Dennis Cassinelli: Growing up on a ranch in Sparks

Many of my weekly articles in recent weeks have been about the history of Nevada towns. I just realized I have not written one about my hometown of Sparks. The town was named after Nevada’s 10th governor, John Sparks, who served from 1903 until 1908 and died while in office.
Sparks was a railroad town ever since the Central Pacific Railroad was built in 1869. Later the Southern Pacific Railroad took over the line. Being located in the Truckee Meadows, the area became a ranching and farming community. I was born in Reno and grew up on a ranch in Sparks on Glendale Road where Baldini’s Casino is now located.
Our ranch was bordered on the south by the Truckee River and on the north by Glendale Road. My grandfather, Pete, and his three sons, Raymond, Chester and Bob, operated the ranch. Raymond was my father and we all worked together raising hogs, cattle, potatoes, corn, garlic and onions. My dad drove a dump truck every day to the Reno Army Air Base to pick up a load of swill to feed our hogs. One year, the hogs caught hog cholera and all of them died. All of us kids who lived on the ranch in those days had their own horses.
Two times in the 1950s, the Truckee River flooded and removed layers of topsoil from the fields along the river. Each time, I went down along the river to see the damage. I discovered the floods had uncovered many arrowheads, manos and metates for me to gather. This became the beginning of the artifact collection I later donated to museums in Stewart and Gardnerville. Archaeologists later did a study of the area they named the Glendale site.
Just northwest across Glendale Road from our ranch was the Nevada State Mental Hospital, then known as the asylum. In those days, the facility had a small farm, butcher shop and a dairy for hospital use. The inmates were not allowed to drive a motor vehicle, so they still used horse drawn wagons to haul hay from our ranch to their dairy across Glendale Road.
One day, as a wagon was leaving our ranch, the driver stopped at my grandmother’s house for a drink of water, leaving the team unattended. The horses took off and headed back to the dairy with the load of hay. As they left our ranch at the end of our lane, the wagon tipped over in the neighbor’s yard across the street dumping the load of hay in the yard. The horses broke loose and ran back to the dairy.
I worked on the survey crew for NDOT in Sparks staking out the concrete columns for the elevated freeway over John Asquaga’s Nugget in the early 1960s. Sparks had a nice park called Deer Park. where we often went swimming and picnicking. One of our school events was Jacks Carnival where we marched in a parade in costume.
One year, we were let out of school early to go to the town bandstand to see President Harry Truman speak. Not being much of a political person, I walked back to the ranch instead. I was originally supposed to attend the 1864 one room Glendale School, but my mother insisted I go to the school she attended, the Robert Mitchel School in Sparks.
While I was still in high school, my family leased the old Stead ranch in Spanish Springs Valley for several years. I asked school mates if they wanted to work to earn a few bucks. We picked them up at the Block S in Sparks with a cattle truck and took them out to work weeding onions in Spanish Springs Valley. My uncle Chester stood at the edge of the onion field at the end of each day with a cowboy hat full of silver dollars. As we passed by, he handed each one of us five silver dollars for the 8 hours of work we did.
I was familiar with silver dollars, since my mother was a blackjack dealer and brought many home from her tip money. She gave me one each week to pay for hot lunch at school. When she gave me one with a Carson City mint mark, I went without lunch that week and kept the dollar.
When it came time to pick potatoes, we hired the students from the Stewart Indian School to come out with bus loads of students to work in the potato fields. Other farmers did the same.
Every year my family hired a crop duster with an airplane to come and dust the fields with insecticide for bugs. One year, my uncle Bob and I were watching the plane circle back and forth spraying the fields. Suddenly, we saw the plane hit a tree behind my house and crash in the road. Bob and I ran as fast as we could to help the pilot get out of the wrecked airplane. Fortunately, he was shaken up but not seriously injured.
My family bought a prisoner of war barracks building from the Reno Army Air Base and converted it into an apartment building on Glendale Road. When Mary and I got married, we rented an apartment from my uncle as our first home together.
Dennis Cassinelli is a Dayton author and historian. You can order his books at a discount on his blog at denniscassinelli.com.

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