“Ladies, let us buy it!”
“It” was the popular Bowers Mansion, a gem of northern Nevada’s mining legacy in Washoe Valley, which was put up for sale by its 82-year-old owner in January 1946.
The “ladies” were the members of the Reno Women’s Civic Club spurred on by their leaders, Ethel Parker and Dorothy Allen, who had heard that the iconic mansion was to be sold to out-of-state developers for $100,000 — the equivalent of about $1.35 million today.
The women’s successful effort in saving the mansion is the reason the property, now a Washoe County Regional Park, has been a local treasure for the last seven decades. The pivotal moments of the fund drive will be honored with a reenactment on May 21. The Nevada Women’s History Project is recruiting women (with access to 1940s and 1950s flowered hats) to take part in the reenactment, which will kick off the mansion’s annual Programs on the Porch series.
Developers made bids
The events of 1946 mirror similar situations today, when real estate developers often see local historic properties as blank canvases for their own profit.
The Civic Club members were outraged that the beloved mansion, where generations of Nevada families had picnicked, played, gone swimming and toured the beautiful Victorian residence, might become a commercial enterprise. The women started with small donations, raising $25 at their meeting toward the $100,000 asking price.
Meanwhile, owner Henry Riter was negotiating with buyers from California, who made pilgrimages to the mansion. When the club ladies showed up for their appointment, Riter told them the prospective buyers had made an offer of a $25,000 down payment, but that he was loath to sell to them.
“Ladies,” he said, “I don’t want them to have it. It belongs to Nevada and Nevada children. What kind of an offer can you make me?”
$1 held the property
After a short conference, club members handed him a single dollar and signed an option to raise funds for the down payment. It was a bold move, but the women were determined to keep Bowers Mansion for the public. How the club raised the rest of the down payment and then convinced Washoe County commissioners to buy the mansion for a public park is the story of the May 21 re-enactment.
“Children have been swimming, picnicking and playing at Bowers Mansion since the 1860s,” said Tamera Busick, a retired Hug High School mathematics teacher who is now curator of Bowers Mansion. Busick has extensively researched the history of the Bowers family and the structure.
“The Reno Women’s Civics Club did not want that public access to end. By working tirelessly, they managed to raise enough money to save the mansion and assure Nevadans that future generations of children will have the same opportunity to create their own childhood memories.”
No acting experience is needed to portray members of the Civic Club. Requirements are simple.
“Bring a chair, a picnic, and make, find or borrow a 1940-50s hat,” said Patti Bernard, Nevada Women’s History Project chairwoman, who is creating the script from historic sources, including an account written by Ethel Parker, a Civic Club leader.
“I’m looking forward to commemorating the history of women’s achievements in Nevada at a beautiful location,” said Mina Stafford, curator of education at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City, who is planning to participate in the May 21 event. “I love dressing up.”
Pennies for preservation
To accomplish the formidable task of raising $25,000, the women collected small change in jars placed in stores, libraries, and they collected donations at movie theaters. Students held penny drives at their schools, including 47 children at the Carson Orphans Home.
A large banner over Virginia Street in downtown Reno trumpeted: “Help buy Bowers Mansion.” Luncheons at the Mapes Hotel and Excursion Train picnics on the Virginia & Truckee Railroad helped raise funds. The sellers, Henry and Edna Riter, contributed $2,500 for the purchase of their own home. But at the end of April, the club had $13,353 in the bank, still not enough for the down payment.
By May, most of the $25,000 had been raised, but the rest of the sale price was in doubt. As club members began to despair, news arrived from the Washoe County commissioners. The panel members, impressed by the enthusiasm of the fund drive, understood that the public wanted Bowers Mansion as a public park. The commission voted to take over the purchase and to dedicate the new park to Nevada veterans of World War II.
Recreating an era
The Reno Women’s Civic Club was appointed by the county commission to oversee the restoration of the historic mansion back to the Big Bonanza days when Sandy and Eilley Bowers, the original builders, lived there. Alice Addenbrooke, who loved the history of Nevada and had previously, raised funds for the restoration of Fort Churchill in Lyon Country, took a leading role.
Addenbrooke and others collected any item, large or small, that was owned by the Bowers couple or was from their era. The antiques included old ale bottles and kitchen implements as well as large, ornate pool table and statues.
The mansion’s original owners, Eilley Oram Bowers and her husband, Sandy Bowers, owned adjoining mine claims in Gold Hill. They married on the Comstock and in 1864 they spent their newfound riches to build the elaborate mansion in Washoe Valley with a view of the Sierra Nevada to the west and Washoe Lake in the east.
From millionaire to medium
They furnished the house with furniture and art from Europe. When the Comstock Lode played out and Sandy Bowers died, Eilley was forced to sell their mine. She turned the mansion into a resort for parties and picnics.
But Eilley wasn’t able to keep her dream home. She finally lost the mansion, which was sold in a public auction to Myron C. Lake, one of the founders of Reno. Eilley became a fortune teller, moved to San Francisco and died alone at age 77 in Oakland.
The next owner of Bowers Mansion, Henry Riter, helped return Eilley’s ashes for burial behind the mansion beside the graves of her husband and their adopted daughter Persia. The story of Eillie Bowers, Ethel Parker, Alice Addenbrooke and many other important and interesting women in Nevada history, are published on the Nevada Women’s History Project website.
Programs on the Porch
The May 21 event kicks off the free Programs on the Porch series which includes events on Friday evenings through June 18. The Programs on the Porch is the longest-running park series that Washoe County Parks has offered, said Nick Steuer, Bowers Mansion park ranger.
“This year I decided on a theme, the Throwback Edition, that focuses on the history of the area,” he said. Topics include the history of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California; a visit from former President Theodore Roosevelt, a Chautauqua performance; mountain man Bob Burke; and cowboy entertainer Tex Weir. Steuer added that the spacious lawn in front of the mansion accommodates social distancing among attendees.
Hour-long tours of the mansion led by Busick and volunteers will begin May 15. Summer group tours are also available by appointment. Details: (775) 849-0201.