November 29, 2018

Walking Box Ranch: Where Clara Bow and Her Hollywood Cowboy Husband Became Real Cattle Ranchers

I think part of the appeal of Walking Box Ranch in Searchlight, Nevada was how hard it was to get into.

It had been nearly a year since I'd first heard about it—and after several attempts, I finally got to the former grazing grounds of the Rock Springs Cattle Company...

...through the gate fashioned out of old railroad ties...

...past the old ice house...

...(which was regrettably locked)...

...and right up to the historic red barn...

...whose cattle corrals were also made of railroad ties.

But cattle isn't what brought me to see Walking Box Ranch. It was Clara Bow—the silent film-era "It" girl whose husband, movie cowboy Rex Bell, bought the ranch in 1931 and became a real-life cowboy there. 

He named it after a box camera mounted on a tripod, ubiquitous in Hollywood at the time.

But Clara Bow couldn't really survive the emergence of the "talkies"... when she moved to Searchlight with her husband, she wasn't leaving much Hollywood work behind.

Of course, the remoteness of the area (the closest post office was Nipton) cut her off from moviemaking even more...

...though she became quite the celebrity around Searchlight.

Their Spanish Colonial style home provided accommodations suitable for a celebrity getaway...

...not only for its owners and permanent residents but also superstar guests like Clark Gable and Errol Flynn.

But the faded "it girl" didn't last at the Walking Box Ranch...

...leaving her husband and two sons behind in the mid-1940s.

After her departure, Bell got into Nevada politics—eventually becoming Lieutenant Governor in 1954.

By then, he'd already sold Walking Box Ranch—the surrounding property in 1949 and the house in 1950.

It operated as YKL Ranch for the next four decades.

In 2000, it went up for auction, having been restored by a gold mining company that needed to unload it as its claims were drying up.

The Bureau of Land Management acquired it in 2004 and currently conducts limited tours of the property, by advance reservation only. (Sometimes, way in advance.)

Nearly a century after her heyday, most modern moviegoers probably don't know Clara Bow by name.

They don't know that the phrase "it girl" was coined because Bow starred in a silent film called It, which launched her career into the stratosphere.

But everybody knows the cartoon character that Clara Bow inspired: Betty Boop.

Walking Box Ranch, though seven miles from the center of town, still feels incredibly secluded and quiet. It's become a critical habitat for the desert tortoise, so it's a priority to preserve the property and the natural environment (which also includes a cactus garden).

Although all the furnishings are long gone, many of the lighting fixtures, hardware, bar, and fireplace are all original (including the security bars on the windows of the young boys' room, a response to the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr. from his crib).

The cluster of structures and features was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009 as a historic district—as an example of early 20th century ranching history as well as Spanish Colonial architecture and of course the cultural history of its most famous residents.

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The town of Shoshone, California might seem like a mere rest stop on your way to the eastern portion of Death Valley...

...but it's got plenty of attractions and history to explore in its own right.

Sure, just over 30 people lived there as of the 2010 census.

But Shoshone was once a happening railroad town—a stop on the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, until it shut down in 1940.

It was also a hotspot for miners and railroad workers, who dwelled in makeshift caves carved out of mounds of a kind of calcium deposit, right in the center of town.

Shoshone's climate is considered "cold desert"—so the workers would need shelter from the hot summers and frigid winters.

Prospectors found their way here, too—as did a homebrewer named Joe Vollmer, who arrived in Shoshone in 1922 (during Prohibition).

So did members of the Manson family, after Barker Ranch in Death Valley.

And everyone who resided here—right up until the 1970s—left traces of their daily lives behind.

With each tenant who assumed residence, the caves were upgraded and expanded—some with stovepipes sticking out of their roofs, some having been converted into duplexes. There's even an outhouse left.

Of course dugouts weren't uncommon in areas that ran short on building materials...

...whether it was the Ingalls family dugout homestead in Walnut Grove, Minnesota...

...or the cave dwellings of the Berbers in Matmata, Tunisia.

But these miners' caves proved surprisingly popular. If one of the residents died, there was a line of folks to take over their space.

It's all closed to the public now, save for a walking trail through the historic district.

The trail leads you to the Shoshone Cemetery, where 55-some-odd people have been buried since 1924.

This is Dublin Gulch, originally called "Doublin Gulch" because so many people came that it kept doublin' in size.

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November 26, 2018

Photo Essay: A Cache of Slot Machines At the Southern Tip of Nevada

I might never have found myself in Laughlin, Nevada on my own.

I only ended up there as part of a group of friends on a weekend getaway to take a tour of an old ranch in Searchlight (photo essay coming soon).

Choices for overnight accommodations near there are limited—so, instead of staying at the state line at one of the casinos in Primm or in Needles along Route 66, we ended up in the poor man's Reno.

Like anywhere else we go, we made the best of it by exploring whatever Don Laughlin's eponymous town had to offer.

And in his Riverside Casino (the river being the Colorado), I found something I never knew I needed in my life until the moment I laid eyes on it.

It was a collection of antique slot machines.

Now, I don't feel the need to own a 1949 Jennings Sun Chief Super Deluxe or a 1936 Jennings Four Star Chief Prosperity—but knowing they exist (and what they look like) has changed my view of casinos and gambling.

There was so much art to creating these little jackpot gadgets. There were 40 different styles of the Watling Rol-A-Top alone—not just the "coin front" from 1035 or the "cherry front" from 1936.

Like pinball machines and even modern digital slots, these amusements actually required a bit of skill to play and more than just luck to win, whether it was the 1929 Mills Baseball Vendor...

...the "Penny Skill Flip" (made in 1927 by Pace out of Chicago, Illinois), or the "Bonus Horsehead" (Mills, 1937), for which you had to spell out the word "BONUS" in order to win.

In 1933, the Watling Gold Seal dispensed Lifesavers (which had been brought to market 20 years prior).

In the faces of these vintage contraptions, you can find the figures of Dutch Boys (as with this 1930 Jennings model)...

...figures from the royal court depicted on face cards, and even birds...

...whether it's the "War Eagle," as depicted in a Mills machine from 1931...

...or a "Bird of Paradise" on a 1935 Watling.

The 1931 "Silent Gooseneck" model by Mills featured a spectacular figure that baffled gamblers...

...who alternately referred to it as "Lion Head," "Wolf Head," and "Tiger Front" as they played.

I spent a short stint gambling, before I gave it up with the knowledge that I could drop too much money too quickly. It was easy enough to quit when I did, because casinos had phased out the pull levers and replaced them with buttons—and took much of the satisfaction out of it. Little did I know that in 1920, Caille made a model with a "Center Pull" front lever instead of a side handle.

Coined the "Victory," short for the "Victory of the Allied Powers" in WWI, this model is one of the more valuable ones in the collection, with an estimated worth of $11,500. But, like the other vintage slot machines on display at the Riverside Casino, it's not for sale.

Neither is the Operator Bell "Iron Case" by Mills from 1910, though its assessed value is more than $10,000.

The oldest disply in the museum is actually a poker machine in a cast-iron case, called the "Little Model Card Machine."

The prize given by this 1894 Sitman and Pitt model was cigars—which seems better than the golf balls given out by the Jennings model that cashed in on the golf craze of 1934.

Some of the machines accomplished amazing feats as part of the play. The 1932 Jennings Little Duke penny slot told fortunes, dispensed gum, and paid out jackpots.

The 1935 Bally Reliance played craps—that is, it threw dice and read them—which is probably why it's now worth an estimated $14,500. (Again, not for sale.)

They all seem really fun, and the stakes appear to be relatively low. With a low investment and a modest payout, I don't think you could lose a fortune—or your life savings—on any of these, unlike modern innovations in gambling technology.

But the major change that probably kept others playing is one of the main factors that keeps me away.

Casinos replaced real money with stored-value cards, eliminating the ca-ching factor.

Without the buckets of pennies, nickels, or quarters to cash in, I just don't get the same high as I did when I first experienced Vegas or Atlantic City or Turning Stone or one of the other "Indian casinos" in the Northeast. (I forget which it was.)

But I could spend hours gazing at those works of art without even touching them, kept apart by the glass cases and the security cameras.

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