Why you should care
Because there was plenty to do in the “divorce capital of the world” and plenty of cowboys to do it with.
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Locals called the Overland Limited train the “divorcée special.” It pulled into the little yellow train station in Reno, Nevada, on a regular basis to deposit the latest arrivals to the city that was once dubbed “the divorce capital of the world.” At the station, the divorce seekers, most of whom were women from as far away as the East Coast, were usually met by a driver or their local divorce lawyer.
But it was quite possible that they would be met by a rugged man in jeans and a cowboy hat — a dude wrangler from a local “divorce ranch.” That’s right, a real-life cowboy. And, for many new arrivals, that was just the beginning of the adventure. Starting in the 1930s, Reno and its divorce ranches represented not just a place where you could await the end of your marriage, but also an opportunity to remake your life.
The destination of choice was the divorce ranch.
Nevada, heavily reliant on boom-and-bust industries like mining, was one of the states hardest hit by the Great Depression in the early 1930s. In response, state leaders took bold action in 1931, legalizing gambling and lowering the residency requirement for getting a divorce in the state to just six weeks, by far the shortest in the nation. In the wake of the new law, thousands of people poured into Reno, and more than 325,000 marriages would come to an end in Nevada between 1931 and 1970. Nevada also made divorce as painless as possible for its temporary residents, allowing nine grounds for divorce, including the most popular one, “mental cruelty,” which could (and was) applied to almost any form of unwelcome behavior by one’s soon-to-be-former spouse.
The only strict requirement was the six-week residency: Divorce seekers had to remain in the state every single day for those six weeks. Thus, local merchants made sure that those undergoing what came to be known as “Reno-vation” had no shortage of options for passing the time. For six weeks, divorce seekers spent their money in Reno on food, drinks, gambling, hairdressers, laundry and more, says Sandra McGee, co-author of The Divorce Seekers. “Many of them bought Western wear, which they probably never wore once they went home.”
Providing suitable accommodation for Reno’s six-week guests was also a major industry. Residents would turn their homes into boarding houses or rent out spare bedrooms. Auto camps — a forerunner of the trailer park — sprang up on vacant land around the city. But, for those with a little more money to spend and a hankering to try the true Western lifestyle, the destination of choice was the divorce ranch.
Divorce ranches came in all sizes. At the more modest ones, guests occupied a 12-by-8 cabin with an iron bed, an armchair, a desk and a washbasin with a jug of water. The toilet was a little shack down a path, and the coyotes could be heard yelping during the night. The more exclusive ranches offered larger, more comfortable guest rooms in a modern ranch house with a swimming pool and, of course, two or three resident cowboys who were responsible for entertaining the divorce seekers staying there. Entertainment generally took the form of horseback riding, fishing trips, excursions into town for shopping, gambling or drinks.
The diversions available at a divorce ranch took other forms too, and many female divorce seekers sought solace from their problems in the arms of the ranch wranglers. Sandra McGee’s co-author and husband, Bill McGee, came to Reno during the 1940s as a young man and worked for years as a dude wrangler at the Flying M E Ranch. His very first night on the job, he heard a soft knock on his bunkhouse door. When he opened it and asked the ranch guest standing there if there was anything wrong, she replied, “Nothing we can’t fix, cowboy.” McGee recalls that the ranch rules about not fraternizing with guests “flashed before me briefly as they flew out the window.”
The amorous encounter would not be McGee’s last, nor was it all that uncommon a phenomenon in Reno. One of the city’s ranches, the Lazy M E Ranch, earned the nickname “Lay Me Easy” for the devoted services of its staff. Not surprisingly, many of Reno’s temporary residents fell in love with the scenery, the climate and the people (including the occasional cowboy) — and some even decided to remain permanently in Nevada.
With Nevada leading the way, other U.S. states eventually liberalized their divorce laws, which in turn hurt the state’s competitive advantage and the thriving divorce business, including the infamous ranches. “Unfortunately, as divorces became easier to get,” says Sandra McGee, “there was no incentive to have a dude ranch.”