Washoe Valley’s San Antonio Ranch

WVI once asked a friend who knows northern Nevada like the back of his hand: How I possibly could drive a school bus through Franktown Road for three years, five days a week morning and evening during my college days, in the early 1960s, yet not know where the San Antonio Ranch is?

For Pete’s sake, its entrance is flanked by massive rock portals with a prominent “San Antonio Ranch” sign.

He allayed my fear of the onset of senility by telling me that neither the sign nor the portals were there back in those dark ages — the place was pretty well hidden for reasons that will become obvious in the next few paragraphs.

This duet of columns was triggered by Lavender Ridge, west of Reno on old Highway 40, leading to a search for a lavender field south of town which, in turn, produced a fleeting reference in an old Nevada Highways magazine to a San Antonio Ranch.

The Nevada Historical Society was bereft of any scent of lavender or the ranch. Reader Larry Garside helped me with its location. Thanks to readers Joyce McCarty and Muffy Greil Vhay, both with roots in Washoe Valley, you’ve alread read here of the Famel lavender fields, which did indeed exist in the 1940s.

The December 1947 Nevada Magazine pays minor homage to the San Antonio Rancho, a fortresslike home built by a wealthy but unnamed Easterner who came to our Silver State fearing abduction and thus built an abduction-proof hacienda for himself.

Reading between the lines San Antonio might just have been Tony from Brooklyn with Guido hot on his trail. He wouldn’t have been the first to come to our state for refuge. But that’s not the way it happened.

The spread was initially 2,500 acres, give or take, located near the south end of Washoe Valley. It enclosed the former lavender field and is easily visible looking eastward from the 6400 block of Franktown Road.

While “San Antonio Ranch Road” appears on a standard-appearing green county sign, the road is in fact private, and its inclusion in this column shouldn’t encourage an uninvited tour.

This prime acreage in Washoe Valley was acquired in 1932 from I-don’t-know-who, maybe the State of Nevada, byLavender pickup Ralph Elsman, a wealthy New Jersey businessman who later became the president and principal owner of the San Jose Water Company. Joyce Crowson Cox in her wonderful book Washoe County, which I loaned out and haven’t seen since, might know the grantor on that deed.

Elsman came to Nevada to seek a divorce and just stayed on, Pardner, motivated by Nevada’s tax structure. Local and Bay Area newspaper clips are unanimous that the huge home he built on the ranch resembled a fortress, owing to a fear of abduction of his children. That fear was spawned by the Lindbergh kidnapping a year earlier and heightened because his estranged wife, Beatrice, had shown a predilection to spirit off the couple’s two children.

At this point in our yarn, the casual reader might wonder how an entry-level columnist, who once was unable to determine even as much as where the ranch was in Washoe Valley, now can write on good authority that one of the children whose custody was challenged in that 1931 divorce, Ralph Jr., died in Korea in 1952 when his B-29 was shot down by a MIG.

Or can now write that Elsman’s second wife, Florence, died in Palo Alto in 1964, and reading between the lines in her obituary we surmise that Ralph and Florence Elsman had moved to Los Gatos, Calif., after they sold the ranch to Dr. and Mme. Sylvan Famel in 1939 (Elsman Sr. passed away in July of 1970.) It was the Famels who named the ranch the “San Antonio” and cultivated the lavender fields.

And, if I couldn’t determine even who owned the acreage at the south end of the Franktown Road before Elsman (and still can’t), how could I come along today and write that the Famels, upon their 1950 relocation to West Palm Beach, then to New York City, and finally to their native France, sold the ranch in 1951 to the storied Reno gambler James McKay?

The answer to the casual reader’s question is simply that I had a heck of a lot of invaluable reader help and some county records in putting this series of columns together.


If you haven’t heard by now of James McKay and Bill Graham vis-a-vis Reno’s early 20th century history, get yourself Dwayne Kling’s Rise of the Biggest Little City. It’s mandatory reading.

McKay had been released from a 10-year prison sentence for some dark deed. He was married to a Hollywood starlet; they had one child and were expecting another. They wanted privacy, and the San Antonio offered it. It didn’t have a sign on the gate then and had never had a sign before. Three owners — first Ralph Elsman, then the Famels with their shadowy emigration from WWII-bound France, then finally McKay — no owner really wanting the profane world to know who was behind the gate, ever put up a sign on Franktown Road.

McKay eventually went out of title, selling to a group which developed the huge ranch into some of the nicest, and remaining the most private, residential developments in northern Nevada.

And its privacy endures. Access for touring and photography seems nearly impossible, to this day. Maybe I’ll buy a drone with a Brownie Hawkeye camera.

It’s no wonder I never saw the ranch driving by in my bus twice daily in 1960…

V&T photo credit Washoe Valley.org

 © Karl Breckenridge 2007

Washoe Valley’s Lavender farm

LavenderMaidenGoing a long way back in time, it’s apparent from an 1874 Nevada State Journal story that the Washoe Valley south of Reno was touted as an ideal spot for growing anything that blooms, likening our valley’s climate to that of the Valensole plateau near Provence, France, a hilly region known for its lavender.

And going no further, I’ll confess to the reader that this story is like the convoluted song lyrics “On her breast she wore a lily, where I longed to lay my head.” I’ve rearranged it three times and still have difficulty with a starting, a middle and an ending place. Therefore, you’ll read about the lavender farms in this posting, with the companion story of the underlying San Antonio Rancho following it. I’ll link it at the end of this piece.

Two names also came up in some old notes, names that might bear upon fields of lavender — one was Sutherland’s Gladiolus Farms, mentioned in a 1950 Nevada Highways magazine as a commercial operation in Washoe Valley, raising glads and “several strains of herbs.”

Those herbs, I surmise, might include lavender. But I can learn little more of Sutherland’s operation. A 1936 tax roll shows a couple of Sutherland parcels south of Reno but in the Anderson tax district, possibly near Rusty Crook’s This-is-It Ranch which is well north of Pleasant Valley. Nor do the tax rolls offer any help as to the parcels’ use.

It is, however, revealing to find out how much was going on in Washoe Valley in the first half of the 20th century — with livestock production, some mining, dude ranches, crops, transportation by rail and highway, tourism — one busy little valley.

We do know from a February 1956 Nevada State Journal story that property in Franktown was acquired by a family named Famel, but not necessarily contemporaneously with that 1956 Journal. (Research is a fun activity; one finds a lot of “throw-Mama-from-the-train-a-kiss” writing.)

The accuracy of all this admittedly should be taken with a grain of salt; some years-old notes I kept memorialize a chat with a schoolteacher-column reader who taught at the old Brown School just north of the rumored lavender fields in the 1940s, that school very near the South Virginia-Geiger Grade intersection.

Her distant recollection was that the Famel fields were extensive and that the major buyers of the crops were foreign perfume factories.

Famel doesn’t show up in any tax records that I could find. Suffice it to say, some fields of lavender in Washoe or Pleasant Valley definitely existed, yet pinning them down remained a work in progress supported by some old press clippings but with many questions to be answered: When were they created, how long did they last, and where, exactly, were the fields?

I admitted that I’d tried in the late 1990s to write of some wartime lavender fields in Washoe Valley that I’d been told of, but had totally struck out in any research. Scholarly research gave way to unabashed public begging, and yikes, did that ever work wonders!

Much information came from friends with ties to the ranch — Muffy Greil Vhay’s dad, Jim Greil, was an accomplished artist and a state highway department photographer who lived in Washoe Valley, where Muffy attended Franktown School and held vivid childhood recollections about the Famel family. With husband David (“Tink”) Vhay, she provided photos of the ranch taken by her father. And, from Joyce Thornton McCarty and her brother Bill Thornton (yup, the Cal-Neva guy), whose grandparents William and Myrtle Stevenson ran the lavender farm, household and staff for the Famels, came a trove of family history that had been assembled by their mother Jeanne Stevenson Thornton. This information offered some new keywords to search at the Nevada Historical Society and made the two columns possible.

I once speculated that the Famels were only tenants of the San Antonio Ranch, that being the name of the property that I’ve created a second post to discuss a bit further. I’ve now learned that the Famels were far from tenants, in fact Dr. and Mme. Sylvan Famel were extremely wealthy international perfume and pharmaceutical manufacturers in the French perfume capital of Grasse, 11 miles north of Cannes. They fled to America with their two grandchildren just before the 1938 Nazi invasion of France, taking with them a fortune in cash, which didn’t exactly tickle the French or the Germans.

They purchased the secluded 2,500-acre ranch, and they, not its original owner, named it the San Antonio Ranch, that appellation’s inspiration unchronicled. In 1939 they planted it extensively with fruit trees and built a still — which attracted the attention of the law — for the purpose of extracting oil from sage for use in perfume, soap and candles. I am unable to determine what school they still occupied — the Franktown School was then in use. The ranch did succeed in raising pharmaceutical herbs, which were in short supply during WWII. Their perfume products were meeting with some success and were given a localized name, as witnessed in an unreproducible photograph of the Famel’s “Bonanza Perfume” float in the 1949 Nevada Day parade. And how cool is this?: Muffy Vhay loaned me a pictureLavender pickup that her father took dated 1947, of a man and a youth standing in a field next to a 1939-ish Ford pickup lettered “San Antonio Ranch.” I showed the photo to Joyce McCarty, who with a slight shriek audible throughout the Gold ‘n Silver where we were meeting, identified the man as her grandfather. And the same pickup shows up pulling the float in the 1949 parade newspaper shot.

Famel enlisted the favor of Governor Vail Pittman, and through his influence lavender seeds were made available to the Nevada State Prison to be planted for a prison industry. Between 50 and a hundred people were needed for the annual harvests in Washoe Valley, and it’s speculative that some labor was provided by the prison. Muffy recalls that at least some of the harvested lavender was being sent — after the war — back to France. Labor was an ongoing problem for the Famels, who eventually made a transition from lavender growing and processing to running a substantial herd of Hereford cattle.

The Famel family started spending more and more time away from Nevada. Following the end of WWII they were able to abandon a life of de facto exile and they bought a little spread outside West Palm Beach, Florida, if that’s what they call such in West Palm Beach, and spent half the year growing lavender there. They acquired an apartment in New York City in the early 1950s, virtually forsaking Nevada residence, and eventually returned to live permanently in Europe.

Thanks to the Vhays, Bill Thornton, Joyce McCarty, Larry Garside, Jerry Vanlaningham, Patty Cafferata and a few with names withheld, for the help. Their photos and knowledge and the resulting work product will go eventually to the NHS for all to enjoy. Soon the San Antonio Ranch saga will continue in another posting here — of the years preceding and following the lavender fields. We’ll read of the ranch’s original oil-heir owner and the then-biggest child custody battle in the state ongoing in Washoe Valley, and of gambler James McKay’s 1951 entrée into the San Antonio’s ownership.

Here’s the tale of the San Antonio Ranch

© Karl Breckenridge 2007

California Avenue, briefly…

Belmont Apartments

California Avenue, so named because it was the road to California, natch; follow it westward to Mayberry and beyond, ‘cross the river and onward up the Truckee’s canyon, and where are you? Well, California, of course – that’s how the early travelers got to the Golden State, beyond My Favorite Muffin, the Truckee River Bar & Grill, and a little past Raley’s, and they were there!!

Well, sort of, anyway. Today we’re just ambling around the street by daylight, but on Thursday night – Dec. 11th – from about five o’clock on you can stroll, shop, have a glass of holiday cheer, wear a top hat and look like a complete idiot if you want to – watch out for the TV cameras though; I got caught in the Blue Plate a couple of years ago (yeah, we have our own restaurant.) [That, the Plate Special, ws the former name of the Ol’ Reno Guy website.] There are supposed to be strolling carolers, and indeed there were, the first year, but the last two years some kind of fire dancers showed up with a few thousand decibels of rap crap music and most strollers strolled off to Buffalo. Or shuffled, can’t remember.

My roots go deep on California Avenue – in 1950 my dad, Karl the Elder, bought what was generally known as the Larsen house at 320 California Avenue – across the street from Roy Hardy’s house. I remember vividly seeing Mr. Hardy’s nurse, a stout woman in traditional white nurse’s apparel with a screwy cap, pushing him out onto the patio of the house – it had a patio then on its lower floor. And there he’d sit, taking in the sun on a Saturday morning. Went over and talked to him a few times, we kids did, to see if we could play ball on his front lawn, which seemed then to be huge. It was cool with him, and we did. He was a nice guy.

It was during that period of time that another fine old home was being moved by Rom Bevelaqua, from the lot next east to Roy Hardy’s house. It was a beaut, reminiscent of the Levy Mansion, now Sundance Books & Music, just down the street that’s still on the corner of Sierra (then Granite), but a bit smaller. It was taken out Plumas Street to a site near Mountain View Drive across from the present tennis courts. Pharmacist Bill Ramos, a nice guy from El Salvador who had operated a drug store downtown, had bought the site, with the help of a few doctors (who would later occupy the building to the east, facing on Hill Street). Ramos Drug opened in 1951 and was a fixture in Reno – prescription drugs, sundries, and the greatest soda fountain in town (yikes, now I’ll hear about a few dozen more favorites and have to write about them also!) That Ramos building is now the Cheese Board). Oh, yeah; Deux Gros Nes was upstairs for many years – that freestyle happenin’ joint occupied the space that Bill Ramos originally built as his own living quarters, and there he lived for a number of years (he later moved to Hidden Valley, and has now passed away.) Another stalwart, Powell’s Drug, is now a bar.

My dad built a building at 320 California Avenue, with three units (316, 318 and 320) and opened it in 1951 [it now houses the Postal Depot]. It was designed and built by contractor Clifford Blabon, who designed and built many homes in southwest Reno, my favorite at 864 Marsh Avenue, built for gambler Bernie Einstoss and his family. One of the nicest homes in Reno, to this day, if you can abide the Marsh Avenue traffic. The Larsen home remained behind the little office building, used as a contract bridge studio and later a decorator’s office until the late 1970s. Across the alley to the west was and remains a very luxurious six-unit apartment house for its time, originally called the Jamison Apartments and built by the contractor (Jamison)) that built the First Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science) church on the Truckee, now known as the Lear Theater.

Next up the street west is My Favorite Muffin, in the former California Avenue Market building (note that name; there was a California Market downtown before WWII, on Virginia on a site that’s now the Eldorado.) The California Avenue Market was a dandy, and catered to the landed gentry clients in the Newlands Manor and mansion row on the bluff to the west. Their service was heavily by delivery – I have a photo of my dad delivering groceries on the grocery’s bike, with a huge basket on the handlebars. George Minor started the grocery; many readers of this column in its print versions recall Charlie Bradley, Minor’s butcher who took the market over in the 1950s. And the more I write of California Avenue the more it is starting to dawn on me that I wrote about the street a couple of times, years ago, and they’re in my book in the Walkin’ California Avenue segment. (And while I’m at it, I may as well attach another column, that about the Levy Mansion at California and Sierra.)

On the southwest corner of California Avenue and Lander you’ll see, on your Christmas Stroll next Thursday evening, a handsome brick building that’s had a number of uses – originally it served as Otto Linnecke’s Reno Business College. I wrote once that the building was originally a military structure, e.g. a two-story office, barracks, whatever, and that I’m pretty sure of. I also wrote that it was moved to the present site from Sierra Army Depot on East Second Street – see a column I wrote in print earlier this year – or less-possibly from Stead AFB. That I was pretty sure of, but defied research. After writing that I heard from numerous experts, who are a never-growing number, that it came alternatively from Stead, from Virginia City, from Dayton, and a few other sites, some not generally associated with the military. Frankly, I don’t know for sure where it came from, but Rom Bevelaqua told me it was moved in. Good enough for me. Following its use as a business college, it became the studio for KOLO radio, when The Sound of the Sierra moved from its mezzanine location in the El Cortez. KOLO was there for quite a time, and the building has had a number of users since KOLO vacated it. Its owners have always done an admirable job of maintaining it

 Across the street to the north side take note of the St. James Infirmary. Now that new watering hole has an interesting past – it was originally built by Otto Linnecke as a printing plant for his business college in the two-story brick building across the street, mentioned in the graf above. In the beginning Otto used it only for his own, business college-related stuff, but started taking in work to fill in slack time until it eventually rose to be one of the top offset printeries in Reno, catering to the public. It remained in business as such until relatively recently. [2006]

Your voices spoke last week, following the “tour” of “Midtown Reno,” from California Avenue south to Mt. Rose Street: “Karl, your column’s too damn long…”  OK – we’ll cut it off at this point, and reserve the right to go back to California Avenue on some week in the future.

Have a good week; tell a friend about this site and come back occasionally during the week as I can see it’s not all going to get updated in one swell foop on one night a week. Enjoy the California Avenue Stroll and God bless America!

© Reno Gazette-Journal Dec. 2006



Idlewild’s buffalo zoo – Jean Myles remembers….

California Building........Added Jan. 9, 2009: On another day I'd probably load this letter into the "Letters" webpage, but old friend Jean Myles writes so well that this amounts to a stand-alone column (hardly Johnny-come-latelys; Jean and Dr. Bob Myles came here to assist in a medical office and have been Nevadans ever since. Jean writes, in a response to a letter from Phyllis Adler that's already in the "Letters" link: 

Dear Karl, I dialed into "Letters" on your website, and had a few good laughs. We are "Johnny-come-latelys," having arrived in the area in 1958, however, I find that we can answer one question. Phyllis Adler asked ... "What happened to the buffalo in Idlewild Park?" The buffalo were purchased by the Frank Russell Turner, a descendant of one of the original Irish families who settled in Sierra Valley and owner of the Turner Ranch at the west side of the valley on Highway 89/49. In the mid-1950s, a friend learned that the Reno Zoo was going to destroy the animals, and let Frank know. Frank was interested and made arrangements to pick up the seven remaining ill-cared-for animals, who became the biggest family pets anyone had ever had in Sierra Valley. The buffalo lived a life of luxury and ease in the lush meadows of the Turner Ranch.

However, buffalo do not like fences of any sort. For years they roamed the valley, not paying much attention to property lines or fences. By the time our family became regular visitors to the Valley, there were only three left. They delighted our children as we often met them on one of Sierra Valley's roads. If they were coming towards us, always three abreast, we stopped and waited until they passed. If they were headed in our same direction, we followed slowly as they ambled along, hoping that they would eventually turn so we could pass. One day, on our way to our cabin above Sierra City, we watched in amazement as the three leaned against the post and barbed wire fence along the highway. When they and the fence toppled over, the buffalo rose, shook themselves off and wandered down the highway. The children were whooping with laughter as we followed them down the road. Occasionally, the buffalo would migrate to another ranch and a phone call would request that Frank come and get his pets. He would agree to pick them up the following morning, if the neighbor would kindly round them up. Horses are skittish around buffalo, and, herding buffalo is has been likened to herding cats ... they don't go where you want them to. They would ultimately be contained in a corral, and Frank would appear early the next morning to find the corral empty ... to the chagrin of the other rancher and to Frank's great amusement. After one or two experiences like this, the ranchers  became very aware and just called to tell him where they were. He would meet them on the road and talk them into the truck.

They loved to ride. When he got to the ranch, he would let the tailgate down and leave them until they decided to get down. If he could not find them, they would eventually find their way home. Their exploits became legendary to Sierra Valley folk, and everyone watched out for them. As age overtook them, they died off one by one. We still find ourselves looking to see them grazing in the meadows as we drive along Highway 49 on our to the cabin. Enjoying your news and views, and reminisces.

Happy New Year ...  Jean Myles [A sad footnote to a great story: Dr. Bob passed away in June, 2014….a good friend to all of us - KB] 4