Gardner Chism was a Forty-Niner from Maine who sailed around the horn to the gold fields of California in the first stages of the Gold Rush. Having no luck in mining, he then moved to Oregon Territory where he owned and operated a sawmill and began to raise sheep. In 1875 he married a schoolteacher from New York named Alice Hitchcock in Sacramento and they moved to Reno the following year.
The couple initially lived in town, and Gardner partnered in a stage and livery business while continuing to run livestock. In 1880, they acquired 115 acres outside of city limits, just west of today’s Keystone Avenue. The property extended both north and south of the railroad tracks, with an apple orchard close to the northern bank of the Truckee River. There, the Chisms established what was described as a “model farm,” and built the spacious residence that still stands on the property today. By 1890 they were in the dairy business.
They soon became a family of eight, with daughter Mary (called "Mamie") and sons John H., Edward W., Cyrus H. (Harry), Milan, and Gardner. A sixth child died in infancy. Tragically, Mamie and Milan both died within a year of each other, at ages seventeen and eight, respectively. Their father, Gardner, Sr., died in 1898, leaving Alice a widow.
Son John founded Chism Creamery on the property in 1903 and was soon one of Nevada’s leading dairyman, with the largest herd of milk cows. From 1912 to the 1950s the business was known as Crescent Creamery. His brother Edward first partnered with him in the dairy business and then ventured out on his own to specialize in ice cream. Starting out in the family’s milkhouse, he installed a water wheel on the Truckee River to power his refrigeration operation.
In 1916, a shiny new canvas-topped Model T Ford joined the wagons outside the milkhouse at the Chism Ranch. Edward hired more employees and enlarged the production building. This year saw the establishment of a company tradition—the annual family picnic. In its inaugural year, this event was held in the Chism apple orchard and men were hired to hunt doves for the picknickers’ repast, prepared by Mrs. Chism. In 1918, Edward built a large production facility at 247 West Street and moved the Chism Ice Cream operation into town. (See separate entry for his residence, the Edward and Clara Chism House.)
Over time, the family gradually sold or developed portions of their expansive property. They founded the Chism Addition housing tract in 1904. Located just to the east of the ranch property, it features streets named for Gardner and for Alice's middle name, Arlette. Harry Chism founded Chism's Auto Camp (see separate entry) on the south side of West Second Street in the summer of 1927. After his death in 1929, his son John took over the operation and upon his retirement handed the reigns to his children.
Alice passed away in 1931, but members of the Chism family lived on the property until the early 2000s. The house was used as a venue called Chism House beginning in 2007. In 2015 the house and grounds were purchased by Kari and Manfred Galgon and extensively renovated into a special event venue they named The Elm Estate, incorporating the historic ranch house built by the Chism family more than a century earlier.