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January 16, 2018

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A Lytle piece of history


March 19 - 20, 2005

In the summer of 1905, life for John Atchison Lytle and his wife, Mary Virginia Perkins Lytle, was a struggle, as they tried to carve out an existence in the newly formed town of Las Vegas amid bouts of hope and despair.

John, a one-time farmhand at the old Helen J. Stewart ranch near where Cashman Field is today, was manager of a restaurant in Ragtown, now called West Las Vegas. Mary, who came to Las Vegas on the first passenger train to the town, had just given birth to Genevieve, the first of what would be nine children.

Times were difficult for all residents of the dusty, wind-blown desert railroad settlement. Although property was going for a song, many were not so sure the town -- then without casino gaming -- would survive 10 years, let alone 100.

"Grandpa John always used to say he could have bought at that time any lot in downtown Las Vegas for $50 and any land on (what is now) the Strip for 75 cents an acre," said John Loren Lytle, a basketball star at Rancho High in the 1950s and a retired U.S. Forest Service ranger, who today resides in both Alamo and Las Vegas.

"He didn't have the money to buy any land at that time. But even if he did, you have to remember a lot of people back then questioned whether it was worth that investment. There was nothing here. And conditions were very harsh. It took an incredible commitment to live in Las Vegas back then."

David Millman, curator of the Nevada State Historical Museum at Lorenzi Park, said Grandpa Lytle was off in his recollection of the prices for which lots sold during the 1905 townsite auction, but the historian says it indeed was a rough life for those who tried to make a go of it in early Las Vegas.

Millman said that during the two-day auction, the lots around Fremont and Main Street sold for $750 to $1,750 and that overall, the 1,200 lots sold for $265,000 -- an average of $221 a lot.

"There could have been some lots that sold for as low as $50, but certainly they were few and further away (from Main and Fremont)," Millman said.

"Not that many people back then had that kind of money and this was not a very pleasant place to be. There were no amenities. People who weren't connected to the railroad had difficulties getting housing or water. Many came here and left. Only the people who stayed became pioneers."

Although not as famous as the other founding families of Las Vegas, including the Cashmans, the Von Tobels, the Leavitts and the Bunkers, the Lytles are every bit the pioneers that their noted counterparts were.

On this, the centennial year of the founding of Las Vegas, members of the Lytle family say they are proud to have been a part of local history for six generations -- common folks who left an indelible mark on the fabric of the community since before Day 1.

Day 1 was May 15, 1905, when the Clark Transport's Las Vegas townsite auction laid the floor plan for the city, which was incorporated in 1911.

John A. Lytle attended the auction, but, unable to top others' bids to buy a piece of property, he rented a patch of land and, like so many others, pitched a large tent to house the family and its meager belongings.

In late fall, when harsh dust storms rolled in, John came home to find Mary sitting on a rock crying and cradling Genevieve in her arms -- their uprooted tent hundreds of yards down the road, lying crumpled amid much of their possessions; their wood-burning stove overturned and lying at Mary's feet.

"Mary looked at John and said 'I want to go back to Moapa now,' " John Loren Lytle said, repeating a story handed down through the generations.

A reluctant John scooped up the family's belongings and abided by Mary's wishes. While the family's next stop was Overton, they eventually returned to Las Vegas, where members of the Lytle family have lived for nearly a century.

Millman said the Lytles' experience is not unlike the experiences of other early Las Vegans.

"Not only was there a lot or dust but also a lot of bugs -- flies were a tremendous problem during the summer," Millman said. "If families could afford to, they would send their women and children to California during the summer while the men stayed and worked."

And there was no air conditioning until the early 1930s. Before that, "there were primitive forms of swamp coolers for water-cooled air circulation. But they were not reliable," Millman said.

In his journal, John A. Lytle wrote of his efforts to beat the heat: "In the days I would ... throw water on the tent. This would cool it off for a short time."

Wood and brick buildings went up soon after the auction, replacing the tent city, Millman said, noting that the Arizona Club was standing by 1906 and the railroad had a mission-style depot.

Between 1909 and 1911, the railroad built downtown cottages for workers, cottages that still exist today, Millman said. One has been moved to the Clark County Museum. Others are scheduled to be moved to the Las Vegas Springs Preserve near Valley View Boulevard and U.S. 95, Millman said.

By the 1920s, Las Vegas was still small, but had potential to grow.

Lytle family matriarch Edythe Lytle Leavitt, now 89 and living in Alamo, where she is a retired judge, said she often came to Las Vegas as a member of Moapa Valley High School's debate team to compete against Las Vegas High.

"The towns were similar in size because nothing really happened in Las Vegas as far as big growth until the Hoover Dam project was announced in the late 1920s," said Leavitt, who was born in Overton.

"You'd come into a town that was nothing but desert after you got past Sixth Street. In downtown, I recall there was Beckley's Department Store that became Ronzoni's and the El Portal Theatre. There also was the police station, the Fifth Street Grammar School and the high school."

Leavitt, who was married to John V. Lytle, perhaps the most well-known of the Lytles for his stint as a Las Vegas justice of the peace in the 1950s, said the big event every year was the Helldorado Western-themed parades and rodeo.

Leavitt attended the first one in 1935, eight years before moving to Las Vegas. In 1954, her daughter, Naomi Lytle Brown, became Miss Helldorado.

"I would not say I was the most attractive of the 10 girls in the contest, but I sure could ride a horse, which was a big requirement in those days," said Brown, who wrote a 2004 self-published book, "Faces of Old Nevada, a Pictorial History of Southern Nevada," about her family.

"I can remember nearly every day as a child and member of the Junior Buckaroos, riding from one end of town to the other on horseback."

The Lytle family dates its beginnings in Northern Nevada to the mid-1800s. In the later part of the 19th century, Mary V. Lytle's father, Ute Warren Perkins, a colonizer for the Mormon Church, delivered salt, vegetables and other items by wagon to the ranches that dotted the Las Vegas Valley.

In the early 1900s, John A. Lytle's mother, Lucy Atchison Lytle, moved to Las Vegas, marking the first generation of Lytles to call Las Vegas home.

In her diary, Mary Lytle recalled that period in local history. One entry tells of her concerns of dangers related to a growing number of homeless people, which remains a major problem in modern Las Vegas.

"(A neighbor and I) used to walk four miles up to Big Springs. She had an old black bulldog, which we took along to protect us, as old tramps were drifting into town from all over, following the railroad," Mary Lytle wrote.

Six of the nine children born to John A. and Mary V. Lytle survived to adulthood to foster a continuing line of Southern Nevada Lytles that today include Henderson Fire Department Battalion Chief Jeff Lytle and his three children.

"I'm proud of what our family has contributed," said Edythe Lytle Leavitt, noting that other family luminaries include miner George Lytle and his wife, Clara Perkins Lytle, who owned one of the town's first children's shops on Fifth Street -- today called Las Vegas Boulevard -- north of Fremont Street.

The Lytles say the city of Las Vegas, which is overseeing Centennial events, has not contacted them to participate in any of its yearlong festivities. But they say they don't mind, and that they likely will attend the resurrection of Helldorado and some of the other planned happenings.

Leavitt said the thing that has most impressed her about Las Vegas has been witnessing so much growth since she first saw the town as a teenager in the mid-1920s.

"The growth is absolutely amazing, and I love it," said Leavitt, who travels to Las Vegas every Wednesday to serve as a volunteer ordinance worker at the Las Vegas temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"When we moved from Las Vegas in 1970 (to Alamo) we thought Las Vegas was too big and too crowded ... but look at it now. I suppose I miss the quiet, old Las Vegas a little, but how it has grown in 100 years is just so incredible."