The Magazine

Staying in Vegas

Seventy-five years ago, my family placed a bet on a small Nevada town.

Dec 5, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 12 • By ALLISON R. HAYWARD
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Las Vegas

"SO, was it at the Graceland Chapel with the Elvis impersonator?" I've heard this question more than once, asked with raised eyebrows and a chuckle after an acquaintance learns I was married in Las Vegas. Surprise yields to amazement when they learn that the ceremony was not only held in an Episcopal cathedral, but was also conducted by a priest who as far as I know declines to don a white rhinestone-studded jumpsuit, even in private.

You see, Las Vegas, the ultimate transient metropolis, is my hometown. The city celebrated its centenary this year--it was born with an auction of downtown railroad land in 1905. But it seems to me that Las Vegas has been more often celebrated by its visitors--drawn by the advertising slogan that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas--than by its residents. We stayed. My family has been there for 75 of those 100 years. People usually wonder why. Were they mobsters? Entertainers? Well, no, which is not to say that my family doesn't have its entertaining element.

My mother's family is LDS, and came with many other Mormons (and non-Mormons) to live in Las Vegas in the early 1930s. They were from a prominent Mormon clan--my grandmother was the eldest daughter of the first of her father's five wives (simultaneous, not sequential as might be the case today). With the nation locked in Depression, there were opportunities for work in southern Nevada. At that time, the Las Vegas area was home to about 5,000 residents, a 20-bed hospital with one doctor and one nurse, and a cluster of businesses of various sorts around Fremont Street. Winter in Las Vegas is cool but dry and pleasant. Summer is not. Temperatures regularly exceed 105 and on some days 115. Since residential air conditioning was not available until well into the 1950s, some families, including my mother's, would move out of town for the hottest months of the summer. Anyone left sought refuge in a movie theater, I suppose, since theaters had commercial cooling. People routinely slept outdoors.

My grandfather, "Heinie" Stevenson, decamped to Las Vegas in 1930 in advance of the family to inspect opportunities, and stayed with his sister, my Great Aunt Lillian, perhaps the most interesting member of the cast. The family moved in 1931, in time for my mother and her brother and sister to start school.

Aunt Lillian in her later years was a voracious bridge player in a house filled with oriental carpets and art objects from her travels. She must have been something in 1925 when, as a 35-year-old widow (her first husband died in China in about 1922--they were tourists there, and he fell ill) she married A.B. Witcher, then 53, who had mining, financial, and political interests in the bustling burg of Ely, Nevada. They left for Las Vegas in 1927 or '28, under "pressure," say some, and began investing in Las Vegas real estate. With a partner, Prosper J. Goumond (also from Ely and with some "professional" experience in Midwest gambling), they established the Boulder Club on Fremont Street a year later. Witcher, Aunt Lillian, and my grandfather were instrumental in the successful effort to legalize gambling, passed by the Nevada legislature in March 1931. Witcher lobbied legislators while my grandfather drove Lillian to Carson City with petitions from the Las Vegas area supporting legalization. Today, that's a speedy 450 miles on the desert highways; with the "roads" that then existed, it took two days.

Shouldn't everyone have a business partner named "Prosper"? And prosper they did. The Goumond house had the first private swimming pool in town, fed by an artesian well. Today, of course, almost everyone in Las Vegas has a pool as a way of coping with the hot summer weather.

The real birth of modern Las Vegas--and of a turn in my family's fortunes--should be dated to 1931. Gambling was legalized, the (permissive) six-week residency requirement for divorce was enacted, and the government began building Hoover Dam. The 1931 Gaming Act was unusual for that time only in its breadth. With the Depression, several other states had liberalized gaming laws at about the same time as a way to raise revenue and boost the economy, but they limited the activity to bingo and race wagering--unlimited casino operations were beyond the pale for other jurisdictions.