Long before there was a fictional Boston bar “where everybody knows your name,” Gardnerville was known for its Basque bars, food and drink, and hospitality. Not only did everybody know your name, they spoke your language, shared your hopes and dreams as newcomers to America, and knew your family back in Basque country. And no discussion about Basque bars in Carson Valley can begin or end without including Gardnerville’s JT Basque Bar & Dining Room.
Several years ago, members of the Lekumberry family came together to present their story (or stories) about what made the JT what it was and still is, during a storyteller series presented by the Douglas County Historical Society. Jean Lekumberry, patriarch of the family, came to the United States in 1947 at age 22. He worked as a sheepherder, camp tender, miner and drove a milk tanker for the Minden Co-op Creamery before acquiring the JT in 1960. Jean had two uncles in Argentina and one in Carson Valley. Before coming to America, he sent letters inquiring about work to all three on the same day. He received three positive replies, but the first he heard from was his uncle in Carson Valley, John Harronyo, so, he headed to the United States.
Tragically, the uncles in Argentina both died from a plague that was spread by livestock, leaving the family to wonder if the same fate would have befallen Jean. “How he decided to come here, it was a total fluke,” Marie-Louise Lekumberry said. Jean flew from Paris to New York City and took the train to Reno. He walked from the station to the Santa Fe Hotel, which still operates a Basque restaurant, and waited three days for his family to pick him up to take him to Gardnerville.
“Although he was thousands of miles from home, there was a little Basque world going on in the Gardnerville he arrived in,” Marie-Louise said. Within one block were thriving Basque restaurants and boarding houses including the Overland, the East Fork, the French and the Pyrenees. “It was a home away from home for the Basque sheepherders. You were meeting people you would never have met in your own little village. Even though the boarding houses were in competition, they were all really, really good friends. You owned your Basque joint, but you’d go to the one down the street and buy a round, and they’d come to yours and do the same thing. Today we call it synergy, in those days they just called it ‘really good friends,’” she said.
Robert Lekumberry talked about the summer his father sent him to tend sheep in Markleeville with a non-English speaking sheepherder. “After that, I knew I never wanted to be a sheepherder,” said Robert, a battalion chief who retired from the East Fork Fire Protection District in 2015. “And, I hate sheep,” he added.
The building which became the JT was moved from Virginia City in the late 19th century. Originally, it was the restaurant for the Gardnerville Hotel. The JT Basque Bar and Dining Room opened Feb. 26, 1955, with owners John and Grace Jaunsaras and Jimmy and Grace Trounday who used their initials to name the bar. At one time, Grace and John owned the Overland, the JT and the Carson Valley Country Club which they turned into a Basque restaurant. “John and Grace were great people to our family,” Marie-Louise said. “Grace would come down and show you how to do it right.”
J.B. referred to Grace as the “forbidding chef of Carson Valley,” who taught all the Basque chefs how to cook to her exacting standards. “When I was 17 or 18, our cook quit, and Dad said to me ‘You need to go into the kitchen.’” Realizing he needed help, J.B. asked his father to call Grace. “He said, ‘No. You call Grace. If I call her, she won’t come,’” J.B. recalled.
Home movies of the Lekumberry kids show them growing up at the JT, playing in the bar, kicking a ball through the restaurant, riding a tricycle around the bar stools and entertaining customers. Jean Lekumberry and his brother Pete bought the JT in 1960 when a full-course dinner was $1.50. Jean tended bar, Pete cooked, and Shirley Lekumberry was the waitress. Marie-Louise remembers washing dishes at age 8, and working her way up to hostess for which she was paid 60 cents an hour, according to a time card she filled out in the 1970s. Robert was paid $1.20 an hour as a waiter in 1970. “I think there was a little wage discrimination there,” she said.
Today, Marie-Louise runs the bar and the front of the house, and J.B. runs the kitchen and the back. The iconic image of Jean Lekumberry in his beret, round black glasses and smoking a cigar turned into a T-shirt business for Marie-Louise and J.B. A patron created the image on a paper napkin with a black Magic Marker. “One day my Dad said, ‘I think my kids are making a monkey out of me,’” Marie-Louise recalled. “He didn’t think he looked like that.”
Jean Lekumberry died at the bar in 1993. “After our Dad died, we could do what we wanted, and J.B. brought the kitchen and the menu to a whole new level,” Marie-Louise said. The Lekumberrys launched a project to restore the JT to the building it was when it was moved from Virginia City. That meant putting a balcony back on the front, and extensive remodeling inside. “We never closed, except for a week when we remodeled the kitchen, but we kept the bar open,” J.B. said.
Marie-Louise singled out the JT staff including manager Ryan Lamb whom she hired when he was only 17. “I broke my own rule when I hired him, but I knew raw talent when I saw it,” she said. He has been restaurant manager for 12 years, and worked for the Lekumberrys for 22 years. “We have the greatest staff ever. We are blessed to have so many hard-working and loyal employees,” she said, to a round of applause.
“We’re only stewards of this place,” J.B. Lekumberry said. “We have seen generations come through. Maybe it’s once a year when they rent a cabin at the Lake, or they’re driving through on their way to Bridgeport. But we are part of their pilgrimage, and that’s a wonderful feeling.”
Carson Valley Times contributor Sheila Gardner is a long-time Gardnerville resident who retired in 2014 after more than 30 years at The Record-Courier. Her first meal at the JT was in early 1981 after she was hired as R-C editor. The original Record-Courier building, now home to Especially For You gift shop, shared a parking lot with the JT.