Couple works to preserve history of old "dude ranch"

Some of the more prudish would just as soon forget about the Flying ME and the other so-called "dude ranches" that once dotted Washoe Valley.

But Norm and Rhonda Azevedo are trying to preserve as much of the old ranch's history as possible.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the Flying ME was known nationwide as one of the premier places to wait out Nevada's residency requirements to "get the cure," or "get Reno-vated:" translation, divorced.

It was an era when many states required a year or even two of living apart and limited reasons for divorce to such things as "verifiable adultery" or insanity.

Nevada's 1931 law allowed divorce after just six weeks residency and a wide variety of reasons including an early version of incompatibility.

Thousands of people, two-thirds of them women, came to Reno each year to end an unhappy marriage. They were catered to by everything from small rooming houses, motels, apartments, major hotels and dude ranches.

Only a few could afford places like the Flying ME, the nearby Washoe Pines - now the Foresta Institute - or Donner Trail in Washoe Valley.

Popular stories at the time glamorized the dude ranches. Some publications were more risque such as Basil Woon's "None of the Comforts of Home - But Oh, those Cowboys."

He described the "luxury ranches" as designed for the divorce trade saying, "These frankly ran dudes instead of cows."

"Companionship" was once of the services those ranches advertised for the lovelorn, which - according to authors of the time like Max Miller in his book Reno - were often staffed by good looking young men.

And those ranches attracted an often famous clientele of Hollywood personalities looking for a divorce.

Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. bought the TH and the Lazy ME in the 1930s and offered free board to Hollywood stars as a draw to other people. Stories in popular magazines include pictures of the owner Emily Pentz Wood with stars such as Clark Gable.

At one time, there were 36 such ranches from Pyramid Lake to the south end of Washoe Valley, Verdi and even up at Glenbrook in the Tahoe Basin.

The old ranch house-hotel Flying ME burned down in 1963. But changing times and liberalized divorce laws everywhere had pretty much put an end to Nevada's dude ranches anyway.

Norm's father Don bought the ranch in 1971 and Norm remembers playing, riding horses and staying at the ranch from his early childhood. He says his emotional attachment to the property spurred him to build the couple's home on the site of the old ranch house.

The couple completed their new home on the old ranch house site less than four months ago.

As contractors worked on the new house, the couple was constantly reminded of the site's history.

"You literally couldn't dig a hole out here without finding something historical," said Rhonda.

She says they have uncovered silverware from the hotel, dinner plates, bottles, horseshoes and other artifacts.

Norm points out that the ranch has a much more extensive history than just as a dude ranch.

A century ago, it was the V&T; Railroad's water stop in Washoe Valley. He says the old water tower that once provided water for steam locomotives headed for Carson City and Virginia City is now at the Nevada State Railroad Museum, donated along with other artifacts discovered years ago.

After that, it was known as the Tumbling DW Ranch until Pentz Wood bought it in the 1930s and turned it into a dude ranch.

"We want to preserve as much of the history as possible," said Norm.

That includes the famous Flying ME brand, which has been replicated on the wrought iron fence around their new veranda as well as on the railings inside the house.

But about the only structure remaining from the old days is the stable. Even that has been extensively remodeled into a garage, a two-bedroom apartment where they lived while building the new home, and for storage.

Both say the dude ranches are an important part of Nevada's history that should be documented. But they say the Flying ME is especially significant since it was the old Franktown Hotel and the V&T; water stop before becoming a dude ranch.

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