Saturday, Jan. 10, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Any true Western saloon has seen a few fights. The Pioneer’s deadliest was way back in 1915, when a crooked card game culminated in gunfire.
But the most important battle in the 95-year history of the bar may be the one shaping up right now.
In 2007 the old watering hole in this unincorporated town of about 200 was added to the State Register of Historic Places, and thanks to publicity on cable television shows and the Internet, it has been drawing an increasing number of visitors — so many, in fact, that the owner of the bar wants to add a small hotel and other amenities.
That plan has stirred up a fight that could determine the future of not just the bar but the entire town about 38 miles southwest of Las Vegas.
Townsfolk opposed to the bar owner’s plans say they aren’t against economic development. They just want it to come in a form that doesn’t draw more Hells Angels, Mongols and other bikers who no longer abide by the decades-old code not to interfere with town life.
Historian Liz Warren, chairwoman of the Goodsprings Citizens Advisory Council, also said there’s a question of whether there’s enough groundwater in these parts to support a plan by Pioneer owner Noel Sheckells to build a 13-room hotel.
But Sheckells, a 52-year-old Las Vegas businessman who paid about $1 million for the Pioneer in December 2006, doesn’t believe the opposition is really based on water or bikers. He says the problem is people too settled in their ways to accept change. And change is bound to occur, he said, even here at the base of Mount Potosi, seven miles west of Jean.
“There are two ladies in town who just don’t like anything to do with anything, especially the bar,” Sheckells said.
He stood amid a handful of customers Tuesday afternoon, a few hours after Clark County commissioners agreed with those ladies and denied his appeal for most of the changes he wanted to make. They didn’t deny his hotel because he withdrew it from consideration beforehand.
But among his supporters — his customers — he promised to resubmit his hotel plan and to push for permits to use the line of gas-fired barbecue grills that he installed behind the building prior to seeking the required county approval.
With the grills, Sheckells ran afoul of county rules out of ignorance, he said, and because he hurriedly installed them to accommodate a visit from Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman in July 2007, when hizzoner arrived in a limo with a showgirl to celebrate the saloon’s listing as one of Nevada’s historic places.
Sheckells said he will “fight to the bitter end” to win approval for his grills and the bigger changes he wants to make in the future.
“I’m not doing this to make money,” he said. “I figure I’ll never make money on it. I’m doing it to help the town, to preserve this place and to make it a place we can all be proud of.”
In the other corner, though, is a woman who has faced bigger foes — and defeated them.
In the 1970s with her husband, Claude, a UNLV emeritus anthropology professor, Warren made the federal government move a highway.
Shortly after moving to Las Vegas in 1969, the Warrens learned of plans to run a federal highway over the site of the spring that drew settlers to Las Vegas. They doggedly pressured federal highway authorities to stop or alter their plans.
The Warrens wrapped the feds up in their own red tape, forcing them to change the highway’s route, saving an area that today is Springs Preserve.
Today, Warren and some neighbors say they are trying to save what remains of their town’s peace and quiet.
For years that’s what they had, even when Don Hedrick Sr. ran the Pioneer starting in the wild and woolly 1960s. Most townies believe Don was a prominent member of the Hells Angels or some other motorcycle gang. Respect for him, along with a healthy dose of fear, kept visiting bikers from raising heck or driving from the bar, which is on the western edge of Goodsprings, into the town.
“He wouldn’t stand for bikers going into town,” said resident Monica Beisecker, also an advisory council member. “He ruled with an iron fist. Mongols and Hells Angels never fought when they came here. It’s neutral territory.”
It was Hedrick, in a fit of anger, who put the two bullet holes in the bar’s pressed tin walls, Biesacker said.
Hedrick was “gruff and mean as a snake but he had a soft heart,” according to Warren’s partner-in-protest Ruth Rawlinson, the second of Sheckells’ “two ladies.”
“He ran for and won the constable’s seat for several terms. He ran the ambulance service for years. He was on our first advisory board. He cared deeply for this town,” Rawlinson said.
Though Hedrick’s son wasn’t as much a part of the town after he took over the Pioneer in the 1990s, the peace remained.
Rawlinson said Sheckells’ ownership is a different story.
Since he bought the place, she says, Harleys frequently rumble by the smattering of homes and rusted farm equipment in the yards and desert patches that make up Goodsprings.
“We are plagued with revving motors through town all hours of the day and night,” Rawlinson said. “We can’t sit in the back yard.”
Sheckells, she said, “doesn’t care.”
Sheckells is flabbergasted at the accusation that he has been an absentee, negligent landlord. Yes, he did spend 26 weeks in Asia last year tending to his new tour agency with offices in the Phillippines and Thailand, but he has been to several Goodsprings town meetings.
“And I felt like I was going to be tarred and feathered,” he added.
As for being part of the community, before he arrived, the bar had created a group that donates thousands of dollars worth of toys to children at a Las Vegas hospital each year, he said. This year they bought school supplies for kids in Sandy Valley and Goodsprings.
The money he spends on the Pioneer is something of a donation, too, as Sheckells sees it, because he knows he’ll never make it back. He says he does it because he cares about the town, and as much about the history of Goodsprings as Warren does.
“The Pioneer is going to be around a lot longer than I am, or longer than any of the people who are against it,” he said. “I’m trying to preserve the history of the place, and bring back some of what was lost.”
On Tuesday the handful of people drinking in the afternoon sun on the front porch of the Pioneer — in violation of yet another county ordinance — supported Sheckells.
“A lot of people out here don’t have jobs unless Noel gives them something to do. The guy has done more for this town since he bought this bar than anyone who has lived here,” said “Prison” Ed, a 65-year-old career Navy man in a black leather trenchcoat. He is also a retired prison worker, hence the nickname.
Another customer who lives as “a hermit” outside of town was more ambivalent. Drinking his beer, Steve, who would not give his full name, said the Pioneer is just fine as it is. He doesn’t begrudge Sheckells for trying to add on, but he fears a hotel could turn into a nest for drug dealers, prostitutes and others looking to make a quick buck.
“Scum,” he called them.
Sheckells wants to replicate the two-story hotel built by George Fayle, the Clark County commissioner who also built the Pioneer and the general store next to it in 1913. The hotel burned to the ground in 1966.
“Wouldn’t that be cool up here?” Sheckells said, pointing to a black-and-white photo of Fayle’s hotel on the wall of the bar’s pool room. “That would be my gift to the town.”
Sheckells figures the hotel could also keep drunk drivers off the road. If anyone imbibed too much at the Pioneer, they could walk next door and check in for the night.
With the saloon’s regular appearance on television shows about unique destinations or haunted buildings — Sheckells swears he and his daughter one cold morning saw a pizza pan mysteriously fly off the top of the bar — the Pioneer has become a mecca for L.A. hipsters, motorcyclists and others seeking respite from the modern and urban.
“It’s like a county fair up here every weekend,” Sheckells said.
Rawlinson and Warren, though, counter that the entertainment of outsiders is not their charge in life.
They also balk at accusations they are against development. They are for it, they insist. They even have a plan to draw a different type of biker to Goodsprings. They’re pushing to turn old rail lines into bike trails linking their town to Jean.
“For years, it’s only been the bar that’s attracted outside folks,” Warren said. Getting a trailhead here, she said, might encourage someone to open a bike shop, maybe a coffee shop. “We’d like to have those who are of a different frame of mind about why they come to Goodsprings.”