Monday, November 17, 2008

Gilcrease Ranch

Move from Reno
Leonard and Elda Gilcrease met when they were both college students in Reno. While there, one of Leonard’s professors encouraged him to spend summers picking fruit for E. G. McGriff in Las Vegas. After graduating in 1913, Leonard worked a short time for Edison’s power companies. Months after they married in 1915, Elda’s mother died, leaving her with an inheritance of rental properties, some of which was used to purchase the Maxwell car dealership. When the business closed, his friend McGriff encouraged Leonard to join the influx of pioneers moving to the Las Vegas valley.

McGriff had a ranch south of the city, near an artesian aquifer. According to an article on page 1 of the 29-Jan-1921 Las Vegas Age, Gilcrease applied for a tract of land south of McGriff’s Ranch through the 1919 Pittman Underground Water Act. He also purchased 80 acres, which included a house, from Reese Morgan who, along with his brother Bill, owned land near the lower tule spring.

Although water was abundant due to an active artesian well, the ground they'd purchased from Morgan was too rocky for the crops they hoped to grow. After scouring the area, Leonard and Elda found rich soil southeast of the well and several tracts of land available in between. The illustration below shows the 960 acres that the young couple contracted to purchase.

Ranch Beginnings
Gilcrease brought one of the first tractors to the area, and used it to dig an irrigation ditch from the well on the northwest property to the area he intended to plant in the southeast. Only a year after moving to the valley, while working down the road, Leonard and Elda saw a plume of smoke. According to 7-Jan-1922 Las Vegas Age article, the couple “made a dash for their home only to find it enveloped with flames.” All that they owned, including furniture, linens, a library of books and a baby grand piano brought down from Reno, as well as their clothing and other personal belongings were lost. Having nothing left, they moved into a small storeroom located on the southeast tract, near the farmland.

The next few years were spent completing the irrigation ditch and planting grapes. By 1925, it became obvious that the grape crop was not going to be sufficient to support the farm. With land contract payments continuing to be due each year, and no money left, the young couple was forced to take a loan from the Federal Land Bank. All of their property, including water rights and the irrigation ditch, was mortgaged to pay outstanding debts. What cash remained was then used to purchase materials to build coops and buy chickens to fill them.

The couple soon added Thanksgiving turkeys, and planted grains to feed their poultry. Just as things began to look promising, the stock market crashed, bringing with it the start of the Great Depression. As business slowed and many around them were defaulting on land contracts, Leonard decided to move back near his family in California. Elda chose to stay where she had a roof over her head and food on her table. Although he returned several times, the couple eventually divorced. Leonard stayed in California, where he remarried in 1932 and had two more children.

Elda and Her Boys
Elda’s mother, active in the early Nevada woman’s suffrage movement, had encouraged her continuing education. After working to become a teacher at the University in Reno, Elda spent time in Boston studying piano. Using this love of learning, Elda home-schooled her sons in the evenings, encouraging them to read all they could.

For the next several years, the boys studied at night, and worked alongside their mother during the day. In August 1940, soon after Ted turned 24 and Bill 21, Elda Gilcrease executed a deed of gift, granting 1/3 of her interest in the property to each son. Although they now owned a portion of the ranch, an active mortgage meant that land grants were not yet issued.

Ted’s Ambitions
When World War II came along, a family friend noticed Ted’s mechanical skills and offered to help him secure a job with the now growing Hughes Aircraft Company. Ted was enthusiastic, as he saw an opportunity to invest in land that had returned to the state during the depression. Elda was hesitant to let her son go, as she’d become dependent on his growing skills. She asked him to stay, offering Ted more responsibility in managing the ranch, and a chance to use his portion of the earnings independently.

Ted began to actively inquire about open land in the area around the Gilcrease Ranch. In 1941, he purchased 200 acres from the Nevada Land Office. After the war, Ted determined that they could finally afford more permanent help. He hired a local Piute Indian by the name of Johnson T. Mike (know as John Mike) and built what they called a “hired man’s house” for the family to live. Mike worked on the Gilcrease Ranch for 25 years. His stepsons joined him as they got older, as well as his son-in-law.

In 1946, with things continuing to look up, Ted acquired another 120 acres by assuming land contracts from a couple in California. With help from Mike and other temporary hired hands, new properties adjacent to the ranch were cleared and planted with alfalfa. By the start of 1948, the family was able to pay the balance on the Farm Loan and land patents for the original 960 acres were delivered. A couple of months later, Ted attended an auction, where he picked up an additional 80 acres at a bargain price. Shortly after that, he added another 160 acres. This addition brought the acreage Ted acquired to 560, bringing the total to 1520.

A subset of a 1954 map in the UNLV Digital archives is shown below, with the original Gilcrease land highlighted in orange, and the land Ted accumulated in green.

Hired Help
Around 1950, Delbert Allan moved to a tract just north of the main ranch. He planned to grow produce to sell at the local markets. Allan had limited success, as the jack rabbits got to many of his vegetables before he could! John Mike was still working at the Gilcrease Ranch and in 1952 Dell Allan began working there as well.

The Gilcrease Ranch now had two regular employees, and several young men, including John Mike’s stepsons, available as-needed. They had the Holt Caterpillar Steel-wheeled tractor Leonard bought when he started the farm, along with an International TD9 and a Farmall H tractor. They soon added International Harvester’s first self-propelled combine, the 123-SP. With the additional farmland, the Gilcreases were increasing the number of alfalfa and grain fields, and decreasing the amount of poultry they raised.

Dell Allan worked for the Gilcrease Ranch until about 1955. In 1957, his 14-year old nephew, Bill Allan, came looking for a job. The younger Allan began working around his school schedule. He found that farming agreed with him, and was hired as the next permanent employee when he graduated High School. The Gilcreases helped Bill Allan to set up a trailer so that he could be available to share night-time irrigation chores and perform early morning field work.

Changes at the Ranch
While Elda and Ted were getting enthused about the ranch expansion, Bill’s interest began to wane. When Bob and Ila Taylor moved nearby, Bill became friendly with the couple and spent some time working at their Ranch House Supper Club. The next year, he ordered a yard tractor, hoping to perform lawn maintenance. After finding it difficult to secure customers, he took a job mowing for another company. In 1959, Bill decided he wanted a change and moved to Arizona. He returned a year later, and split his time between lawn care and helping out at the ranch. He tried his hand at being a distributor for a couple of different products, but neither sold as well as he’d hoped. When the Las Vegas Art League rented studio space at Lorenzi Park, Bill joined the group and began spending much of his time there.

In the 1960s, with more people interested in moving north of the city, and land values increasing, it seemed like a good time to sell. Lots in unused sections were sold to pay off outstanding land contracts. In 1963, patents for the last parcels of land purchased from the state were finally mailed to the ranch.

In 1965, with the mortgage paid, and nearly 500 acres being cultivated, the Gilcreases purchased additional farm equipment. The next year, extra hands were hired to replace a mile of irrigation ditch with underground pipe. That year, Ted also purchased a John Deere self-propelled hay cuber. According to Deere, cubed hay promised a savings in labor by getting the hay immediately off the field, allowing automated transportation and providing for more efficient storage

A Tough Year
In March of 1968, Elda Ann Orr Gilcrease died. After giving the family a couple of months to mourn, the IRS requested an inheritance tax payment. As had been the case for almost 40 years, there was very little cash available as Gilcrease money was tied up in land and farm equipment. To make matters worse, some of the land patents were in Elda’s name, alone. It appears that when family friend, J. T. McWilliams delivered the paperwork for the land contracts that Ted initiated, he was told that only one applicant could be listed, so Elda’s name was used. As executor of her estate, Ted searched through old records, trying to document the history of the purchase. Unfortunately, he was only able to find a few canceled checks, as many of his old bank statements were long gone.

Seven months after Elda’s death, while her estate was still in probate, neighbors lost their house to a devastating fire. The Racel family met Bill before moving to the area, and he had become a good friend. Stopping by that morning to visit, Bill found Mary Ellen on her way out to run errands, and offered to stay with the younger children. When a fire broke out, he was unable to do anything but keep the children away from the flames and watch the house burn to the ground.

It happened that the Gilcrease house was nearly empty at the time. Elda was gone, Bill was spending most of his time in the city and Ted slept in a small studio apartment he’d built just east of the house. So the brothers offered to let the Racel family of nine move in while they rebuilt their home. Two sets of bunk beds were added to each bedroom and two days later, the family moved in.

It wasn’t long before both Gilcrease brothers were joining the Racels each evening for dinner. After a small trailer was set up in back to provide rooms for the older children, Bill collected the things he’d gathered in town and moved back to the ranch.

Settling Two Estates
In May of 1969, while Elda’s estate was still in flux, her good friend Iona Ida McWilliams died. Ted was named executor of that estate as well. Things got complicated when a boarder claimed Mrs. McWilliams owed him several thousand dollars. After contacting a former employee of Mrs. McWilliams, Ted was able to settle that estate and return his attentions to his mother's.

While he was never able to convince the IRS that he’d purchased a portion of the land, a compromise was reached that recognized the ranch as jointly owned. Ted’s next hurdle was to try to figure out how to sell enough to pay the inheritance tax, without having capital gains taxes negate any profits. After researching land exchanges, he and his attorney worked with Nevada Exchange Coordinators, to trade 480 acres for the Harve Perry 3-building office center on Maryland Parkway and Sahara. Ted next negotiated an arrangement with the IRS that would allow the tax burden to be paid through rental income for the next 10 years.

The arrangement was approved by the IRS and Elda’s estate was settled in the fall of 1971. With the tax burden taken care of, there were still several outstanding debts, including the remaining balance on recently purchased equipment and upgrades that a now diminished farm income would not be able to cover. In the next two years, another 120 acres were sold to pay down the equipment debt.

After sales in the 1960s, used to pay off land contracts, the settling of Elda's estate, and sales to pay down equipment debts, the Gilcrease holdings were cut in half, leaving them with about 720 acres.

New Beginnings
While Ted had his hands full trying to settle two estates, he relied on foreman Bill Allan to keep the ranch running. There were still fields to harvest and one of the exchange partners allowed his property to continue being cultivated as well. To increase production, Ted added a new parcel northwest of the ranch, along Tenaya Way. He depended upon Mary Racel to handle the overflow of administrative chores. She made ranch purchases of supplies and groceries when she was in town, and often visited Ted’s attorney, delivering correspondence and messages between the two men.

Bill planted some fruit trees and a large garden across from the house, and began to raise quail. While his interest in ranching continued to fade, his interest in these small birds increased. Soon, he added ducks, monkeys and other exotic animals to a collection that he kept in the family's old turkey house. In 1973, Fred & Dina VanHorn bought land from the Gilcrease brothers to create a home for wild animals. In 1976, when the Nevada Wild Animal Preserve liquidated, Bill took his birds and other animals and moved to the facility.

With fewer cultivated fields, and competition from larger farms outside Las Vegas, profits at the Gilcrease Ranch began to dwindle. Ready to take on a new challenge, Ted decided convert some of the alfalfa fields to fruit trees. With Bill looking to upgrade the Gilcrease Bird Sanctuary, and Ted ready to start the Gilcrease Orchard, the brothers sold off nearly half their remaining land. In 1990, Ted Gilcrese harvested his last crop of alfalfa, signaling the end of the old Gilcrease Ranch.


Anonymous said...

Great family and Las Vegas history.

Anonymous said...

enjoyed the read!

Anonymous said...

My Mother and I had been going to pick fruit and vegies for about 30 years there. The big, juicy peaches have never tasted the same anywhere. I'm from a Texas farm family and there's nothing we like better than fresh. Please update this site. It was simply fascinating. Thanks Phyllis T.

Anonymous said...

Great reading , what a story. here i am trying to grow vegetables in a little patch behind my house, what a problem.They are an inspiration to me...............

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful read of little known Las Vegas history. I and my family including grandchildren have enjoyed the Gilcrease Ranch sooo much. It's where my children learned about where fruit and vegetables came from (a ranch - mother earth). The apple cider was something to look forward to each year. Thanks so much for the historical background.

Anonymous said...

I went to school with Billy Allens son his name was the same.Great Story I always loved Gilcrese its a big part of Vegas.