Today’s story in our ongoing series of tales from Basques in the United States, adapted from volume 2, revolves around the charismatic figure of Jean “John” Etchebarren. Interestingly, he got involved in just about all the activities we would associate Basques with historically in the Western United States: the sheep and hotel industries, some retail interests, banking and insurance, and even gaming. To cap it all, as a young man he was even a champion handball player and a major figure in the lively gambling world that surrounded the sport. So saddle up and welcome to the story of one of the great go-getting Basque-American entrepreneurs and adventurers!
Born Mar. 12, 1880 in Baigorri, Lower Navarre, he arrived in New York City on May 3, 1898 and went initially to San Jose, California. Soon after, he moved to Nevada where he worked as a sheepherder. He later opened a hotel in the mining town of Golconda, Humboldt Co. and in Feb. 1910, after selling his hotel there, he took ownership of the Commercial Hotel in Reno. A year later, in partnership with Jack Marymont, he opened a clothing store on Center St., Reno. And in 1915 he rebuilt the largest hotel in town to add a new dining room and bedrooms (Reno Evening Gazette, Jun. 16, 1915).
Etchebarren expanded his business and by 1917 was president of the Stockgrowers & Ranchers Bank of Reno. One of its vice presidents, Martin Pradera, was also a Basque sheepman. A year later, he was president of an insurance company, the Nevada State Life Insurance Co., based in Reno (which he ran until 1924). By 1918 Etchebarren was also an important sheepman in Reno, and a prominent member of the Nevada Woolgrowers’ Association, in which he held various positions. In 1931, in partnership with Felix Turrillas, he rented the Laughton’s in Hot Springs, south of Reno, requesting a gaming license and becoming one of the first hotel casinos in the city (Nevada legalized gaming on Mar. 19, 1931).
Throughout his life, in whatever free time he could muster, he also distinguished himself as an excellent sportsman, especially as a handball player, shooter, and bowler. He also loved cars to the point that Sol Silen used to say that Etchebarren sold his Cadillac every year to buy the latest model. His love of cars (and speed) brought him some trouble with the law for exceeding speed limits, and for the same reason, he suffered several serious accidents as well.
Back in 1907, on the occasion of the opening of the Saval Hotel in Elko, Nevada, Gabino “Guy” Saval (Ispaster, Bizkaia, 1883 – Lovelock, NV, 1940) and Michael Saval organized a pilota (handball) game between Andrés “Andrew” Ripa, champion of California and an employee of the Commercial Hotel in Reno (which Etchebarren would later own), and Etchebarren (then still living in Golconda), the champion of Nevada. The winner would receive $1,000. George Etchart (born in Ospitalepea, Zuberoa), the owner of the Commercial Hotel and Ripa’s boss, reputedly wagered up to $5,000 on the “Californian” winning, but even so, the betting generally went 5-1 in favor of the guy from Baigorri (Nevada State Journal, Nov. 11, 1907).
The game was played to 50 points and Etchebarren gradually proved his superiority in the serve. Still, until the 43rd point, the game was very even but in the end Etchebarren won. That event brought Basques to Elko from Nevada, California, Idaho, and Utah, and was followed by a “grand ball and supper.” According to the local media, a lot of money changed hands that day and “an immense crowd was in attendance” (Nevada State Journal, Nov. 16, 1907). This was not, however, Etchebarren’s only major game. In 1915, another game was played, this time doubles, with Etchebarren partnering John Jauregui against the two best pilotariak (handball players) from San Francisco.
He married Demetria Arburua (b. Etxalar, Nafarroa, ca. 1886), who came to the US in 1905, and they had two sons: John (1908) and Peter (1909).
We intend for this work to be more than just an encyclopedic reference; we’d like it to be a true forum for sharing stories and anecdotes about the thousands of Basque women and men who forged new lives for themselves in the US.
If you’d like to share your own family stories with us, please click here at our dedicated Basques in the United States Project website.