Ximena McGlashan: Truckee’s butterfly farmer


By Mark McLaughlin · 


The cover of Ximena McGlashan’s Butterfly Magazine | Courtesy M. Nona McGlashan · 

Young Ximena McGlashan’s happiness was hinged on butterfly wings. As a teenager, she started her own business in Truckee to become the nation’s first professional butterfly farmer. Due to her father’s passionate interest in entomology, the study of insects, Ximena became fascinated with moths and butterflies and their striking wing patterns and delicate structure.

During her childhood years, Ximena (pronounced he-may-na) was exposed to the art and science of studying insects because her father, Charles McGlashan, was an avid lepidopterist, an expert who specializes in collecting and identifying butterflies and moths. As a resident of Truckee, Charles was in the right spot. Donner Summit boasts the greatest diversity of butterfly species north of the Mexican border, along with a mountain location in Colorado. At least two unique species first identified by McGlashan are named after him.

C.F. McGlashan was a leading citizen and businessman, as well as a noted Donner Party historian, newspaperman, scientist, educator and attorney. He is also known as the “father of winter sports” since he ardently promoted their development in Truckee and Lake Tahoe at the turn of the 20th Century. Charles and his wife, Lenora, encouraged all their children to acquire a good education and pursue professional goals. McGlashan particularly wanted his seven daughters to attend college to prepare to earn a living in case they were divorced or widowed.

Their second oldest daughter, June, graduated from Hastings Law School and served as Deputy District Attorney of Nevada County. She was the second female lawyer admitted to practice in the California Supreme Court. Daughter Nonette attended art school and earned commissions as a talented San Francisco-based sculptor. Youngest daughter, Bliss, became principal of Tahoe City High School. Ximena, however, passed on her chosen career as a schoolteacher and instead fell in love with the idea of raising butterflies. She decided to make a business out of it.

As a child, Ximena displayed a curious nature and scientific proclivity. She was the only one among eight siblings to ask her father questions about his butterfly hobby. In 1911, Ximena obtained a teaching certificate, but confided in her father she did not relish working in a remote country schoolhouse somewhere. Charles, who occasionally spent his time filling mail orders from museums or private collectors, suggested that his daughter could probably make more money raising butterflies for sale than she could as a school teacher. The following day, Charles led Ximena to the nearby Truckee River and showed her how to sugar a tree with molasses and rum to attract flying insects. Over time, he taught her how to preserve and pin-mount specimens.

In collaboration with her father, 18-year-old Ximena worked hard to establish the first Butterfly Farm in the United States. It was a novel idea in a nation of farmers that considered voracious caterpillar larvae one of the most destructive crop pests known to man. She scaled up production of Lepidoptera egg, larvae and eventually adult stage butterflies and moths, raising them in jars and boxes around her family home.

Ximena was the first to pioneer commercial butterfly production to provide perfect specimens for collectors to display. In an illustrated article she penned for the San Francisco Sunday Call, Ximena described how after her first two weeks of effort she shipped 1,500 flies and received a $75 check in the mail. It was the first money she had earned. Later. she averaged $50 a week in sales, sometimes $75. Ximena strongly encouraged others to start their own home butterfly business.

“A woman can earn $50 per week capturing and propagating moths and butterflies. No capital is required, no knowledge of the science of entomology, and there are few expenses connected with the business. There is an unceasing and ever growing demand for these insects, and each one has cash value,” she wrote.

National newspaper articles fed the media excitement about Truckee’s “Butterfly Princess” who was making $75 a week as an upstart entrepreneur. A butterfly farm was a tantalizing idea in the ramp up to World War I, when there were few money-making options for young women in rural areas. It was hardly the life of a princess, however.

“It keeps me busy from 5 o’clock in the morning until 10 at night, but the work is light, full of outdoor air and sunshine, replete with interest and delightful beyond expression,” Ximena wrote.

She spent 15 hours a day netting butterflies, collecting eggs, beating bushes for larvae, and extracting silk cocoons from trees and shrubs. The indefatigable teenager caught butterflies by day and moths by night. Pupils came from near and far to learn more.

In 1913 and 1914, the father-daughter team published a bi-monthly magazine for non-academics interested in the field of entomology. For an annual fee of $5, subscribers received six issues per year of The Butterfly Farmer. The little magazine offered instruction for a 12-month entomology course for the layman. Content included article submissions by professional entomologists with updates on the evolving science, along with all aspects of the business from egg-raising techniques to preparing and selling specimens.

Reader subscriptions paid for The Butterfly Magazine’s production and distribution budget, but not much else. In her final issue, Ximena wrote, “I have made no money, but the subscriptions have so nearly paid expenses that I am quite satisfied. My greatest aim has been to inspire a love for the beautiful in entomology.”

Letters from admiring women poured in from across the country. Americans were amazed that this sprightly young lady could make money selling common bugs. McGlashan and Ximena amassed an impressive collection of more than 20,000 specimens of butterflies and moths, one of the largest and most extensive in the world. Best of all, Ximena used her earnings to acquire a degree in entomology at Stanford University before she got married and moved on.

C.F. McGlashan had been involved in the nascent field of entomology since 1871, and was well-connected with scholars, scientists and collectors worldwide. But it was the dynamic, creative mind and energy that Ximena possessed that captured a nation charmed by a young woman’s passion and imagination. When you explore Donner Pass this summer, don’t forget to keep an eye out for these colorful, winged insects and fondly remember Ximena McGlashan, the Butterfly Princess.

Special Thanks to Donnelyn Curtis of the University of Nevada, Reno, Special Collections, for her assistance with this story.


Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at mark@thestormking.com. Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com, or read more Sierra Stories at TheTahoeWeekly.com