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Winters Estate Still a Monument

Winters Ranch History (editors note: scroll up to find later chapters as they become available)

By: Rick Cooper

Chapter 1: Early Days

Winters Ranch HouseOn the northwest corner of Washoe Valley, in the shadow of our new super highway is a unique home that looks like it is from another era. It was completed in 1863 and was a grand mansion for it’s time. Mark Twain visited in 1864 and filed a newspaper dispatch describing the home. Both Twain and Winters knew each other well as they were among the handful of prominent men in the Washoe Valley/Virginia City area at the time. But first, some background info.

Theodore Winters immigrated from Illinois in 1849 and joined his father and brothers in various commercial endeavors in California during the Gold Rush. Similar to others caught up in the Gold Rush like Levi and Studebaker, they apparently realized it would be more profitable to sell things to the gold seekers than to actually mine. They engaged in freighting, cattle raising and mine speculating. Their operations led them to be familiar with the early settlements in western Nevada. In 1853 his wife, Sarah and a young daughter perished in a boat accident in the Sacramento Delta while a young son survived having been thrown ashore by Sarah.

In 1857, the Mormon settlers of Washoe Valley were called back to Utah by their church and  had to abandon their ranches that they had diligently spent 10 years developing. Winters acquired a square mile tract of prime pastureland in the north end of the valley for a song. One prominent Mormon, Orson Hyde, who was forced to sell his fine sawmill for an old wagon and a yoke of oxen laid a famous curse upon Washoe Valley and it’s people (but that’s another story-ed.).

Soon after, the fabulous silver strike was discovered in Virginia City and the exodus was on from California to the new sensation known as “Washoe”. Winters brother happened to invest in a stretch of dirt that turned out the be the fabulous “Ophir” claim in the heart of the strike and the two rode the crest of the riches produced in the Comstock Lode. Theodore was now involved with mine operations and supervision and was even a state legislator in 1862. Now, a ranch and creek in Washoe Valley are named for him, a street in Reno and a town in California!

According to Twain, Winters engaged a Washoe City architect and builder and built a mansion commensurate with his new found position as a mining magnate and rancher. The first floor was occupied by the kitchen and a huge pantry, bathroom, dining room and bedchambers for the servants. This floor was fully plumbed and fed by the pure snow waters of Winters Creek fresh from the Carson Range to the west. On the next floor are two large drawing rooms with adjoining luxurious bedrooms outfitted with the most luxurious furnishings. On the top floor are six bedrooms and a billiard room to accommodate Theos large family. Mark described the house from his memory of attending a party there were, even though his companion and he got lost in the dark, they eventually made it to the ranch to enjoy several hours of the festivities. He makes note of the distinctive “Gothic” style windows that make the homes appearance so unique. The house rivaled the luxury and conspicuous consumption of the Sandy Bowers Mansion further south. From the photo of the current home it is hard to imagine all the rooms Mark described fitting within but was Mark ever know for exaggeration?

In addition to the acres of pastures and hay fields, he built gardens, a pool and a quarter mile horse race track. He and his brothers were greatly interested in “the sport of kings” horse racing and their horses grace the histories of the sport on both coasts at the time. Later, a 2 huge barns were erected, one that was a landmark until the 1960s. At one point, Theodore recognized that the roofless, stone buildings of the abandoned Ophir Quartz mill were being wasted to time. He built new roofs and established there a dairy to produce world class cheese, importing a herd of exceptional dairy cows. A Swiss cheese maker was brought in and Washoe Valley cheese became famous and much prized throughout the west coast. A last remaining wall of the mill can still be seen to the immediate east of Highway 395 in the valley. Eventually, the Winters ranch would extend to nine square miles in 1888. At the time there were about 16 ranches in the valley supplying produce, hay and wood to the Comstock.

Overview of the ranch

Winters had a large breeding farm along the banks of the Sacramento River in Yolo County where bred champions Emporer of Norfolk and Maid Marion. In 1870, Winters sold his farm in Yolo County, California to make the commitment to Washoe Valley where he believed the altitude, climate and verdant valley would raise the best racehorses the world had known. Among the most famous of his horses were Maid Marion, her colts, El Rio Rey and Yo Tambien; and Mollie McCarthy. Two American Derby winners were Emperer of Norfolk and CH Todd. El Rio Ray is said to have held the records at all the great tracks in America and was considered an “equine wonder” in the 1880s. Mr. Winters had a custom railroad car for transporting his prize horses to events around the country. For more history on the horses, see their Wikipedia entries.

At various times Winters owned the Bower’s Mansion property, the townsite of Ophir and the Smoke Creek Ranch in Northern Washoe County.

Next: Chapter 2: Family Matters

(editors note: scroll up to find later chapters)


  1. Melita Clark says:

    I read your Chapter1: Early Days of Winters Estate Still a Monument on the website washoevally.org/archives/tag/Theodore-winters. Have you completed your Chapter 2: Family Members? I am very interested in his female descendants. Thank you.

    1. admin says:

      No, still researching! Stay tuned. If you have any pertinent info, let me know!

      1. Sheila says:

        Have you looked at “Pioneers of the Ponderosa” by Myra Ratay? Quite a bit of info there. Her brother married Nevada (Neva) Winters, I believe.

        1. admin says:

          Yes, I actually have that in my library and I should review to round out the article on the Winters Ranch! Thanks!

          1. Sheila says:

            Great! Today I was talking to the landlord of the house I’m renting, and he was born and grew up in Washoe Valley. He has seen the inside of the house while it was abandoned, and after it was renovated. Is the house ever open for tours? I knew 300 acres was bought by the Conservancy, but is the house privately owned? I have never seen any photos of the inside.

          2. Shawna says:

            This house is privately owned. It is NOT open for tours.

  2. […] this is 303 acres across from Bowers Mansion. this is reportedly the last major parcel of the historic Winters Ranch property to be acquired by the public. Several other large parcels have been acquired by the BLM […]

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