Tour Around Nevada: Winnemucca
July – August 2016
The town that promises a prize actually delivers.
BY MEGG MUELLER
Let’s get this out of the way: there is no such thing as a mucca, so no, you can’t win one. And yes, that question gets asked.
If there were such a mythical creature, it would surely live in this bucolic central Nevada town, located smack dab in the heart of Cowboy Country. Whatever pleasures you seek, you’ll find them in this melting pot of activity, heritage, and geography. Whether you’re a native or a transplant, the lure of Winnemucca is undeniable.
BACK IN THE DAY
Winnemucca didn’t incorporate as a city until 1917, but the area was populated long before that. Almost 100 years before, the site along the Humboldt River was a desired spot for trappers, and later became a trading hub for the pioneers heading westward. A virtual oasis in the desert, the land was fertile and farmers and ranchers flocked to the area. Mining activity was scattered throughout the surrounding hills, and while the town went through a few monikers, it was officially named Winnemucca after the area’s legendary Paiute chief in about 1868. It is the only town in Nevada named after an American Indian.
Around the same time, the Central Pacific Railroad began building a line to connect the north- and south-bound stage lines. Only a few hundred residents called Winnemucca home at that time, but by 1872, the town became the county seat.
Winnemucca continued to grow thanks to its advantageous location as a shipping hub along the lush Humboldt River. In the 1970s, gold discoveries led to the resurgence of the mining industry, which continues to play an important role in the area’s economy today.
DRAWN IN FOR LIFE
Kelly Hess moved to Winnemucca last year. He had lived in Elko and Ely working for Barrick Gold, but after marrying and moving to California, he and his wife quickly decided that in order to have the quality of life they wanted, it was time to head back to Nevada.
“We love it here. We just got back from a camping trip to the Dufferena Ponds,” Kelly says. “Every weekend we try to do something. Even if it’s just take a ride in the truck, find a dirt road, and see where it goes.”
Kelly admits he’s not a cowboy, but the lure of Winnemucca’s outdoors has him talking like someone who’s lived in the area much longer than a year. Someone like Mayor Di An Putnam, who conversely, has lived in the area since she was just a year old. Di An has been mayor of her hometown for 10 years, and as she approaches the end of her term-limited leadership, she is proud of what the town has accomplished—a new Boys and Girls Club, for example—because it was a collaborative effort.
“They know it will benefit the community, so people say ‘let’s just get together and get it done,’ ” she says. “Winnemucca is just a clean, friendly town, and we’re very family oriented.”
Families are central to the town and its culture today. One of Nevada’s largest concentration of Basque people dwell in the area, and that hard-working, family-first mentality can be found in the many residents of Basque heritage, at the annual Basque Festival, and in the town’s famed Basque eateries. The Martin Hotel has been around since 1898, and while it’s on the National Register of Historic Places, you can still enjoy the traditional, family-style dining. Ormachea’s carries the Basque influence in its meals as well, and don’t forget the Nevada favorite Picon Punch. If you have to ask what that is, well, don’t do it in Winnemucca. It’s a dead giveaway you’re not from these parts.
“I was in The Martin last week. The waitress is making me a Picon, and because she knows how I like it, she pours a little grenadine, looks up at me and sighs, then pours another dash,” Kelly says, laughing at how his need for a tweak on this notoriously strong drink causes mock exasperation.
A good-natured ribbing is something you might expect to feel when you meet Winnemuccans.
“When you walk down the street here, people say hello,” Di An says.
SO MUCH TO SEE AND DO
No matter your proclivity, Winnemucca can satisfy. Kelly is quick to mention the Winnemucca Sand Dunes for camping, riding, and hiking; Di An notes the town is encircled by sidewalks and has many parks for more leisurely outings. The epitome of rodeos—The Winnemucca Ranch Hand Rodeo—has brought out the real cowboys for 27 years. Di An explains this is not for professional rodeo cowboys, but working ranch hands and cowboys, and the event grows more popular every year.
On the flip side, but no less authentic, Shooting the West is an annual photographer’s dream experience. For 28 years, photographers from across the world have come to Winnemucca to take part in classes and symposiums held throughout the town and out in the gorgeous Humboldt County area.
There’s a pristine and challenging nine-hole golf course in town, plus a racetrack that offers stock-car racing and more on Fridays and Saturdays throughout summer and fall. Just 10 miles north of town, the Winnemucca Sand Dunes offer some 40 miles of adult playground. Kelly notes that while there are other sand dunes in Nevada, these are the largest field of dunes in the state and about a seven-minute drive from his house, making it one of his favorite attractions.
Back in town, a historic walking tour awaits for architecture and history buffs, or perhaps the Humboldt Museum will fill your quest for just about everything related to the area’s beginnings and its people. If you’re fascinated by the old West, a stop at the Buckaroo Hall of Fame at the Winnemucca Convention & Visitors Authority will have you saying yeehaw in no time. The museum honors some 70 inductees, with photos and memorabilia that preserve the legendary buckaroo heritage.
In a town of just 8,000 people, the range of activities and culture that can be found is almost overwhelming if you visit for just a short time. Better spend a couple days so you can unveil the true prize that is Winnemucca.