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Collection Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945 to 1982

Emigrants, Miners, Railroads, Ranchers

[Detail] Portrait of Mr. And Mrs. John Forgnone at their ranch

The area that became Nevada was only sparsely settled when the region of Upper California was given over to the United States by the "Mexican Cession" (Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo) in 1848. It had barely been explored. Gold and silver ore still lay undisturbed by pickaxes and black powder gangs. By the time Nevada became an official territory in 1861 (after separation from the Utah Territory), the Comstock Lode had been developed and the new territorial seal sported a mining scene. By the time of statehood in 1864 the cattle industry and buckaroo trade were just starting up and had attained no particular influence or character. The 1864 state seal again showed hardrock mining but added a steam locomotive and a railroad trestle. Still, many a teamster and miner saw that there was a better and more permanent life to be had in selling cattle to miners than in being miners.

[Detail] Main Street, Paradise Valley, ca. 1899

Following the big mining years, the bonanza generation of ranchers and businessmen like Angelo Forgnone, Aaron Denio, William Stock, and Charles Kemler saw the opening of the region by the Central Pacific Railroad, which reached Winnemucca in 1868 and built yards and shops there. The budding town was originally called French Ford, after the river crossing and village started by a French fur trader, and was renamed in honor of the peaceful and influential Paiute chief when the transcontinental railroad's western division passed through on its way to completion in northern Utah a year later.

Humboldt County borders Oregon on the north and Idaho on the northeast. It fills a space the size of some eastern states, yet its population is about seven thousand. Winnemucca, a small city, grew up around the Humboldt River crossing and like other towns got its big push when the railroad worked its way by. The railroad made Winnemucca important as a shipping point, and it soon replaced the larger mining town of Unionville as the county's hub.

Zabala's Bar and Store

In the 1870s Winnemucca bloomed as a railhead for cattle driven to the loading pens from across northern Nevada and the "Owyhee country" in southeastern Oregon and southern Idaho. The Central Pacific hauled most of the market cattle west toward the Sacramento Valley and San Francisco slaughterhouses, although some were shipped to the Midwest.

Since it had no railroad shipping point or continual industry (the mines flourished only briefly), the town of Paradise Valley established itself as a community to service and be served by family and corporation ranches. But it was no "cow town" of the sort we are accustomed to seeing in popular images. It reached a population peak around the turn of the century, when the sheep business brought more Basque herders than buckaroos to the valley. Winnemucca was the county seat, railhead, and center of commercial enterprises, and Paradise Valley, with a current population of about two hundred and fifty, still has a satellite character. The town is at the end of Nevada State Road 8B that branches northeast off U.S. 95 at Paradise Hill between Winnemucca and the Oregon state line at McDermitt. Although the valley seems tucked off in the mountains, it was never and is not now isolated from business, communication, and transportation centers. It is forty miles from Winnemucca but never was cut off from ties to the county seat and the rest of the nation. By the time Paradise Valley was effectively settled and the cattle industry was blooming in the 1870s, the little town was thriving, with constant goings and comings from other regions, chiefly Oregon and the Sacramento Valley and northern California. Ties with Sacramento have always been very strong, and families maintain the old California connection. Most of the first settlers came into northern Nevada from California. They imported everything from English ironstone china to the California Mexican vaqueros who put their lasting stamp on cattle-raising and horsegear traditions in the valley. They sent for catalogue furniture, Belgian draft horses, Hereford breeding stock, Portland cement, garden seeds, lombardy poplar saplings, blue denim work pants, Aladdin lamps, radios, Fords, Winchester rifles, and terra cotta chimney pots. For almost a century, families in Paradise Valley have sent not only their products to market in California but their children to Berkeley for high school as well.

Last Band of Sheep

Paradise City (renamed Paradise Valley by the 1870s) grew up around the ranch of C. A. Nichols (now the Boggio 7UP Ranch), as newcomers in the late 1860s began to locate their homesteads near Fort Winfield Scott, the short-lived U.S. Cavalry post in the upper end of the valley on Cottonwood Creek. Charles Kemler was the town's first big businessman and along with Alphonso Pasquale a chief developer in the early generation. Kemler's house was the first hotel, schoolhouse, and lodge hall. In its heyday the town had the usual assortment of wagonmaking shops, blacksmith shops, general stores, livery stables, hotels, and saloons. A white frame Methodist church (1893), now a community church, and a gray granite Catholic church face west on the town's main road.

There is a volunteer fire department. Frank Meyers operated an adobe brick factory and put up nearly all the many adobe buildings in the valley. William Kirschner operated a lager beer brewery in the basement of his adobe house on Cottonwood Creek, and Italian families still go to California in the fall to bring back Zinfandel grapes for making wine on the ranches. The town's first lawyer and schoolteacher, J. B. Case (from Tennessee via California), went into storekeeping and hired Steve Boggio (one of the many north Italians in Paradise) to build a fine granite store in 1910 that now is Jerry Sans's bar. The Odd Fellows lodge was chartered in 1874, the Daughters of Rebekah in 1884, and for years the lodge hall has been the adobe store building that was once one of Charles Kemler's enterprises. The U.S. Forest Service came to town in 1935, and Civilian Conservation Corps crews built their headquarters, the town's grammar school, and other structures around the valley. The "C C boys" built the road up over Hinkey Summit out of the valley to the northwest, and laid the state road branch from Paradise Hill in 1938, making obsolete the old wagon road that went straight down to Winnemucca.

High school students today ride the bus to Winnemucca's Lowry High, a trip taking a good hour and a half each way. The town is changing again, as fulltime farming increases in popularity and as more people find it a good place to settle in their retirement, to establish summer homes, or to commute to Winnemucca from. Ernest and Emily Miller, who ran Case's Store for many years, keep the town's post office open, although the town's population is a few hundred and the operation is only marginally profitable. The "mail stage" from Winnemucea pulls in at Miller's post office at 10:00 every morning of the week, and valley people have a chance to exchange news and conversation when they come to fetch mail from their boxes. Buckaroos drive to town to check mail and sometimes stop in at Jerry Sans's bar for a moment of relaxation and a break in the monotony of the work. On most mornings, a cast of regulars drink coffee and trade stories in Frank Gavica's garage behind Sans's. Like the buckaroo trade which gives the town its reason for existence, the pace of activity is generally slow.

Thompson and West's history of Nevada (republished by Myron Angel) described Paradise Valley in 1881.

[Paradise Valley] is one of the oases sometimes found in the most barren and desolate countries, like Broussa, in Syria, or the vale of Cashmere, in Persia. . . . As, from its fertility and favorable situation, it is likely to become the most important permanent agricultural portion of Nevada, an account of its discovery and settlement well deserves a place in the history of the State. About the first of June, 1863, R. D. Carr, W. B. Huff, J. A. Whitmore and W. C. Gregg started from Star City with the intention of prospecting the mountains on the north side of the Humboldt, ranging to the east. They crossed near where Mill City now stands, and followed the western slope of the mountains until they struck Rebel Creek, which they followed to its source near the summit. On attaining the summit a wide and beautiful valley burst on their view. Having seen only canyons and rugged hills they were much surprised, and W. B. Huff involuntarily exclaimed, "What a paradise!" and thus gave a name to the valley.

These prospectors saw the chance at hand, came back the following year to set up homesteads, and began growing crops and cattle. Indian raids in 1865 brought the Army post and further settlement, and by the time the post was closed in 1871 the valley was on its way. The place-name legend involving the prospectors has been kept in circulation in the community, and most people today have some version of the story of "how Paradise Valley got its name." It is a question we often asked in our field research. Like the variant dressed up and published by Thompson and West, current variants of the legend contain certain vital facts--that the valley was first found by prospecting hard rock miners and that they were surprised and thrilled at its beauty.

In March of 1978, Ernest Miller, a grandson of German pioneer Gerhard Miller, Sr., told me this variant, matter-of-factly:

They said that they, in the real old times, there was a couple prospectors came up from the valley on the west side of us and they come up on top of the beautiful Santa Rose range, and when they looked over the top they said, "Now isn't this a beautiful paradise!"

The story was told in a similar way in October 1979 by Butch Recanzone's wife Vicki, a Californian, who heard the place-name legend when she married and moved to the valley.

Well, the only story I ever heard was that some-one came up over the Santa Rosas, and looked down into the valley after seeing nothing but sagebrush and desert and said that this was a paradise, because there was water down here and it was green and there were trees. And now that's what I heard. You know, that they looked down and saw a paradise. And being that it is a valley, there's no doubt about that.

In any story-telling situation, others present chime in with enlargements, confirmations, additional information, or reflections. Here Vicki's father-in-law Carlo Recanzone added: "But I know that they've always said that they came from the north. And came across the Santa Rosas, and looked down upon this thing, and says, `Oh, this is paradise.' [laughter] So, that's the way they say the name came."

The people who settled the valley have names like Bradshaw, Harvey, Byrnes, Case, Lye, and Shelton, but also names like Ferraro, Stock, Schwartz, Recanzone, Kemler, Pasquale, and Forgnone. Historian Wilbur Shepperson shows that within several years after statehood Nevada was peopled by immigrants from nearly forty foreign countries and five continents. Yet in this huge state of more than a dozen mountain ranges, certain groups settled in certain places. In Paradise Valley, the chief influx was from Germany, Italy, and the Basque provinces of France and Spain. Americans from the East, Midwest, and California joined these distinctive groups, as did English, Irish, French, and Swiss Italians. Others who appeared in the early days but failed to establish permanent settlements included Mexican vaqueros from California and a small community of Chinese.

No one group could claim to be the first settlers here. In spite of generations of acculturation and change, some ranchers and buckaroos are still most assuredly Italian or German. The three main groups of families--from other American places, from Italy, and from Germany--all came most immediately from northern California. The Germans came to farm and raise cattle and build commerce. The Italians came to ply their ancient craft as stonemasons and soon became ranchers and businessmen. The Basques, brought from California by Italians to tend sheep, became businessmen and ranchers themselves. The Basques had not been sheepherders before coming to Nevada; they worked in various occupations and many were gold and silver miners down on their luck. By the time the Basques were working into sheep and cattle ranching in the 1870s, there was a small Chinese neighborhood in Winnemucca made up of Chinese who stayed after serving as laborers building the Central Pacific Railroad along the Humboldt River past the town. Further, Paiute and Shoshone Indian men and women worked on ranches as buckaroos, hands, and cooks. The ethnic and linguistic mix must have been puzzling and bothersome to some pioneers. A businessman and rancher like Alphonso Pasquale, who operated a number of businesses in Paradise Valley and several sheep and cattle ranches in the valley, needed some fluency in six languages--his own Italian, English, German, French Basque, Spanish Basque, and Spanish--as well as a passing ability to make himself understood to Indian and Chinese employees.