Las Vegas Sun

July 28, 2014

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Valley settlers defied the odds

During the blistering summer of 1915, Jake Beckley turned to his longtime friend and business partner Ed Von Tobel Sr. and said times were so slow their Las Vegas lumber business could no longer feed both of their families.

"Jake told my father that he was going to work for his brother Will, who owned Beckley's (clothing store on First and Fremont streets)," said 92-year-old Ed Von Tobel Jr.

"Dad told me the Beckley brothers could make $5 selling a silk shirt, while he would have to sell 20 bags of cement to make that same $5 (at Von Tobel's downtown lumberyard). It was hard times for many Las Vegans back then."

As Las Vegas celebrates its 100th birthday this weekend amid much prosperity and growth of recent decades, it is difficult to imagine that at several points in the town's history it could have dried up and blown away.

"After 1911, it was dead here until the government decided in the late 1920s to build Hoover Dam," said Von Tobel Jr., who was born in Las Vegas in 1913 and graduated from Las Vegas High in 1930. "During the Depression, it got even tougher.

"The reason we call them pioneers is because that is what they were -- pioneers who worked real hard; many just to barely get by."

Von Tobel's company supplied much of the materials that built the earliest structures in Las Vegas. It evolved into Von Tobel's hardware stores that operated locally until 1986 and revolutionized the hardware business with the one-stop shopping philosophy used by hardware chain stores today.

Von Tobel Jr., who grew up in the family hardware business, still oversees the day-to-day operations of Von Tobel Investments, which developed, among other properties, the Flamingo-Jones Shopping Center and Von Tobel Commerce Park.

Von Tobel Sr., who had four children, including Nevada assemblyman and race car driver George Von Tobel, Jacob "Jake" Von Tobel and Elizabeth Zahn, died in September 1967 at age 94. A local junior high school is named for him.

All of what the Von Tobel family accomplished might not have happened if it were not for the fortitude of its patriarch when times here were bleak.

"When my father opened his lumberyard there were five other lumber businesses in town that all went out of business after the initial building spurt died down," Von Tobel Jr. said.

"I once asked my father why he stayed. He told me his family, his life and everything he had was here. He said he could not leave."

Las Vegas historian David Millman of the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society said the Von Tobel family story is not unlike that of other early Las Vegas families who dedicated their lives and gambled their futures on a Las Vegas that would survive and grow.

For early on they lived in a Las Vegas that did not have the lucrative gaming industry to secure its success. Gaming's initial significant influence on Southern Nevada was not felt until about 40 years after the May 15, 1905, railroad land auction that laid the blueprint for downtown Las Vegas.

"There was some gambling in the backrooms of the establishments along Block 16 in 1905, but it was very minor," Millman said, referring to First Street between Stewart and Ogden avenues, where houses of prostitution flourished.

"The railroad industry pushed the local economy in those days. The railroad (officials) promised a lot, like a water system for the town, but did not always come through quickly on those promises. It took several years for the railroad to build a water system out of redwood piping."

Until then, Las Vegas' main water supply came from the creek that ran across the town until the mid-1950s. It dried up, forcing Las Vegans to seek more reliable and lasting water sources. At several points in Las Vegas' history, lack of available water threatened -- and still threatens -- growth.

Another problem during Las Vegas' early years was keeping residents from leaving in large numbers for reasons ranging from a weak economy to the harsh desert climate.

Von Tobel Jr. remembers as a boy during World War I a town where very few men could be found. The able-bodied were off fighting in Europe. At that time, and again after World War II when the Army Gunnery School was being phased out, Las Vegas could have failed, experts say.

Millman said that "by luck and happenstance" things happened in the valley that saved the town, most notably involving federal projects.

"It seems that so many projects came along just when Las Vegas needed a little boost," Millman said.

Von Tobel Jr. said: "The late Mayor Oran Gragson used to say the federal government saved this town."

"The first road paved in Las Vegas was Fremont Street, and that happened with the help of money from the federal government," Von Tobel recalled. "Then, of course, you had the dam and Lake Mead, Nellis, the magnesium plant in Henderson and the Test Site -- all government projects that helped Las Vegas survive."

But, he said, at other times, it was the founding fathers pulling themselves up by their boot straps that kept things alive.

For example, shortly after the May 17, 1911, appointments of Von Tobel Sr., W.J. Stewart, Charles McGovern, H.R. Beale and Mayor Peter Buol to the then-$12-a-year jobs on the City Commission -- today called the City Council -- Las Vegans got their first major city services.

"The town needed a sewer system because at the time all of the homes used septic tanks," Von Tobel Jr. said. "They formed the City Commission to get the bond passed to build the sewer system.

"Also, we had a strong group of businessmen who had a vision that this community would survive and would grow. During the toughest of times, they worked together."

Among them were Von Tobel Sr., Ed W. Clark and James "Big Jim" Cashman who, after the dam was built, did promotional events to encourage the dam workers to settle in Las Vegas instead of moving on -- a move some historians say helped prevent Las Vegas from becoming just another Nevada ghost town.

To that end, Helldorado, a Western-themed celebration, was begun in 1935. It was not designed to bring in tourism, but rather create a community spirit among newcomers and those who had stuck it out through the lean years.

The event was a major attraction well into the 1990s and portions of it are being revived this weekend for the centennial celebration.

The legalization of gambling in 1931, combined with the post-World War II desire of a country to burst out of the doldrums resulting from the lingering Depression and a bitter war, made Las Vegas a desirable location for people out to see America, local historians have said.

And although Las Vegas was not a 19th century Old West town, clever local business leaders created the image that was to tap into the popularity of Western gunslinger films of that era.

The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce in 1945 collected money from local businesses to advertise Southern Nevada as a cowboy oasis with horseback riding, ranches and, of course, resorts with gambling halls and saloons.

That, coupled with Nevada U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran getting the old gunnery school turned into Nellis Air Force Base, seemed to secure Las Vegas' survival through what had been a rocky first half of the 20th century.

And while Las Vegas was really not threatened with fading into obscurity after that, there were still a number of lows among the highs, Von Tobel Jr. and Millman said.

When reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes hit town in the 1960s, it was at a time when growth was stagnant. His purchase of several Strip hotels, including the Desert Inn and Frontier, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, ushered in the corporate age of Las Vegas and a growth boom.

In the 1970s Las Vegas' tourism growth was limited because airlines had to get the federal government's permission to fly to destinations.

However, Nevada U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon's airline deregulation legislation in the late 1970s allowed airlines to deal directly with airports to establish additional routes. Deregulation resulted in the doubling of airlines serving McCarran International Airport and sparked another period of growth.

And while the 1980s recession stagnated the town's economy, especially in the casinos, by the end of that decade the Mirage opened, ushering in the megaresort age to boost worldwide name recognition of Las Vegas.

Another slow period occurred after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but the economy again rebounded and the Wynn Las Vegas recently became the first major resort to open on the Strip in half a decade.

"Things have always been up and down in Las Vegas," Von Tobel Jr. said. "When people get too excited today thinking things will always be prosperous here, I think back to what my father used to say that things can't last and that sometimes you have to hit the down side.

"I'm concerned today that we are paying too much for what we are building and that because of that the eventual fall might again bring on hard times."