Ponderosa Ranch owner chronicles life
Traveling as a vagabond with his family during the Great Depression – often living off of road kills and digging through garbage bins – Bill Anderson described his early life as “following the sun.”
But the sun turned out to be elusive. So he decided to chase something more tangible – money.
“Ever since, I’ve continued to put distance between that mobile lifestyle and the possibility I’d ever have to endure such poverty again,” Anderson said. “I didn’t try to become a doctor or a lawyer. Instead, I went into business. To make money, which I achieved.”
Anderson, creator of the tourist destination Ponderosa Ranch, chronicles his rise from a homeless child to a wealthy adult in his newly released autobiography “Bill’s Big Bonanza: The Autobiography of a Third-Grade Dropout Who Came to Build, Own and Operate the World’s Most Famous Ranch.”
The book tells the story of Anderson’s hard-luck beginnings, including dropping out of school in the third grade and starting his first business venture, Anderson Bros. Wrecking Yard, at 15.
Thus began a life of rugged independence, building one business after another until he had essentially built an empire.
In 1959, he invested in real estate in Incline Village. An oversight in the contract left him in a position to eventually acquire 448 acres of land there.
He opened riding stables in Incline Village, and as the popularity of the television show “Bonanza” increased, Anderson sensed another business opportunity.
Without permission from NBC executives – more to their horror – Anderson turned his stables into the Ponderosa Ranch, capitalizing on a television show he never watched.
But he eventually knocked out an agreement with NBC, and the ranch has entertained about 250,000 guests each year since it opened in 1968.
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Anderson credits his impoverished childhood for giving him the drive to succeed.
“For years, I went hungry and slept, cold, in the back seat of a car,” he said. “That flips your switch toward prosperity.”
Some people have resented his point of view.
“Lots of people have told me all I’m interested in is money,” he said. “I just give them the finger.”
But if Anderson’s primary goal in life was to get rich, it did not include the pretension that often accompanies wealth – he showed up for this interview in a cowboy hat, Western shirt and boxer shorts.
He could probably afford to retire anywhere in the world, but chose a home in Dayton, where he has plenty of room and privacy.
But as he celebrates his 80th birthday today, he retains very little of his wealth.
He gifted the Ponderosa Ranch to his children and son-in-law. His wife, Sharon, 43, owns most of the rest.
“If you die rich, you’re a fool,” Anderson quipped. “I’m poor as a rat.”
Writer Mike Sion worked on the book with Anderson. He calls it a piece of Americana, capturing a true American original.
“There really is only one Bill Anderson,” Sion said. “And thank God – could we handle two?”
Time line of Bill Anderson’s life
Nov. 10, 1923: Born in Alhambra, Calif.
1932-39: Lived with his homeless family
1939: At 15, he started his first business, Anderson Bros. Wrecking Yard with his brother, Chris.
1943-46: Served in the U.S. Army.
1959: Bought real-estate in Incline Village.
1959: Married first wife, Joyce Denton.
1961-66: “Bonanza” ran on NBC as one of America’s favorite television shows.
1966: Changed name of Incline Stables to Ponderosa Ranch – without permission from show’s producers.
1961: Son, Royce, born.
1963: Daughter, Jillaine, born.
1994: Began gifting Ponderosa Ranch to children and son-in-law David Geddes.
1996: Married former employee Sharon “Skinny” Hunt.
Today: Turns 80.