los Angeles. Being a self-taught person, her odd jobs allowed her to be close to the experts in different scientific fields. For example, as camp cook for archeological digs, she was on the scene to enrich her inquiring mind.
In 1968, while working on a grant from the Fleischmann Foundation through the Foresta Institute, Peg was assigned to work at the Washoe Pines Enrichment Camp in Washoe Valley-an environmental camp for young teens. Peg would bring Wuzzie George, a Stillwater Paiute, to teach tule arts. "She would take the kids out in the field (the desert). Self-indulgence for anyone was OUT!"
When Peg wanted the local or State officials to listen to her about preserving an area or about doing something important, she was "persistent, wasn't above asking...using the family standing to bring political pressures." The only thing Peg found difficult to do was writing. Her daughter, Sylvia, who worked as a transcriber on her mother's book, found this ironic. She thought her mother could do anything.
Most of Wheat's life's work was devoted to recording the traditional arts and sacred beliefs of the northern Nevada Paiute tribes. Starting in the 1940s, she spent twenty years interviewing and photographing Paiute elders whose trust she gained, persuading them to recount their old ways before they were lost in time. Using a crude wire recorder and a box camera, she started recording what she saw, switching to tape recorders and 35-millimeter cameras when they became available. Her relaxed interviewing style was the key to the information she received. She was always respectful and sensitive as an interviewer. Yet her transcripts reveal her concentration on specific topics and a determination to get information without dominating the dialogues or alienating her Indian friends.
Reading up on the era and the events she wanted to cover, she was well prepared with questions, but seldom interjected her own views. This free-form technique worked well with elder Indians whose personal memories extended back to early settlement days. To stimulate conversation, Peg sometimes drove around the State with one of her Paiute acquaintances, recorder in hand, letting geographic features stir memory and association.
Indian research received a special boost from Wuzzie George, who was an important Paiute contact for Peg. Wuzzie and her husband, Jimmie, shared Peg's passion for preserving Paiute culture. They showed Peg how Paiutes built houses and boats from tules and cattails, how they wove baskets and how they gathered and processed pinenuts and how they made clothing from rabbit skins. Sylvia Jesch's statement about her mother's work with the Paiutes was that "her interest was in their culture as a history. She was not really concerned with the blending of the Indian and white cultures. Her attitude was to keep track of what she saw, saving a history."
While Peg was pursuing her anthropological studies, she also persuaded paleontologists from the University of California-Berkeley, in 1954, to excavate skeletons of ichthyosaurs, giant fish-like reptiles, that inhabited Nevada when it was covered by a sea, 185 million years ago. Later, as a member of the Nevada Parks Commission, appointed by Governor Grant Sawyer, she was instrumental in getting the state to acquire and preserve the area as The Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park.
Through her knowledge of Indian culture, Peg also led archeologists to several caves used by ancient man, including the famous Hidden Cave, east of Fallon. This cave is on land administered by the Bureau of Land Management which has set it aside for research and public tours. She also assisted numerous other archeological projects, including the Nevada State Museum's Tule Springs dig, which established evidence of Paleo-Indian culture dating back 11,000 years.
Peg's 1967 book, Survival Arts of the Primitive Paiutes, stands as the definitive record for the ingenious technology that the Paiutes developed in order to eke an existence from the limited resources of the dry Great Basin. At the first annual Ladies of the Press Luncheon, Peg was honored as an outstanding Nevada woman writer for 1969. She received the award from the Reno Professional Club and the Nevada Library Association.
As part of the Fleischmann/Foresta grant, several thousand feet of film was shot in 1964 and 1979. This film depicts Paiute lifeways and was compiled into a movie which was released in 1983. The film "Tule Technology: Northern Paiutes Uses of Marsh Resources in Western Nevada" was narrated by the granddaughter and grandson of Wuzzie and Jimmie George.
Although Peg dropped out of the University, she later found herself frequently lecturing at University classes. In 1980, she received an honorary doctorate of science degree from the University of Nevada.
Margaret "Peg" Wheat resided in Fallon until her death on August 28, 1988. She was remembered as recently as Arbor Day, 1991. Rancho San Rafael Botanical Plant Society honored her memory with the planting of a pinion pine tree. In attendance were about sixty of her family and friends. Among the guests were her brother, John Marean, and her daughter Sylvia. Kay Fowler and Art Mundt were the Society's board members who proposed Peg's name for the honor.
Biographical sketch by Sally Wilkins from research paper by Beverly Hubbard
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