Harvey and His Wagon Wheel
When Harvey Gross, a successful meat retailer from Sacramento, and his wife, Llewellyn Gross, moved to South Lake Tahoe, there were no phones, water, sewer, or power lines in the area. There was no highway maintenance and as soon as a significant amount of snow fell on Echo Summit, the road closed. Gross worked delivering meat and running a summer market for a few years before he and Llewellyn opened Harvey's Wagon Wheel Saloon & Gambling Hall in 1944 on seven acres of land near Stateline on Highway 50. The one-room, log cabin resort housed a six-stool lunch counter, three slot machines, two blackjack tables, and the only gas pump open 24 hours a day between Placerville, California and Carson City, Nevada. Harvey and Llewellyn worked 16-hour days preparing food, pumping gas, and dealing cards.
The Grosses were a devoted couple--partners from the start (as pictured on this piece). It was Llewellyn's idea to give the club a western theme with its trademark wagon wheel and longhorn skull. William Ledbetter, who married the couple's only daughter, became Harveys' vice-chairman in 1983 and has described the two as "complementing each other." She was a "woman of action"; he had a "plodding business nature." In their gaming escapades, she was acknowledged as the driving force. The Wagon Wheel was very much a family affair; in the early years, when business slowed, family, friends, and employees sat around Harveys' fireplace in the casino eating popcorn and telling stories.
In the 1950s Tahoe boomed as a tourist playground, and Harveys boasted "more slot machines under one roof than any other casino in the world." By then the Wagon Wheel encompassed an entire city block, and a maintenance station topped Echo Summit to keep Highway 50 open during the winter. Giant billboards advertising Harveys dotted nearby highways, and Harveys offered shuttle service to customers between the casino and their hotel, along with a free keno game and a meal. Business was so good that Harvey Gross put off plans to retire and, instead, built an 11-story, 197-room hotel, changing Harveys Wagon Wheel to Harveys Resort Hotel & Casino. In the early 1960s Harveys' flagship casino expanded, adding on gaming tables and more hotel space, and by the time Gross died in 1983, at the age of 79, his operation was earning $4.1 million on revenues of $70 million and had virtually no debt. Even so, Harvey Gross refused to expand beyond Lake Tahoe. When asked why, he always gave the same answer: "I have a nice little business.... How many steaks can I eat?"
Gross had made a commitment to Lake Tahoe, and he was not about to back out of it. He was committed to "spending money where he made it," sponsoring scholarships for local students, and providing job opportunities for disabled citizens. He and Llewellyn were instrumental in opening Highway 50 to year-round traffic. He also played a key role in establishing the South Lake Tahoe airport, a medical center at Al Tahoe, and Barton Memorial Hospital at South Shore.
William Ledbetter, Gross's son-in-law, who assumed control of the business shortly before Harvey's death in 1983. In 1998 the company was sold to the real estate investment firm of Colony Capital and some Harveys executives for $420 million, including assumed debt, putting an end to the era of family control.