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THE WOMEN WHO MADE LAS VEGAS - THE CASINO MOM MAYME STOCKER

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THE WOMEN WHO MADE LAS VEGAS - THE CASINO MOM - MAYME STOCKER

By Byron Craft

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Out of compliance to political correctness and a dedication to history, we have decided to change the gender of “The Men Who Made Las Vegas” to “The Women Who Made Las Vegas.”  We hope this pleases the P.C. Police.

Most of us, when considering the pioneers of Vegas casinos, think of mobsters.  However, history be told, Las Vegas’ first casino license was held by a woman who was a wife and mother so respectable that her birthday parties were covered in the society pages.

“Anybody who lives here is out of his mind,” was the remark Mayme Stocker made on her arrival in 1911.

Mayme was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, in the year 1875.  The oldest of six children, she had a number of duties around the house.  Just as she completed eighth grade, her mother passed away and she took responsibility for raising her siblings.  She was the daughter of a railroad man and she also married one at the tender age of 16.  Mrs. Stocker and her husband, Oscar, over the years had three sons, Clarence, Harold and Lester.
 
The Stocker family moved from town to town in pursuit of railroad jobs.  Nearly all of the moves were compulsory.  Railroads in the early 20th century, prior to the days of organized labor, hired their employees, transferred them, and fired them, at will.  In one instance when the Southern Pacific Railroad laid off one hundred of its employees, including Oscar, they were paid off in scrip, rather than cash.  Scrip was a substitute for legal tender.  Scrip was created as company payment to employees and also as a means of payment in times where regular money may have been unavailable, such as remote coal towns, military bases or ships on long voyages.  Many companies that used this monetary substitute also owned various retail outlets where the scrip was redeemable for goods and services.  Thus the companies were able to recycle their employees’ wages back into their coffers.  Unfortunately scrip was not normally accepted in stores outside of the company’s realm that issued it, and banks would not acknowledge scrip as legal tender.

Consequently, when Oscar Stocker acquired the position of engine foreman in the Las Vegas railroad yards, he decided to lay down roots.  His family was tired of moving every few years.  They vowed to stay in their new home as long as they could, even if it turned out to be the doorstep to hell – which Vegas in 1911 pretty much was.  “There were no streets or sidewalks, and there were no flowers, lawns or trees,” Mayme Stocker recalled years later.  The long hot summers saw families hiking to “The Old Ranch at the Old Mormon Fort” for picnics and a few hours of relaxation in the shade of the large trees.  Sometimes the older children were seen pulling the younger ones in small wagons along the dust-covered trail made by horse-drawn vehicles.  Mayme recollected that there were only three forms of public entertainment.  “Ben Emrick and his four-piece German band, which played on the street corners on Saturday night, Ladd’s swimming pool on East Fremont Street, and the Princess Theater, where a five-cent movie could be viewed.”

There were no streetlights in those days in ole Vegas, and a walk downtown at night required carrying a lantern.  After a hard rain, the walk could be unpleasant, because puddles of water left in the street, which appeared to be firm or shallow by the light of a lantern, often turned out to be very wet and slippery, a hazard for a woman wearing a long skirt.

On one occasion, family duty rescued Mayme temporarily from the boredom that was ole Vegas.  Just a few months after her arrival, she learned that one of her two sisters in Butte, Montana, did not have long to live.  Mayme Stocker went to care for her and took along her son, Harold, then age eleven.  It was an instructional trip, for it provided little Harold a prologue to the whiskey business.  “Both my aunts were married to saloon owners on opposite sides of the street,” Harold Stocker mused decades later.  “One made a lot of money in Prohibition;  he bought three carloads of liquor for fifty cents a quart, just before Prohibition went in,” Harold said looking back.  “The people sold it cheap because Prohibition was coming, and my uncle bought it because he didn’t believe they would ratify Prohibition.  When they did, he was stuck with it.  Three years later, he sold it anyway, and he got twenty-five dollars a quart.”

Shortly after Harold had returned to Las Vegas the local school burned down.  Since Oscar Stocker worked for the railroad, the family was entitled to commute free, so Mayme took Harold to Los Angeles and enrolled him in school there.  On the West Coast he got his first taste of gambling.  “I went to work as a dealer one summer, met somebody who got me a job in a casino in Tijuana,” Harold related.  “I was only seventeen, but it wasn’t illegal;  there was no regulation there at all.  I started out stacking chips at a roulette wheel.  That was the game that had the most play in those days – that, and twenty-one, which we dealt with gold coins and big pesos.  There was a movie producer in L.A. who went down there to play, and he staked me to five hundred dollars to play in a twenty-one game while he went over and played pan.”  Panguingue, also known as Pan, is a gambling Rummy game which was popular in the Southwest.  “I’d bet five dollars, which was the minimum, till I had a hand, and then I’d bet one hundred dollars.  And if I lost, I’d go back to five dollars.  When the summer was over, my cut was six thousand dollars – a lot of money for a seventeen year-old.”

By 1920, Mayme Stocker had opened the Northern Club, which would become a landmark on Fremont Street.  Ostensibly, it was a soft drink emporium.  The Northern Club’s real mission was betrayed by its name.  Practically every town born during Nevada’s mining booms of the early 20th century had a Northern Saloon and some of them still do.  The saloon’s name was supposed to appeal to veterans of the earlier gold rushes.

Mayme Stocker was the licensee of Northern Club for the reason that railroad men were not allowed to have an interest in saloons.  Oscar Stocker and his sons were connected with the railroad or aspired to be, since the railroad was the main employer in town.  Nevertheless, Harold was part of the Northern from the very start and so was gambling.  Mayme told him to come in and work because of his experience as a dealer. There was hardly anybody who knew the trade in those days.  The Northern, by Vegas standards, was a respectable place, but Harold also invested in some of the sawdust joints of Block 16.  Block 16 is where Las Vegas’ moniker of “Sin City” originated.  Located on First Street between Ogden and Stewart avenues, Block 16 got its name from its designation on the town map that was originally used to layout the town.  Block 16 had gained notoriety as the only place that could legally serve liquor.  Some were only bars, while some were gambling houses, but it soon distinguished itself by blatantly offering prostitution.  The usual arrangement on Block 16 was to rent rooms to attractive women who plied their wares in the rooms. The usual mode of getting acquainted was to buy the lady of the evening a drink, which was minus alcohol.  The woman and the saloon split the fifty-cent proceeds from her drink and that was the profit the establishment made from her business.

While legal gambling in Las Vegas is believed to date from 1931, there were actually five games that were legal in the 1920’s:  stud, draw, lowball poker, “500” and bridge.  All other gaming wasn’t offered in Las Vegas at that time.  The county had a tough sheriff by the name of Sam Gay.  You could do it if it was in the book, and if it wasn’t, you couldn’t.  Sam was an honest lawman that wouldn’t take a bribe.  It was said that he wouldn’t take a nickel from Jesus Christ.  Sam Gay was against everything but whiskey during prohibition ... that was under the federal government’s jurisdiction, and Sam left it up to them.

There was a law enforcement officer that they had to watch out for though, and that was Percy Nash, the Las Vegas chief of police, and he was not easy to deal with.  Harold Stocker used to keep only one bottle of whiskey behind the bar and that was in his pocket.  He could get rid of it quick, and if the Prohibition Agents did catch him, they could only get him for possession, but not for the sale of illegal hooch.  One afternoon Percy Nash said he was going to jump over the bar and grab Harold’s bottle.  “I told him, ‘Percy, I got a .45, and if you jump that bar I’ll put one in your belly.’”  Percy Nash didn’t jump.  Harold was a law-and-order Republican, but reckoned that Nash, a local officer, had no business enforcing a federal law.

An additional safety measure that was used at the time was to never serve drinks that weren’t mixed.  For Prohibition Agents to prove it had liquor in it they would have to have it analyzed.  That was a big expense in those days and a lot of trouble for a two-hundred-dollar fine.  So today, if you order a gin and tonic or a rum and coke, you now know where drink recipes originated… Also a lot of the illegal homemade spirits of the day tasted pretty lousy and needed to be laced with a mixer to make them more palatable.

The Stockers were also partners in a distilling operation.  They made it in natural mountain caves out near where the Vo Tech is located today.  They claimed to make a fairly decent whiskey known as bourbon bell.  They even went to the trouble of aging it for three months in oak casks.  The operation used copper pot stills that were noted for making some of the highest quality moonshine in the state.  They produced more than the Stockers could sell, and other retailers bought the surplus.

Mayme Stocker’s oldest son, Lester, was a professional gambler, and he was credited with getting wide-open gambling legalized.  He tried several times to legalize gaming, once in 1925, then in 1927, and again in 1929, but failed at each attempt.  The Nevada rural counties weren’t interested in legalization, because the anti-gambling statutes weren’t enforced in those remote areas and gambling there was already wide open.  Conditions changed around 1930, when some major players in Reno were sent to prison… enforcement became less lenient.

Mayme Stocker had Lester call a meeting at a back table of the Northern.  Present were a number of club owners, a city councilman, a state official, a businessman booster, and two assemblymen, all of whom declined to be identified years later.  It is alleged that one of them said, “If I had some money to spread around, I could probably get it on the Senate floor.”  The dollar amount proposed was ten-thousand.  Most of it came from the Stockers and their partners.

It was whispered that they got a legislator from Winnemucca, Phil Tobin, to introduce it, and that he took the money.  Assemblyman Tobin claimed that all that he ever accepted was three bottles of scotch.  He said that he didn’t want to make money out of it.  “I was just plumb sick and tired of seeing gamblin’ going on all over the state, payoffs being made all over the place,” Tobin told an interviewer.  No one knows for sure to this day if Mr. Tobin received the ten-thousand, but the bill passed.  On March 19, 1931, Nevada legalized gambling.

Another paradigm shift occurred in 1931.  When the legalization bill was passed, Lester Stocker was not in Vegas.  He was in Caliente, Nevada.  At the time it was thought that Caliente, an active railroad town, might end up being one of the major cities of Nevada.  In the regionally historic book, “The Mysterious Valley”, there is a picture of Lester Stocker standing in front of the Union Pacific Depot Hotel in Caliente, reading the classified section of the local newspaper, in hopes of locating some property as a casino site.  While at the very same time, his mother, Mayme Stocker, was granted the very first gaming license in Nevada at a whopping $1410.00 for the Northern Club at number 15 Fremont Street.

Mayme Stocker eventually handed off the day-to-day operation of the Northern to others for a tidy sum, and it operated under a variety of names including the Exchange Club and the Rainbow Club.  In 1945 she leased the place outright to Wilbur Clark, who changed its name to the Monte Carlo Club.  Her son, Clarence, continued to operate the Northern Hotel, which occupied the second floor.  Mayme lived in Las Vegas the rest of her life.  She designed and built an elegant home in the Huntridge neighborhood and every year enjoyed a birthday party given by her sons and friends.  She became an active member in the local Republican Party, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Emblem Club of the local Elks Lodge.

In 1972, at the age of 97, Mayme Stocker went to that big casino in the sky.  Thanks, Mom.
 
The Women Who Made Las Vegas is a series by Byron Craft chronicling the growth of Sin City and the women who made it possible.

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