The Wilbur D. May Museum at Rancho San Rafael has a wide range of historic artifacts
The Wilbur D. May Museum at Rancho San Rafael has a wide range of historic artifacts

Sign up for the County's email subscription service


About Wilbur D. May

Wilbur D. May was born on December 28, 1898, in Denver, Colorado. He was the third son of David May, founder of the May Company Department Stores. Wilbur's older siblings started working in the growing family business, but Wilbur had other plans. By the time he was a teenager, he was both rebellious and more inclined to spend his time outdoors than behind the counter of a store. In 1914, at the age of sixteen, Wilbur ran away from home to join British forces in Europe. World War I had just begun, and Wilbur found that if his age and nationality prevented him from fighting, they did not prevent him from becoming an ambulance driver. When the United States entered the conflict, Wilbur joined the expeditionary forces and quickly advanced through the ranks to major.

Upon his return to the United States after the war, a more mature Wilbur, moved by his great respect and affection for his parents, decided to try the retail business again. At his father's suggestion, he went to the May Company store in Cleveland to train with his cousin. However, Cleveland did not suit the restless Wilbur, and he returned to St. Louis to work in the May Company store and to live with his parents.

For an adventurous young man, the dramatic development and increasing popularity of flying held great allure. In 1918, Wilbur acquired a Ryan Monoplane equipped with a Wright Whirlwind engine. Nine years later another St. Louis resident, Charles Lindbergh, would complete the first Trans-Atlantic crossing in a similar plane. Wilbur owned four planes during his lifetime and with characteristic zeal became an excellent pilot. Eventually, he traveled to China on the Pan American Airways first Trans-Pacific flight in 1936.

During these years, Wilbur developed another passion, which he pursued throughout his lifetime: big game hunting. His appetite was whetted by a hunting trip to Alaska where he collected his first major trophies; Wilbur became an avid hunter and began to plan his many safaris to Africa and other countries.

In 1923, Wilbur's father purchased Hamburger's Department Store in Los Angeles and selected Wilbur's older brother, Tom, to run it. Wilbur was appointed to be Tom's assistant and Vice-President of the store, but once again, Wilbur felt constrained by such apparently routine work. He spent much of the next two years hunting and traveling to the Amazon River, China, Europe, and the newly-born Soviet Union. His trips inevitably focused on the cultures of the countries he visited; it was during these early trips that Wilbur began to collect small items that he felt were most representative of each country. His collections included recipes, and Wilbur later became a credible chef with an extensive repertoire of international dishes.

Upon his return to Los Angeles from one of his journeys in 1925, Wilbur was called on the carpet by his father and brother and informed that if he wished to continue in the business, his vacations would be for the customary duration of two weeks a year. Wilbur persuaded the family to allow him to take charge of a new addition to the May Company, the Bernheimer-Leader Store in Baltimore. He argued that sole responsibility for the store and the greater challenge it would provide would encourage his commitment to the family business. With some skepticism his father agreed and Wilbur traveled to Baltimore.

However, Wilbur's abiding interest in hunting continued to rule his life, and he began planning what was to be his most extensive trip to date. It was at this time, in July of 1927, that his father died, leaving a substantial inheritance to his family. Much of Wilbur's money was to remain in trust until he either reached 35, married, or got his mother's consent to receive it. Saddened, but undeterred by his father's death, Wilbur threw himself into the details of planning his next adventure. Only one guide, Sir Denys Finch Hatton, the most famous hunter at that time, had sufficient reputation to satisfy Wilbur. At the time Wilbur planned to travel to Africa, Sir Denys was engaged by the Prince of Wales. Unwilling to compromise, Wilbur planned his trip for mid-1929 when Sir Denys would be available.

Because his African sojourn would keep him out of the country for a year, Wilbur decided to sell all of his securities and purchase Government Bonds prior to his departure. That decision proved to be a fortuitous one, because while Wilbur was gone, the Stock Market crashed. When he returned in 1930, he found that he could buy back the stocks he sold a year earlier at a rate of twenty to one. Quite suddenly independently wealthy, Wilbur was now able to pursue his adventurous dreams with a clear conscience. His good fortune also stimulated an interest in serious investing, an interest which would stand him in good stead in later life.

Tired of Baltimore, Wilbur rejoined his brother in Los Angeles, once again with the best of intentions. He would tend business, keep regular hours, and take normal vacations. Soon however, he returned to hunting and fishing. On one of his duck hunting ventures at nearby Playa Del Rey, Wilbur met a fellow gun club member Dwight Vetter, a prominent oil geologist. His new friend persuaded Wilbur to make some cautious investments in several companies, among them Superior Oil and Kern County Land. These relatively small investments made Wilbur a substantial amount of money and added to his already sizeable fortune.

When the State of California instituted a personal income tax, Wilbur began investigating other places to live. He focused on Reno, Nevada, and set out to give the area a thorough tryout before making it his permanent home. In 1936, he rented a house in Washoe Valley - a property that would become the Flying M E Guest Ranch, a famous Nevada dude-divorce ranch. Two years later he bought a 2,600 acre ranch of his own in southwest Reno. Wilbur had finally found a home and a new business as well. The Double Diamond Ranch, the brand for which was a combination of Wilbur's first and last initials stacked on each other, was soon known for its prize herd of purebred Black Angus cattle. Wilbur also bred Boston Bull Terriers and developed one of the finest kennels in the country. 

Wilbur's expertise in his new venture was matched by his increasingly intense study of horse breeding. He became an excellent horseman, and with a small investment and a gift of two French broodmares from his Uncle, Wilbur raised two fine stake-winning thoroughbreds, one of which was a favorite in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

If Reno was a beloved home, it did not mean that Wilbur was settling down. On his frequent trips to the South Pacific and Africa, Wilbur developed his new passion for painting, which grew with his interest in the arts. Many of his own works were given to friends, as were various musical scores and songs that he wrote. The most well-known of Wilbur's songs, "Pass A Piece of Pizza Please," was recorded by Jerry Colonna and sold more than 100,000 records in 1948.

When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Wilbur was determined to join the Air Force. With more than 6,000 hours of flying time, he had flown more than anyone else in the country, with the exception of mail pilots. However, Wilbur failed the Air Force eye test and was unable to become a combat pilot. The Air Force did assign him a commission as a Captain and authorized him to be a reconnaissance pilot. Until an injury incurred in a crash grounded him, Wilbur served for several years as a reconnaissance pilot in Alaska and was eventually promoted to the rank of Major. After he was grounded, Wilbur requested and received an honorable discharge.

Returning to Reno, Wilbur divided his time between the cattle business and travel. Winters were spent skiing in Switzerland, Austria, France, and from 1948 onward, Wilbur traveled on an annual safari to Africa. During the 1950s, he began to raise quarter horses. Silver King, his champion quarter horse, sired many of the champion racing, working, and show quarter horses that added prestige to the Double Diamond Ranch.

The decade of the 1960s was one of philanthropy for Wilbur, who preferred to remain and anonymous donor. During this time, he was a principal supporter of the Reno Y.W.C.A. and the Northern Nevada Children's Home, as well as countless other worthy causes. Among other philanthropic works, Wilbur rewarded outstanding children in the Northern Nevada Children's Home with trips during the summer. He split them into three groups, sending one group to Europe, one to Hawai'i, and one throughout the United States. Wilbur usually joined one of the groups.

In many ways, traveling characterized Wilbur's life. His sense of adventure, his energy, his love of beautiful objects, and his compassion for people all found expression in his travels. Many artifacts that he collected resulted from trades with indigenous people. As a result of time spent in villages, Wilbur developed long-lasting relationships with people all over the world - many of which he visited in later years.

In addition to Wilbur's travel collection, he possessed a fine collection of paintings and sculpture by world renowned artists. Most of these works were bequeathed to various museums, family, and friends. When Wilbur died on January 20, 1982, he left plans for a museum and arboretum to reflect his deep and long-standing concern for the welfare and education of children. The Wilbur D. May Center is the final tangible evidence of that concern which spanned more than four decades. The Wilbur May Foundation, comprised of family relatives, continue to enhance Wilbur's vision.

May Center Logo Department Logo Comments? Questions?
Email us

Wilbur D. May Center at
Rancho San Rafael Regional Park
1595 N. Sierra,
Reno, Nevada U.S.A.
(775) 785-5961 Fax (775) 785-4707