Sunday, January 28, 2024

Theodore Winters A Civic Entrepreneur

Part of the former Winters Ranch in Washoe Valley, Nev.

by Glenn Franco Simmons

Nestled in the majestic wind-swept panorama that is the Washoe Valley in Nevada is the former Winters Ranch, which was also known as Rancho del Sierra (Sierra Ranch).

For many generations, the ranch was important to Nevadans in many respects because of the Winters' captivating history in Nevada and California.

The story of Winters Ranch can be traced to that entrepreneurial pioneer spirit that animated Western expansion.

“Winters was born in Illinois on Sept. 14, 1823, where his father, John Devers Winters, had developed a stage line and freight business in Illinois,” according to the Historical Society of Winters. “In 1848, Theodore’s father and brothers, John D. Jr. and Joseph and daughter Harriet, headed for California via the Oregon Trail and left Theodore to dispose of the family business. Theodore, who had married in 1847 to Sarah Marshall, stayed on in Illinois until the spring of 1849.

“He then brought his wife and small son, George, to California where they joined the rest of the family at Forest City, situated on the American River. … The Winters family did some mining, some farming, but mostly hauling freight to the gold fields.”

Their connection to Nevada began when gold was discovered in what became known as The Comstock Lode. The father and sons began hauling freight from Placerville, Calif., to the Carson Valley, which is south of Washoe and Eagle valleys where the family would construct their homestead, farm, racetrack and ranch.

A beautiful house on the former Winters Ranch in Washoe Valley, Nev.

The Historical Society of Winters noted that, in 1852, Sarah Winters returned to Illinois to visit her parents. 

“She arrived back in San Francisco; but, on Jan. 3, 1853, while traveling by boat to Sacramento, the vessel she was on, the ‘Comanche’ collided with another steamer, the ‘J. Bragdon,’ and sank in a few minutes. George, who was then 5, was saved, but Mrs. Winters, and 2-year-old Helen were drowned.”

Winters would eventually marry Margaret Martin and their financial fortunes improved.

“In the 1850s, the Winters family became wealthy, both from their freighting business and from interests they held in The Comstock Lode,” the society added. “Their freight line in Nevada was called ‘The Winters Express.’”

When Church of Latter-day Saints’ leader Brigham Young called for all Mormons to return Salt Lake City, Winters saw an opportunity expand his already vast holdings by purchasing land in Washoe Valley.

“He expanded his holdings until, 10 years later, he owned more than 18,000 acres in California and Nevada …,” the society stated. “About 1860 Winters began to interest himself in horse racing, with a racetrack built in Carson Valley.

“In 1864, while he was on a trip east to perfect the title to some of his lands, he stopped off in St. Louis to watch a horse race and bought his most famous racehorse ‘Norfolk,’ from Mr. R. A. Alexander, owner of the Woodburn stud farm, in Kentucky.”

He had the horse shipped to California via Panama.

“No horse was able to outrun the stallion,” according to the society. “Winters is credited with introducing thoroughbred horses to the west, and the contests between Norfolk and Lodi, a horse owned by Judge Charles Bryan, are legendary.

“The climate of Washoe Valley proved to be severe in the winter months, so in 1865, he bought 1,300 acres of land {and} 700 acres in Yolo County and 600 in Solano.”

Winters commuted between his Nevada and California properties. Even the town of Winters in California is named after him because he donated some of the land the town was built on.

“From 1865 to 1890 were the heydays of Winters’ racing stables,” the society stated. “Many famous horses were born and raised in his stables. ... Those colts that did not possess all of the desired traits were shipped to his Nevada ranch where they were broken for riding or teaming.”

Winters definitely sounds like a dedicated go-getter, so what was next in his life? Politics. To finance his run for Nevada governor, he sold land in California.

Because of an abiding dislike on the part of some Nevadans for Californians (which exists to this day), Winters was derogatorily labeled a “carpetbagger” by his opponent who trounced him. In truth, he was as Nevadan as anyone else and didn’t deserve the negativity because of his ingenuity and entrepreneurship.

Sadly, the society said the “political race was the turning point in Winters’ fortunes.”

“The campaign left him heavily in debt, and he had to sell some of his Nevada property,” the society added. “His 17-year-old daughter, Maggie, died of jaundice in San Francisco in 1897. Mrs. Winters, who had borne 10 children, seemed to lose all interest in life after Maggie’s death and died in San Francisco on May 30, 1898.

“Financial problems continued to plague Theodore, and he lost a series of water rights cases which didn’t help.”

The society noted that he suffered a dismal sale of brood mares at the 1899 Nevada State.

“Theodore Winters died at his home in the Washoe Valley on Aug. 3, 1906,” the society noted. “One of his daughters, Neva Winters Sauer, kept the Winters ranch until her death in Sept. 1953.

“The wills of Theodore and Margaret Winters were not probated until after the death of Neva Sauer, and in order to begin settling the estate, the ranch was sold to E. W. Scripps II, prominent newspaper chain magnate.

“Theodore Winters had 12 children, two by his first wife, and 10 by his second,” the society continued. “The children from his first marriage were George and Helen, and by his second wife were Frankie, Nettie, Mark, Nellie, Lou, Neva, Maggie, Archie, Theodora and an infant that lived just a short time.”

In this post are photos of the house and former ranch that once covered 6,000 acres and “included an orchard, horse racetrack and extensive livestock herds,” according to a commemorative plaque at the former Ranch site.

“The house was built by Theodore Winters (circa 1862), who had become wealthy from part-ownership in the Ophir Mine,” according to the plaque that was placed by Snowshoe Thomson Chapter No. 1827, E Clampus Vitas, in 1985.

According to what I believe is an official state of Nevada commemorative plaque (faded, state seal no longer affixed) at the former Winters Ranch site in Washoe Valley, Nev., the house is a Carpenter-Gothic Style structure that was completed in about 1864, which differs from the Winters Historical Society's article. The sign is so faded, it is an embarrassment. The state should upgrade it.

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