From the 1930s to the 1960s, if you wanted a quick, simple exit from marriage, Reno was the place to go. “Divorce Seekers” (as they were called) flocked to Reno by the thousands, including Eastern socialites, movie stars and housewives, all seeking the “Reno cure”. For three decades, Reno held the undisputed title of “Divorce Capital of the World”.

In most other states, divorce required a waiting period of a year or more — and sometimes proof of adultery. But in 1931, Nevada made it simple to get out of the matrimonial bonds: A six week residency anywhere in Nevada at a hotel, boarding house, or exclusive divorce ranch; a list of nine legal grounds that required little proof; and an average of six minutes in court before a judge.

My fascination with this brief but glimmering period in Nevada history began a few decades ago when I met my husband, Bill McGee, a former Montana cowboy. After the war, from 1947 to 1950, Bill worked as the head dude wrangler on the Flying M E,  Nevada’s most exclusive divorce ranch (as they were called). The Flying M E was 20 miles south of Reno in Franktown and catered to wealthy Easterners, socialites, and Hollywood celebrities. Most guests staying on the dude ranch were there to get a divorce.

For many years, I urged Bill to write a book about his time on the Flying M E. After all, how many former Nevada dude wranglers were “still above ground” (as the cowboys say) to tell the stories?

In 2004, we joined forces and co-authored The Divorce Seekers: A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler. This coffee table book has more than 500 black-and-white photographs (most never-before-published and from private family albums), is chock full of personal stories from people who lived through the era or their offspring, and includes bits of Nevada history. (For more about the book, see the page, The Book That Inspired This Blog.)

Today, few people know about this part of Nevada history and how Nevada led the way for other states in the liberalization of divorce laws. Through this blog and other endeavors, I hope to help preserve this fascinating history.

If you have a Nevada divorce story you would like to share, please leave me a comment on this blog or email me directly at mcgeebmc@aol.com.

– Sandra McGee, Divorce Nevada Style

Bill McGee and a divorce seeker on a trail ride at the Flying M E. 1948

Trail ride on the legendary Flying M.E. dude-divorce ranch, 1948

Great story out today on the upcoming multimedia online exhibit about Reno’s divorce era… Click here to read and view fun photos . . . Reno Divorce Story

If you have a story to share, contact 775-682-5640 and leave a message or email Mella Harmon at mellah@unr.edu.  

Bill McGee with his custom made ropin’ saddle purchased in Bozeman, Montana in June 1947.

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For fans of “Mad Men,” Christopher Spata has written a good piece on the screenwriting and attention to historical accuracy.

Click  Tampa Tribune (4/13/2014) . Scroll about half-way down to Marriage over? Just hit a ‘divorce ranch’ and there is a mention of Bill McGee.

Roundup cover-001I’M EXCITED TO SHARE MY STORY FEATURED IN THE OCTOBER 2013 ISSUE OF ROUNDUP MAGAZINE…

Click on the link below for a readable PDF of
 “NEVADA as a Place to Split is a Legend of our Time

Roundup is published bi-monthly by Western Writers of America.Roundup contributors-001Roundup pg1-001Roundup pg2-001

Marilu Norden in the 1950s (Photo courtesy Norden family)

Marilu Norden in the 1950s (Photo courtesy Norden family)

In May 2013, Bill McGee and I were interviewed by Theresa Iker for her Scripps College thesis about the Nevada divorce ranch era. (See my June 2013 post: “Fascination with the Reno divorce era continues”)

For her blog debut on Huffington Post, Ms. Iker writes about her interview with another Nevada divorce ranch era survivor, Marilu Norden…   Click the link to read the Huffington Post story… “Divorcing at Dude Ranches”

Doing research... (Author photo)

Doing research… Bill McGee (right) at the Clyde Park Tavern, Clyde Park, MT, 2013 (Author photo)

In September 2013, Bill and I visited his home state of Montana. Our objective: A research trip to fill in the blanks of Bill’s family history in preparation for our next book, “Lucky Me: A Photo Memoir of Growing Up in Montana During the Great Depression” (working title).

Destination #1 – Livingston (pop 7,000, elev 4,501 feet)

We began our research in Livingston where Bill was born in 1925.

In 1925, Bill’s father, Harry Ellwood “Mac” McGee, was homesteading in the Shields River Valley about 30 miles north of Livingston. When Bill’s time came to be born, his “rich” Uncle Clyde M. Lyon drove Bill’s mother, Vivian (Lyon) McGee, to the Lott Birthing Hospital in Livingston. Maternity patients at that time were not usually kept in regular hospitals, and numerous “maternity houses” or “birthing hospitals” (as they were called) were scattered throughout Livingston before hospitals were thought important for “lying in”.

The former Lott Birthing Hospital, Livingston, MT, 2013 (Author photo)

The former Lott Birthing Hospital, Livingston, MT, 2013 (Author photo)

The Lott Birthing Hospital, at 128 S. Yellowstone Street, was originally a private residence built in 1889 (the year Montana achieved statehood) in the affluent West Side neighborhood known as “Bankers’ Row”. From 1920 to 1929, the residence housed the Lott Birthing Hospital run by local nurse Edith Lott. Nurse Lott, renowned for her compassion, never asked if a patient could pay. She also took care of “the ladies from B Street” (Red Light District).

Today the former Lott Birthing Hospital is once again a private residence and is on the National Register of Historic Places. (See photo.)

Livingston was established in the 1880s around the Northern Pacific Railroad. Situated on the Yellowstone River, the town soon became known as “The original gateway to Yellowstone National Park”. Tourists en route to the park had to change trains in Livingston and many spent the night in town before continuing their journey. By 1882, Livingston was a thriving community with 40 businesses, 30 of which were saloons. Rough and tumble, the town attracted the likes of Calamity Jane who is said to have lived in a local hotel with periodic stays in the local jail.

Today, Livingston’s historic Main Street is a reminder of the past, with grand old buildings that have been restored. (See photo from Livingston Chamber of Commerce.) The town is a haven for artists, writers and actors, with good restaurants — and still a healthy number of saloons.Cover Photo

Doing research... The Bank, a bar in Wilsall's former bank building. Wilsall, MT, 2013 (Author photo)

Doing research… The Bank, a bar in the former bank building, Wilsall, MT, 2013 (Author photo)

In September 2013, Bill and I visited his home state of Montana. Our objective: A research trip to fill in the blanks for Bill’s family history in preparation for our next book, “Lucky Me: A Photo Memoir of Growing Up in Montana During the Great Depression” (working title). Destination #1 was Livingston where Bill was born in 1925. (See Post #1.)

Destination #2 – Wilsall (pop 237 at the 2000 census)

In 1911, Clyde M. Lyon (who would become Bill’s uncle), was roaming around the West looking for a satisfactory place to locate, and came to Wilsall, a small community about 30 miles north of Livingston in the Shields River Valley. Already established in the Midwest as a successful businessman, Mr. Lyon began a new career in ranching and, by 1919, owned several ranches in Park County, a mercantile store in Wilsall, and was numbered among the prosperous and well-to-do citizens of his community. In 1921, Clyde M. Lyon was written up in a Montana “Who’s Who” as “one of the well-known agriculturists and ranchmen of Southern Montana…never losing the dignity which is the birthright of the true gentleman”. (Source: Montana: Its Story and Biography, Vol. II, 1921)

Bill recalls:

“When Mother and Dad married in 1921 in Livingston, my father, Harry Elwood “Mac” McGee, had quite a reputation around Montana as a top hand with horses. Clyde Lyon, my mother’s brother, who owned several ranches at the time in Park and Meagher counties, immediately spotted Dad’s talent with horses and hired him on the spot to work. Dad moved around a lot while working for Uncle Clyde, thus my three siblings and I were each born in a different part of the state.”

Betty and Doris with their mother, Vivian (Lyon) McGee on Clyde M. Lyon's Catlin Ranch near White Sulphur Springs, MT, 1923. (Author collection)

Betty and Doris with their mother, Vivian (Lyon) McGee on Clyde M. Lyon’s Catlin Ranch near White Sulphur Springs, MT, 1923. (Author collection)

Bill’s oldest sister, Doris, was born in 1922 on Uncle Clyde’s home property near Wilsall. Bill’s next oldest sister, Betty, was born in 1923 on Uncle Clyde’s Catlin (or Caitlin) Ranch near White Sulphur Springs (pop 965 at the 2012 census) about 40 miles north of Wilsall. (See photo.) Bill was born in 1925 at the Lott Birthing Hospital in Livingston. Bill’s younger brother, Bob, would be born in 1927 in Malta on the Hi-Line.

Back then: Clyde M. Lyon's Wilsall Mercantile Company, Wilsall, MT, 1921 (Building on the right.) (Wilsall Museum)

Back then: Clyde M. Lyon’s Wilsall Mercantile Company (building on the right), Wilsall, MT, 1921. (Wilsall Museum)

Now: Wilsall Mercantile Company, Wilsall, MT, 2013 (Author photo)

Now: Wilsall Mercantile Company, Wilsall, MT, 2013 (Author photo)

 
 
Doing research... (Author photo)

Doing research…

In September 2013, Bill and I visited his home state of Montana. Our objective: A research trip to fill in the blanks for Bill’s family history in preparation for our next book, “Lucky Me: A Photo Memoir of Growing Up in Montana During the Great Depression” (working title). Destination #1 was Livingston where Bill was born in 1925. Destination #2 was Wilsall in the Shields River Valley. (See Posts #1 and 2.)

Destination #3 – Montana’s capital, Helena (pop 29,351, elev 4,090 feet)

The Montana Historical Society in Helena had a wealth of information on Bill’s Uncle Clyde M. Lyon and Frederick A. Lyon. We’re researching Bill’s relationship to the latter Lyon; however, in the meantime, we gathered this information about the man.

Frederick A. Lyon (sitting, right), Mary Elizabeth Lyon (sitting, left), and their seven children, Forest Grove, MT, 1897. (Author collection)

Frederick A. Lyon (sitting, right), Mary Elizabeth Lyon (sitting, left), and their seven children, Forestgrove, MT, 1897. (Author collection)

Frederick A. Lyon arrived in Montana in 1879 and, a few years later, went to Forestgrove, near Lewistown. He courageously began his career as a homesteader on what was practically desert land. His operations grew and prospered, and, by 1921, he owned 2,000 acres of valuable and productive land. He was one of the pioneers in the business of alfalfa growing in Fergus County.

Today: The site of the former Frederick A. Lyon ranch, Forestgrove, MT, 1990s. (Author photo)

The Frederick A. Lyon ranch, Forestgrove, MT, late 1800s. (Author collection)

To be continued in Spring 2014… “God willin’ and the Creek don’t rise”. 

On July 31, 2013, Turner Classic Movies featured a lineup of movies with a Reno setting… View the schedule

One of the more interesting viewings may be “Romantic Nevada”, a 1943 TravelTalks documentary short produced and narrated by James A. FitzPatrick. For Nevada and Reno history buffs, at the 00:03:44 point in the documentary, there is footage of the Tumbling DW (later the Flying M E) dude-divorce ranch in Washoe Valley. I don’t have positive confirmation, but the tall gentleman wearing the white hat looks like Dore Wood, the Eastern blueblood who started the famous divorce ranch in the late 1930s with his then-wife Emmy Wood. 

For more on Reno divorce movies, see the Page on this Blog, Reno Divorce Movies, or the Posting on this Blog 40+ Reno Divorce Movies.

-Sandra McGee, Divorce Nevada Style

Former Montana cowboy Bill McGee gives on-camera commentary in Reno Memoriesa documentary short produced for Twentieth Century Fox to accompany the re-release on DVD of Fox’s 1939 film, Charlie Chan in Reno.