Submitted by Jody Rice
This week This is Reno readers travel with me, Jody Rice, back in time and out south to an once-pasture-lined South Virginia Street.
Long before most locals predicted, the South Virginia Street development genie was out of the bottle.
Heck, by 1980, there were literally two genies watching over the bucolic south Reno ranches homesteaded by families with surnames such as Holcomb and Huffaker.
“The Big Genie High in the Sky” at Carpeteria and the “Genie in the Lamp” hole at Magic Carpet Golf are so iconic that nearby business still use them as reference points in their advertisements.
But back then, the 1980s, the only places to stop on the two-lane, lonely roadway between Reno and Carson seemed to be the Merry Wink Motel, Carpeteria, Magic Carpet and the Fortune Teller, most remember because of the eerily-lit sign with the large, stretched-out palm outside the 1931-built brick house.
Perhaps using a crystal ball, the Fortune Teller foresaw the future frenzied four-lane roadway, adjacent to the even bigger six-lane asphalt artery now known as I-580, or US 395.
A stark contrast from the now-gone Merry Wink roadside signs warning driver’s in Pleasant Valley not to fall asleep on the quiet, dark, country road. One after the other the well-known signs read, in four signs a couple hundred feet apart, something like, “The man who drives…, Half-asleep…, Is now buried, six feet deep… Merry Wink Motel.”
The motel’s other recognizable sign of a winking, top-hatted, bearded man who holds a strong resemblance to Santa Claus greeted travelers to the lodge built in 1942 at 12901 S. Virginia Street. The sign has seen better days but it will be preserved as part of Reno history by local neon sign collector Will Durham, who purchased the sign years ago but leaves it in its original spot next to the Tamarack Junction.
Sherie Callahan, whose family built and runs Magic Carpet, said she often ate at the Golden Road, once at the northeast corner of Peckham Lane and south Virginia Street, because there were no restaurants closer to their business at 6925 S. Virginia Street (and yes, for a time it was called the “Golden Door.”)
In 1974, her family bought three acres of then-farmland to add to their miniature golf dynasty, that includes courses in South Lake Tahoe and Carnelian Bay.
Maybe obvious to them was the public’s draw to open space, the proximity to Lake Tahoe and the captivating views, including the 10,778-foot Mount Rose and mountain ranges.
They watched as housing subdivisions and big-box businesses sprang up everywhere as ranchers sold off property. Now it is hard to figure out where the old V&T railway ran east of Virginia Street before it made its last run in 1950.
“My parents never worried about it,” Sherie said about the then remote location and reason for moving to Reno. “My parents liked to gamble and my dad was a hunter.”
It’s a bet that has paid off for the family business now with three separate golf courses, known by most for the signature mechanical giant spider hole (adorned with huge spiderweb on a tree), massive tyrannosaurus rex and fairy tale castle.
Other memorable holes include the Pumpkin, the Old Woman’s Shoe, Water Wheel, or the sizeable and hard to miss from the freeway, dark Stone Face. Plus, the snail where golfers tried their luck at a gift card for a free game.
Nancy Licko Kimball, a Colorado resident who grew up in Reno, loved Magic Carpet because in high school, it was one of the few date-approved places for her father, Dave Licko, the Reno Gazette-Journal’s CFO at the time.
“It was a blast,” she said. “We’d go on double dates and go to a Mexican food restaurant that was out there too.”
Not much has changed for the 60-foot-high, turban-wearing Carpeteria genie, known to have been blown off from his perch by the area’s strong winds. He stands tall over the untouched 1980s-built building, with red-tiled roof and stamped white rock at 8150 S. Virginia Street. Reno’s own Gil Rebideaux, who died in 2010, created the genie in his backyard and many other signs during his 35 years as a designer for Young Electric Sign Company. This masterpiece predates the city sign ordinances and so is grandfathered in.
Many will note the red-and-yellow wagon out front that once advertised for the much beloved Liberty Belle before it closed in 2006. Unclear research indicated that this might be one of the wagons that Marshall and Frank Fey, owners of the Liberty Belle, acquired from the downtown’s Roy Stagg’s Roaring Camp of the late 1940s.
There was never a better spokesperson for the store than local celebrity Betty Stoddard, who most remember as the 1950s television host of “Be My Guest,” said long-time Carpeteria employee Pat Manley.
“When she did Carpeteria’s commercials, it would bring lots of people into the store,” said Manley, a salesman for 32 years.
Of the four early businesses ‘way out on South Virginia Street – Carpeteria, Magic Carpet Golf, the Merry Wink Motel and the Fortune Teller – only the former two remain, although the signs of all four endure. Perhaps this says something about the mystical power of genies. But I believe it shows that Reno is a place where local businesses are valued and, even if they succumb to modern development, we strive to preserve something of what they were and what they meant to us in the Biggest Little City.
Got it Karl, Stay Safe out there!
From Karl: Jody Rice is a Reno lass who grew up with my sons, learned to write good at Swope Middle School, then Reno High and the University of Nevada Journalism College. She’s been writing around our hamlet for years and I’m pleased to have her join me for an occasional foray into local history!
Submitted opinions do not represent the views of ThisisReno. Have something to say? Submit an opinion article here.
Karl Breckenridge is slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally and loves to yak it up with friends…now sitting six feet apart.
Read more from Karl Breckenridge
Karl’s pal Jody shares the rich history of bootlegging, decorating, and engineering within the confines of the Truckee River’s banks and its picturesque islands.