Old-timers still remember Elmer “Slim” Von Schaible. Because once you met Elmer, you could hardly forget him!
For one thing, Elmer stood an astonishing six-foot-seven-inches tall. For another, he eked out a primitive existence in the Eastern Sierra hills for more than 20 years. His camp site shifted with the seasons and his whims, rotating from the Pine Nuts to Truckee, and from Mammoth Lakes to Tahoe. Elmer’s constant companions were his beloved Siberian Husky sled dogs – as many as thirty of them at a time.
Elmer was born in California in 1912. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he eventually moved to Nevada. There, in 1950, he traded a $600 car for five Husky sled dogs. And that investment changed his life. Now living in Truckee, Elmer began raising and breeding Huskies, and launched into search and rescue work.
In one epic rescue, Elmer and his dogs joined other rescuers battling to reach a snowbound train during an “epic snow” at Donner Summit in early 1952. Elmer and his friend Lloyd Van Sickle brought in food, blankets, medical supplies – and a doctor – by dog sled.
Elmer’s dog sled won an award in the 1956 Nevada Day Parade at Carson City. But it may have been the colorful, larger-than-life Elmer himself that attracted the most attention.
Television producers somehow got a whiff of Elmer’s story. In November, 1956, he appeared with Groucho Marx on “You Bet Your Life”. (And you can still hear this gentle giant speaking about himself in this great clip of the show on YouTube).
By 1958 Elmer and his dogs had been credited with completing as many as 200 winter rescues. True magazine ran a profile of Elmer that winter, describing him as the “Saviour Giant of the Sierras.”
Over his lifetime, he became something of a jack-of-all trades. Before World War II, he delivered newspapers and worked as a construction “driller” in California and Oregon.
He lent a hand on Carson Valley ranches from time to time, winning a reputation as a “tireless” worker. He worked for Douglas County briefly in the 1960s, earning $88.50 assisting Gardnerville “Town Man” Albert Bohlman. He toiled as a heavy-equipment mechanic. He cut timber at the Lake. And in his off-time, he enjoyed “refreshments and wagering on Keno” at the Carson City Nugget.
But what he loved most were his dogs. Elmer and his canine companions were “on call” for the U.S. Coast Guard in case of emergencies anywhere in the west, and he served as a proud member of Gardnerville’s “Search & Rescue” unit. In wintertime he and his dogsleds not only rendered aid to travelers lost in the mountains but also delivered groceries to snowed-in towns.
Elmer would supplement his income by giving “dude” rides on his dog sleds at winter resorts, and speaking at sportsmen’s shows. He traveled all over the Sierra, lecturing on rescue techniques and discussing the Husky breed. Despite motorized equipment, he’d tell listeners, dog sleds remained the only practical form of transportation in severe weather. He often brought his dogs along to engagements, too, thanks to a specially-outfitted bus.
In December, 1952, Elmer and his rag-tag retinue stopped in briefly at a Safeway store in Santa Clarita, CA on their way to a snow-rescue exhibition in San Gabriel. Intrigued by the strange caravan, a reporter captured the occasion for the local paper.
Elmer drew immediate attention for his height. Clad in “travel-stained Levis,” a checkered shirt, and moccasins, and, towering “a foot taller than anybody on the sidewalk.” And just how tall was he, the reporter asked? “Just say five feet nineteen inches,” Elmer grinned.
In addition to a large, yellow bus, Elmer’s traveling party included a smaller panel truck (also yellow) and a Jeep. Strapped to the top of his bus were two dog sleds. The front of the larger bus had been partitioned inside into 15 wire cages, each holding a large, furry canine.
Elmer was eager to discuss his rescue efforts with the reporter, and most of all, talk about his dogs and dog sled rescues. Huskies were unique among breeds, he contended, because they lacked the typical doggy smell. The thick tufts of fur between their toes gave them the canine equivalent of built-in snowshoes. And describing his rescue work, Elmer claimed to have invented a “chemical heat unit” to help thaw out frozen snow victims.
Elmer was married at least four times, and those unions were blessed with several children. Sadly, none of his marriages lasted terribly long. But Elmer wasn’t lonely.
By 1955 he had nearly 30 dogs, and camped out with them year-round. His primary camp at the time was located on Clear Creek near the junction of Highways 50 and 395. When winter rolled around he’d head up into “snow country” near Tahoe or Mammoth Lakes, where he could be of maximum assistance. His trusty bus came in handy for those seasonal migrations.
Elmer passed away in November, 1976 at a Reno hospital. He was just 64 years old. He was buried at Lone Mountain Cemetery.
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