Fire razes historic home in Washoe Valley
June 2, 2002
A piece of Nevada history was lost forever when a home burned on Franktown Road one spring evening in Washoe Valley.
The fire allegedly started in what was originally an apple barn, where “The Oxbow Incident” author Walter Van Tilburg Clark lived in the late 1940s. Built in the 1860s, the barn was being used as a garage and for storage.
However, Clark did not write his master work in the Washoe Valley home. The novel was published in 1940 while Clark was teaching in New York.
“I always feel sick when we lose a historic property, especially those old ranches in Washoe Valley,” said State Historic Preservation Office spokeswoman Mella Harmon. “The site was not listed on the National Historic Register, but it was considered an important historic resource.”
Pioneer rancher and entrepreneur Ross Lewers designed and built the house, a four-bedroom, two-bath residence, around 1903 after his first home burned to the ground.
The son of French immigrants who fled that country to avoid political prosecution, Lewers was born and educated in Ireland. The family moved to America and in 1850, Lewers traveled by ship to San Francisco, a young man seeking his fortune in California’s gold country.
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He moved throughout California for several years before he earned a stake and in 1860, bought some uncleared land in Washoe Valley. He established the area’s first steam sawmill and after the land was cleared, developed orchards.
“Lewers was the first apple orchard on the eastern slopes of the Sierra,” wrote Myra Sauer Ratay in her book, “Pioneers of the Ponderosa.”
“Fruits and potatoes were stored in the existing ‘apple house’ before packing and shipping to Virginia City and Reno. Flowers nourished by Catherine Lewers also graced the homes of Virginia City socialites.”
Many of the apples were imported to England, Europe and Australia, according to Carol Bailey, who now lives on 80 acres of the former ranch.
“One of the apple trees that stood by the house grew an old variety called a snow apple,” she said. “The apples are small, but the flesh is white and juicy. The tree looks like it was badly burned. I don’t know if it will survive.”
Seven children, two girls and five boys, were born to Ross Lewers and his wife Catherine on the ranch and all attended the Mill Station School, a few miles to the east on Franktown Road.
One of the Lewer’s employees was Henry Heidenreich, the son of a pioneer family who owned a cattle ranch just to the north on Franktown Road. When daughter Catherine Lewers, an artist and the last of the family to live at the ranch, died in 1945, Heidenreich bought it, settling there with his wife, Minnie.
The couple had no children, but Bailey, who started boarding her horses there in the 1960s, befriended them.
“He was like a grandfather to me,” Bailey said. “He was the sweetest, nicest person, sharp as a tack and very honest. He was blind the whole time I knew him, but he never stopped cutting wood, or working his cattle. He wouldn’t quit.”
Afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, Heidenreich suffered a series of strokes before he died in September 1990 at the age of 97. According to Bailey, Minnie died about five years earlier.
Bailey, who was adopted by Heidenreich to avoid legal complications, received 80 acres just south of the house. A retired accountant, she maintains a small ranch on her acreage.
“This has been agricultural land for a long time,” she said. “I want to keep that tradition.”
Heidenreich bequeathed the house and a sizable estate to the Calvary Baptist Church in Reno. Rev. Wes Hunter and his wife Carolyn occupied the parsonage, but weren’t home when the fire started.
“We’re not discouraged or distraught. This was an opportunity for God to open new doors for us,” he said. “Now that everything we own fits into a couple of paper bags, we can make some changes.”
Bailey rescued the couple’s dog, but said one of their three cats is still missing.
About 60 firefighters, including members of the Nevada Division of Forestry, Washoe Valley Volunteer Fire Department and Reno Fire Department, responded to blaze, the first call came in at 8:48 p.m. May 24.
The fire allegedly started in the storage area and garage, before spreading to the house. Capt. Richard Riolo of the Nevada Division of Forestry’s Prevention Bureau said with fires of this sort, the cause is often not determined.
Hunter said officials at the Calvary Baptist Church haven’t decided what will be done with the property. According to Washoe County’s Web site, it encompasses about 200 acres in the southwest corner of Washoe Valley.
Clark graduated from high school in Reno in 1926 and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Nevada, Reno, where his father was president from 1917 to 1937.
He moved east in the early ’30s taking a job as a teaching assistand at the University of Vermont. He taught high school english and coached in Cazenovia, N.Y. until 1940 when he spent a year in Indian Springs, Colo.
He taught at the University of Nevada, Reno before his death in 1971.