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The Willows

(An Email Conversation)
April, 2011
By John Evanoff


What follows is an email string I felt would be enjoyable for you to read and of particular interest to history buffs of Reno and the Truckee Meadows Casino industry. For the purposes of this article, I’ve left the transcript pretty much exactly how it went along, but left the timeline out because it took place over a two month span.

Comment from Westen Charles via the website:

Westen left the following comment:
Question for John,
I'm working on an article about the old club called "The Willows" formally (Rick's Roadhouse/Resort). John, you mention in an article about Wingfield that he had an interest in The Willows. Do you have any idea what Wingfield's interests were there? Could he have been a backer? any info would be appreciated. I know Tex Hall, James Mc Kay, and Bill Graham were investors in the club.

Hi Westen,
My Answer:
Yes, Wingfield was a very light investor in name and reputation only and not monetarily because of the reputation of McKay and Graham (crime family) and his affiliation with the biggest bank in the region, but more importantly the constructor of the marketing plan for the casino. It was Wingfield’s hope to have a place strictly for the gentlemen of the area to go play poker and shoot the breeze which he loved to do. What happened was that word got out and he had businessmen and divorcees from all over the west coming to the area to indulge in the opulent speakeasy and roadhouse. It was a favorite hangout for the elite of Reno and Wingfield was smart to market the place as the place to go during Reno’s heydays of divorce and Hollywood star studded stays. The place was located on Mayberry Drive about a mile west of Hunter Lake Drive on a road which was just a well worn dirt lane at the time. If you stop at the corner of Mayberry and Sherwood on the north corner, you would be at the site of the old Willows.
John Evanoff

Hi John,
Thanks for the response.
The reason that I'm interested in "The Willows" is because I collect casino memorabilia and I recently came across an old chip from "The Willows." From my research I believe it is the only chip ever to be found from the club. It is a pretty significant find among the chip collecting hobby. I belong to an organization called the CC&GTCC (Casino Chip & Gaming Token Collectors Club) we have a quarterly magazine and I'm working on an article about finding this chip.
It is strange that no chips from the club have ever come to light before now. I believe it is because the club was short lived (9 months 9 days), only really open with chips on the tables from April 31,1931 to January 9th 1932 when it was closed for remodeling. It burned to the ground at noon June 14th of the same year, just days before it was scheduled to reopen. I have wondered about that fire. It is described as breaking out all over and burning quick. Seems very suspicious. I also wonder why the club would close for 5 months when remodeling. I have seen a few great staged photos of the inside of "The Willows" that were used for promotion and postcards. I'd bet Wingfield was involved in the creation of those pics. I'll attach a couple links below. I'm curious to ask you about the pic of the Johnson's fight crew when they trained at Rick's in 1910. There is what looks like a sheriff in the middle? Also a man in black to the left. They are seated on the steps of the club. I'm wondering if this was maybe (Rick di Bernardi) the owner?

You know there were two Willows in a way, right? The first was a roadhouse owned by Rick DeBernardi called Rick’s Resort. It had twenty small cabins and a two story structure on about fifty acres. The bottom part of the larger structure had a long oak bar, a small kitchen/restaurant opening up onto a patio that looked towards the Truckee River and the second floor had five bedrooms and two sitting rooms. The first floor also had one large living room with a small entertainment area with live performances by local talent and a back room for gambling. The front part of the house had a small circle driveway after you entered from about one hundred yards on a willow lined single lane road off of Mayberry. A portion of Hunter Creek was diverted thru the land in front of the house and went to a large wooden tank and small pump house for the water needs of the site. Horses were kept for carriage rides into town at the north end of the site closer to the River and a large barn and tack room were set up for those needs as well. Later, a garage was outfitted in the back with a small gas pump. The barn was used for the training area for Jack Johnson although the crew was only said to use it for a couple of pictures and a few parties. George “Tex”Rickard was still fuming over losing the original location of the fight in California a few weeks earlier, but the City of Reno got behind the fight in a big way and in a very short time spent thousands of dollars constructing the first outdoor wooden fight arena ever constructed solely for the purpose of this gigantic boxing match. Johnson and his training crew were hard drinking party animals and Rick’s Resort was perfect for their tastes (out of the way but with lots of amenities including booze). The picture you have of the fight crew has I believe a picture of a detective or deputy or it could be Reno Police Chief A. A. Burke in the photo, but I’m not sure. Jack Johnson was known to hire many tough private detectives to keep him safe from those who would take his life. The one pictured might be one of those. Burke usually wore dress cop-blues though as he was appointed by the city fathers as the second official police chief of Reno and the businessmen of Reno wanted a more modern looking department. Pictured was not Sheriff Charley Farrel though who at the time was known as one of the toughest lawmen in the west. He almost always had a scruffy full moustache and a six-shooter in sight across his chest. He was actually against the fight because he thought it would bring in too many con artists and thieves and he did not have the resources for the job, but the City Fathers made him understand the importance of the event and he begrudgingly went along. It was said that Farrel hired three hundred men from as far away as Elko and Sacramento to handle the influx of crime just for the fight. Police Chief Burke hired another 50 and the state brought in another thirty for the event. Rick DeBernardi was not much for pictures and I don’t ever remember seeing a picture of him so I don’t know if that is Rick or just one of Johnson’s crew or what. Chances are it’s just one of the training crew. This is all from what my old friends and relatives told me of the place so a few things might have been overlooked. Prohibition came to town and Rick sold the place in 1922 to McKay and Graham for a measly $40,000 just to get out of taxes and the trouble of liquor in a much frequented place. The syndicate representatives of the times which probably included George Wingfield gave McKay and Graham a hundred thousand dollars to sink into improvements and remodeling along with money the couple already had appropriated to buy and reopen the operation which was around $150,000. The Willows was a full-fledged casino operation and speakeasy through the next ten years until the fire of 1932. The furnace room was the cause of the fire according to the fire department and that may have been true because McKay spent a lot of money making the place look attractive, but did not spend much keeping the infrastructure up. Relatives told me the place was always having problems with running water, heating water and sewage. Since gambling was not legal in Nevada until 1931, (but of course, gambling halls flourished around the state and in the area), it was common practice to give some of the take to the local constable and city/county fathers to look the other way. Graham was instrumental in procuring some property for the county for a school and McKay gave money to a couple local churches. So, the group and venture was looked upon favorably by everyone in town except for the more conservative faction which was actually fairly small at the time. The Willows would have been rebuilt except for the influx of new and more modern casinos in the downtown core which Wingfield had a part ownership in or controlled in some other way or fashion including the Riverside. Anyway, the syndicate had other ideas and was trying to get the federal government off their back at the time and Wingfield was mired in bank problems due to the depression. The City of Reno and the county also wanted a better hand on the activities of gambling, drinking and the con artists and pick pockets that came with it and in order to do so, they placed a kind of district sin zone in the middle of town to better control the action. That’s why Reno grew its gaming sideways down Virginia Street instead of along the main street prior to 1930 known as Commercial Row. Prior to 1910, almost all the commerce done in town was motivated by the Railroad which moved east and west thru town along Commercial Row. After 1933, Virginia Street erupted in the construction of new casinos, bars and hotels. Some of that traffic grew to Center Street as well but was contained near the railroad tracks including the old V&T station near the present day intersection at Center Street and Virginia Street. Wingfield had a mighty hand in bringing prosperity to town and along with many of his friends, associates and other businessmen in the region, controlled pretty much all who wanted to build any casinos and hotels in the region. This was all done for the good of the community, so Reno would become the capital of gambling and tourism in the west, which it certainly became in the early 1950’s. It was only the syndicate’s massive move into Las Vegas in the late 1950’s from Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Kansas City with millions of dollars that turned the tide to Vegas becoming the gaming capital. That’s when the Flamingo, Thunderbird, Desert Inn, Sahara, Riviera, Dunes, Stardust, Sands and Caesar’s Palace were built or being built by syndicate money to draw customers from all over the world. That changed when the state started to get more involved in gaming control because the feds were tired of the issues brought on by the syndicates. Howard Hughes began buying up properties in the early 70’s and the end of the syndicate control of gaming in Nevada was at hand although some people still feel there is a presence. George Wingfield was the great mover of Reno and if it had not been for his influence, Reno would just be a scratch mark in the high desert with two highways intersecting and a railroad moving commerce and tourists to other places in the west.
Thanks, John Evanoff

Wow... Thanks for those insights and details, very interesting... I really appreciate it. I've been trying to get a feel of the place and your descriptions help a lot. I gather that Rick's Resort had prostitution upstairs as part of the amenities. Do you know if "The Willows" had Ladies upstairs? Also... Have you ever seen (anything) original that survived from The Willows like ashtrays, matchbooks, menu, room key... I'd be curious if the logos would match the chip I came across.
Thanks again John...

I don’t know about the ladies of the night. Most all resorts had the obligation to serve the customer’s needs, but did not dabble in the trade themselves for safety reasons. They mostly sent out for the service when needed. I explored the trade in Reno in another article a while back. As for things that survived, I doubt very much anything was left from Rick’s or the Willows although you could try looking at the Nevada Historical Society for some pictures that might show some of the paraphernalia. I don’t ever remember anything like that though and we kept ashtrays of all the clubs for years until my folks died. I left everything to the Carson City Museum and I don’t know what they did with it. Gaming Chips from the early period are really hard to come by too. The reason is that most of the early gaming houses between 1864 and 1920 hired someone who already had chips in their possession to set up games of chance rather than set them up themselves. This way, they took a portion of the rented game’s wins and were not responsible for losing any money. All the dealers of the day were card sharks and thieves and knew how to move money, chips and devices around to make enough to pay off the house and provide a good living for themselves as well. The idea was to ply the customer with drink and give him just enough winnings to make him feel like he had all the luck in the world and then take everything in just a few hands of cards or rolls of the dice or the drop of a roulette ball. So, aside from the bigger houses, house chips were very few and far between. The only game that consistently had their own house chips made exclusively for the game was roulette and even that wasn’t done very often because it was cheaper to just get colored clay chips to fill the rack for any kind of play. You just noted the denomination of the chip by putting a silver dollar on dollar chips, a silver dime on dime chips, a silver quarter on quarter chips, etc., near or on the edge of the wheel. You still see a variation of that when a dealer at a roulette wheel uses a lamer (a small chip the size of a quarter with a number on it) to notate the amount the chip is worth on the edge of the wheel.
This conversation has brought up a lot of stuff I had forgotten completely about and so I asked John of if he thought it might be interesting as a column. Do you agree?
Thanks, John Evanoff

Hi again John,
I'm glad I could help stir up some memories. The more historical information out there the better. The article that I'm doing is going to share the story of how the Willows chip made its way into my collection. It will also establish the history of how the Willows came to be and how it met its end. The club is a ghost in many ways, it’s an enchanting tale.
Thanks again,

I found out some more details about my end. Another thing that maybe clarified in the column was if the Willows actually opened with the name "the Willows" when McKay and Graham first took over or if it got the name when they opened for legalized gaming. Things that I have read have said it opened in 1931, maybe that’s not all correct.
Thanks again,

Hi Westen,
Rick’s Roadhouse was the first name until McKay bought it and called it the “Willows” after the really cool looking trail leading to the resort completely lined with white willows. It was said that McKay went out to the place to play some poker with Wingfield and it was George who noted the pretty trail and the calming surroundings. In fact, it was common to call the place the willows from what I was told after giving directions to people who were trying to find it. “Go down the Hunter Road till you reach the fork to the right and drive down that road till you see the willows. That will be the roadhouse.” I guess it sort of stuck. You can still visit some of those white willow rushes along the Truckee River, especially around the Oxbow Park at the end of Dickerson Road directly across the river from Idlewild Park. I attached a pdf of the Oxbow area. (I wrote an article about the Oxbow park area for this site.)
Thanks, John Evanoff

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