Theodore Winters

Theodore Winters

City got its name from early businessman Theodore Winters

Theodore Winters, for whom the city of Winters was named, was described in an early issue of the Winters Advocate in 1876 as a "capitalist."

The town was given the name of Winters after Mr. Winters donated 40 acres of land to the Vacaville and Clear Lake Railroad to start a town. D.P. Edwards also gave the town 40 acres.

At the time, in 1875, the railroad was having financial trouble in extending the railroad north to Putah Creek, and Winters, along with others, gave money to the railroad to help pay the cost of putting the bridge across Putah Creek.

Winters was born in Illinois on Sept. 14, 1823, where his father, John Devers Winters, had developed a stage line and freight business in Illinois.

In 1848, Theodore’s father and brothers, John D. Jr. and Joseph and daughter Harriet, headed for California via the Oregon Trail and left Theodore to dispose of the family business. Theodore, who had married in 1847 to Sarah Marshall, stayed on in Illinois until the spring of 1849.

He then brought his wife and small son, George, to California where they joined the rest of the family at Forest City, situated on the American River.

There, the Winters family did some mining, some farming, but mostly hauling freight to the gold fields. When gold strikes occurred in Nevada, the Winters father and sons began hauling freight from Placerville into the Carson Valley.


In 1852, Mrs. Sarah Winters returned to Illinois to visit her parents, making the trip both ways by ship around the horn. She arrived back in San Francisco, but on Jan. 3, 1853, while traveling by boat to Sacramento, the vessel she was on, the "Comanche" collided with another steamer, the "J. Bragdon," and sank in a few minutes. George who was then 5, was saved, but Mrs. Winters, and 2-year-old Helen were drowned.

On March 21, 1860, Mr. Winters, who was then 37, married Margaret Martin, who was then 15.

In the 1850s, the Winters family became wealthy, both from their freighting business and from interests they held in the Comstock Lode. Their freight line in Nevada was called "The Winters Express."

In 1857, Brigham Young, leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, called for all of his followers to return to Salt Lake City.

Mr. Winters, seeing an opportunity to buy land from the Mormons, cheap, bought a square mile of choice land in the Washoe Valley in Nevada from Jacob Rose for $50 and a team of oxen. He bought additional Mormon property in the valley until he had 1280 acres there.

He expanded his holdings until, ten years later, he owned more than 18,000 acres in California and Nevada, including about 1300 acres he bought from the Wolfskills on both sides of Putah Creek here, and in Sacramento where Executive Airport is now located.

Race horses

About 1860 Winters began to interest himself in horse racing, with a race track built in Carson Valley.

In 1864, while he was on a trip east to perfect the title to some of his lands, he stopped off in St. Louis to watch a horse race and bought his most famous race horse "Norfolk," from Mr. R. A. Alexander, owner of the Woodburn stud farm, in Kentucky.

Winters had his horse shipped to California via Panama, and no horse was able to outrun the stallion. Winters is credited with introducing thoroughbred horses to the west, and the contests between Norfolk and Lodi, a horse owned by Judge Charles Bryan, are legendary. The climate of Washoe Valley proved to be severe in the winter months, so in 1865, he bought 1300 acres of land here from Malthus Wolfskill including 700 acres in Yolo County and 600 in Solano. He constructed race tracks on both sides of Putah Creek, and he not only had the mild climate here, but was close to the race tracks in Sacramento and the Bay Area. He continued to commute between his ranches in the Carson Valley and his holdings in this area, and the proposed construction of a railroad north from Vacaville would benefit him, not only in shipping agricultural products, but also in moving his horses to race tracks. This prompted him to offer land to the railroad, along with substantial money to build the bridge across Putah Creek.

In 1877, he sold his holdings on the Solano side of the creek to William Baker, and built a home on the Yolo County property, about one and one half miles east of Winters. The Winters Advocate reported in 1878 that he built a grandstand at his race track here to seat 1,100 people.

From 1865 to 1890 were the hey-days of Winters’ racing stables. Many famous horses were born and raised in his stables here. Those colts that didn’t possess all of the desired traits were shipped to his Nevada ranch where they were broken for riding or teaming.


In 1890, Theodore Winters ran for governor of Nevada, on the Democratic ticket and sold all of his property here, both to help finance his campaign for governor and also to move his horses to Nevada where his opponent couldn’t claim that he was a "carpetbagger." He was soundly beaten in the election that fall.

That political race was the turning point in Winters’ fortunes. The campaign left him heavily in debt, and he had to sell some of his Nevada property. His 17-year-old daughter, Maggie, died of jaundice in San Francisco in 1897. Mrs. Winters, who had borne ten children, seemed to lose all interest in life after Maggie’s death and died in San Francisco on May 30, 1898.

Financial problems continued to plague Theodore, and he lost a series of water rights cases which didn’t help. At a sale of brood mares at the Nevada State Fair in 1899, none of the Winters horses brought more than $95.

Theodore Winters died at his home in the Washoe Valley on Aug. 3, 1906. One of his daughters, Neva Winters Sauer, kept the Winters ranch until her death in Sept. 1953.

The wills of Theodore and Margaret Winters were not probated until after the death of Neva Sauer, and in order to begin settling the estate, the ranch was sold to E. W. Scripps II, prominent newspaper chain magnate.

Theodore Winters had twelve children, two by his first wife, and ten by his second. The children from his first marriage were George and Helen, and by his second wife were Frankie, Nettie, Mark, Nellie, Lou, Neva, Maggie, Archie, Theodora and an infant that lived just a short time.


[Note: This article was written in 1975 using information from the Winters Advocate, 1876. Since then, according to the book Winters: A Heritage of Horticulture, A Harmony of Purpose by Joann Leach Larkey, Yolo County records have been found that indicate Winters was paid $5,000 by the Vaca Valley Railroad Company for his land, to build the railroad and town of Winters.]