Surprised to see such succulent produce grown in the desert? Thanks to the Gilcrease Family, and natural artesian springs, this unique piece of land has been preserved for over 90 years for the community to enjoy.
It all began in 1920 with the arrival of Elda and Leonard Gilcrease and their two sons John Theodore and William Orr. Ted was just a youngster of four and Bill, a baby not even a year old.
Leonard came from a farm family, having been raised at the Gilcrease Ranch in Lemoore, California. He met Elda at the University of Nevada, Reno, where they graduated with Bachelor’s Degrees. Leonard studied mechanical engineering and Elda studied music and intended to be an educator. But after marrying and starting their young family, they decided to use Elda’s inheritance to purchase over 900 acres in the Las Vegas Valley that included natural artisan springs, known as the Lower Tule Springs, for cultivating crops and raising livestock.
It was a struggle to work the ranch. Just when they thought they would turn the corner to a profitable business, disappointment came with the hardships of the depression caused by the stock market crash of 1929 It was enough to discourage Leonard from continuing with their farm life. He left Elda and their two young sons to return to California. Elda was persistent and carried on. By 1930 the couple divorced and Elda continued the ranch for several decades with the aid of her sons. She never remarried and passed away in 1968.
The Gilcrease Orchard Foundation
Over the years the Gilcrease Ranch raised chickens and turkeys sold to the townsfolk and the military base close by. They grew assorted crops including alfalfa and along the way eventually owned more than 1500 acres of land but cultivated about 200 acres.
Ted showed the greater interest in farming and took over the management of the ranch and their land holdings while Bill pursued his interest in art and birds. Nevertheless, they both contributed time and land for the development of the Orchard during the 1970’s. By that time, Ted decided to stop alfalfa production and focus on an orchard accessible to the community. Bill assisted by experimenting with apple strains best suited for the arid environment. For over twenty-five years, valley residents enjoyed 100 acres devoted to what Ted called his “pick and pay” orchard.
Recognizing his age and poor health were diminishing his ability to run the Orchard, Ted decided he needed to do something to protect the orchard in perpetuity. In 1997 he, with Bill’s support, decided to establish the non-profit Gilcrease Orchard Foundation governed by a Board of Trustees, to manage and operate the Gilcrease Orchard. The founding trustees were Ted, Bill and Mary Ellen Racel. After Ted’s passing in 2003, Bill remained a life time trustee, and Ms. Racel added her two children to the board. The Racels managed the Orchard until Bill decided to reorganize the Board of Trustees. The old board stepped down, and on April 30, 2009, Bill Gilcrease voted in a new Board which included Thalia Dondero, Linn Mills, Robert Murray and Corinne Escobar, with Mark Ruben hired as Director. The Orchard has been under this new management since that time.
A Brothers’ Dream
Due to financial setbacks, the Gilcreases gradually sold most of their other properties, making the Gilcrease Orchard the last vestige of the family ranching era of an earlier time in Las Vegas. Thanks to the Gilcrease Family and their generosity, a 60 acre patch of the most fertile farming land in the Las Vegas area is still preserved. In fact, Ted had commissioned the Board of Trustees to first, preserve the Orchard, second, beautify it, and third, provide educational and recreational activities for the public.
This was Ted and Bill’s dream, that the Gilcrease Orchard would be a place where families could bring their children and enjoy a sampling of the kind of life the brothers knew. They wanted to preserve this unique gem where the community can pick food fresh off the tree or vine and see, feel, and taste the difference. Through their non-profit foundation, they wanted to provide recreational and educational experiences to show children where our food comes from and how it is grown to foster an appreciation for the earth’s bounty and a healthy life-style.
Bill, who turned 94 last June, wants his family legacy to be remembered and enjoyed by visitors to the Orchard. "We built the Orchard with the intention it would be around for a very long time," says Bill.