Jewish Agricultural Experiment in Wellington

When Nevada's ore production dropped precipitously after 1877, the population steadily declined and public officials searched for ways to attract new citizens and bolster the tax base. Eventually, the Hebrew Agricultural Society of the United States unveiled a plan to triple Nevada's population with thousands of eastern European Jews. In 1897, Governor Reinhold Sadler commissioned Jewish entrepreneurs Morris Cohn and Theodore Hofer to take out an option on a 5,500 acre spread in Wellington, forty-five miles south of Carson City.

The collectivist arrangement was that each family would own a house and some private property, and share ownership and production of the remaining land. Several San Francisco Jewish leaders opposed the project for different reasons. Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger did not trust Cohn and described the venture as a scheme to boost Nevada at the expense of deluded Jews. Abe Seeligsohn, editor of Jewish Progress, considered the socialist aspect of the matter utopian and un-American.

Despite these misgivings, seventeen families signed deeds in October 1897 and sixty-two colonists, led by Russian-born Joseph Nudelman and his extended family, traveled to Wellington the following month, with twelve more families to follow. Among the first group were a carpenter, tailor, blacksmith, kosher butcher, and ritual circumciser. But treachery threatened the project. Sadler's businessmen had not cleared title for the colonists' representatives and intended to broker the land for a handsome profit. The property owner, Sam Wymore, bypassed Cohn and Hofer and deeded the acreage to the colonists' Occidental Land Company, which was headed by Daniel Schwartz and Harry Bell, with Wymore serving as treasurer.

Work began immediately to build homes, dam the nearby West Walker River, and dig irrigation ditches to the fields. By January 1898, there were one hundred colonists with thirty-two children in the local school. The first crops were sowed in spring, but a drought required that irrigation water be brought by wagon from the river. Then tragedy struck. Two officers of the colony corporation, Schwartz and Bell, mortgaged the group's future crop and then absconded with the money, disappearing with two of the colonists' best horses. The communal experiment collapsed and many colonists left the area, but Joseph Nudelman and several families remained and restructured the project on a strictly private ownership basis.

The group now included the Cohn, Bloom, Shapiro, and several Nudelman families. They derived their income selling milk to the local creamery and fresh fruit to miners in Bodie, fifty miles to the south, as they awaited harvest of an alfalfa crop. They also corralled wild horses and sold them to the U.S. Army. The Nevada press had been uniformly supportive of the original venture and continued to encourage Nudelman's efforts to settle new immigrants on the land.

The orchard was loaded with ripening apples in May 1902, and the grain was in excellent condition, when dark clouds appeared over the mountains to the west. Joseph Nudelman directed his two sons to ride to the dam and close the ditch gates. It was too late. The ditches were already filling with rock and mud as hail the size of marbles cleaned the fruit from the trees. The grain was flattened but salvageable. Nevertheless, Nudelman abandoned his dream of being a farmer-rancher, sold his property to the Saroni family for fifteen dollars per acre, and moved his immediate family to Portland, Oregon, where he became co-founder of the Orthodox Congregation Shaarie Torah. Much of the fertile property eventually came to be owned by several Fulstone families and John Ascuaga, owner of the Sparks Nugget Hotel and Casino. Wellington old-timers continued to dub the irrigation projects constructed by the Jewish settlers as "Jew Dam" and "Jew Ditch."

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