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