In 1931, with the country in the grips of the Great Depression, the Nevada legislature passed two important bills to spur economic growth. One legalized gambling and the second changed the divorce residency requirements from six months to six weeks while adding nine grounds for divorce including the catchall “extreme cruelty entirely mental in nature”. Most states at this time required a one year wait after filing for divorce and only allowed proven adultery and abandonment as grounds.
Enter the divorce ranch, the place to establish your six-week residency while swimming, fishing, horseback riding and eating authentic Western cuisine. Because men made up the majority of the workforce at this time, women were usually the ones staying six weeks in Nevada. Most of the divorce ranch boom started in Reno. It was the largest, most-developed city at the time. The little town of Las Vegas was known mostly for its proximity to the great Boulder Dam construction (now known as Hoover Dam). But Vegas, in true Only in Vegas fashion, would get in on the act with a celebrity endorsement.
In 1939, Ria Langham, a wealthy socialite, came to town to divorce movie star Clark Gable. In exchange for privacy for the six weeks she was in town, Ms. Langham agreed to do an exclusive interview and photoshoot with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. She was photographed boating on Lake Mead and gambling at the casinos. The paper quoted her as saying her stay in Vegas had been “the finest and shortest vacation I ever had in my life”.
Soon Las Vegas divorce ranches were just as busy as Reno divorce ranches. Other famous names arrived, such as Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs, the wife of conductor Leopold Stokowski, the sister of actor Errol Flynn and Liz Taylor while she waited for Eddie Fisher to get his divorce. Divorce ranches were even featured in the third season of Mad Men when Betty Draper heads to Nevada for divorce.
The divorce tourism business flourished for decades in Las Vegas until 1970 when divorced California governor Ronald Reagan signed into law the first no-fault divorce bill. Couples could now divorce without having to prove any wrongdoing. Other states followed and a changing culture destigmatized divorce.
Las Vegas moved on from divorces ranches, establishing itself as a gambling resort town. However, remnants of divorce ranches still remain. Two former divorce ranches that can be seen today are now historical parks. Lorenzi Park (known in the divorce ranch days as Twin Lakes) and Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs still have some of those historic structures. Take a trip to Lorenzi and Floyd Lamb to experience a part of Las Vegas’ little-known history.
Shane Savanapridi is a Public Information Officer for the city. Some people might call him a professional doughnut eater, but that would way understate the case. Follow his adventures - @savanapridi
or listen to him on the VegasTMI podcast