When I was in grammar (elementary) school in Reno it was not uncommon for a "new boy" or "new girl" to show up in classes. Those who were not "new" at the beginning of the school year and who, instead, were introduced at varying times throughout the school year tended to stay with us for a fairly short amount of time. Around six weeks, as a matter of fact.
My mother explained to me the six-weeks residency requirement for obtaining a divorce in Nevada, a story that I just took in stride. I do not remember the topic ever being discussed in class in any grade, which was why I was very interested to find that the Washoe County K-12 School District (my home county in Nevada) has an actual 11th-grade American History Project lesson under Post WWII trends titled "Getting Reno-vated." It is one of the lessons found under Teaching American History Project ... The Twentieth Century, 1945-1990, in which "Students understand the shift of international relationships and power as well as the significant developments in American culture." The link to that particular list of lessons is found here. The actual lesson plan for this 11th grade, 105-minute block period can be read in full HERE (and I highly recommend, as it is impressive). I am including some pertinent history from "Getting Reno-vated" by Shawn J. Lear below:
In the wake of WWII, as in the aftermath of most wars, Americans returned their focus to the home front with renewed vigor. For the first time in nearly two decades, Americans seemed to have nothing immediate to worry about-no economic depression, as the economy was booming from wartime production, no foreign aggressors, as they had been dealt with, and seemingly nothing to fear, except maybe fear itself, though fear was probably the last thing on anyone’s mind. No, life was good, and it was only getting better, due to the ever-increasing advancements of technology and American ingenuity. Americans were cruising headlong into the new future they themselves had created. This technology brought some challenges, but not without some added comforts. Brand new homes, shiny new cars, steady new jobs, and exciting new relationships were in full-effect. Families began to blossom out of the last-minute marriages between soldiers and sweethearts who had feared they might never again see the beloved spouse they hardly knew. Often times they had tied the knot just before he boarded a transport to war. Dreams of loved ones kept hope alive for those awash in the horrors of war and monotony of factory life. Yet the return to daily life in America brought even more unexpected changes than the war itself-some of the previously happy couples were suddenly finding themselves in a state of despair and regret, and anxiously searched for an escape from the chains of their marriage, an escape that, to the average American in the 1950’s, was culturally unacceptable, morally wrong, financially unattainable, and practically difficult, yet to those in the predicament, seemingly necessary.
Nevada, and especially Reno, had long been a divorce center. Many came to “take the cure,” as they called it. “I’m on my way to Reno,” sang Billy Murray in 1910, declaring Reno’s easy divorces under Nevada state law. This dry, barren land in the West became an oasis of hope for those seeking relief from their marriage. Though other states offered divorces to varying degrees, Reno’s mix of the quick and practical divorce quickly caused the city to gain a reputation as the undisputed leader of convenient divorces. Reno had also played a key role in the dramatic increase of marriages at the outset of World War II with its instant marriage services. It is only fitting that Reno could help people reverse their hasty decisions.
Divorce had been legal in Nevada since the state’s inception in 1864 and even during the territorial period of 1861-1864. Because the transient population had found it difficult to make a permanent home in the arid state, the original citizenship requirement was only six months, and hence so was the divorce requirement, half of what most states required. Thanks to an entrepreneurial lawyer in New York who began to advertise the less stringent divorce laws of Nevada, and the coverage of high profile divorces like that of Mr. William Corey of U.S. Steel in 1905, Reno began to be known as a haven for those seeking divorce. Nevada legislators and business entrepreneurs continued to support this growth as they countered divorce measures in other states by lowering the residence requirements in Nevada and remaining on the cutting edge of the industry. It eventually was lowered to three months and then six weeks, except for the two year period that it was increased to one full year. Advertising, word of mouth, and the continued reporting of high profile divorcees kept Reno in the limelight for decades.
Nevada offered a variety of reasons for granting a divorce other than the reason most states allowed for, which was infidelity. Local businesses catered to and thrived on the clients and business of divorce, providing all of the necessary amenities for the weary, forlorn, and mismatched. These included hotels and resorts, guest ranches, food, entertainment, nightlife, recreation, and the like. In a time when the unhappy were hemmed in from all angles, Reno provided the easy escape from the seemingly cursed trap of a bad marriage. Like a light at the end of a dark tunnel, the beacon of Reno beckoned many and welcomed their problems, their presence, and their pocketbooks. Though Reno has become known as a city of finalities, dissolutions, and dreams gone awry, it is equally a city of possibilities, open doors, and hopes renewed. Many a divorce seeker came to Reno merely proclaiming their intent to “take up residence” and actually ended up calling Reno home for a lifetime.
At a time when Americans sought to find a balance between their philosophical beliefs and practical needs, the state of Nevada and the city of Reno played a critical role in the ever-changing social and cultural trends of our country. Following the lead of Nevada, many other states dropped their strict requirements on divorce in response to the changing needs of post WWII Americans. Reno continues to offer some of the easiest divorces, and has a divorce rate of nearly twice the national average to this day. An uncontested divorce for Nevada residents can cost as little as $400 and takes a mere 14 days to be finalized.
Timeline of Divorce in Nevada:
1864: Nevada becomes a state during the Civil War
1864-1899: Nevada maintains a 6 month residency requirement to attract and maintain its population (allows for a six-month divorce requirement; most states required at least one year)
1899: Lord John Francis Stanley Russell arrives from Europe and gets a divorce in Genoa
1906: William Corey, President of U.S. Steel, comes to Nevada for a divorce from ___________________
1910: Billy Murray releases song entitled “I’m on my way to Reno.”
1913: State legislators boost the requirement to one year.
1915: State legislators lower the requirement back to six months following protest of Reno business and political leaders (One businessman said Reno lost $1 million from 1913-1915).
1920: Famous American actress Mary Pickford comes to Reno for a divorce from her husband Owen Moore.
-Nevada adds “extreme mental cruelty” to the list of acceptable reasons for a divorce
-Phrases such as “taking the cure” and getting “Reno-Vated” become popular, as do the acts of kissing the courthouse pillars and throwing rings into the Truckee River.
1927: Nevada residency law is lowered to 3 months to compete with other Western states, providing for even easier divorces!
1931: Six Week residency law is passed, making Nevada, and especially Reno, the “divorce capitol of the world.”
Additional reading I found interesting and informative:
- Reno: Twentieth-Century Divorce Capital, by Mella Harmon, from an unpublished master's thesis (University of Nevada Press) at Online Nevada Encyclopedia, 2009.
- Betty Goes Reno: A visit to the glamorous divorce ranches of the Mad Men era, in Slate (note: slide show is defunct). Excerpt below:
Even before the 1931 law, some horse ranches had begun taking in "dudes" (out-of-towners, male or female) in order to earn a little extra income. They offered guests a slice of the Western experience—riding, swimming and fishing, and trips to the rodeo. Soon they were sheltering dudes who were looking to shake a spouse. Sometimes the atmosphere was rustic, like at the TH Ranch, where accommodations consisted of a series of one-room cabins without running water or toilets. On the other end of the spectrum was the Flying M E Ranch, which offered comfortable guestrooms in a large, modern ranch house, a swimming pool, and an air of exclusivity. The Flying M E became so well-known for keeping their guest list hush-hush that even nondivorcing celebrities, like Clark Gable, vacationed there.
Since most divorcees-to-be had ironed out the terms of their divorces and filed their paperwork back home, their only real job in Reno was to pass the time. According to Bill McGee, who worked as a dude wrangler at the Flying M E, a typical day at a divorce ranch might have looked like this: horseback riding in the morning, an after-lunch trip into town for shopping or a visit with a lawyer, and then, in the evening, cocktails, communal dinner, and another car trip to a bar or a casino, where the ladies would dance and drink and gamble.
- the six-week cure, published in Nevada Magazine in 1981, which includes the same photo as used in this old postcard and noted as being from the University of Nevada, Reno Special Collections (so that must be where the original drawing is preserved). The following paragraph is from the article:
Reno’s attractions were many, and the divorce seeker was rarely at a loss for amusement. Two-thirds of Nevada divorces were granted to women, and the state worked hard to assure them that coming to Nevada would be a pleasant and safe experience. Dude ranches offered a desert haven for those wishing to escape journalists and photographers. The Flying ME at Franktown and the Pyramid Lake Ranch catered to an elite clientele who spent their days basking in the sun, swimming, and taking riding lessons. Nights were a whirlwind of dining and dancing at the posh Willows Inn and the French Room of the Reno Country Club. The Pyramid Lake Ranch became a favorite spot for women who brought their children for the six-week stay. It was well known as a place where kids would be looked after during that kind of vacation.
And finally, two videos from the same source, mcgeebmcpublications, that I cannot share here because embedding has been disabled:
- Reno Divorce Ranch Stories - If you have an extra 7 minutes I think you would really enjoy the short film. I loved it!
This is the synopsis:
On May 16, 2004, the gates of Washoe Valley's famous Flying M E divorce ranch were opened for a special event hosted by Bill McGee and Sandra McGee. The occasion was the publication of their new book, THE DIVORCE SEEKERS: A PHOTO MEMOIR OF A NEVADA DUDE WRANGLER. Nearly every guest had a personal connection to Nevada's most exclusive divorce ranch and its legendary proprietor, Emmy Wood. Guests shared their memories about the divorce ranch where Bill McGee worked as the head dude wrangler from 1947 to 1950. [This is a 7:03 clip from the full-length one hour DVD]
- "Welcome to Reno - America's Divorce Resort" - with remarkable movie clips. Here is the synopsis:
Former 1940s Reno divorce ranch wrangler Bill McGee provides on-camera commentary in this clip from a special featurette produced for 20th Century Fox to accompany the re-release on DVD of the 1939 film, "Charlie Chan in Reno." (From The Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 4)
Bill McGee is author of THE DIVORCE SEEKERS: A PHOTO MEMOIR OF A NEVADA DUDE WRANGLER, a collection of stories about his time from 1947 to 1950 working on an exclusive divorce ranch south of Reno that catered to wealthy Easterners and Hollywood celebrities.