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Time & Place with Alicia Barber

Bringing the Nugget to Sparks

The original location of the Sparks Nugget, ca. 1955, at the corner of 12th and B Streets (now Victorian Avenue). Courtesy Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.
The original location of the Sparks Nugget, ca. 1955, at the corner of 12th and B Streets (now Victorian Avenue). Courtesy Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.

Today, the cities of Reno and Sparks make up one large metropolitan area. But unlike Reno, Sparks wasn’t known as a destination for gambling until the 1950s. Historian Alicia Barber tells the story of the Sparks casino that changed all of that, in this episode of “Time & Place.”

ALICIA: Dick Graves had a problem. It was December of 1953, and the Idaho Supreme Court had just banned slot machines, which had been allowed by local permit for about six years. Graves was the owner of nine or ten successful clubs throughout the state where slots were the main attraction. But, this new ruling gave anyone who owned them just three choices: destroy them, turn them in, or ship them to Nevada.

Graves didn’t hesitate. He immediately sold his Idaho properties and headed south, taking his machines with him. By March of 1954, he had opened three small café-casinos in Nevada, one each on the main streets of Yerington, Carson City, and Reno—all named The Nugget.

At Graves’ side, in charge of food operations, was John Ascuaga, who had been working for him in Idaho for several years. In March of 1955, Graves opened a fourth Nugget, in Sparks, just east of Reno, and appointed Ascuaga its general manager. Interviewed in 2002, Ascuaga recalled the challenge of being in a town not exactly known for its casinos.

ASCUAGA: “We had the road of hard knocks being in Sparks, trying to educate the general public to come to this area. We’ve always had the philosophy at the Nugget, if they come once and we can’t get them back, it’s our fault.”

The Nugget’s promotions were legendary—including hiring a man named Happy Bill Howard to live on a 65-foot-high flagpole in front of the club for 205 days. It helped that B Street, known today as Victorian Avenue, was not just Sparks’ main street but also the route of U.S. 40. Within months, the Nugget expanded, and in just a few years, Graves had assembled enough property to open a much larger, custom-built casino building just across the street. Still, Ascuaga recalled that some remained skeptical.

ASCUAGA: “Everybody, they would make a statement when they saw that big building go up across the street, that this would be good place for people to store onions and potatoes. They didn’t think we would be successful.”

The new Dick Graves’ Nugget opened in 1958. But Graves himself was soon ready to retire. He had already sold the other Nuggets, and in 1960, he sold the one in Sparks to John Ascuaga for three and three-quarters of a million dollars, famously requiring no down payment, which, as Ascuaga explained, wasn’t as risky as it might sound.

ASCUAGA: “We had a good relationship, Dick and I did. We were all real close. And it was kind of unheard of to buy a place with nothing down. And it was a good deal for him, also, because you just don’t sell a place to anybody going down the road. And he knew I was part of the operation from the day it started.”

John Ascuaga’s Nugget made a name for itself with top-notch restaurants and a showroom headlined by an elephant named Bertha. A 35-foot-high statue of Nugget mascot Last Chance Joe stood sentry outside. Hotel towers later secured the resort a permanent place on the skyline, and by the time the Ascuagas sold the Nugget in 2013, they had firmly secured the role of their family, Dick Graves, the city of Sparks, and the state of Idaho, in the history of Nevada gaming.

Historian Alicia Barber is the editor of the website and smartphone app, Reno Historical. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.

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