Las Vegas Sun

September 2, 2014

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Columnist Tom Gorman: A living time machine

I visited the Clark County Museum the other day to brush up on local history, and for an added dimension I asked Vielet Tracht to join me. We paused at a display about the old mining town of Searchlight, birthplace of Sen. Harry Reid. "When my mother died," Violet said, "Harry Reid's grandmother cared for us for a couple of days."

We examined a photograph of an old downtown gambling hall, the Arizona Club, that changed its name to the Queen of Block 16 after a second-story brothel was added. "My girlfriends and I would pile into a car and drive by it," Violet confessed. "We'd take turns driving and the others would hide in the back seat and sneak peeks, because we weren't supposed to be down there."

We looked at a Boulder Dam exhibit. "When it was being built," Violet reminisced, "we'd go out there and watch them pour concrete."

We lingered in front of photographs of mushroom clouds rising above the Nevada Test Site. "We'd go up to Railroad Pass, on top of the hill, at 6 in the morning and watch them," she recalled. "It was quite spectacular."

Most of us can only read about local history. Then there's Violet Tracht, who lived through more of it than probably anyone else alive.

Violet, who is 95, may be the longest-living native of Southern Nevada. She was born in Searchlight, lived in Las Vegas and now resides in Boulder City. She has her own home and car and balances her checkbook on a computer with Quicken.

For our date at the museum, she wore a natty red-grey-and-black sweater-and-slacks outfit, punctuated by bright red, round clip-on earrings. After our museum visit, she helped me go through a basket of chips and salsa at El Torito Cafe, down the street from the museum on Boulder Highway.

Violet doesn't seek notoriety. I met her through Patty Haack, who graduated from Las Vegas High School in 1956 and is now planning her class' 50th reunion. Patty's database includes the names of 3,500 school alumni. Senior among them is Violet.

Violet's parents, R.J. and Louise Oppedyk, moved from Kansas to Searchlight in 1907 so he could mine for gold and silver. Violet was born three years later. "Dr. Jensen presided," she said, as if her birth were a ceremony.

When Violet was 5 her mother died, so she and her two sisters lived with relatives in Iowa. Three years later their father brought them back home, and to this day she speaks adoringly of how he raised his three girls.

Her childhood memories include watching Our Gang movies at the Majestic movie house on Fremont Street. The Golden Nugget stands there now.

After graduating from high school, she was hired in Sandy Valley to teach its seven children. "They learned from each other, and it was all I could do to keep up with them," she confessed.

In 1930 she married Dewitt Tracht and they moved into a home at 305 N. Seventh St. that was built by the high school shop class. "They did a good job," she said. "It's still standing."

He was a grocery man and they lived a simple life. She remembers the first Helldorado Days in 1935 that celebrated Las Vegas' Western heritage: "We wore full skirts, and if you weren't careful when you sat down, it would come up over your head."

She and Dewitt celebrated their first wedding anniversary at the Meadows casino long before Bugsy came to town, and years later paid $5 for a dinner show at the El Rancho.

But she really wasn't a partyer, Violet said.

"I know that they promote the casinos and the night life, but that's not the Las Vegas I grew up with," she said. "For a good time, we'd walk around Red Rock."

Visiting the museum, she said, "brought back all the wonderful memories of having grown up in Las Vegas, and how lucky I've been all my life."

On this day, I was the lucky one.

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