Looking at a century of business
Tourism may be the bread and butter of Lake Tahoe’s economy, but other businesses support those who make a living from tourism.
“Table games at Stateline and Olympic Games at Squaw Valley allowed business to thrive,” said Duane Wallace, executive director of the South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce, which was incorporated in 1955.
Harvey Gross, founder of Harveys Casino, spearheaded the effort to establish the first chambers of commerce at Lake Tahoe. In 1954, he traveled around the lake hoping to form a lakewide chamber.
On the way home, Harvey decided he didn’t like the “snootiness” of the North Shore businessmen, Wallace said. He decided South Shore should have its own chamber.
Jerry Johnson, whose father-in-law opened Nel’s Hardware in 1945 and worked there himself for 30 years, remembers making a living in the middle of the century with a variety of jobs.
Johnson moved to Lake Tahoe in 1946. As a young entrepreneur, he earned money selling worms to Grayson Sporting Good Store.
“I’d dig under cow manure and raise the worms,” he said. “Now a kid couldn’t do that. He’d get in trouble for disturbing the meadow and need a business license.”
As a teen-ager, Johnson turned to harder labors.
Johnson’s first job was as a truck driver for H&H Disposal Company before he was old enough for a driver’s license. He drove from one end of the south shore of the lake to the other, taking Pioneer Trail when it was just dirt. He later worked as a driver for Nevada Lumber Company until he graduated from high school.
Work was seasonal, he said. In the summers, everyone worked six or seven days a week for 12 to 14 hour days. In the winter, everyone hunted and fished for food.
“Everyone was in the same boat,” he said. “In ’46 or ’47, Harvey Gross (founder of Harveys Casino) had an older model Ford. One night, under cover of darkness, the (repossessors) came and took the car away.”
Despite the hardships, life and work were more relaxed.
“Ty Cobb would sit around (at Nel’s) and spin baseball yarns in the off-season,” Johnson said.
“In those days, in the winter months, my father-in-law would go to the post office and leave the store open. Customers could go in and get the hardware they needed and leave a note to charge it on their account.”
In the ’60s, “hardware business was good business,” Johnson said. “The area was too small to have plumbing and hardware wholesalers. There were no big ‘marts’ from off the hill.”
Tahoe’s business base has continued to grow over the years. The casinos provide the biggest chunk of jobs but many people earn paychecks from jobs at banks, grocery stores, stock brokers and doctors, as well as at five hardware stores in the area. The big-block stores are even making inroads to provide for those who live here as well as tourists.
As the new century dawns, a new industry is making a growing impact at Lake Tahoe. The Internet allows people to live where they want and work from home offices.
“It’s very exciting for Tahoe, especially on the Nevada-side where we have no potential for building,” said Kathleen Farrell, executive director of the Tahoe-Douglas Chamber of Commerce. “What you see is what you get. Any influx of capital into the community really has to come from the homeowner who works at home.
“It’s good for us.”
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