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J.T. Basque Bar ready to celebrate 40th anniversary

by Linda Hiller

The J.T. Basque Bar and Dining Room will be celebrating on April Fool’s Day, and that’s no joke.

It’s a 40th birthday for the popular Carson Valley eatery, and celebrants will be treated to a party.

“There will be live accordion music, a round of stories and a dance from 10 p.m. until dawn, just like the old days,” said Marie Louise Lekumberry, who now runs the business with brother J.B. “We hope people will come join our family and the J.T.’s friendly staff during the month of April, and we want everybody to know how much we appreciate our friends – both new and old -here in the Carson Valley.”

On April 1, 1960, Jean and Shirley Lekumberry, and Jean’s brother, Pete, bought the J.T. Basque Bar and Dining Room.

The building itself was moved from the Silver City/Gold Hill area to Genoa in the 1890s. It was moved to its current site in 1895.

At some point, the balcony was removed, because when the brothers purchased the bar and restaurant, there was no balcony.

Jean and Pete, both Basque natives from the Pyrenees Mountains on the border of France and Spain, had come to America as sheepherders.

“Uncle Pete,” as he was called, was soon cooking, becoming famous for his soup, while Jean made drinks and told stories in the bar. Shirley, Jean’s American wife, served the hungry diners and raised three kids while living upstairs above the dining room and bar in the old hotel.

Then as now, the seven-course meals were served family style – but you ate at one seating only – lunch at noon and dinner at 6 p.m. sharp. Today’s dinner in 1960 cost $1.50 per person, picon punches were 50 cents, “draught” beer was a quarter.

Douglas County Sheriff George Byers, local ranchers and well-known politicians were regulars at the J.T. back then. More than one campaign began (or stalled, for that matter) after an afternoon or evening of listening to Jean’s stories.

According to Shirley, the famous J.T. hat collection started with rancher Buck Scossa’s cowboy hat.

“Each hat had a distinctive style that reflected the owner’s personality,” said Shirley. She even talked Gen. William Westmoreland into contributing his Vietnam-era general’s staff hat to the collection when Gov. Paul Laxalt brought the general to the J.T. for some rest and relaxation in the late 1960s.

n Some things remain the same. Since then, when there were four Basque hotels and restaurants in downtown Gardnerville, old friends have moved on and some people think things have changed. But not at the J.T., said Marie Louise.

You can still hear stories about George Byers, the self-proclaimed “best sheriff in the state of Nevada,” at the J.T.

J.B. and Marie Louise, and their fine staff carry on the same friendly, hospitable traditions that began in the Basque country and continued in the Basque hotels, especially in Nevada. Take those old-country recipes, add a dash of high-country sheep camp zestiness and you’ll taste the best of the old and new, of Europe and America at the J.T.

Inflation has caused prices to go up since the 1960s and the serving hours have been extended to accommodate changing appetites, but the J.T. still serves family-style meals to generations of friends as well as all the newcomers to Carson Valley.

The balcony was restored in late 1997 in an attempt to do an authentic reproduction of the building. The family had seen pictures of the building with a balcony and decided to put it back on at some expense.

“It definitely paid off, though, because we are dedicated to downtown and want to be here for the next 50 years,” Marie Louise said. “It was worth it.”

J.B., now 35, said growing up at the J.T. was a wonderful experience. He and both of his siblings are graduates of Douglas High School. Older brother Robert, a paramedic with Douglas County, graduated in 1977; Marie Louise in 1978; and J.B. in 1982.

As children, J.B. said, the kids were a part of the restaurant, and in true Basque tradition, were always included in social events.

“I remember the dances, whether it was here or at the Overland, all of us kids would always go,” he said. “Then we’d fall asleep on three chairs. Gardnerville was a great place to grow up.”

J.B., an abbreviation of Jean Baptiste, said his formative years spent under the roof of the J.T. are filled with memories.

“I remember I used to get in trouble when Ivan Farnsworth would come in. He was doing some construction work across the street and came for lunch every day,” he said. “I had a piggy bank and Ivan would get me on the bar and make me say (a bad word) and then he’d give me a quarter. My mom would come in and whoop me and he’d get in trouble, and then after she left, he’d ask me to say it again and I would, and then I’d get another quarter.”

J.B. and his wife, Lisa, have two children, Anna Francesca, 4; and Etienne, 20 months. They, too, are growing up in the embrace of the J.T.

J.B. and Lisa went to kindergarten together at what was then the Catholic kindergarten. Two other members of that class, Kerry (Dunagan) Munk and Katie (Heater) Smith also attended that class. All four now work at the restaurant.

“Isn’t that something?” he marveled. “And, we’re all standing together in that kindergarten picture.”

“Uncle Pete,” now in his early 70s, went back to the Basque country in the 1960s, Lekumberry said. The kids are all planning a trip in late April to see him.

Jean, popular for his storytelling and character, died in his late 60s at the bar of an aneurism.

“We’ve been so fortunate,” J.B. said. “Dad died in 1993, and since we took over, people have been so fantastic. Business is good and I think its because people see that we’re consistent and we’re hard workers. We just kind of naturally went into the business. Robert already had a successful career with the county, but we were all imprinted on the restaurant business.”

Saturday’s celebration will go all day, J.B. said. The restaurant serves lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 9 p.m.

“We’re still coming up with ideas,” he said. “But we’re thinking about doing something with the dollars we took off the ceiling, and we may have some raffles and give away one of the old slot machines. I talked to some of the guys from the 20/30 Club, and they said they might raffle themselves off. We’re still throwing things together.”