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The Lavender Side of Washoe Valley

Washoe Valley lavender

This series of three articles appeared in RGJ.com and was researched and written by Karl Breckinridge in September, 2006. Some editing has been done to make the story more concise for this page. Karl and your editor both encourage anyone who has additional information, photos, etc. to contact us about this story or any Washoe Valley history. Thanks to Mr. Breckinridge and RGJ.com for making this series available to washoevalley.org.

Going 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.

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, which were well north of Washoe or 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.

Another name may be known by a reader who knew the Washoe Valley 60 years ago. 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. A Web site of GPS locations of historical sites places the rancho near or at an existing structure on the west side of U.S. 395 on the V&T railroad line entering Pleasant Valley.

That said, we know from a February 1956 Nevada State Journal story that the rancho 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 lavender fields in the 1940s, that school very near the South Virginia-Geiger Grade intersection.

Her distant recollection was that the Famel fields, whose fragrance was in range just south of the school, 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 “” maybe they were tenant farmers on someone else’s land. Suffice it to say, some fields of lavender in Washoe or Pleasant Valley definitely existed, yet pinning them down remains 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 two weeks ago, and yikes, did it work.

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 ranch, 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.

On Aug. 12, I speculated that the Famels were the only tenants of the San Antonio Ranch. I’ve 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 a photograph of the Famel’s “Bonanza Perfume” float in the 1949 Nevada Day parade. And how cool is this?: Muffy Vhay loaned me a picture 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, identified the man as her grandfather. And the same pickup shows up pulling the float in the 1949 parade newspaper shot.

Mme. 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 them 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. Next week we’ll mop up the Donner Ridge fire with abundant reader recollections, then the San Antonio Ranch saga will continue — 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.

A few weeks ago I 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 during my college days, 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 in the early 1960s — the place was pretty well hidden for reasons that will become obvious in the next few paragraphs.

This whole trilogy 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 read here a few weeks ago of the Famel lavender fields, which did indeed exist in the 1940s.

Other information that Joyce and Muffy supplied opened some keywords for further research (Joyce’s grandparents were the major domos, if that’s the term, of the ranch, and she visited it frequently as a youth.)

The spread was initially 2,500 acres, give or take, located near the south end of Washoe Valley. The ranch was later subdivided into the present smaller residential parcels. It adjoins 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.

History of the ranch

This prime acreage in Washoe Valley was acquired in 1932 by Ralph Elsman, a wealthy New Jersey businessman who later became the president and principal owner of the San Jose Water Company.

He 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 six short weeks ago 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.) The Famels named the ranch the San Antonio and cultivated the lavender fields.

And, if I couldn’t determine six weeks ago 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 in putting this series of columns together.

A private enclave

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 and Fall 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.

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

3 Comments

  1. I grew up on the Wellesley Ranch in the southern part of Washoe Valley. Our Ranch was later sold to Frank List, father of Governor List. My parents were great friends of Elsman and later Femel. There seems to be another owner of the San Antonio Ranch for many years; Bob and Jane Rogers, which this article does not mention. I am guessing the Rogers purchased the ranch from Jim McKay. The Rogers were also close friends of our family and I knew them in Hawaii where they had a winter condo, At that time I was serving in Hawaii as Chief of the Criminal Division for the US Treasury 1978.

  2. Anthony Shafton says:

    Karl Breckenridge says the acreage was acquired by Ralph Elsman in 1932. However, a Reno Evening Gazette article of September 29, 1924, p. 8 describes the “2000-acre tract bought by Elsman” that year, where Elsman had his summer house already under construction. Unless someone has information that this was a different acreage and a different house, it seems Elsman was at the property that became a lavender farm earlier than supposed.

  3. Heidi Sproat says:

    I am interested in finding information/recollections/aerial photos/photos of the “Donner Ridge” fire of 1960. I see in your 11/6/2014 article, you reference “Donner Ridge fire with abundant reader recollections,” but I have been unable to find any subsequent recollections. Can you help me?
    I am with the Truckee-Donnner Historical Society and I am the Editor for the quarterly newsletter Echoes From the Past. I would like to write a short article – with photos – about that fire. If you have information – or can direct me to someone who does – please contact me. Thanks.

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