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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)

An Afternoon in Gold Hill

Virginia City is where we go when we need to get out of the valley but have no good ideas. The USA’s largest historic district always has something of interest. This time we went up for a hike down 7 mile canyon east of town past John Tyson’s old place. We always look for minerals and found a little jasper and some rough quartz crystals so we weren’t skunked there.
It happened to be the day of the Outhouse Races so we avoided that and on the way home stopped at the Gold Hill Hotel to visit their cool saloon and have a cold beer after our dusty hike. Suddenly the place filled with ghosts, ghouls and Comstock characters as we learned it was the dress rehearsal for the show “Frankenfollies”, a light-hearted, Comstock centric, vaudelville-style dance and song review that premieres Friday, October 7. We shared cocktails with the devil as he reviewed his lines and got into character. The actors are all brave locals and the shows are hilarious. Where else can you patronize a historic bar that also doubles as “back stage?”
Next we took a short stroll up the hill to Maynard Station, another Gold Hill watering hole. This tidy establishment is run by a congenial husband/wife team and is a great place for mature conversation. On this day we met a couple in period costume, the local newspaperman, another 5th generation couple from my hometown and Don who owns and runs a one man hardrock gold mine near Austin, Nevada. He said that for years, he would work all day in the shaft while his wife worked the hoist and ran the mill by herself. We enjoyed a beer and a hot pastie (a meat and potatoes turnover from the mining days) while we talked history and mining.
Next time you want a mini-getaway, try the “ghost town” of Gold Hill!

Cool Book Find in Sacramento

virginia-and-truckee-book-bWe were down in Sacramento on some business and stopped by “Time Tested Books” at 1114 21st St. when we had some time to kill. It seems that to find items about Nevada the best strategy to to look elsewhere. The local antique stores and used book sellers are usually sold out here but in other states, Nevada items can be found.

I was able to pick up “Virginia and Truckee” by Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, two wealthy and eccentric residents of Virginia City in the 1950’s. Originally Beebe wrote society articles for New York City papers before relocating to Virginia City. The only clue as to why I have seen is that VC was a hangout for eccentric artistic types in that era. They revived the Territorial Enterprise and pursued their interest in railroads by writing books on the subject while at the same time orchestrating the local social scene. Often they would be seen hobnobbing in VC in “top hats and tails.” One of their private railroad cars is on display at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento.

This volume is a short 60 pages and includes some photos of the rolling stock taken by the authors among others. I was surprised to see two “Then and Now” photos included of Gold Hill and Virginia City. This is a mini hobby of mine. Beebe and Clegg later moved to San Francisco. In all, Beebe wrote 30 books.

They were both very interesting characters and deserve more attention on this site at a later time.