Nevada and its history with brothels
July 12, 2018
I'll never forget that day in early June 1977, about a month after I had purchased the Lahontan Valley News, when a woman named Gina Wilson sought me out at our original newspaper office at 60 W. Center St., which today is the site of La Fiesta Restaurant.
Wilson was the manager of the Salt Wells Villa, a brothel located about 15 miles east of here on Highway 50. At that time, Salt Wells was one of two legal houses of prostitution in Churchill County. The other was the Lazy B Guest House, also on Highway 50 approximately eight miles east of Fallon. A week or so after Wilson's visit, the married couple which ran the Lazy B (I forget their names) also came calling.
A month or so later, a fellow named George Flint (he told me to call him "Georgie") came to see me as well. Flint was an ordained Pentecostal minister, the married father of four, the son of two preachers, the owner of a downtown Reno wedding chapel, the paid executive director of the Nevada Brothel Association and its lobbyist at the Nevada Legislature.
Flint was a powerhouse at the Legislature. His job was to keep Nevada's brothels legal. He was known to arrange "freebies" for legislators and local elected officials at the state's houses of prostitution. Flint was so influential in Carson City that legislators signed a joint Senate and Assembly proclamation declaring a "George Flint Day" at the Capitol to signify his "outstanding and valuable contributions as Nevada's longest-standing senior lobbyist."
Wilson of the Salt Wells Villa, the couple who ran the Lazy B and Flint had identical messages for me when they visited the LVN office back in 1977: "Take it easy on Nevada's brothels. Many of the brothels that are located in rural counties such as Churchill provide jobs and pay taxes that help sustain the local economies. You're new to Nevada (I had come to Fallon from Laramie, Wyoming, where I was chairman of the journalism department at the University of Wyoming) and you may not know of Nevada's legacy of legal prostitution, Prostitution has been in Nevada since the 1860s, when thousands of miners flocked to the newly-discovered gold and silver mines in Virginia City."
There were about 40 legal brothels in Nevada in 1977 when Flint and the others came to see me. The brothels, since 1971, were permitted to operate by county option. They were not allowed in Washoe and Clark counties and Carson City. I told Wilson, the owners of the Lazy B and Flint that I had nothing against legalized prostitution and would keep an open mind. They were all satisfied.
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Today, 41 years after my visits by Flint and the Churchill County brothel owners, there have been significant changes in the county's and state's prostitution industry.
The Lazy B, the smaller of the two brothels here, has long been closed. Its tattered buildings may be seen east of Fallon on the north side of Highway 50.
As for the Salt Wells Villa, it was closed in 2004 after the Nevada State Health Department shut it down because of the lack of potable drinking water on the premises and other code violations. Its operating license also was revoked that year when it was learned its new owner had died and the business was abandoned.
In late July 2007, the still-abandoned Salt Wells Villa, which had advertised "Girls, Girls, Girls" on its gaudy neon roadside sign and had once been named "The Best Brothel in Nevada" by GQ Magazine, burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances. Its remains may still be seen today.
In early 2011, Harry Reid, a Democrat, Nevada's senior U.S. senator and Senate majority leader, told a joint session of the Nevada Legislature that it was time for the state to shutter its brothels because they were immoral and hindered the development of new businesses in the state. Nevada's other senator, John Ensign, a Republican, disagreed, stating the brothels were not immoral and should be allowed to continue operating under county options. The following year, Ensign, a married man with three children, was forced to resign his Senate seat in mid-term after it was revealed he kept a mistress who was the wife of his senior Washington aide.
Ensign's fate, however, was not as severe as what befell another Nevada elected official in early April 1907. That man, Nye County Sheriff Tom Hogan, also a married man and the father of eight children, was shot to death by two gamblers at the Jewell House brothel in Manhattan. Wearing only a nightshirt when he was killed, it was discovered that Hogan, too, kept a secret mistress. Her name was May Biggs, she was the Jewell House madam, and she and Sheriff Logan had been spending the night in bed at her brothel before the sheriff was summoned to the parlor to toss out the rowdy gamblers who subsequently killed him.
Much more recently, a coalition of Nevada women's advocacy groups and business and religious leaders has supported referendum initiatives to ban prostitution in Lyon and Nye counties that will be on the November ballot. With the rise of the "Me Too" movement that is spreading across the country and stricter sex trafficking laws, the owners of brothels in other Nevada counties may also be faced with similar referendums to ban legalized prostitution.
Today, the 40 or so brothels that existed in the state in the late 1970s have dwindled to about 17. Nevada, the only state that permits legal prostitution, may someday discover that its brothels have disappeared forever.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.