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Time Warp : 'The Valmy Badger' Reigns Out in the Middle of Nowhere

November 27, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

VALMY, Nev. — Valmy is pure nostalgia, a leftover from the 1930s, an out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere, two-lane-highway road stop similar to those that dotted the desert landscape of the Southwest years ago.

For 55 years Eugene DiGrazia--"The Valmy Badger"--has operated the same yellow clapboard Shell station-general store-Greyhound bus depot topped by an antique neon sign proclaiming "Valmy Auto Court."

DiGrazia, 74, also has more years of continuous service as a postmaster than anyone else in the West--53 years running the hole-in-the-wall Valmy Post Office, which is housed in an old miner's shack with postal boxes dating back to 1900.

Appointed Under F.D.R.

His appointment, signed by James Farley, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's postmaster general, and dated Dec. 24, 1934, is tacked to the wall. He actually operated the post office for two years before that but did not legally become postmaster until he reached the minimum required age of 21.

(Only Lillian Bowles, 76, postmaster of Wonalancet, N.H., since September, 1932, and Archie Wardeski, 75, postmaster since November, 1933, of Irondale, Ohio, have been on the job longer than DiGrazia, according to the U.S. Postal Service.)

And DiGrazia is also owner-operator of Valmy Water Co., distributor of free water from an old 10,000-gallon galvanized iron tank suspended above a well next to the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. In the old days the tank was used to water steam engines.

DiGrazia is also mayor, fire chief, dog catcher, ambulance driver--you name it, he's it--in Valmy, population 65, located off Interstate 80 in northern Nevada's lonely desert 315 miles from Salt Lake City and 200 miles from Reno.

He also owns a small cafe, Gene's Golden Grill; the six-unit $15-to-$23-a-night Valmy Auto Court motel, and the two trailer parks on the 63 acres within the Valmy city limits. All of the townspeople--gold miners, employees of a nearby power plant and DiGrazia's own five employees--live in mobile homes in the trailer parks.

Rock star Bruce Springsteen was so struck with the turn-back-the-clock flavor of Valmy when he drove through here several years ago that he had his picture taken sitting on a chair in front of DiGrazia's gas station-general store-bus depot.

The photograph was used on the cover of a limited-release 1981 album by Springsteen and his E Street Band. Amid the clutter of DiGrazia's memorabilia in the Valmy general store is one of the records signed: "To Eugene. Thanks, Bruce Springsteen."

Named for a Battle

"There has been a post office here since 1890. Nobody alive in these parts and none of the old-timers now dead ever could figure out why someone named this place Valmy--after a famous 1792 battle in France," DiGrazia said.

(In the battle, the French repelled an Austrian and Prussian invasion force.)

DiGrazia comes by his nickname "The Valmy Badger" because for years he has used that name for a column he writes "about my neck of the woods" for the weekly Battle Mountain Bugle, published in a small town 15 miles down the road.

He married his wife, Julia, 49 years ago. She lived in the tiny mining town of Golconda, 15 miles in the other direction. The two of them worked together "keeping Valmy afloat" all through the years.

The Whole Works

"An old schoolmarm owned Valmy. I bought the gas station, store, post office, bus depot--the whole works--from her when I was 19 for $1,800. There was $300 worth of groceries in the store at the time. I later bought 140 acres surrounding the place for $2,100," recalled DiGrazia.

"The station had only one pump and in the beginning cars and trucks were few and far between. A narrow two-lane road went through here. Gas sold for 25 cents a gallon. I paid 19 1/2 cents for it. . . . Bread sold for 10 cents a loaf, milk 10 cents a gallon."

Many of his regulars when he first started in 1932 were prospectors who rode in to Valmy from their diggings on burros.

"President Herbert Hoover stopped here in 1940. He was interested in a gold mine near here. He bought gas, bought some candy and used the out-house. He stood around and talked for a while," DiGrazia said.

Telephone Link

That was three years before electricity came to Valmy.

"We saved for 12 years to get a telephone and have contact with the outside world," he said. "I bought 30 telephone poles for $1,500 in 1942 and a friend and I strung a wire along the poles for 2 1/2 miles to tie in with the main telephone line." He still has three old crank phones.

In addition to everything else he has done in this tiny dot in Nevada's desert, DiGrazia, father of two sons and eight times a grandfather, drove a county school bus for 35 years, until he was 65. "I drove over a million miles without an accident. Not even a flat tire," he says proudly.

He has raised the American flag over the gas station every morning since taking over, when he and eight railroad workers were the only residents here.

"In winter it gets colder than blazes and in summer hotter than hell, but I love it," DiGrazia says. "I never want to retire. If I did, I don't know what the hell I would do.

"Whatever happens, as long as I live, I want Valmy to stay just as it is today, which isn't much different than what it was when I first came here."

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