End of an era in Stateline
December 19, 2001
In 1944, World War II raged in its third year, the United Nations formed and that June a meat retailer from Sacramento set up shop in South Lake Tahoe.
Harvey Gross opened Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Saloon & Gambling Hall on 7 acres near Stateline on U.S. Highway 50 as a one-room log cabin with a six-stool lunch counter, three-slot machines, two blackjack tables and the only gas pump open 24 hours a day over the Sierra Nevada’s eastern and western slopes.
Gross and his wife, Llewellyn, worked 16 hours a day preparing food, dealing cards and pumping gas.
Through the years, Harveys evolved and Gross even teased retirement in 1951.
A decade later, an 11-story hotel sprang up from the South Shore, changing the enterprise’s name to Harveys Resort Hotel & Casino.
Gross died in October 1983 – but not before placing his mark in South Lake Tahoe for over half a century.
This saga takes another pivotal turn Tuesday, when Harrah’s – Harveys chief competitor on the South Shore – is due to close on buying Gross’ empire for $675 million in cash and liabilities.
Even though the ideal would have been independence from a merger, this goal may have been too lofty, Gross’ son-in-law Bill Ledbetter admitted.
He retired three years ago but maintains an office at Harveys that he expects to retain after the sale goes through.
“I think we would have loved to keep it that way, but it would have become an impossibility,” Ledbetter said, adding that “times change.”
Ledbetter said he was assured Harrah’s would run Harveys as a successful operation.
What would Gross think if he was alive today?
Ledbetter said it would be difficult to speculate on his late father-in-law’s reaction to the merger.
Indeed, the maverick entrepreneur might well be pleased that Harveys eliminated debt in the deal.
The day before his death, Ledbetter recalled Gross’ struggle to go ahead with a construction expansion that took the casino out of its debt-free status.
“He was a bit overwhelmed with that,” Ledbetter said of a man he respected and with whom he shared a good relationship.
Who would have known that when Ledbetter started parking cars for Gross in 1949 the enterprising 18-year-old, who also washed them during the day, would have asked his boss for his daughter Beverlee’s hand five years later?
That’s the year he bought his spanking new 1954 Buick Skylark, a car he eventually gave to Bill Harrah.
“I gave it to him because I wanted it to be preserved,” Ledbetter said of the Harrah’s founder who created an enormous vintage car collection.
(Subhead): Harrah’s early beginnings
Given the giant Harrah’s has evolved into today, it’s difficult to imagine 26-year-old Bill Harrah came to the casino scene in October 1937 by opening a bingo parlor with six employees in Reno.
The company’s focus on customer satisfaction started early, with Harrah’s choosing to purchase an oil heating system that would warm up his entire club instead of buying a cheap corner stove . Back in those days, spending $600 for equipment used for simple creature comforts was a big deal.
In the grand scheme of things, the expense didn’t matter to Harrah because he used simple logic.
“We wanted people to be comfortable. They are not going to play if they are not comfortable,” Harrah was quoted in archives as saying.
Through the years, Harrah’s grew on simple business sense and prospered from it. He opened the Stateline property in 1955 and quickly expanded four years later with the building of the South Shore Room.
Keeping a grand-scale tradition of firsts, Harrah’s became the first casino company to list on the New York Stock Exchange.
As the gambling enterprise welcomed world commerce as a publicly traded company, Harrah’s said goodbye to its leader five years later in a public outpouring of sympathy.
In 1978, Harrah died during an operation to repair an aortic aneurysm. When word of his death reached the Lake Tahoe and Reno casino floors, employees and loyal customers reportedly cried together.
But Harrah had hired a team capable of carrying on the company mission. This included a young attorney named Phil Satre, the Las Vegas-based casino company’s chief executive officer.
Last Wednesday, the company that’s due to cover 12 states with 25 properties once the Harveys sales closes this week as planned boasted filling all its 530 rooms in Lake Tahoe.
The mission continues.