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Day 61 – Basque hotels

By ThisIsReno
A Basque statue. Image: Sydney Martinez/Travel Nevada

Submited by Karl Breckenridge

I was deep in the arms of Morpheus at four-something this Friday morning when my lonely writer’s garret creaked a bit. Was that an earthquake? I heard no falling objects, so thought, well, to hell with it; back to sleep I go. But, a planned This is Reno piece kept running through my foggy noodle and preventing any return to sleep.

So at five ayem, with the sun’s first light breaking over the eastern hills and no sleep in sight anyway, I arose and warmed up my laptop. And this is what I wrote:

We now ply the streets of Reno in a year I’ll peg at 1960, a year not too long before the sheep industry in Northern Nevada started to dwindle; a year when there were a half-dozen, give or take, small hotels in our town catering to the men who tended the sheep.

Our host this morning is a lifelong friend of mine, known by many as our Reno High classmate in the early 1960s and by many more as their school principal at Reno High or later Hug High, the first one. His name is John Gascue, who we knew as kids as “Gas-cue,” like cue-ball, and later in life as John Gas-kway, a name change he attributes to running into a prof at the University of Nevada attuned to the Basque language who finally knew how to pronounce it right. He answers to both now.

The Reno Basque Festival at Wingfield Park in 2018.
The Reno Basque Festival at Wingfield Park in 2015. Image: Jackson Shedd

John’s folks, Dominic and Marie, hailed from the high-mountain Basque country of Europe, arriving in our town around 1927, and settling into the sheep business with their countrymen. Dominic was active in the community, president of the Basque-American Club and chairman of the annual Zazpiak Bat Basque festival.

A bygone landmark was the Pyrenees Hotel – yes, housing the storied Grotto Bar – on the southwest corner of Virginia and Fourth streets, the busiest intersection in Nevada back then. “You lived there, didn’t you?” I emailed him. “Yes, I did,” John replied, and a column was born.

If we mention a Basque hotel, many local folks think first of the late Robert Laxalt and his iconic 1993 tome, The Basque Hotel. Then, two more places come to their minds: the Santa Fe Hotel on Lake Street and Louis’ Basque Corner. That said, the footnote is that Louis’ Basque Corner is not a Basque hotel. The hotel housing it was the Lincoln Hotel, not catering necessarily to the sheepherders.

But who cares? It’s Louis’! OK – that’s three hotels; now I’ll throw out three more, and many readers will say, “Oh, yeah; I forgot about those!”

Louis' Basque Corner at the Lincoln Hotel
Louis’ Basque Corner at the Lincoln Hotel

I mentioned the Pyrenees and the Lincoln and the Santa Fe, how about the Travelers’, on the southwest corner of Sierra at Commercial Row, housing my old buddy Jerry Fenwick’s folks’ art store. Or, on East Second Street, north side, east of Center, the Star Hotel? Next we’ll visit the Toscano Hotel with our parents for the great minestrone soup of our youth, on the east side of Lake Street midblock.

A common thread with all the six mentioned above are the size — the picture I took of the Lincoln Hotel for this piece downplays its rock-star occupant Louis’ and attempts to show the relatively small size of the little hotel. None of the six mentioned were large or capacious, all with small walk-up rooms that were occupied long-term by the sheepherders, who spent a great deal of time out tending the herds.

Three hotels — the Lincoln, the Santa Fe and the Toscano — had food service in-house. (Louis and Lorraine Erriguible would not open Louis’ Basque Corner in the dining area of the Lincoln Hotel until 1967 — relatively late in this yarn’s timeline.) A second thread among the Basque hotels was that they were pretty much managed by the ladies of the community, like John’s mom at the Pyrenees, while their husbands were out  tending the sheep in the hills for most of the year.

The hotels tended to take on the décor and flavor of the western Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain, a welcome respite to return to for the sheepherders so far from home. The sheepherders came to America to seek a new life, and few were fluent in the English language. The staff — as written, mostly the ladies — of the Basque hotels, and I’m sure this is characteristic throughout our state in the mid-1900s, acted as de facto interpreters and translators while the new tongue was being learned (which most did indeed learn). Not only the spoken word, but the necessity of its use on printed forms and documents.

A similar service that seemed to become an amenity of a Basque hotel was a form of banking — the hotel keepers would marshal the cash bankroll of the hotels’ guests in their behalf, cashing payroll checks and doling out cash upon their demands, all a part of the service. I’ve spoken not only to John but other Basque friends over the years, and none knew of any abuses that ever occurred.

John and I talked of some of the pillars of the Basque community as he remembers them, and most align with my recollection of these people.

I told him if I wanted to get it into a sling real quick I could name a few and omit others in this column and live to regret it. But at the risk of that I’ll mention four we both agreed on: Pete Echeverria, Martin Esain, Marsh Landa and surprisingly to me, Ed Reed, later a federal judge, who were all wonderful envoys to the Basque community and the go-to guys the hotel keepers would call first on behalf of their tenants.  

Anyway, we offer this thousand-word slice of bygone Reno life, with so much remaining to be written and I’m sure we will in the months to come. My sincerest gratitude goes to John Gascue for shooting the bull with me for a couple hours, and I’ll warn all, we’re not done yet — there’s much left to write.

Now, as Brian Williams used to say, Jody Rice or I will see you right back here for the weekend, no earthquakes are predicted, and, oh you know: Stay safe, huh?

Submitted opinions do not represent the views of ThisisReno. Have something to say? Submit an opinion article here.

Karl Breckenridge

Karl Breckenridge is slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally and loves to yak it up with friends…now sitting six feet apart. 

Read more from Karl Breckenridge

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