Norm DeChambeau and the DeChambeau Ranch

Norm De Chambeau was a veteran of the United States Navy and the Korean War. He worked for the United States Forest Service, Nevada State forestry, and the National Park Service in wildland fire suppression, then for the Boy Scouts of America. After retiring he returned to live in the Mono Basin where he had spent part of his childhood. He served as the president and curator of the Mono Basin Historical Society. His ancestors homesteaded in the Mono Basin in the 19th century at this ranch and others. In 2014, Norm gave this talk that fascinated the crowd visiting DeChambeau Ranch during the historical society's annual Ghosts of the Sagebrush Tour.  Norm passed away in May 2016.

Thank you. Y’all wonder what I am doing in this outfit. Well eleven years ago we decided we needed to do something for the Historical Society, so we formed the Ghosts Tour and right here I was sitting on this porch, and I gave a little talk about the history of this area. But I want to take you back for a few minutes because we spoke of ghosts and spirits. I want to take you back over 75 years ago. I want to say that my grandfather - he’s over there behind the barn [gestures to the left]; he’s negotiating with Conway. My grandfather had bought a team of horses from Conway, but he hadn’t paid for it all the way. So Conway came down here and he said I tell you what, we’ll settle our debt if you will build me a hay-builder, a hay-stacker. Well my grandfather always had a pet pig, and the pet pig kept trying to get in the middle to stop them from having a fistfight, but they got it settled, or at least I think they did. They are over there [by the barn].

My grandmother, she’s here in the kitchen [gestures to the left]. Any time that you came here on the ranch or came by on the county road [gestures to the road out front], she’d see you, she’d wave you in, and she would have a little bowl of Canadian pea soup for ya and a cup of coffee. Well, I have to excuse her, but she’s in there cooking a pot of Canadian pea soup, so she’s pretty busy.

My step-mother, she’s over there in that wash house [ gestures to the far left] with a little bucket, and she’s trying to wash these clothes with a scrub board [gestures up and down] back and forth, and she’s having a tough job over there.

But I shouldn’t be standing here, I should be gathering the stack of wood thats over here [gestures forward], carrying the wood over to her wood stove to keep her water hot, should be carrying wood over here to my grandmother’s cooking stove so that she can cook that pea soup, but I am busy here right now.

Her oldest daughter Annie, Annie Mackenzie, is living up there in Bodie, and I wish I could show you pictures of her and Merv Mackenzie in their old costumes during the Fourth of July Parade; it must have been quite a sight.

And their son Arthur, if you look up there on the top of Black Point, the tallest little rock up there, he’s up there with a horse, watching a whole bunch of sheep we have up there, but he’s actually hiding behind or underneath the sagebrush because he’s studying to be a lawyer. And he got his Law degree, he passed it by a correspondence course. He was going to drop it, but the folks said, no, you’re doing real well, keep it up. He took the State Bar exam, and he was number two or three in the whole State Bar exam! He ended up in Bridgeport, where he was the Justice of the Peace, a District Attorney, and a Judge; if you got a speeding ticket, you might have gone before him.

And then Dewey, well Dewy just got married, and he and his brand new wife, Alma McRose, are over there on the eastern side of the lake [gestures straight out]. They are cutting firewood to haul up to Bodie. Well, Alma did not like that kind of living over there, so they ended up running the Bridgeport newspaper for over 30 years.

Violet, well she is somewhere around here taking pictures, and you better watch out; maybe she’s taking pictures of you. Most of these pictures here [gestures behind] were from her camera, and she took pictures all over.

Dad, my dad Darius, he’s down there in the lower field trying to catch Topsy so my sister and I can ride her to school the next day. Out there on 395, we’d ride back and forth to get to the school there, and one winter we spent at Thompson Ranch.

Well, I already talked about my stepmother, and so here I am, 75 years later, trying to tell you what the history of this place is. If you looked about as you came in here, and you turned to come down this lane here, the old County Road, just as you turned in and came through the wire fence, that was the Gardelia place. They were the first to settle here, Mr. Gardelia who came from Genoa, NV. He came here in 1871 and he homesteaded that area. Well, actually he squatted on it and ten years later he finally got a homestead on it. So he lived there, and he had a fellow named, Nicholas Dondero, and this is where the Dondero family comes in.

Nicholas was living up in Genoa, and he heard about Gardelia needing help, so Nicholas came down here and went to work for Gardelia. That lasted about three years, and then they got into a debate, so Nicholas came down and squatted right here, and ten years later he got the homestead rights to it.

And for of you who do not know, you had to have water on your property and you had to build a house with quarters and everything, and produce livestock and a garden or something. I always have a big debate with certain people here in Mono Basin about when Wilson Creek got its name. Wilson Creek ran through Conway Ranch, and the Wilson brothers, who were nephews of the Curry family came out and settled the Conway Ranch, the first of the five ranches there. They settled there, and their water supply came through there, and that was named the Wilson Creek. And the Wilson Creek then came on down by this road on the other side of where those tall trees are [gestures to the NW] and went on out to the lake. Well there is a debate going on that the Wilson Creek was not named until after the Jordan Power Plant was built, and that is absolutely not true. I have signed papers showing that this [gestures to where the creek flowed] was named the Wilson Creek much earlier. In 1914 they released a lot of water and sent it down the creek, and it flooded this area [gestures around De Chambeau Ranch], rook out a lot of irrigation ditches, and so they made an agreement with the Water Department and the County, and they built the little Black Point dam at Black Point where you cut off from Cemetery Road to come down here. And they decided that in the future, if there is a lot of run off, they’ll send it the NW side of Black Point and down to the lake. And so that is now supposedly Wilson Creek, and this here is named the De Chambeau irrigation ditch, and it appears on maps this way. But this is not true, this is the Wilson Creek over here. So that is a little political issue.

Now Nicholas settled here, and he received the title to this place on May 16, 1893. Eight children were born to Nicholas, but only two were born and raised here on the Dondero Ranch: Mike Dondero (1881) and John Dondero twelve years later (1893). A frame house was built here, six rooms.

How many rooms are in this ranch house today? Anyone want to make a guess? I have already heard eight rooms and seven rooms. Well there are fourteen rooms in this house! Some of them are only about this big [gestures in a small circular motion], just to put a bed in. Well, the Donderos only had six rooms, and then my grandfather added the rest on.

There was a horse barn, not that one there [gestures to existing barn] which was added on later, a cow building, 20 acres of alfalfa, and this one I question - 40 acres of a truck garden. That one I have to question; I am not sure on that. On August 22, 1891 Nick Dondero got itchy feet. Something happened up in Dawson in the Yukon Territory - they had found gold up there, and Nicholas said I getting out of here, and he headed to Dawson leaving his two sons in charge of this place here. I do not know what happened to Nicholas’s wife nor the other six children, but the two stayed here.

In 1905 Nicholas sold the ranch to his sons Steve and George, and then in December 1905 Steve sold his share to his brother John Dondero. Then on October 24, 1906, John Dondero and Nate Miller sold the ranch to Louis De Chambeau. I do not know how Nate Miller got in on the deal. Now if you look as you come up the road [out front] an interpretive sign says there was another owner of the ranch, but I have never been able to find out who that person was and when he bought it. I believe the sign refers to somewhere else, but anyway it is listed that this one fellow was an owner of the ranch at one time before my grandfather bought it.

[My grandfather] bought it for $2,000, recorded on November 2, 1906, and 9:05 AM. It included all the cows, all the chickens, all the pigs, and the water rights, the buildings, and the farm equipment. He had moved out here in 1906, but his family - my dad, his brothers, and my grandmother - all lived up on the Deacus place, which if you look on the map displayed here shows the DeChambeau and Deacus ranches up against the foothill near Lundy or rather the road going up to Lundy. My grandfather had bought that place; he was working as a mill-rite up in Lundy, and he bought that place. He brought out my dad (his son) and his two daughters, and he started ranching there, but it was in the shadow of the mountain, so he said we have to find someplace else. So in 1906 he found this place and bought it for $2,000. When his last daughter was born, Violet, in 1907, at that they all moved down and lived here.

On October 2, 1933, Louis passed away, right in this room behind me. My great grandmother who had a boarding house up in Bodie, the brick building up there, she had it for 21 years, and she ran it until 1917 when she got dropsy of the foot and the legs; she came down here and she died in the same room. So there are two spirits running around in that room.

Then my grandmother Mary Curry DeChambeau tried to run the place with her sons, and she too was getting up in age, so she and her daughter Violet moved to Los Angeles, and that was when my dad and his brothers took over the ranch. From 1938 to 1940 a lease was signed to permit sheep herders to use the area outside the immediate grounds of the ranch house.

What was the size of the ranch? It ran all the way from the foothill [gestures to the hill to the NW], to the bottom of Black Point, all the way down to the lake, and if you go out on Cemetery Road you see the fence, it included that area too, and from there down to the lake.

What did they raise here? They raised cattle and big bands of sheep. My grandfather was one of those fellas who said Hey, sheep and cattle can get along! So we raised a lot of sheep, a lot of cattle, a lot of horses, and a LOT of chickens - there were chickens everywhere. And he raised pigs.

We had a big truck garden out there [gestures over by the barn]. How many of you know what a truck garden is? Well I can see quite a few of you today do know, but often when I mention a truck garden people say what is that? Well it was a garden that you raised, and you loaded the produce on the truck and you took it around on the truck to sell. In 1918 my grandfather bought a brand new Dodge stake truck, and it made the front page of the local newspaper - “De Chambeau buys this brand new truck.” Well that truck was used to haul his meat and the vegetables that he raised.

There is always a term that really throws me. What is the difference between a ranch and a farm? Well, we always used to say that a farm was where you raised produce and maybe chickens, and a ranch was where you raised livestock. But I would say that 92% of the farms or ranches here in the Mono Basin, whatever you care to call them, raised a combination of livestock and produce to sell to Bodie, Lundy, and whatever.

In 1951 a partnership was formed with Mr. and Mrs. Will Bannon, Bill Bannon’s father, and Claude Woebarn and his wife, my dad and my step mother, Dewey and his wife, and I know Arthur had to be in on it also. They formed a hunting club for geese and ducks. I do not know how long it lasted, but I was told that the pipeline that brought water down here from Conway Ranch, bypassing Wilson Creek, was put in at around the same time as the formation of the duck hunting club to supply water down to the duck ponds. There are five ponds now, but only three were built by my grandfather and his sons. They drilled for oil down there as well as out a Black Point, and my grandmother cooked three meals a day for as many as 26 people while they were drilling for oil, but they never hit oil. They went down 400 feet and hit a hot water geyser, and they directed the water for those three ponds because my grandfather thought he might raise fish, but he hadn’t taken into consideration the mineral content of the water. The geese and the ducks, however, loved it. And they also put in a little tub down there for a sort of sauna bath, and the Native Americans would come to bathe and wash their clothes. Other people would come down and swim in it, and it was popular.

Well, when the ranch ended up being sold to Dave McCoy and the Mammoth Mountain Company - I say Dave McCoy because he was part of the Company - Dave McCoy wanted more land for June Lake and Mammoth Mountain. This land came on the market to be sold and he bought it and the Log Cabin Mine to use for a land-swap to get more land for June Lake and Mammoth. This is why the Forest Service owns this land here today.