It’s well known that the landscape around Reno was once filled with working farms and ranches. And as the tourism industry developed, some ranch owners noticed a growing interest among visitors in playing cowboy—or at least in meeting one. Historian Alicia Barber explains in this installment of Time & Place.
Guest ranches began to appear around Reno in the late 1920s. Dude ranches, where tourists could play cowboy, were growing in popularity throughout the region, but Nevada’s divorce trade inspired a special kind of dude ranch, one tailored to a crowd in search of an especially romanticized version of the American West.
Some of the ranchers who weren’t interested in offering the whole bed-and-breakfast experience opened riding stables for day use. Alice Casazza Jacobsen grew up on a ranch just south of Reno that her father, Anthony Casazza, had purchased in the early 1920s. The property had once housed a racetrack, so he partnered with his friend Ernie Cassinelli to open the Carnation Riding Stables, offering hourly or daylong rides. It was an instant hit with the divorce crowd, especially, as Jacobsen remembered, the female contingent.
“I can remember as a little girl, I would be surprised at the beautiful young women from back East,” Jacobsen said. “They were renting rooms in other houses in Reno and would come out and ride horses and go on hay rides.”
The area’s guest ranches ranged widely in degree of luxury and discretion. In the 1930s and 1940s, others offering lodging just outside Reno city limits included the Lone Star, the Silver Saddle, and the Flying N. Those that attracted the rich and famous were usually a bit farther afield, like the Flying ME in Washoe Valley and the Pyramid Lake Guest Ranch, where playwright Arthur Miller stayed, gaining inspiration to write the story that eventually became the film The Misfits.
Some had swimming pools and tennis courts, but there was one amenity none of them could do without Jacobsen recalls:
“They had to have a lot of young cowboys around, I guess, for an attraction for the divorcees. None of them, I guess, were married," she explained. "And, of course, they had to control the horses and teach the women how to ride.”
In truth, not all the cowboys were single and they didn't all romance the guests, but filmmakers latched onto that romantic notion in movies, from Vacation in Reno to The Women. The beauty of the wide-open landscape made the Truckee Meadows ideal for day-long horseback trips through the sage and pine. Guests were treated to picnics and barbeques in the foothills and even overnight trips into the mountains. To more fully play the part, they could “go Western,” purchasing their jeans, boots, and hats downtown at Parker’s Western Wear. At the Carnation Stables, Jacobsen remembered, the festivities went well into the night.
“Then they would have parties in the evening where they would have open fires and there would be the cowboys that were working there. [They] must have had a great, great, time, you know, because we could hear them at night when they were having their parties.”
Most of the area’s guest ranches had closed by the 1960s, as the divorce trade tapered off and the city grew. The Casazza family closed the Carnation Riding Stables in the 1940s, and began to sell off the property for housing. In the mid-1960s, they developed the last section of the ranch into an attraction for a decidedly more urban consumer: a retail center they named Shopper’s Square.
Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries. More on Reno’s guest ranches and its divorce industry can be found at the library’s website, RenoDivorceHistory.org.