Elko is situated between the Sierra Nevada and Wasatch mountain ranges, in the Great Basin and on the Humbolt River in northern Nevada. The first European colonizers to reach the area traveled on the California Trail in 1841, which after the Gold Rush of 1849 would become a famous passage for travelers. Miners searching for gold in 1854 discovered red gemstones believed to be rubies, and the surrounding mountains were named the Ruby Mountains. However, the gemstones were garnets. The city of Elko was founded in 1868 as a railroad town and loading station for the area’s ranches and mines by the powerful company Central Pacific. Once the train tracks facilitated the movement of goods and people, the population increased rapidly. The nearby mines of Tuscarora, Jarbridge, and Bullion produced silver, copper, gold, and lead. Still today, Nevada produces ten percent of the world’s gold, second only to South Africa, and sixty-seven percent of United States gold.
|José Sarasua, owner of the Star Hotel. Elko, Nevada.1980.|
As early as the 1860s, newspaper stories mentioned finds in northern Nevada, and unlucky miners in California began to spread out eastward. In addition to mining, livestock also brought riches to Elko County. Cattle and sheep ranching and farming were needed to feed the growing populations who had arrived to work in the mines and on the railroad. Elko County comprises approximately 4,455,000 hectares (eleven million acres), and foodstuffs were desperately needed. In 1870, brothers Bernardo and Pedro Altube (originally from Onati, Gipuzkoa) drove 3000 head of cattle from southern California to their new ranch, the Spanish Ranch, in Independence Valley near today’s city of Elko. By the 1880s, the Altube brothers’ operation was one of the largest and most influential in all of Nevada. In 1900, the Altubes introduced sheep as a part of their livestock operation and by 1907 they had 20,000 sheep, 20,000 cattle, 2000 horses, and 162,000 hectares (400,000 acres) of land (Douglass and Bilbao 1975:256). Jean and Grace Garat also decided to move their successful livestock business from California’s San Joaquin Valley and trailed 1000 cattle to Elko where they established the Y-Par Ranch.
|Elko Euskaldunak Basque Club built in 1978.|
The Altube and Garat families were almost exclusively the main cattle ranchers in the Elko area from the 1870s until 1900 when they introduced sheep. The sheep business invited many other opportunities for transhumance grazing and soon Mexican, Scottish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Native Americans were working as sheepherders. According to period letters and newspaper articles of the United States Department of Agriculture, Basques were the preferred herders for employment. At the end of the nineteenth century, Basques in Elko were cowboys, and it is important to note that Basque dominated the cattle industry decades before they ever introduced sheep. Another sheep rancher, John G. Taylor, moved his sheep into Elko County and hired numerous Basques as herders, giving them their first starts from which later they established their own operations. Because sheep grazing was allowed free of charge on public lands, herders could utilize this to their economic advantage. In the surrounding area one can find the Harri Mutilak, or stone boys, built by Basque sheepherders as well as numerous carvings on the Aspen trees that record the names and dates and imagination of the passing herders.
|Lamb barbecue for 1500 people in the picnic of Elko.|
It is estimated that by the early 1900s there were one million sheep in Elko County alone, and cattle ranchers soon began to complain that the sheep over-grazed the pastures and pulled plants out by the roots, leaving nothing for re-growth, or for the coming cattle. Basque sheep outfits and herders were admonished for their grazing practices, and soon after were criticized for sending their earnings home to the Basque Country, for not buying parcels of land for permanent ownership, and for not becoming United States citizens. Published reports regarding Basques in northern Nevada soon changed to forest rangers’ criticisms, and the daily newspapers added bits of commentary about selfish lifestyles and lack of caring for the future of the United States as a country.
|Store of food of the Spanish Ranch , Independence Valley, near Elko (Nevada). Photo circa 1900.|
In response, numerous Nevada Basques began gaining United States citizenship, and purchased tracts of land for established farming and ranching. They earned reputations as responsible hard-workers who were frugal, loyal, and honest. As the need for herders increased, so did the hotel and boardinghouse businesses in Elko. Pedro Jauregui and Guy Saval (Zabalbeascoa) constructed the Telescope Hotel, complete with an indoor fronton, which they later converted to a large salon and then built a second fronton that functioned from 1911 until 1950. Jauregui and his wife, Matilde, ended their partnership with Saval and constructed the Star Hotel in 1910, soon needing to double the number of available rooms in response to the inflow of Basques to the area. Over the years, the Star Hotel has had several Basque owners including; Corta, Arrascada, Garmendi, Bengoa, Ozamis, Jauristi, Esnoz, Yanci, Aldazabal, Sarasua, and today’s owners Leonis and Lazcano. The Overland Hotel and fronton were established by Gregoria and Domingo Sabala en 1908 and continued in business until the 1970s. In 1927, Anastacio and Jeanne Viscarret built the Nevada Hotel, and in the early 1920s José Marisquirena owned the Hotel Amistad, while the Arrascada family owned the Elko Hotel.
|Bernardo Altube´s daughters riding a horse in Spanish Ranch, Independence Valley, Nevada. Foto circa 1900. Centre for Basque Studies University of Nevada, Reno.|
In 1936, Joe Anacabe established his Anacabe’s General Merchandise Store with goods necessary for the cowboy and sheepherder, such as tents, bedrolls, camp equipment, work boots, and durable and warm work clothes. Joe’s daughter, Ana Teresa “Anita” Anacabe Franzoia, continues as owner and manager of the store. Other hotels such as the Stockman’s Motor Hotel and Casino, which was owned and operated by Dan Bilbao senior, and his son Dan Bilbao from 1953 to 1990, and the Clifton Club and Hotel owned by Jack Errecart until his death in 1997, have been very popular with Basques.
Basques have established and owned many bar and restaurant businesses in Elko such as the Blue Jay, the Corner Bar, Shorty’s, and Pedro Içaina’s Silver Dollar Bar. The Aguirre family sold the Nevada Hotel in 1985 to the Leo and Leonie Morandi who converted it into the Nevada Dinner House restaurant with cooking by Ana Mari Arbillaga. Ramón Zugazaga founded the Biltoki, and Tony and Ruth Leniz and Ignacio Iriondo opened the Toki Ona restaurant. Basque dining is very popular among tourists traveling to Elko, and also with the resident non-Basque population and the area’s Basques.
|Place where cowboys and sheepherders used to sleep in Altube brother´s Spanish Ranch. Independence Valley, Nevada. Photo circa 1900.|
The Elko Basque organization, the Elko Basque Club, was founded in 1959, partially as a result of the optimism and excitement created by the first inter-communitarian Basque festival of the United States west, the National Basque Festival in Sparks, Nevada in the same year. Members organized summer Basque picnics and various dances with Basque music for singing and dancing. The State of Nevada celebrated its centennial in 1964, and the Elko Basque Club decided to organize another grand scale Basque festival to commemorate the event. They invited all of the existing Basque clubs to participate and to send musicians, dancers, and athletes to Elko for the event. Because of the success of the activities, and the geographical centrality of Elko to other Basque communities, Elko assumed the position of the site of the annual National Basque Festival.
|One of the numerous carvings on a tree. Photo: Juan Oleaga Arteta 1990.|
In 1966, Joe Anacabe organized the first Basque folk dancing troupe for the Elko area, now known as the Elko Ariñak Dancers. Together with musicians Jean Iribaren and Bernardo Yanci, Joe Anacabe donated thousands of volunteer hours to the Elko Basque Club and to the dancing group. The hundreds of dancers who have participated and passed through this Basque socialization process are generally those who continue to maintain their language skills and interest in maintaining Basque culture.
Basques in the Elko region enjoyed a radio program produced in Euskara, the Basque language, from 1968 to 1980. Every Sunday afternoon on KELK, Jesús Lopategui transmitted the latest news from the homeland and news regarding Basques in the United States, as well as birthday wishes, death notices, and wedding celebrations. Along with Basque music selections, a Catholic mass was also repeated for the listening audience in Euskara. These weekly programs kept the roving sheepherders in touch with the latest information in their own language, and made them feel more a part of a community and less isolated on the Great Basin plains. These radio transmissions were often the only information that Basque herders received that were intelligible to them. Because fewer and fewer Basques remained in sheepherding, and fewer of the later generations understand Euskara, the program no longer exists.
Pelota, or Basque handball, is still very popular in Elko and players enjoy the outdoor fronton built in the Elko Municipal Park in 1975 by general contractors Nicolás Fagoaga (originally of Lesaka) and Pedro Ormaza (originally of Bermeo). The Spanish Consulate General in San Francisco, California donated 25,000 dollars to the project funding. It has been the site of numerous friendly pelota matches and also of championships of the North American Basque Organizations. Pelota, muz, folk dancing, and Euskara language courses remain popular activities in the Basque community of Elko, Nevada, whose institutional membership, unlike several other Nevada Basque clubs, is actually increasing.
Anacabe Franzoia, Ana Teresa “Anita”. 1995-2003. Interviews and electronic communications.
Douglass, William A. and Jon Bilbao. 1975. Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World. Reno: University of Nevada Press.
Silen, Sol. 1917. La historia de los Vascongados en el oeste de los Estados Unidos. New York: Las Novedades.
Totoricagüena, Gloria.2004. Identity, Culture, and Politics in the
Basque Diaspora. Reno: University of Nevada Press.
2002. “Elko, Nevada.” in Enciclopedia General Ilustrada del País Vasco Enciclopedia Auñamendi. Donostia-San Sebastián: Enciclopedia General Ilustrada del País Vasco Enciclopedia Auñamendi.
Zubiri, Nancy. 1998. A Travel Guide to Basque American Families, Feasts and Festivals. Reno: University of Nevada Press.