October 4, 2007
It all started with trying to put the growth of the Topaz Sagehens organization in some sort of chronological order. As I talked to a few of the remaining charter members of the club, I came to realize I was also talking to folks who had lived in Topaz Ranch Estates from the very beginnings of the community and had lived in the same homes for 30 years or more.
In the scheme of things, 30-plus years may not seem like such a long time, as being compared to the birthday celebrations for both Minden at 100 years and Gardnerville celebrating 125 a couple of years ago and of course there is Nevada’s oldest settlement of Genoa.
TRE got its earliest beginnings from Reno residents John and Virgie Arden who purchased the property at the northern end of the Antelope Valley and called it the Fairfield Ranch, now the Sleeping Elephant. The Ardens were instrumental in all the early land developments of TRE. The first property owners to call TRE home were Walter and Ann Long who built their house on what is now Walker View in 1968.
Like all good things, word spread about the special beauty seen from the foothills of the Pine Nuts, overlooking the Antelope Valley and the Sweetwater Range beyond. A lot of the original residents bought property in the early ’70s with the intent of building a retirement home. Such was the case of Peggy and Bruce Larson from Santa Clara, Calif., who purchased their Sandstone property in 1971, broke ground for their home in June of 1976 and have lived there for 31 years. Another Sandstone resident has a similar story, that of Jean and Ralph Estrella who came here from San Leandro, Calif., like the Larsons, purchased property and have lived in that home for more than 30 years.
“We built the garage first,” Jean Estrella remembers. “It was really quite comfortable. We had a wood stove for heat and a little bit of furniture. We would both work on the house and then I would hear Ralph’s tool belt hit the floor with a thud. That meant that we were done for the day and off to the Sagebrush Lounge, owned by Betty and Chink Klufts, to share some time with our friends.”
Through the years the Larsons and Estrellas developed an inseparable friendship even after Ralph Estrella’s death a few years ago.
It wasn’t long before the community had grown large enough to need a volunteer fire department. It took real horse power to help build the Topaz Ranch Estates Volunteer Fire Department. In the spring of 1973, Wilma, a 3,000 pound Belgian draft horse, along with her owners John and Virgie Arden, were major contributors to the volunteer fire department the community sees in TRE today.
In an article about Wilma and her fundraising efforts written by Sally Lyda for The Record-Courier’s July 3, 1980, edition, a ground-breaking ceremony took place on land donated by the Ardens, at what is now Albite Road near the intersection of Carter Way and Albite. The Ardens also donated the site for fundraisers at their Fairfield Ranch across from TRE and what is now Highway 208 at the base of a mountain formation known as the Sleeping Elephant.
“The public was treated to an all-day festival including a dime-a-dip meal, games, contests and a drawing for prizes, all donated by the Ardens, but the biggest attraction of the day was Wilma who was hauled all the way from the Arden property in Reno for the day. Adults petted, admired and took pictures of her as children paid 10 cents each to climb on her massive back for a ride.
“The Fire Belles held many fundraisers after that, their fundraising techniques were copied by volunteer fire departments all over the county, but those who attended the 1973 dime-a-dip potluck say none ever equaled in enthusiasm the fundraiser that starred Wilma, the Barbant mare from Belgium. Lyda said. The firehouse to which she and her owners contributed so much to was destroyed by explosion and fire in the fall of 1978 and Wilma, by leg fractures from her massive weight, died a year and a half later, but neither will ever be forgotten by the residents of Topaz Ranch Estates” Lyda concluded.
Estrella recalled a tug-of-war that took place over a huge mud puddle during that fundraiser.
” Virgie (Arden) was always such a lady and always dressed so nice,” Estrella said. “Some of the folks teased Virgie into participating in the tug-of-war. Into the mud she went, nice clothes and all. She lost one of her crystal earrings in the mud and there she was digging around in the mud until she found it.”
The blast that destroyed the TRE Volunteer Fire Department happened at 1:01 a.m. Oct. 30, a time established by a clock that stopped when it was knocked to the floor, its cord pulled from the wall in the home of Les and Colleen Carter, several yards from the firehouse. The blast was so strong that it blew the roof of the building into the parking lot of Carter’s of Nevada, a general store and lumber yard, which is now Topaz Joe’s and Nevada Trading Company. Even though the wind, typical to the area, had died down before the blast took place, flying sparks ignited nearby sagebrush and local volunteers, their hoses and equipment destroyed in the burning building were reduced to garden hoses from the neighbors until help arrived from Minden, Smith Valley and as far away as Mason Valley, but their gallant effort saved the community from further disaster.
According to a Nov. 2, 1978, article in The Record-Courier, it was determined that the explosion was caused from a propane leak in a stove which, ironically, had been used the previous Sunday for a fundraising dinner and low lying propane was ignited by the pilot light from the water heater, 24 hours after the building had been filled with more than 400 people who were there to contribute to a fund for Denise Walters, a local girl who had been seriously injured in an auto accident.
A blessing in disguise, in 1976, the county commissioners, with Gary Stone as chairman of the Douglas County Commissioners, had accepted title to the structure and placed it under the county’s insurance program so the estimated $200,000 loss had some resource for replacement. By dawn, the morning of the fire, at the agreement of then Fire Chief Rollie Lyons and Dan Hellwinkel of the County Fire Department, two county engines were sitting in the parking lot of Carter’s of Nevada for the protection of the residents and the fire station was replaced.
TRE has evolved through the years and it is evident that many of the residents just keep on keepin’ on.