Roots a Mile Deep: The Story of the Adams Family

They weren’t trucking cattle up to summer pasture when Wally Adams was a kid.

Wally (on horse) during cattle branding (Judy Adams photo)

Nah. For over 30 years, Wally helped drive cattle the hard way, saddling up at 2 a.m. to get the herd to the top of Old Kingsbury Grade before nightfall. That meant long, dusty days on horseback. But it’s what you did to help a neighbor out.

The roots of Wally’s life are tangled deep with traditions from a century and more ago. And the Adams family’s roots, too, run deep here in northwestern Nevada. John Quincy Adams (Wally’s great-grandfather) and his brother Rufus settled in Carson Valley in 1853, a full decade before Nevada became a state. They bought 640 acres of land in September that year a mile north of Mormon Station (today’s Genoa), a handwritten deed that’s now part of Nevada’s “First Records.”

Family patriarch John Quincy Adams.

Their land was the subject of one of the earliest property disputes, with none other than Judge Orson Hyde claiming title to the same land in 1855. Luckily the newly-created county court upheld the bulk of the Adams brothers’ claim.

Sketch of the Adams Ranch from Thompson & West’s 1881 History of Nevada.
John Adams’ original cattle brand — still in use today. (Judy Wickwire photo)

Trained as brick-makers in their home state of Illinois, the Adams brothers built a brick kiln on their new ranch. Adams brick quickly became a popular building material, finding its way into some of the earliest structures in Carson Valley including the Genoa courthouse, and the U.S. Mint and Glen Eagles restaurant in Carson City.

The family home, too, was constructed of brick. An astonishing 6,000 square feet in size, it featured 21 rooms, including a ballroom on the second floor. The dusty Emigrant Trail passed right by the front steps, and the Adamses opened their house to travelers, selling rooms, meals and liquor as well as hay and barley to passing emigrants through about 1860. John Quincy Adams once called those the “happiest days of his life.”

A fourth-generation Adams, Wally still spots bits and pieces of his family’s history sprinkled throughout Carson Valley, from old brick buildings to family artifacts donated to the local museum. But despite his family’s deep local roots, the Adams story has rarely been shared.

Wally Adams holding a brick at the original site of the Adams brickyard. (Judy Wickwire photo)

“We’re a quiet family,” explains Wally. “We stuck to ourselves and never got involved in politics or stuck our noses in anybody’s business. My dad was just busy trying to make a living and run the ranch.”

There’s no pretense, either, as Wally shares what it was like to grow up as part of such a historic clan, with one foot still firmly planted in century-and-a-half-old ways. Take the house where he grew up, for instance, built of homemade brick fired right there on the Adams ranch. “We had one heater in the house when I was a boy, and that was the kitchen stove,” he smiles. “That was one of my chores, to chop and bring in the firewood. The rest of the house didn’t have heat, so we lived mostly in the kitchen in wintertime.”

The Adams home, once a way-station for travelers on the Emigrant Trail and still in the family today. (Judy Wickwire photo)

Remnants from the emigrant days were still in the house a century later, when Wally was a boy – and remain in family hands today. The home’s twin parlors (one for gents, one for ladies) still contained their original formal, horsehair-stuffed sofas. Also left over from the home’s first days: a 30-foot long wooden table with matching wooden chairs, where travelers once sat down to supper. Until about 1950 the house lacked both electricity and indoor plumbing.

Even today, drinking water for the old house is gravity-fed from a spring two miles up the mountain, ferried through two-inch riveted steel pipe salvaged from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. “They didn’t have much money,” Wally explains, “so they did what they could do. They went over with a horse and wagon and brought it back in 20-foot sections. I’ve still got some of that old pipe for when I have to make repairs.”

Old hay barn at the Adams ranch was built in the early 1850s by the Adams brothers. Horses for the stage were once stabled under the barn. (Rick Dustman photo)

By the time Wally came along, the Adams family’s original 640-acre ranch had roughly doubled in size.

A hand-wrought iron hinge still holds the old barn door. (Rick Dustman photo)

The best part of his inheritance: old ways and old-fashioned know-how. “By the time I was five, I was driving a tractor. I would cut wood, cut hay in summer. I helped Dad irrigate, wean calves,” he says. Hay had to be hand-pitched into the barn for storage, from bales stacked six high. “That top layer – it’s not so hard to throw. But when you got down to the bottom layer – well. That’s why I gotta have a total shoulder replacement now,” Wally chuckles.

There was plenty of old-fashioned penny-pinching. “One time my grandfather had a belt on a drill press that was slipping. He told me to go ask Grandma for some syrup or honey. He pours that on the belt — makes it sticky. He couldn’t afford belt dressing,” Wally remembers with a smile.

An all-around ranch mom, Wally’s mother, Elsie, served as “caregiver, nanny, referee, seamstress, knitter, crocheter, needle-pointer, excellent ranch hand and family cook, canner, avid gardener, tractor driver, hay hauler, and whatever it took to make it happen,” as her obituary put it when she passed in 2008. Even with all those duties, Elsie took on the job as postmistress at Genoa for about a decade, and volunteered to help with the Candy Dance and PTA.

Wally’s dad, Rufus William Adams, too, served the community as a school trustee, a founding member of the Genoa Cemetery Association, and fire chief for the local volunteer fire department. During World War II, Rufus would forward messages received on his ham radio to local families from sons stationed overseas. He imparted not only his love of ranching but also his ham radio skills to Wally.

Judy and Wally Adams outside the Genoa Courthouse, built with Adams brick. (Judy Wickwire photo)

By the time he was 14, Wally was driving a school bus. At 16, he became volunteer fire chief in Genoa – a post he would hold for the next 20 years. “They didn’t have all the fancy rules and regulations then,” he acknowledges. “If someone’s house was on fire, we responded and tried to put it out.”

To make a little extra money, Wally began working as brand inspector for Douglas County NV in August, 1974. “They started me out at $3.10 an hour and 13 cents a mile. I put 80,000 miles on my pickup in the first two years,” he remembers.

Judy Adams, Wally’s wife, is justifiably famous for her “Bomb Ass” pickles! (Judy Adams’ pickle label).

Now with 38 years under his belt inspecting brands, Wally’s earned his share of stories. “It could be scary sometimes when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, out of radio range,” he says. “I always carried my ‘girlfriend’ – that’s a sawed-off .12 gauge. And I had a sidearm.” But inspecting also had its fun side: Wally got to meet actor Red Skelton once – “nicest guy you can imagine.” And he was introduced to a sheik from Saudi Arabia, who’d just flown into Reno in a brand-new 747 to pick up a horse. Big money was involved. “Can I talk you out of $5 for my brand inspection?” was all Wally wanted to know.

There were new-to-the-country folk, calling to demand that Wally come get the wild mustangs out of their yards. (His polite response: “If you don’t want ’em in your yard, fence ’em out.”) And one pure-bred city slicker burned up his phone, irate about a cow delivering a calf within viewing distance of her four-year-old daughter.

“I told her that’s part of Mother Nature, and she hung up on me. Twenty minutes later she called me back: ‘That cow is being abusive to the calf. She’s licking it off and now the calf fell over. I think it’s got a brain concussion!’” Wally chuckles. “Then she asked if she could go get the calf. I said, ‘Well, it’s probably on private property. And by the way, how fast can you run?’ The lady didn’t get it. ‘What do you mean?’ she asked me. I had to explain, well, if you go get the calf, that momma cow’s going to be coming after you!”

Then there was a memorable encounter with a judge. A man had pled guilty to stealing a calf, and the judge was imposing just a fine. Wally had to speak up. “I told him he should’ve put the man in jail. ‘It’s only a $400 calf,’ the judge responded. ‘I can’t make him a hard-core criminal over that.’ Well, that ain’t the point, I told the judge. That’s the rancher’s livelihood.”

Wally’s father, Rufus W. Adams, purchased this 1937 Diamond T truck new, and it still runs great today with only 37,000 original miles on it. The family would haul three cows at a time in the back of the truck to the Fallon auction yard. (Judy Wickwire photo)

Wally finally quit inspecting for Nevada in 2012. “I found myself living out in romantic downtown Gerlach or Tonopah or Coyote Camp and those places, and was gone from home most of the time. It’s not 9 to 5; you’re on-call eight days a week, 48 hours a day. I wanted some time to myself,” he sighs. Even so, he just couldn’t quit entirely. Wally continues to inspect brands for California – including 3,000 head for Centennial Livestock every year.

Like so many historic ranches, the Adams Ranch has shrunk in size over the years, as economic forces and family needs required that portions be sold off. Even so, Wally hopes that his family’s traditional way of life will continue – and will inspire future generations to appreciate Nevada’s ranching heritage.

The old gas pump at the Adams Ranch. (Judy Adams photo)

“As a kid, I had the freedom other kids don’t have,” Wally reminisces. “I’d take my .22 with me everywhere and I’d go hunting when I wanted to. Ranching life is a good life. It’s a hard life. But if everyone had a chance to do it, it would change their attitudes about where food comes from. Today, they go to the grocery store and see a carton of milk or a package of meat, and don’t realize the work that went into it.”

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*A longer version of this story first appeared in Range Magazine (Fall 2020 issue).