Suburban sprawl surrounds Highway 395 around Carson City, Nev., enough to prompt anyone to move onward, north or south. Countless times, it has done so to me.
But one spring day along the asphalt ribbon leading travelers south into the Mojave Desert or north as far as British Columbia, I decided to veer eastward, toward the lonely Stillwater and Shoshone ranges, past low-hung desert abodes and tumbleweeds, eventually arriving at a leafy, well-manicured plaza, not unlike an Ivy League campus.
It was a chilly March morning when I visited the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center & Museum and met with Stacey Montooth, executive director of the State of Nevada Indian Commission. As we stood looking at the hills and toward the omnipresent Sierra Nevada, Montooth talked with me about the school’s history.
“The trades mostly,” she told me, when I asked her what students had learned here. “Cooking, secretarial work, mechanics, stone masonry, construction. They even taught students here how to work as farriers.”
Montooth knew this in part because her grandmother and aunt were once Stewart students at the beginning of the last century, as well as members of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, one of 27 Tribal nations in Nevada’s Great Basin. An uncle, she notes, once ran the school’s infirmary. From 1890 until 1980, it was Nevada’s only off-reservation Indian boarding school. Today, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a Historic District.
“Stewart, and others like it around the United States, were run like military schools,” she said as we walked along the paved paths cutting across the well-tended lawns and bordering the stately stone buildings—95 in all—now occupied by the Nevada Department of Corrections and other state agencies. “The students had their hair cut; they were forbidden to speak their native languages.
“It was a time,” she noted, rather matter-of-factly, “when the idea was to kill the Indian and save the man.”
Later on I told Montooth rather ashamedly that I had passed through Nevada’s Carson Valley often in the past few years, discovering its own attributes for myself, the high–desert plain on the horizon, Mount Rose’s majestic peak. I’ve raced through it, onward to Reno or Mono Lake. I’ve read a lot about it. My husband and I spent the last two nights of our honeymoon in summer 2019 in sweet Genoa, Nevada’s oldest settlement, after we’d spent a few weeks meandering across the Eastern Sierra, smitten with each other and Genoa itself.
I thought I knew Carson Valley well, to the extent even that my husband and I talk of living there part time when we retire. But when I visited in March, I realized—like with the Stewart Indian School—that there was even more to explore in this region that I imagine may strike many as too rural, perhaps dull, in some cases simply unappealing. But then, come to find out, Carson Valley has an astonishing number of sites placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Although it’s an undersung destination, it’s an insider tip particularly for day-trippers, and the area has been doing its part to keep both residents and travelers safe during the pandemic. If you go, be sure to check the Visit Carson Valley website for latest advisories. At the time of writing, face masks are mandatory in all public places; the Stewart Museum was offering free masks to visitors, as well, and is allowing no more than 10 visitors inside at a time.
On my March visit, I ruminated on how growing up in Sacramento, anything beyond the Sierra was forgettable hinterlands to me. This struck me almost as absurd the two evenings I sat on the patio outside my elegant room at David Walley’s Hot Springs Resort & Spa, luxuriating in the hot springs there, nearly breathless at a harvest moon as Canada geese swooped down into the neighboring creek.
And the day after I met with Montooth, those hinterlands would be even more of a breathtaking backdrop when, in the early morning, wildlife photographer JT Humphrey met me in Minden in his pickup truck to whisk me up into the Pine Nut Mountain Range about 10 miles to the east. For half an hour, we rollicked over cratered dirt roads, crisscrossing rangeland mostly covered in sage brush. Every now and again, I’d turn to stare back at the snowy Sierra Nevada bathed in sunshine. I occasionally watched raptors lazily circle above, and at one point, Humphrey pointed out four deer, sizing us up with patient interest.
For some three decades, Humphrey himself has nurtured a patient interest in the wild, be it eagles, owls or—as in our case that early morning—horses. For several years, the Bureau of Land Management has tried to manage, mostly unsuccessfully, Nevada’s and Idaho’s wild horse population, the untamed offspring of escaped horses from explorers, ranchers and miners. A few years ago, just north of Reno, I had wistfully driven past a BLM wild horse adoption center and, on another tour in Northern Nevada, sat spellbound at a deserted intersection while a posse of mustangs gracefully, without a care in the world, crossed my path.
But now, Humphrey and I edged ever closer to several herds, which can travel up to 20 miles per day. As we gingerly approached them among the sagebrush, they stood regal and aloof, barely acknowledging us. I could hear my steady heartbeat in wonder, no less while gazing at stunning Jobs Peak, Jobs Sister and Freels Peek, the ideal backdrop.
“Zorro, Jake, Chase, Lady, Wilma, Rudy, Scarlett, Puddin . . .” Humphrey rattled off their names, pointing out each as he handed me his binoculars while quietly telling me of mating and betrayal rituals, jealousies and triumphs, an equine soap opera in which he keeps the camera rolling. It never gets tiresome, he said.
A trip across rural Nevada may have you believe that it’s all rough and tumble out here, a land of wild horses, many once corralled and made to heel, but most staying resistant to restraint. On my visit, however, I would also see a genteel side of Carson Valley I didn’t think existed. Though I’d driven several times along Highway 395, marveling all the while at the Sierra Nevada’s dramatic ascent, I’d apparently been oblivious to the Dangberg Ranch, just a few miles west of Minden and with stellar views all around.
“This is not a working ranch,” Kim Harris, Dangberg’s events manager, told me as we took in the valley. She pointed out a cordoned–off august brick building with “1918” painted on the façade—once the ranch’s slaughterhouse but trapped in arrested development today with a descending roofline revealing two smokestacks. She then directed me to the imposing carriage house, built in 1915, and a handsome barn dating to 1875 and constructed without a single nail, she noted with awe.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Dangberg Home Ranch is Carson Valley’s rendition of family dynasty and decline, on par, Harris noted, with the Kennedy family’s travails. Built by homesteader and German immigrant Heinrich Friedrich Dangberg Sr. in 1857, it was the valley’s largest ranch at the time, spreading at one point to nearly 20,000 acres and accommodating cattle ranchers, cowboys and hay harvesters, as well as eventually the slaughterhouse. It was just one of Dangberg’s four ranches in the region, reflecting his industrious spirit. To attract even more industry, his sons built the town of Minden in 1907 in an effort to bring the railroad to the area, christening the town after their father’s birthplace in Germany.
By 1917, the Dangberg Land and Live Stock Company was at the apex of power and influence, and in siring five children, Fred Dangberg Jr. had hoped to extend that prosperity for generations to come. It wasn’t easy. He was a gambler, and he once lost the company and personal property because of his addiction. The ranch suffered through the Depression.
But none of this hardship would be readily apparent in touring the delightful interior at Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park. The Dangberg family held onto its valuable heirlooms, which in their entirety convey their wealth and status. As well, the Dangberg Foundation has preserved the home exceptionally well, taking appointments in advance for tours.
The grounds are open for day use without fee or reservation, and staff ask that visitors comply with Nevada’s health and safety directives regarding COVID-19. A guided history tour, which I took with Harris, led me inside the ranch house, but at the time of writing, the tour stays mostly outdoors. Face masks are required indoors when distancing is not possible.
Upon donning plastic shoe coverings, I followed Harris in wandering among the bourgeois trappings of this frontier home, admiring especially a red lacquer Chinese tea set in the living room and later a stunning turquoise vase emblazoned with lotus blossoms in the parlor. It all hearkened back to a time when deals were made over poker games in rooms like this. Clark Gable once visited.
I felt just as urbane the previous day while lunching at the Pink House in Genoa, which today is a well-preserved frontier town. My husband and I had overnighted at the adjacent White House Inn during our honeymoon; we still wax poetic about the compote we made there one evening after picking pears from a tree next to our bungalow. We recall waking up to deer circling the grounds the next day, and cottonwoods rustling in the wind. We hadn’t had time then to visit the very pretty, dainty Pink House next door, regretting then how we were missing out on the artisan cheese and charcuterie it’s known for.
For lunch, I ordered the sumptuous Cheesemonger’s Grilled Cheese Sandwich, dripping with melted cheddar, brie and smoked Gouda. While waiting to be served, I caught sight of the sublime Art Nouveau wallpaper featuring gold and white irises, cattails and matching trim, as well as a Tiffany chandelier.
Dating back to the same era as the Dangberg Ranch, the Gothic Revival–style Pink House was built by settler John Reese in 1855; like Dangberg Ranch, too, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Over the next century, it would be used as a town hall, and at one time or another it would be home to local merchants hustling during Nevada’s Silver Rush.
These days, one of the most hustling businesses in Carson Valley is the Bently Heritage Estate Distillery, where I ended up the next day. Housed in a century-old flour mill and creamery in Minden, it also is on the National Register of Historic Places and produces world-class spirits including single-malt whisky and elite small–batch liqueur. Bently closed temporarily to the public during the spring and summer due to the pandemic; would-be visitors should check the distillery’s website for current visitor offerings and restrictions.
“The corn, the oats, wheat, rye, barley, fruits, most of our ingredients are raised on our land,” tour guide Tom Morgan told me as we entered the old Minden Creamery Building, where I stood bowled over at the enormous copper stills that resemble something out of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. I stared at the conduits and glossy circular open stairwells, trying to keep up with Morgan’s chemistry lecture on reverse–osmosis water treatment and fermentation. Owners Christopher and Camille Bently, he said, didn’t just want to make award-winning whisky—they do this—“but they very carefully thought this out, thinking this should be an aesthetically pleasing distillery and should preserve Carson Valley’s history. That’s rare.”
I considered this as Morgan poured me samples of Bently’s cacao liqueur, followed by the vodka rested oak sherry. Both were flavorful, an unexpected pleasure as I drink only sparingly and don’t think of myself by any stretch as a connoisseur. Yet here I was, gazing at the Stillwater Range, thoughts of Native American legacies and lives, and pioneer pluck and profits playing in my mind, these among Carson Valley’s rare, unexpected pleasures, akin to sighting wild horses motionless against a searing, endless horizon.