NEVADA FOCUS: Reno seems married to lore of city's divorce capital past

RENO, Nev. (AP)--Divorce might be easy in Nevada, but it's not so easy to dispel one of the state's enduring tales: that the newly divorced would walk out of the Washoe County Courthouse and toss their wedding rings into the Truckee River.

Placed near the river in downtown Reno in February was a 30-foot sculpture of two steel rings tilting away from each other. The piece by sculptor Dennis Oppenheim, called "Engagement," symbolizes the precarious balance between two people in a marriage.

It's mostly coincidence that Oppenheim's sculpture is near the location where a long-standing legend grew, a tale that has an unknown origin and still is touted by tourism officials in northern Nevada.

One explanation for the legend that state Archivist Guy Rocha has been able to ascertain is an account of river ring-tossing in Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr.'s 1929 novel "Reno." Vanderbilt, a relative of the railroad baron of the same name, got a Reno divorce in 1927.

Variations of the story have been repeated over the years, including a news release earlier this year by the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority that said folklore calls for women to throw their wedding bands into the river.

Rocha maintains the old tale is exaggerated, if anything -- public relations hype pushed by civic boosters.

"People have come around to believe it," Rocha said. "The attitudes of the present are shaped by what we thought happened in the past."

Rather than throwing actual rings into the river, Rocha found evidence that divorcees in the 1930s would walk a half block to Woolworth's and buy dime-store rings to toss into the river.

Retired lawyer Harry Swanson agrees with Rocha. He handled hundreds of divorces in his 34-year career and watched his father, also a lawyer, take divorce cases as early as the 1930s.

"I never saw a client throw a ring into the river," he said. "I never heard a client say she threw a ring in the river. You'd see it in the movies once in a while, or read about it in the newspaper."

Swanson said most divorcees were women who couldn't afford to throw away a ring. He added the vast majority of divorces were uncontested. Property rights had been settled and there was no need to symbolically cleanse oneself from an awful mate.

Divorces peaked at 19,000 in 1946, the year after World War II ended. Many service members came home and discovered they no longer wanted to be married to spouses they had not seen in years. They agreed to end their relationships amicably, he said.

Reno had a reputation as a divorce mecca dating back to the early 1900s when a spouse of the owner of U.S. Steel received her divorce there. At the time, state law required a six-month residency for a Nevada divorce. Later, that was reduced to three months.

Reno divorces increased after 1931 when the state Legislature reduced the time of residency to six weeks.

Rocha and Swanson have talked with salvage workers who swear they have found rings in the Truckee River. Yet neither one has ever seen an actual ring.

Amy Oppio, director of communications for the Nevada Museum of Art, said staff members learned the ring toss was mostly folklore while they were in the midst of purchasing the "Engagement" sculpture.

In a news release announcing the purchase, museum staff referred to the legend and said the sculpture's location near the river was appropriate.

Oppio doesn't feel the facts should detract from the sculpture serving as a symbol of Reno's past as a divorce mecca.

"We found the piece and liked it," she said. "We felt it was especially significant because of the folklore about the Reno tradition of throwing rings into the river."

Oppenheim was married in Reno, but he didn't design his work with the city in mind. Before it was placed along the Truckee, the piece had been shown in Monaco and later in New York.

Rocha thinks the sculpture will reinforce the legend for future generations of Reno residents.

"It is misguided," he said. "I don't think they are intentionally misleading people, but they wonOt give the myth up."


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