Farewell to the Liberty Belle
Special to the Nevada Appeal
Newcomers to Northern Nevada don’t know anything about Reno’s funky old Liberty Belle saloon and its colorful history, and that’s a shame because when the 48-year-old establishment closed its doors earlier this month, it marked the end of an era.
The Liberty Belle opened in 1958 just four years before I came to Carson City, and I’ve been a frequent customer over the years, stopping in on my way to downtown Reno in the old days or to attend luncheon meetings of the “GOD” (Good Old Days) Club in recent years. The last GOD Club get-together at the Liberty Belle was on Friday the 17th, when co-owner Marshall Fey recounted the saloon’s history and discussed what would become of its valuable collection of vintage slot machines, many of which were designed by his grandfather, inventor Charles Fey.
It’s quite a story. Marshall told GOD Club members that Grandpa Charlie invented the first three-reeled slot machine, held several patents and was manufacturing slots in San Francisco, where they were technically illegal. Charlie’s son operated slots at Playland at the Beach and grandsons Marshall and Frank got into the business in the 1950s when they opened a Gay ’90s-themed beer joint in San Mateo called The Swinging Door.
Moving to Reno, where gambling was legal, the Fey brothers bought the former Li’l Red Barn on South Virginia Street and reopened it in 1958 as the Liberty Belle in honor of one of their grandfather’s most popular slot machines. The saloon prospered over the years and became one of Reno’s most popular watering holes before the new Convention Center was built adjacent to the old building. A few years ago, clueless RenoÐSparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA) officials complained that the Liberty Belle was an eyesore and tried to have it condemned under eminent domain laws. They backed off, however, when influential GOD Club members and other longtime Reno residents obtained more than 1,000 signatures on a petition opposing the RSCVA’s misguided “modernization” plans.
But now that the Liberty Belle is closed, it appears that the RSCVA will make another bid for the valuable property. “There will be an offer on the table and it will be discussed,” said RSCVA Marketing Director Deanna Ashby. “The Board will try to push it through.” Well, I hope they reach agreement with the Fey brothers and that the deal includes preserving some of the historic artifacts that make the Liberty Belle a unique resource in the history of legal gambling in Northern Nevada.
It appears that more than 20 original Fey slot machines will become part of the permanent collection at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. But the rest of the Liberty Belle’s valuable collection of gambling and historical artifacts Ð including several irreplaceable horse-drawn wagons – will be up for grabs at a public auction in July unless the RSCVA is smart enough to acquire them as part of the property deal.
I doubt whether that will happen, however, because the Reno Convention Authority, now headed by a lady from San Diego and lacking a sense of history, will probably buy the building and tear it down in order to make room for more parking. But in my humble opinion, the RSCVA should acquire the gambling artifacts and turn them into an historical exhibit to inform tourists and visitors about the colorful history of the area they’re visiting.
A small Old West museum would be a natural and attractive complement to the Convention Center, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen. After all, just look what happened to Reno’s classic Mapes Hotel and to the V&T Roundhouse right here in Carson City a few years ago. Both sites remain vacant despite big plans announced by developers when the historic structures were demolished.
So “progress” has consigned the Liberty Belle to the dustbin of history just as it has claimed so many other popular local hangouts in recent years. I think of Hunter’s Lodge and the Penguin Drive-In and more recently, Bodine’s family restaurant in Carson City. They have usually been replaced by cookie-cutter “neighborhood” restaurants owned by national chains that have nothing to do with our neighborhoods. Bodine’s, now owned by a Southern California developer, will become the newest “local” casino. That’s the modern definition of progress along with the unsightly big box stores that blight the landscape south of Carson City, and suck retail tax revenue out of the capital.
The same thing is happening elsewhere in Northern Nevada. Just last week, a 46-year-old landmark, Bob’s Root Beer on U.S. 50 west of Fallon, closed forever. “We couldn’t get enough local business,” said owner Stuart Kimball. “People said we were too far out of town and when (another drive-in burger joint) opened … that was the beginning of the end.” It’s a sad but familiar story to those of us who’ve been around here for a while.
As Dennis Myers of the Reno News & Review wrote about the demise of the Liberty Belle, “A slot machine museum could enhance respectability, emphasize heritage and attract customers (to local casinos), but unless a benefactor emerges soon … the collection that took a generation to assemble will be gone.” And that would be the latest blow to those of us who care about the history of Northern Nevada.
• Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, has been a resident of Carson City since 1962.