George Wingfield was a Nevada businessman, born August 16, 1876 near Cincinnati, Arkansas. The most successful businessman in Nevada during the first decades of the 20th Century, he speculated on gold and silver mines in the boom-towns of Goldfield and Tonopah, Nevada and amassed a fortune of nearly $25 million by 1907.Early Life
The Wingfield family moved to Lakeview, Oregon after George’s fifth sibling was born, and the children learned about life on a ranch. George ended his high school education at 15 and headed to Reno, Nevada to try work as a jockey. He played poker, worked cattle, and joined a cattle drive to Winnemucca, Nevada at 19 and stayed on to try his luck at the card tables.
Wingfield was a better poker player than jockey, and in two years he a built his winnings up to $40,000. That near-fortune for the 1890's allowed him to open a saloon in Golcanda complete with poker tables, faro, and roulette, but the town went bust and so did George. A year later he limped back into Winnemucca and borrowed $1,000 from his friend George S. Nixon, a local banker. It was enough to get started again, and soon Wingfield found himself in Tonopah, Nevada, playing poker and grubstaking miners.Rich Tonopah Strikes
Tonopah and Goldfield turned into rich mining towns and Wingfield and friend Nixon were the most successful mine owners of the time. Friends Jack Carrey and Nick Abelman owned gambling permits for the Tonopah Club, and everyone profited from mining claims that soon traded on the Tonopah Stock Exchange.
Tex Rickard and others sponsored boxing matches pitting fighters like Joe Gans, Oscar Nelson and a young Jack Dempsey in the boom towns, but Reno, Nevada offered a more gentile atmosphere, one more suiting to Wingfield’s new bride to be. In July of 1909, George announced his engagement to San Francisco banker Robert B. Murdoch’s daughter, Maude Azile.To Reno
Wingfield’s real estate purchases in Reno followed his previous success in Tonopah. George purchased the best locations in town and leased them to saloon and casino managers who kicked back a 15 percent cap to Wingfield. Although gaming was illegal (and soon, so was liquor) in Reno, new clubs sprang-up like wildfire.
Back in Tonopah, Nick Abelman was having great success with the Tonopah Club, Bon-Ton Club, Cobwebs, and The Big Casino. Wingfield’s former bodyguards, Jim McKay and Bill Graham, were brought into Abelman’s clubs to learn the gaming industry before heading to Reno to open similar clubs for Wingfield.Late ‘20’s Crash
According to The Roots of Reno, by the 1920’s, as Nevada’s mining industry slowed, Wingfield’s empire grew to include the state’s largest banks. He invested money to rebuild the Riverside hotel and opened the Riverside bank before leasing out the casino to Nick Abelman.
Unfortunately, one of Wingfield’s bank managers, Henry Clapp, began buying risky stocks with money he embezzled from the bank. Over an eight-year period, Clapp lost over $500,000 before he was caught. The story of the loss made its way to the local newspapers, making Wingfield’s banks look vulnerable, but that was nothing compared to the Crash of ’29 that sent Wingfield’s empire into jeopardy and eventual bankruptcy in 1932.
Wingfield had just enough political power left to help Bill Graham push for votes on Nevada’s Senate floor to get the 1931 open gambling bill passed, and Reno managed to move out of the depths of the Great Depression before most cities in the United States.
Eventually, Wingfield managed to hold on to his beloved Riverside hotel, his home, and little else. Nick Abelman purchased the 640-acre Spanish Springs Ranch at auction and gifted it back to Wingfield, but the times had changed. The Riverside Buffet, run by Abelman, was one of the most profitable casinos in Reno, so Wingfield had income from the lease as well as a 15 percent share of the profits from the table games.
At the time, the casino has only 16 slot machines. Income from the table games was sizable however, with roulette dominating the ledgers. The games of 21, craps, and Faro were also offered.
Because of the closing of many Wingfield-owned banks, personal account holders lost their deposits, and the people of Reno who had always admired Wingfield for his financial success, now turned their backs on him or taunted him on the streets. Garbage was dumped on his front lawn, and casinos that had been forced to share a piece of their action, refused to comply any longer. Only those clubs owned by Abelman, Graham, and McKay still shared, although those partners took it upon themselves to continue enforcing control over new casino owners.
When Graham and McKay were indicted for mail fraud, Riverside Bank manager Roy Frisch went missing and the proceedings ended in a mistrial even without Wingfield's testimony in New York. His doctors declared him too sick to travel.
A later retrial found Graham and McKay guilty, and they served five years in Leavenworth prison. The now seemingly healthy Wingfield lived out the remaining twenty years of his life as a moderately successful business owner. He passed away December 24, 1959.