Nevada’s Neon Colossus Winks Once Again
Almost every community has its monument, be it a historic building, a field gun in the park, or a bronze statue in the city square. In West Wendover, Nevada, it’s a 64-foot-tall sheet-metal cowboy named Will, who waves and winks at passersby from atop a pedestal planted on a safety island in the middle of Old Highway 40.
Until recently Will stood sentry in front of the State Line Casino, one finger pointing down at the stripe across the road that separates Utah from Nevada. He was named after William (“Bill”) Smith, an underemployed drifter who came to town on a freight train in the mid-1920s and saw potential where most travelers saw nothing but rocks and a vast saline prehistoric lakebed. With money saved up from a menial job at a nearby salt mine, Smith became part owner of a gas station and garage. Soon a café and tourist cabins were added, followed by a bar and finally slot machines. After his business partner died, Smith bought out the heirs and became sole owner of what would eventually become the State Line Hotel and Casino.
According to local folklore, it was Smith who introduced the concept of round-the-clock business hours to Wendover. In order to attract customers, the onetime hobo installed an electric light bulb atop a pole in front of his establishment. “Don’t anybody ever turn that light off,” he ordered. When he amassed sufficient capital to upgrade his light bulb on a pole, Smith commissioned the Young Electric Sign Company to build something on the order of the Pioneer Club’s Vegas Vic. Young Electric called on Vegas Vic’s creator, the graphic artist Pat Denner, who sat down and created Wendover Will.
Erected in 1952, Wendover Will was powered by a three-quarter-horsepower electric motor and outlined by 1,184 linear feet of neon tubing. His left eye continually winked, and a lit cigarette flickered up and down between his lips. High winds and heavy rain couldn’t put out his smoke, and not even a lightning strike could wipe the grin off his face. Indeed, the only thing that could bring Will down was a change of ownership. In 2002 the State Line Hotel and Casino was sold and renamed the Wendover Nugget. Soon afterward Will, with his come-hither wink and retro-Western garb, was taken down and put into storage.
In recent years the western side of town has grown much faster than the eastern side. With an economy fueled largely by recreation dollars, West Wendover now can claim, in addition to half a dozen casinos, its own city hall, fire station, high school, supermarket, convention center, water-treatment plant, and golf course. What it didn’t have was a central monument—that is, until someone suggested the recumbent Wendover Will.
The owners of the Wendover Nugget readily agreed to deed Will to the city of West Wendover, and Young Electric volunteered to refurbish him. A $50,000 grant was secured from the Nevada Commission on Tourism; another $40,000 came from merchandise sales and donations. It turns out the old electric cowboy has a great many friends, among them civic leaders, local merchants, and past managers and patrons of the State Line. One check came from a Texan who had never lived in Wendover but remembered standing in Will’s shadow when he was a boy of seven.
Last June a completely restored Wendover Will was dedicated. From his new perch, he overlooks a bustling community of approximately 5,000 souls.
“Wendover Will means so much in a variety of ways to so many people,” declared West Wendover’s mayor, Josephine Thaut. “When you were down, we knew how much we missed you. So we’re gathered here this morning to pay tribute to an old warrior, an icon that has endured the test of time and weathered many a storm.”
With that, six bottles of moderately priced champagne were simultaneously bashed against metal bollards at the base of Will’s pedestal. Two refused to break. One VIP sustained a laceration. Above it all, Will stood tall, grinned widely, and winked knowingly.
— Richard Menzies