Once Upon A Time In RENO

Reno divorce era illustration of a cowboy meeting a lady at the Reno train depot. Illustration by B. Kliban

Today no one needs to get away to divorce – they just divorce. But “splittin’ blankets” was not always so easy

In most states, getting a divorce required a waiting period of one year or more and proof of adultery – a messy business.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Nevada Governor Fred B. Balzar signed two highly controversial bills for the state of Nevada: one, to legalize gambling; the other, to reduce the residency requirement for a divorce from three months to only six weeks.

On March 19, 1931, easy divorce came to a little town out West

The Nevada State Journal headlines shouted out the big news in boldface type on page one…

Front page of Nevada State Journal, March 20, 1931

Now, anyone seeking a “quickie” divorce (as it would be called) could reside anywhere in Nevada for six weeks, pick their reason for wanting a divorce from a list of 9 legal grounds that required little or no proof, and spend an average of six minutes in court before a judge to get the divorce decree.

9 legal grounds for a Nevada divorce
as of March 19, 1931

1. Impotency
2. Adultery
3. Desertion
4. Conviction of a felony
5. Habitual drunkeness
6. Neglect to provide the common necessities of life
7. Insanity
8. Living apart for three years
… and the most popular
9. Extreme cruelty entirely mental in nature

The motives behind the legalized gambling and six-week divorce measures were purely economic: to bring people and their money to the State. And, indeed, people came and people spent their money.

For decades to come, legalized gambling and easy divorce would set Nevada apart from the rest of the nation and, in some circles, taint the image of the State. However, it was legalized gambling and easy divorce that helped Nevada get through the bare and lean years of the Great Depression.

When word got out about Nevada’s six-week divorce, the floodgates opened

Reno divorce era motel sign reading "Restless Divorcees Welcome"

Hotel sign in Reno, circa 1940. (Photo Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Divorce seekers (a term coined by the media) came running to Reno by the thousands.  They came from all walks of life – the rich, the poor, Eastern socialites, and the working class. They were mostly women, but men came, too. (Las Vegas was still a speck on the map and wouldn’t get in the divorce business until years later.)

Reno, then a wild and wooly small town “out West”, soon became known nationwide – even worldwide – as the “Divorce Capital of the World” and Reno was the place to go.

Publicity about the Reno divorce generated its own Glossary of Divorce Jargon. “Getting Reno-vated” (a term coined by columnist Walter Winchell), “I’m Going to Reno!” and “Taking the Cure” were synonymous for getting a divorce in Reno. A “Divorcée Special” was a train bringing divorce seekers to Reno. The Washoe County Courthouse was “The Separator.” There was even a brassiere called “The Reno” because it both separated and supported.

Divorce ranches sprang up around Reno

To accommodate the influx of divorce seekers, hotels, boardinghouses and divorce ranches (a media term for a dude ranch that catered to divorce seekers) sprang up in and around Reno. For six weeks, divorce seekers spent their money on food and lodging, gambling, drinking, lawyers, personal necessities, Western wear, and more. Many divorce seekers fell in love during their six weeks in Reno – some with the West and others with someone they met. Many wealthy Easterners stayed in Nevada after their divorce, bringing with them their wealth and their culture. It was a unique period in the American West when ladies met cowboys, East met West, and they mixed it up.

Reno divorce era photo of author Bill McGee and a divorce seeker on the Flying M.E., 1948

Bill McGee and a divorce seeker in her newly-purchased Western wear on the Flying M.E., 1948. (Author Collection)

The Reno divorce ranch era flourished throughout the 1930s and ’40s

Reno continued to retain its title as “Divorce Capital of the World” throughout the 1940s. However, in the 1950s, Las Vegas began to catch up and by the 1960s was granting half of Nevada’s divorces.  By the 1970s, other states were relaxing their divorce laws and the need to go to Reno for a divorce faded out.

Today no one needs to go to Reno for a divorce, they just divorce. But the story of how a small town in Nevada came to redefine divorce in America is a remarkable true story and a part of history few know about today.

That unique Nevada institution – the divorce ranch – has faded away, but Nevada as a place “to split” will always remain a legend of our time


Next: Dive Deeper into the Reno Divorce Era

Extra Material


(Illustration: B. Kliban)

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