April 13, 2008

Preserving a landmark Nevada bar

The Pioneer Saloon boasts a bullet-riddled wall, a 70-year-old urinal, and ghosts. And the town of Goodsprings loves it.

By Ashley Powers, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

GOODSPRINGS, NEV. -- The sense of decorum at this town's 95-year-old watering hole is summed up by two signs that greet its patrons:

"Open Everyday Till The Drinking Stops."

"Poker Players and Loose Women Are Permitted In This Establishment."

If you're still unclear about the Pioneer Saloon's disposition, well, ask the regulars about Gary. The longtime regular died unexpectedly while drinking in the bar a few years ago; they say the bartender downed Gary's unfinished beer, smashed the glass and proclaimed: "To you!"

Noel Sheckells fell for the bar's legends and lightheartedness when he drank away a night here years ago. So when the saloon and surrounding acreage went up for sale, the Las Vegas entrepreneur in 2006 plunked down $1 million for the pressed-tin structure with scuffed floors, a bullet-riddled wall and a urinal installed in 1938.

The bar's staff is doggedly trying to preserve this Wild West relic (and de facto town square) in a sun-scorched community 25 miles southwest of Vegas. The Times described the town as close to extinction -- in the 1960s.

There's a church, an elementary school, some aging homes and little else in the 200-person blip, though a planned airport in nearby Ivanpah Valley is expected to flood the region with residents.

Sheckells notched a major victory last year when the state added the Pioneer Saloon to its Register of Historic Places; it's now being considered for the national inventory.

"He hasn't made a nickel off this place," says Dave Kent, a regular known as Friendly Dave, cradling a Budweiser bottle on a recent afternoon.

"It's a great tax write-off," says Sheckells, and both men chortle.

Sheckells, who's run low-voltage wiring and payday loan companies, owns the presumably more profitable Tequila Cantina in Las Vegas, where he DJs on weekends.

He bought the Pioneer Saloon from a family that had owned it for decades. The place had been allowed to deteriorate, the staff says, until part of the floor collapsed one day, dumping patrons into a mining shaft.

Sheckells has poured $600,000 into building a patio, clearing dead rats from the attic and reconstructing the porch after a dozing driver crashed into it. He expects to unload hundreds of thousands more for an outdoor stage.

Why? Sheckells shrugs. Bars like this, he says, so easily disappear in raze-and-rebuild Clark County. In a proud-papa voice, he rattles off some of its quirks:

It's purportedly haunted, by a prospector and a poker player. Staffers say they once saw a pizza dish fly off the bar of its own volition.

An affiliated charity group (with an unprintable name) sponsors toy drives and has 6,000 members -- each issued a certificate confirming that "you have become a legend in your own mind."

Friendly Dave (member No. 1872) also runs "chicken bingo" outside the bar. Players pay $10, pick a number on a board and wait to see if a chicken defecates on it.

Cindy Niles, who met her husband here, sums up the saloon's importance from behind its cherry-wood bar: "Someone asked if I knew everyone in town. I said, 'Only the ones that drink.' "

The bar's history is appropriately eccentric.

Opening in 1913, the Pioneer Saloon was one of seven bars in then-booming Goodsprings, whose land was rich with zinc and lead ore, according to research by bar manager Monica Beisecker.

Townies enjoyed six cafes, the Goodsprings Gazette newspaper, an ice cream parlor and the Fayle Hotel, which Friendly Dave describes as "the finest hotel west of the Mississippi before you get to California" -- before it burned down.

(The bar has reproduced a Fayle sign to sell in the adjacent general store: "Street Girls Bringing Miners Into Hotel Must Pay For Room In Advance." The top seller, however, is the T-shirt that asks, "Where The Hell Is Goodsprings?")

In 1915, a man was shot and killed in the Pioneer Saloon after accusations flew of cheating during a card game with a $10 pot. The shooter, Beisecker wrote in the bar's application for the state register, was run out of town by a politician hoping to rid southern Nevada of "unscrupulous card hustlers, immoral dance-hall girls, and other unsavory characters."

Locals say the saloon's star turn came in 1942: They claim a shaken Clark Gable waited there to hear whether wife Carole Lombard survived a plane crash on nearby Mt. Potosi. (She didn't.)

The story's veracity is questionable, but a craggy piece of something -- which sits atop the potbellied stove that warms the building -- is said to be plane wreckage.

On a recent night, someone mistook it for an ashtray.

Sheckells is trying to capitalize on the Old Hollywood story by transforming a room once used for motorcycle repairs into a Gable-Lombard memorial.

It's advertised on Nevada 161, the two-lane road that snakes through town, next to signs for the Two Hawk Hay Ranch in nearby Sandy Valley.

The memorial room is also papered with photos from celebrity visits -- Travis Tritt! Cheech and Chong! -- and movies that were shot here, including "The Mexican" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

A History Channel clip loops on a flat-screen TV, broadcasting what could be the saloon's most significant endorsement: the ghosts of long-gone barflies who apparently have yet to find a better tavern.