One day in 1856, German immigrant Heinrich Friedrich Dangberg rode home to the Carson Valley ranch he was developing, only to find a tough hombre named "Lucky Bill" Thorrington, who had decided to claim the property as his own.
Thorrington was known to be good with a gun, and there wasn't much law around then. At that time, Nevada still was part of the Territory of Utah, and Salt Lake City was 500 miles away. Dangberg left without a fight, but land was there for the taking, and Dangberg soon built a cabin on a new ranch he started a mile or so away. He would turn it into an empire.
Today the Dangberg Home Ranch is being converted into Nevada's 26th state park. Under an agreement with Douglas County, which owns the buildings and the 5.5-acre ranch house site, the state Parks Division has embarked on a $2 million restoration project.
"I feel so fortunate being here," state park supervisor Suzanne Sturtevant said as she walked outside the property. "It is a special place. I think about the family a lot. They lived lives of privilege, but people didn't like them so much. A lot of people resented them."
By the time Dangberg died in 1904, his ranch covered 20,000 acres. Under the control of his four sons and daughter, the H.F. Dangberg Land and Live Stock Co. would ultimately own 56,000 acres. Ironically, Thorrington's ranch eventually became part of their holdings.
Dangberg served in three legislative sessions as an assemblyman and two sessions as a state senator. In 1905, the Dangberg family founded the town of Minden, named after the city in Germany near where Dangberg had been born. There, they opened a bank, built the Minden Inn, developed a creamery, flour mill, wool warehouse, potato fields, and apple orchards, and ran thousands of head of cattle and sheep.
The cabin Dangberg built was the first building of what became his "Home Ranch," the finest of several Carson Valley ranches the family owned. As years passed, he added rooms to the cabin, ultimately creating a four-bedroom ranch house. Today, the logs of the original cabin remain inside the kitchen walls.
The Dangberg family left behind more than 18,000 items in the ranch house and surrounding buildings. Even their half-filled liquor bottles remain on kitchen counters. Two horseless carriages are in a garage, along with intricately weaved Indian baskets, 100-year-old children's tricycles and toys, guns, furniture made from Lake Tahoe wood and stacks of old Life and Harpers' magazines.
"When we walked in the house, it felt like someone had just walked out," Sturtevant said. "Except for the cobwebs."
Margaret McDonald, one of Dangberg's granddaughters, died in 1988. She was the last remaining member of the family to live on the ranch. Her sister, Ruth Achard, died a year earlier. They had lived on the ranch most of their lives.
Years of litigation pitting family members against family members followed. Several land companies owned the property. Only last year did the state gain legal control over the Dangberg possessions and enter into the agreement with Douglas County to create a state park and museum.
Consultant Jerry Clark was hired by the state to inventory all the items. She is about halfway through that task. She has found in a box the wedding dress that Gertrude Hieronymous wore in 1896 when she married Dangberg's oldest son, H.F. "Fred" Dangberg Jr. His starched and pressed undergarments are neatly folded in a dresser in their bedroom.
"They kept everything," Clark said. "These women were amazing packers."
The ranch house has seen far better times. It needs a paint job, a new roof and extensive repair work. A goose nests near the front door. Heron fly overhead to nearby cottonwood trees. The rose bushes have not been trimmed in 20 years. But in every direction lies a view of snowcapped mountains.
Traffic is nearly a half-mile away, so the only sounds come from birds or cows. The property is surrounded by a cattle ranch. Until the state erects a fence, cattle will graze in the front yard.
Sturtevant said the Parks Division hopes to open the Dangberg park and museum in 2007 or 2008, but she said that might be impossible. Besides the $2 million, which was raised from a voter-approved parks and conservation bond issue, she said the state likely will need $4 million to $5 million more to renovate the ranch house, a couple of bunkhouses, a stone cellar, a carriage house and other buildings.
The cost helps explain why the Douglas County Commission decided to turn the property over to the state. Even with $3 or $5 admission fees, the Dangberg Home Ranch never will become self-sufficient.
Still, "There is a value to it that cannot be measured by money," said Steve Achard, H.F. Dangberg Jr.'s grandson. "Anyone who is interested in history and ranching would love it. The Dangbergs made northwest Nevada what it is today. But it is going to take a ton of money."
Despite the cost, Tom King, director of the Oral History Program at the University of Nevada, Reno, figures the state has secured a historical bargain. "It is a remarkable place," King said. "It is the best preserved example of a 19th-century ranch in the state."