Tule Springs Divorce Ranch Era Structrues.jpg
LAS VEGAS (KSNV) —
Millions of visitors from around the world come to Las Vegas each year for gambling, entertainment, conventions, weddings and more. For several decades in the mid-20th Century, this was also one of the places people would come to get divorced.
While divorce is generally understood as an option today when a marriage isn’t working until relatively recently most people didn’t want to deal with a wait that was typically a year-long and then endure a long, drawn-out courtroom procedure. With no-fault divorce not an option at that time, sometimes couples wanting a split would conspire to present a scenario a judge would accept.
"They would set up staged scenes where they would catch the husband with a prostitute or something and then they would be able to get a divorce," says Preservationist Courtney Mooney. "So there were all these machinations that people were going through."
Things were different in the Silver State. The six-week waiting period beginning in 1931 was then the shortest in the nation. Also, judges would grant divorce decrees for a wide variety of reasons. It was not difficult.
Many movie-goers in the early 60s heard about Nevada’s unique institution through a scene in the shockumentary "Women of the World", featuring a divorce spot that is still around.
"Twin Lakes Lodge is a real Dude Ranch," intoned Peter Ustinov narrating the 1963 entry into the "Mondo Cane" series which looked at unusual practices from different cultures.
The location then known as Twin Lakes still exists as Lorenzi Park. In fact, it still has some of the structures used for divorce getaways from the late 1940s into the early 1960s.
"These low, kind of ranch-style buildings," describes Mooney standing in a wing of today’s Derfelt Senior Center. "This nice kind of colonnaded walkway."
She says this type of retreat first became common in Reno after Nevada liberalized its divorce laws.
"There was a lot of existing infrastructure there that Southern Nevada didn’t have. There were a lot of roads and rail, and there was an airport and these types of things."
Las Vegas saw an opportunity developing though, and capitalized when screen star Clark Gable’s wife filed here in 1939. It was front-page news in the Evening Review-Journal. Other familiar names began appearing in print, such as Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs, the wife of conductor Leopold Stokowski and the sister of actor Errol Flynn.
"If you were a celebrity and you came to Nevada for a divorce, that was definitely going to be in the paper," says Mooney.
Some seeking a split would stay in downtown Las Vegas, then very centralized around Fremont Street.
"That was very convenient. So you were close to the courthouse, you were close to your attorney," she reasons. "If you didn’t come in as a very wealthy person, you could actually get a job. You could work at a casino or if you were a man you might work at the railroad or construction."
Divorce was a growing industry here as the 1930S turned into the 1940s, but it still contained a whiff of scandal. So other clients would stay at ranches outside the downtown area. Places that offered swimming, fishing, horseback riding and more. An all-inclusive experience.
"Staffed with ruggedly handsome cowboys who do their utmost to help their guests forget the true reason for their enforced vacation." elaborated Ustinov in "Women of the World".
In addition to Twin Lakes, historic divorce ranch buildings can be found today in Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs.
Hidden Well, where Liz Taylor waited for Eddie Fisher to get his divorce finalized is gone. The same with Warm Springs Ranch and the Bar W, all of which had common denominators.
"They advertised authentic western food. And then eventually it became known as a place where you could get your six-week residency and get your divorce."
Another popular spot for a split was Kiel Ranch, which did business as Boulderado Ranch in the 40s and 50s and is a North Las Vegas city park today. It began as a ranch with farming and livestock in the late 1800s. By the 1930s, owner Edwin Losee and his family were looking for new ways to make money.
"There were many buildings here, they started turning them into rentals," says North Las Vegas historian Jeff Alpert, who has written a series of articles about the property. "Then they got the idea of a divorce ranch because people wanted privacy that the major hotels on the Strip could not offer."
Not much from the Boulderado era still exists, but there is still a preserved structure called the "Doll House". It has one main room with an attached storage area and bathroom. Modest accommodations with a modest price.
"Fifty dollars a week," notes Alpert. "For room, board, entertainment. That was all included. So it wasn’t expensive at all."
The industry was fueled by the celebrity partings frequently found in local papers, but average customers—possibly with kids—also wanted a relaxed time out of the spotlight.
"So they had many activities, lots of fun stuff," says Alpert. "Also it was quiet. Private. There was a reservoir that was turned into a swimming pool. There were picnics, there was night time horse riding."
"The children, waiting for mum to liquidate dad, play by themselves," narrated Ustinov over shots of kids on horseback and engaged in games with each other.
Kiel Ranch, Boulderado Ranch, and Tule Springs all did additional business providing a cowboy experience for people who might not be looking to turn a current into an ex.
"It didn’t start off as a divorce ranch right away," explains Alpert. "Probably the first few years it was just a dude ranch and rentals for people that needed housing."
"This was a very common thing across the whole western United States," adds Mooney. "People would look to supplement their ranching income with taking in paying guests. And if paying guests included people wanting to get a divorce, then that’s how it worked out."
Some of these divorce-seekers were encouraged to stick around, by local boosters. Ads in the back of the Las Vegas Evening Review-Journal from the 1940s show motels and apartments advertising low rates for divorcees.
"They figured if they could get women to come here and get divorced. And men–but it was mostly women–they might stay," says Mooney. "And then they might find another family and populate Nevada."
For the majority though, goodbye to the spouse meant goodbye to the Silver State.
"Now they’ve packed their bags and they’re leaving Las Vegas, having stayed here for six weeks required by law in order to obtain residence in the state of Nevada," concluded Ustinov.
By the late 1960s, divorce procedures around the country were becoming more common and residency requirements in other states had been lowered. The final blow to the Nevada divorce industry came in 1970 when California introduced "No Fault Divorce". The rest of the states followed one by one, with New York the last to fall in line, in 2010.
The divorce ranch buildings at Lorenzi Park can be found on Washington just east of Twin Lakes Drive. Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs and Kiel Ranch in North Las Vegas both clearly designate their divorce ranch history.
Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs