Growing up on the ranch

3-C Brand
The 3-C cattle brand.

This article is an autobiography about my early life when I lived on a ranch in Sparks, Nevada. My father, Raymond Cassinelli and my mother, Phillis raised me on the ranch their family owned on Glendale Road where Baldini’s Casino is now located. The family included Raymond, Chester, Bob and all their siblings. Also included were my grandfather, Pete and his wife, Edith. On the ranch/farm we raised livestock, hogs, hay, potatoes, onions and other vegetable crops.

The farm had an onion barn, potato barn, cow barn, equipment sheds several pastures. All the water for irrigation came from a network of ditches from the Truckee River. There were several wells for drinking water.

My chores included milking the cows, feeding the livestock, driving the derrick to stack the baled hay and planting the large vegetable garden for the family. Grandfather butchered hogs and made salami and blood sausage every year. Grandmother made cheese and did the cooking. She lived to the age of 102. Grandfather Pete, born in 1898, gave me my haircuts every week and died in his 60’s due to having sprayed his cornfields with DDT every year.

One of the years we hired a crop dusting airplane to spray the fields. The pilot of the plane lifted the plane too late one day and hit a tree behind the house where my mom, dad and I lived. My uncle Bob and I saw the crash and ran over to see if we could help. The pilot was shaken but was uninjured. The aircraft was a total wreck. 

We had Indian named Levi from the local reservation who ate his meals with the family each week, alternating between Raymond’s house or at Chester’s house. All of us who wanted one had their own horse on the ranch including me, my brother Ron and my sister, Rae. I still remember all the horses names. In the fall when it was time to pick the potatoes, the students from the Stewart Indian School came out to pick and bag the potatoes. Other farmers along Glendale Road did this as well. The school did not pay the individual students, but considered it part of their education in agriculture. The school was closed in 1980. 

We branded, dehorned and castrated the livestock every year. The brand was 3-C for the three Cassinelli brothers. When it came time to weed onions in the summer, I recruited students from Sparks High School to come out to help. My uncle, Chester, stood by the edge of the field at quitting time with a cowboy hat full of real silver dollars. As each of us came by, he gave us 5 silver dollars apiece for 8 hours work. This may not seem like much but if you consider the price of silver today, we were very well paid. I kept my silver dollars in a jar in the kitchen for my lunch money. If I found one that was a Carson City silver dollar, I kept it and went without lunch that week.

In the 1950s, there were 2 major floods on the Truckee River which ran directly behind the ranch. The flood water scoured some of the topsoil from the fields. After these floods occurred, I went down along the river and found hundreds of Indian artifacts, including arrowheads, manos, and metates. We used the large bowl shaped metates to feed the dogs.

I took a cigar box full of arrowheads to school one day for show and tell and when I got it back, it was only half full. In later years, I donated the hundreds of artifacts I had found to the Museum in Gardnerville where they are displayed today. These artifacts are described and illustrated in my book, “Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians.”

My grandmother and I often went down along the river to hunt for mushrooms in the sand on an island. We usually came back with half a gunnysack full. Obviously, a previous owner of the ranch planted asparagus along the ditch banks because it always returned for us to pick every spring.

One year, my uncle, Chester, offered to give my future brother-in law, Hank Murphy (I later married his sister, Mary) and me the option of planting a 3-acre field with potatoes and squash and selling the crop in lieu of wages. We took him up on the offer and took tons of the produce to the sparks school cafeteria where the crop was much appreciated. I grew rabbits in our back yard. My mother, Phyllis, skinned the rabbits and took them to Sewell’s grocery store where they eagerly bought them. Fortunately, there was no inspection of food products in those days.

I am in my 80s now, and as I reflect back on the years I spent on the ranch, I believe that my diet of raw milk, fresh fruit, vegetables, hard work and wild game we hunted each year has contributed to my longevity.

Memories of growing up on a ranch in Sparks 

a small, white, one-room, old-fashioned schoolhouse with a sign that says "Glendale School"
The Glendale School in Sparks, Nevada. 1864-1958

I was born in Reno and grew up on a ranch in Sparks, Nevada, on Glendale Road where Baldini’s Casino is now located.

Our ranch was bordered on the south by the Truckee River and on the north by Glendale Road. My grandfather, Pete, and his three sons, Raymond, Chester and Bob, operated the ranch. Raymond was my father and we all worked together raising hogs, cattle, potatoes, corn, garlic and onions. My dad drove a dump truck every day to the Reno Army Air Base to pick up a load of swill to feed our hogs. One year, the hogs caught hog cholera and all of them died. All of us kids who lived on the ranch in those days had their own horses.

Two times in the 1950s, the Truckee River flooded and removed layers of topsoil from the fields along the river. Each time, I went down along the river to see the damage. I discovered the floods had uncovered many arrowheads, manos and metates for me to find. This became the beginning of the artifact collection I later donated to museums in Stewart and Gardnerville. Archaeologists later did a study of the area they named the Glendale site.

Just northwest across Glendale Road from our ranch was the Nevada State Mental Hospital, then known as the “asylum.” In those days, the facility had a small farm, butcher shop and a dairy for hospital use. The patients were not allowed to drive a motor vehicle, so they still used horse-drawn wagons to haul hay from our ranch to their dairy across Glendale Road.

One day, as a wagon was leaving our ranch, the driver stopped at my grandmother’s house for a drink of water, leaving the team unattended. The horses took off and headed back to the dairy with the load of hay. As they left our ranch at the end of our lane, the wagon tipped over in the neighbor’s yard across the street dumping the load of hay in the yard. The horses broke loose and ran back to the dairy.

I worked on the survey crew for the Nevada Department of Transportation in Sparks staking out the concrete columns for the elevated freeway over John Asquaga’s Nugget in the early 1960s. Sparks had a nice park called Deer Park, where we often went swimming and picnicking. One of our school events was Jacks Carnival where we marched in a parade in costume.

One year, we were let out of school early to go to the town bandstand to see President Harry Truman speak. Not being much of a political person, I walked back to the ranch instead. I was originally supposed to attend the 1864 one-room Glendale School, but my mother insisted I go to the school she attended, the Robert Mitchel School in Sparks.

a plaque affixed to the outside of an old-fashioned, one-room schoolhouse
State Historic Marker Number 169 tells the story of the Glendale School. Click here for a larger image and to read the text.

While I was still in high school, my family leased the old Stead ranch in Spanish Springs Valley for several years. I asked schoolmates if they wanted to work to earn a few bucks. We picked them up at the Block S in Sparks with a cattle truck and took them out to work weeding onions in Spanish Springs Valley. My uncle, Chester, stood at the edge of the onion field at the end of each day with a cowboy hat full of silver dollars. As we passed by, he handed each one of us five silver dollars for the eight hours of work we did.

I was familiar with silver dollars, since my mother was a blackjack dealer and brought many home from her tip money. She gave me one each week to pay for hot lunch at school. When she gave me one with a Carson City mint mark, I went without lunch that week and kept the dollar.

When it came time to pick potatoes, we hired the students from the Stewart Indian School to come out with busloads of students to work in the potato fields. Other farmers did the same.

Every year my family hired a crop duster with an airplane to come and dust the fields with insecticide for bugs. One year, my uncle, Bob, and I were watching the plane circle back and forth spraying the fields. Suddenly, we saw the plane hit a tree behind my house and crash in the road. Bob and I ran as fast as we could to help the pilot get out of the wrecked airplane. Fortunately, he was shaken up but not seriously injured.

My family bought a prisoner of war barracks building from the Reno Army Air Base and converted it into an apartment building on Glendale Road. When Mary and I got married, we rented an apartment from my uncle as our first home together.

Horrible childhood memories

A memorial headstone planted in white gravel. The marker reads, "Unidentified. Relocated September 2010 from Second Cemetery."
A memorial marker at the Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services Cemetery.

I participated in my first archaeological dig when I was about four years old. It was my earliest memory and has been etched in my mind forever. As I recall, the year was 1945 and the place was the old cemetery of the Nevada State Asylum at the western end of Hymer Avenue in Sparks.

This neighborhood was called “Conductor Heights” due to the number of Southern Pacific Railroad conductors who once lived in the neighborhood in rather substantial homes. My mother, Phyllis, and her sister Clare, lived there with their mother, Ida, while working as blackjack dealers at Harold’s Club, Palace Club and other local casinos. They were two of the first female blackjack dealers allowed to work in major Nevada casinos. Clare’s son, (who I will call “Cousin”) and I, lived with our mothers and Grandma in the Hymer Avenue house.

Cousin was a few years older than I and had a morbid curiosity about weird, bizarre and unusual things. Grandma could not possibly keep him from getting into trouble and he often took me along with him. While Grandma was busy cooking, cleaning and tending to the chickens, Cousin and I roamed the neighborhood getting into whatever mischief he could find. Occasionally, we visited the gypsies who parked their wagons in Grandma’s garden. Sometimes they caught big green crawfish from the ditch behind the house and cooked them until they were red and succulent as lobsters.

One day, we noticed a commotion from other neighborhood kids gathering up the street by the big windmill at the Nevada State Asylum graveyard. The windmill was inside the fence of the Asylum cemetery at the west end of Hymer Avenue. We found the source of the excitement was one of the asylum inmates had hung himself from the windmill. Cousin and some of the other kids took great delight in throwing rocks at the corpse as it swayed in the cool October wind, until the cops came and cut the poor fellow down.

Many former residents of the Comstock are buried at the asylum cemetery. Alcohol problems, brutal working conditions, and mercury poisoning from working in the mines and mills, caused many people from the Comstock to be committed to the asylum.

The day after the man was cut down from the windmill where he had hanged himself, a team of horses pulling a hay wagon came out from the asylum to the graveyard. As usual, Cousin and I were there to observe the burial. On the wagon sat two inmates dressed in blue coveralls. There was a large refrigerator-shaped box and some shovels. We all ran up to the fence and watched as the inmates dug a big hole.

When it seemed the grave was big enough, the men backed the wagon close to the hole and shoved the box and its contents off the wagon into the grave. Unfortunately the hole was not quite big enough, so the inmates jumped up and down on the cardboard coffin until it finally collapsed into the hole. They then covered the grave over with dirt, leaving only a mound to mark the spot. We were told the asylum had its own graveyard in those days because no sane person wanted to be buried in a cemetery with a bunch of “crazy people.”

Some weeks later, there was another commotion at the cemetery. As usual, Cousin and I, along with other neighborhood kids, showed up to see what was happening. Someone had come up with the bright idea to dig a huge ditch for an irrigation pipeline across the historic cemetery. Isbell Construction Company was using a massive track-mounted drag-line excavator to cut a six-foot-wide and eight-foot-deep trench through the graveyard.

By mid-day, the excavator started cutting into the graves that dotted the site. Corpses, body parts and pieces of rotted coffins began to litter the spoil pile alongside the trench. The equipment operator began to puke and had to be replaced. Shortly after, the replacement operator also had to be replaced, then another and another.

The massive shovel bucket cut some of the graves in half. Several of the bodies were pulled apart with arms and legs dangling from the sliced coffins into the muddy water at the bottom of the ditch. Some of the graves contained only bones but others contained moldy, blue-green bodies with most of the flesh rotting. Some of the kids went home sick, but my weird cousin was in his realm. I was so young I really did not realize the impact of what I was seeing.

By late afternoon, when the equipment shut down and the workers went home for the day, Cousin and I crawled through the fence to check out the horrible desecration of the graves. Cousin immediately spotted the shiny, untarnished glint of gold in some of the teeth of the rotted skulls. As I held the wet, gooey heads for him, he pried out the gold teeth with a pocket knife and stuffed them in his pocket.

This true story is contained in my book, “Uncovering Archaeology,” along with many other interesting, entertaining and educational stories. After years of neglect and desecration, the State of Nevada has finally created a memorial park at the old asylum cemetery where an obelisk monument contains the names of over 800 people buried there in unmarked graves.