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.”

_______________

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

Discover the Odd Fellows Rocks

Ever visited the Odd Fellows Rocks? Most folks don’t even know they’re here. But they’re a fascinating and easily-accessible site along the old Emigrant Trail, near the top of Carson Pass!

Several jubilant emigrants paused here between August 25 and 27, 1849, after successfully ascending the infamous “Devil’s Ladder” — one of the most difficult stretches that overland emigrants faced in the entire overland journey. These pioneers honored the occasion by painting their names and the dates of their visit on the large clusters of rocks they found at the top.

Names painted on the rocks today include “C.C. Hammer” and “E.C. Farrary” — although a transcription from the 1930s lists them as “J.G. Hammer” and “F. G. Farren.” The names have been painted over many times in an effort to preserve them and it’s possible that transcription errors have crept in.

And yes, you can still see the pioneer’s names! Well, some of them, anyway. The original white-lead inscriptions have been painted over multiple times now, in an effort to preserve them. Some may have been corrupted a bit by this well-intentioned “preservation” effort. And unfortunately, time and erosion have erased some of the signatures entirely from the rock. But many full and partial names still remain. And oh, don’t we wish we knew what happened to each of those early visitors!

They’re called the “Odd Fellows” inscriptions because many of the writers also left the tell-tale three-ring symbol associated with the Odd Fellows’ motto: friendship, love, and truth. As for the passing emigrants themselves, we haven’t yet been able to trace the history of many of the rock-signers. But among the still-legible names is at least one emigrant whose later exploits we have been able to find.

R.E. Wilhoit signed this document as County Auditor in 1864, directing the San Joaquin Co. Treasurer to pay the County Assessor $23.21 for services from August to November.

R.E. Wilhoit was just 20 years old when he stopped at this spot in 1850 to add his lettering to the already-graffitied rocks. (Yes, Wilhoit was here a year after the original Odd Fellows group passed by.) At the time, of course, this young man had no way of knowing what his future in California would hold. But it turned out to be golden indeed!

Like so many eager emigrants, Wilhoit mined for a time at Mokelumne Hill and other Gold Rush towns before eventually moving on to Stockton in 1852. There he became a noted citizen, holding a variety of important public posts including stints as County Recorder, County Supervisor, and City Councilman. In later life Wilhoit evidently decided to “follow the money”: he became a banker. Eleven years after his difficult journey up Devil’s Ladder, Wilhoit married Delia Dwelley and together they would have six children. It was a future the 20-year-old probably never envisioned on that hot summer day when he paused to scrawl his name on the rocks in 1850!

A second emigrant whose name is still visible is F.P. Belcher, who also left us the date of his visit: “Aug 24, ‘49”. Although we don’t know this Belcher’s identity for sure, it’s possible this was the same F.P. Belcher who was born in 1830 and arrived in California with his two younger brothers by covered wagon from Woodstock, Illinois. That F.P. Belcher found employment as a freight hauler in the “truck and van business;” lived on Russian Hill in San Francisco before moving to Oakland; married a woman named Louise Hamilton; and had five children. If indeed it is the same person, he would have been about 18 years old when he left his moniker on this pile of rocks.

And who were “P. Slater” and “Ray Holms”? We have just one clue and no more: a 1930s listing identifies a “Peter Slater” as having written on these rocks.

There’s yet another tantalizing inscription tucked among the names: “McHenry County, Illinois” is written in at least two places. Perhaps this was the home county that some emigrants had just left; or it might have been the name given to their wagon train. We haven’t had any luck (so far!) in tracing any of the names with certainty back to that particular location. But that F.P. Belcher we mentioned, from Woodstock, Illlinois? Well, Woodstock just happens to be the county seat of McHenry County. Hmm.

Several early Carson Valley-ites also appear to have ties with that same McHenry County, Illinois, too. Pioneer settler Emanuel Penrod was said to have hailed from there. And Joseph Raycraft, Sr. married his wife Ellen back in McHenry County, where he owned a farm, before leading a wagon train west.

Two more potential but harder-to-prove connections:   newspaper records listing the  members of passing of emigrant trains tell us Ira Luther and J.A. Rhodes were among a Michigan wagon group planning to cross the Missouri River on May 16, 1849. That same day, the “Spartan Band” train — from none other than McHenry County, Illinois — was also assembled beside Missouri River. Included among the Spartan Band’s members was a man named James H. Van Sickle — certainly a familiar last name for Carson Valley folks!

Did early Valley settler Ira Luther join up with the folks from McHenry County on his journey west? And was “James” Van Sickle any relation of our well-known local Van Sickle family? That’s probably a “no” for Ira Luther, at least as far as joining an 1849 McHenry County wagon train for any length of time. Luther did own property in Ogle and Stephenson Counties, Illinois, roughly 70-75 miles from McHenry. But an unverified account by Ira’s son claims Ira contracted cholera in Missouri in 1849, finally making made the journey West in 1850 by schooner and rounding the Horn to land in San Francisco. So for now these are just tantalizing  possible further connections to McHenry County, Illinois.

We hope you’ll pay a visit to the Odd Fellows Rocks to see the pioneer names on the rocks for yourself, and check out their homage to McHenry County. (Directions to get there are given below.) Be sure to gaze down at the Devil’s Ladder itself while you’re there, and imagine emigrants hauling their wagons and animals up this incredibly steep climb. It rises an amazing 700 feet in elevation over a distance of less than a mile. For the true flavor of what that meant, here’s how the emigrants themselves described the experience:

After two hours’ hard work lifting at the wheels, whipping our tired teams, and using language not becoming church members, we gained a resting place and well did we need one. After a short rest we are again on the move; the way is now more smooth but very steep and crooked; a man to every wheel, and one to every horse and mule; a few steps and then a rest.” John Hawkins Clark, 1852.

The most astonishing thing respecting the road is that any man of common sense should have first thought of taking a wagon over it.” William Tell Parker, 1850.

Once successfully at the top, some emigrants tossed their hats in the air in celebration, making the “echoes of the Sierra Nevada acquainted with the mode of cheering in good society!” as one wrote in his diary.

Others simply left their names here on the rocks — a happy sign to commemorate their passing. They probably never imagined that visitors would stop by to read their names 170 years later.

The Emigrant Trail winds through the trees near the Rocks. It’s a serene and beautiful place.

Like  to visit the Odd Fellows Rocks for yourself? Here are directions!
Take Hwy 88 headed west toward Carson Pass. Just before you reach the summit, watch carefully for a paved road on your left and turn left (carefully!) onto this paved road. A day-use parking fee applies in this area, so look for the pay drop just after you make the turn. Once you pay the parking fee, follow the paved road the short distance downhill to a cul-de-sac parking area at the end. Be sure to pause here to read the interpretive sign (it includes great illustrations!) and admire the stunning overlook!

Stop to read the interpretive sign and enjoy the beautiful view of Red Lake below.

At the low end of the cul-de-sac, a dirt trail on your right will lead you into the forest where you can gaze down on a trail (on your left) — and see the near-vertical trail they called the Devil’s Ladder. It’s a great section of the Emigrant Trail to actually hike later, if you’re adventuresome enough!

This path to your left dropping down into the canyon below was known as the Devil’s Ladder!

To find the Odd Fellows Rocks, follow the trail on your right that leads upwards and away from the Devil’s Ladder. A short distance uphill, you’ll reach a rocky bench — and will spot the large pile of rocks with white lettering. (They’re above the cul-de-sac and overlook the spot where you parked.) This is the spot where thousands of weary emigrants and animals rested and regrouped after the climb.

Notice the brass plaque set into the rocks, placed by the Odd Fellows of California in 1941. Also notice the three interlocking rings of the Odd Fellows symbol painted on the rocks in two places in this photo.

Before returning to your car, take time to search out the Unknown Pioneer’s Grave, which is hidden in the trees between the Odd Fellows rocks and the paved road that you drove in on. This monument was erected to honor an anonymous pioneer who died here in the wilderness after months of arduous travel, never reaching the fabled gold fields.

Grave of an unknown pioneer who made it to California — but not to the gold fields. Like to see what this site looked like 50 years ago? Here’s a link to an old Frasher postcard of the grave from the 1940s!

Enjoyed this post? Check out our books on other sites of interest and local history! And for reprint rights, please drop us an email.