Nevada Small Towns

Photo from the collection

Small Town Gambling in Nevada
Laurance Miller

During the Golden Age of Gambling in Nevada, from the 1930s through the 1950s-early 1960s, Nevada was a state of small towns, other than Las Vegas and Reno. (Even today the state is still mostly small towns). Midway through the Golden Age, in 1949, the total state population was 140,000. Sparks, the third largest city, had a population of only 6,000. Other examples in 1949 were Austin, population of 450; Battle Mountain, 1,000; Caliente, 2,000; Carlin, 500; Carson City, 4,000; Elko, 5,500; Ely, 4,500; Eureka, 750; Fallon, 3,000; Hawthorne, 2,500; Lovelock, 3,000; Lund, 400; Winnemucca, 3,000; Yerrington, 2,000.

However, despite their relatively few numbers, Nevada’s small towns were critical and integral to establishing legalized gambling. It was through the efforts of 29 year-old Republican State Assemblyman and Winnemucca rancher Phil Tobin that gambling was legalized. With the help of some local gamblers, Humboldt District Attorney Merwyn Grown, and the influence of Reno banker and Riverside Hotel owner George Wingfield, Tobin shepherded a failed 1929 bill to legalize gambling through the Assembly and Senate. Governor Fred Balzar signed the bill into law on March 19, 1931.

Of course, gambling had been going on illegally well before it was legalized. Since the clubs were already set up and in operation, they were able to get licensed and open legally for business nearly immediately. A number of clubs opened their doors within two weeks: The Capitol Club and Miners Club in Ely; the Central Club in Winnemucca; the Commercial Hotel in Elko; the L&L Bar in Yerrington; the Owl Club in Fallon; and the Tonopah Club in Tonapah were all legalized and operating by the end of March..

Las Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe became the meccas for affluent and just plain tourists traveling to Nevada for a visit or vacation. Accordingly, they built expensive, posh and elaborate hotels and casinos to cater to their clientele. (Although, of course, there were also many small clubs to serve local residents).

The small towns, in contrast, were well off the beaten path in out-of-the-way rural places and catered to an entirely different clientele. Their patrons were the local rural population, ranchers, miners, and truck drivers and the occasional tourist passing through. So, the small-town clubs were quite different than their counterparts in Las Vegas and Reno. They were much smaller and much more primitive and spartan. They reflected the rugged individualism of the people and towns in which they resided. This is not to say that they were without personality. They were exciting, colorful, eccentric and exuded an unmistakable atmosphere and quirky charm. As you peruse the attached pictures of these clubs, I think you will quickly understand what I mean.

Today, Las Vegas has lost almost all remnants of its past, and Reno is rapidly following in Las Vegas’ footsteps. Times change, of course, and in the small towns as well, most of the old clubs are gone. However, fortunately, many still remain open, and like the towns in which they reside, they look pretty much the same as they did during the Golden Age. A refreshing antidote to the impersonal, sterile, gimmicky and plastic hotels of Las Vegas, a city with an utter lack of sensitivity of its history.

So, take a trip to the past and revel in the wonderful small-town atmosphere and gaming clubs. A great way to do this is to fly to Salt Lake City, Utah, rent a car and drive west through Nevada to Reno. You will pass through beautiful countryside and many small towns. It will be a trip you will never forget. And you can bet on that!

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