Couple tracing history of Franktown divorce ranch

Emily Pentz Wood at the Flying M E in the 1940s.

Emily Pentz Wood at the Flying M E in the 1940s.

In 1947, 22-year-old Bill McGee took a job as a wrangler on the Flying M E dude ranch in Franktown.

He cared for the horses, took visitors on trail rides into the Sierra Nevada, fell in love, and got married.

It was an ironic twist of fate because the Flying M E was one of several divorce ranches thriving in the area at the time.

The ranch, at the base of the Sierra, was an expansion of the1862 Franktown Hotel. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad stopped twice a day to take on water, and guests ran out to chat with the engineer.

Owned by Emily Pentz Wood, the ranch hosted socialites from the East Coast who came West for divorces -- including the debutante of the year for New York's 1930-31 season, Miss Penna Tew. She was in Franktown in spring 1949 to divorce the Wall Street banker she'd married soon after coming out.

"She was debutante of the year, but she was as down to earth as anybody," McGee said. "She didn't put on airs when she was out here."

Penna Tew Hinton would ride with McGee and became saddle pals with another Easterner -- Ethel Du Pont Roosevelt, whom McGee said came West to divorce Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr. Her mother-in-law, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, visited the divorce ranch, though for a bit of rest and relaxation, not a divorce.

"The (Roosevelts) were both very good riders," McGee said.

McGee and his wife, Sandra of Santa Barbara, Calif., are co-writing a book they have tentatively titled "A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler." A tribute to Wood, Bill McGee said the book is a scholarly study.

"It's a true story -- to the best of my memory," he said.

The pair will be in Reno through Sunday. They are seeking photos and memories from others who have knowledge of the ranch or surrounding area.

"We've located a fair amount of people, some guests of the ranch and some children of guests," Sandra McGee said

McGee said he would often take carloads of visitors to Carson City for a little nightlife.

"There were a few watering holes," he said. "We used to spend most of our time in the Old Corner Bar."

Other adventures included overnight rides to Virginia City, where the "dudes" would stay at the Horseshoe Hotel. The McGees are hoping to find some photos of these places.

"We have lots of photos of the inside of the Bonanza Inn in Virginia City," Sandra McGee said. "But nothing of the outside."

Wood remained at the ranch until the early 1960s when she moved to Carson City and stayed at the Greeno Hotel, 108 E. Proctor St., now home to the Nevada Commission on Economic Development. She died in 1966 at age 70, after a fall.

The book, to be about half photos and half text, is expected to be nearly 500 pages and could be out in four to six months.

"But even that's a guess," he said. "We don't even know for sure when it will come off the press."

In the meantime, the pair is poring over the Nevada Historical Society's collection, having longtime Nevada historian Phillip I. Earl read the manuscript, and visiting anyone who may have information or memorabilia to include in the book.

The book began as Bill McGee's memoirs, but has taken on a new life as a chronicle of a small part of the history of Nevada's divorce ranch industry.

After four years in World War II, William L. McGee became a "dude" wrangler at the Flying M E. He left the ranch in 1950. Married for 22 years to an East Coast socialite, he had four children, learned to wear a suit and tie, and spent many years in the television and radio broadcast industry before becoming an author.

"His first wife (Joan Allison) took him back east and took him to Brooks Brothers and bought him his first suit," Sandra McGee said.

"You know why I wore Brooks Brothers?" he asked. "They didn't have pleats and weren't as baggy as other slacks. They were as close as you could get to Levi's."

Penna Tew Hinton fell in love as her divorce was being finalized, and married Pat Hart of Virginia City in fall 1949. They owned and operated the Brass Rail Saloon.

After Pat Hart's death in the 1960s, McGee said Penna Hart lost interest in the bar. She became a volunteer at Carson-Tahoe Hospital, earning awards for volunteering for hundreds of hours.

The Flying M E burned in 1963.


Contact Bill and Sandra McGee at the Marriot Residence Inn in Reno through May 18. Call (775) 853-8800 or reach them online at:


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment