Changes in Tonopah: Taxscine dies of a broken heart

Taxscine Martin Ornelas, the owner of a brothel located on St. Patrick’s Street in Tonopah’s red-light district, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in August 1900. She died in Tonopah in May 1954.

Little is known of Taxscine’s life before her arrival in Tonopah, as the Tonopah Times Bonanza (Friday, May 21, 1954) put it, “some time prior to 1930.” In Tonopah, she settled in the “local restricted district.” Her obituary stated she worked both as a prostitute and much of the time “almost exclusively in an executive capacity” in a brothel.

Taxscine died quite unexpectedly. She was found lying face down beside her bed, a pool of blood next to her head. She apparently had hemorrhaged. Foul play was not suspected. A workman had tried to rouse Taxscine on two successive mornings, but his pounding on the door brought no response. When Coroner Walter Bowler was summoned, he had to gain access to her room by removing a window screen. It was estimated she had been dead about 24 hours. When Bowler arrived, Taxscine’s pet dog protected her body and growled and had to be covered with a blanket before she could be examined by the coroner.

People who knew Taxscine well said she died of a broken heart from the forced closure in 1952 of her brothel. Since its closure it was said she had “lived in virtual seclusion.” She was married to Bonny Ornelas, who during this period worked at the big tungsten mine in Lincoln County, where he was when she died.

The closure of Taxscine’s brothel, of course, came about as a result of the murder of Alice Nashlund, a well-known prostitute in Tonopah for many years. In December 1951, Nashlund was found fatally bludgeoned in the Nugget Bar in the red-light district. Raymond Millan was tried for her murder but was acquitted. Nashlund’s death led to an outcry against the red-light district and authorities clamped down in early 1952. Taxscine’s and the Nugget Bar, the two brothels remaining in the tenderloin, lost their liquor licenses and were closed.

Taxscine was remembered as being extremely generous when charitable needs in the community arose. Fund-raising drives always placed a coin collector in her bar and it was always returned overflowing, as her obituary said, “mostly with Taxscine’s own money, although she never failed to remind her patrons to ‘feed the kitty.’” One year, half the money collected in Nye County for the state cancer fund came from Taxscine’s bar. She once made a major contribution toward funding the purchase of a new school bus for Tonopah.

During World War II, Taxscine received a letter from “the boys in the stockade” at the Tonopah Air Base. “If everyone had the kind heart you have, this would be a different world to live in,” one airman wrote. Soldiers at the Tonopah Air Base called Taxscine “The Little Desert Mother.”

Taxscine’s funeral was held in Tonopah on May 17, 1954. Gerald Roberts officiated and “Nearer My God to Thee” was sung. Her obituary stated, “Taxscine would have been proud and happy to see how large and representative was the group that came to pay a mining camp’s last respects.” Pallbearers were William P. Beko, Frank Del Papa, Pat McHugh, Ray Harris, Ben Holloway, and James Ray. Taxscine was buried in the Tonopah cemetery. (Tonopah Times Bonanza, May 21, 1954).

The Trees in Tonopah in the 1950s

After the red-light district in the St. Patrick Street area of Tonopah was closed in 1952, the waters regarding the illegality of prostitution in Tonopah were tested. Mrs. Margaret Cox obtained a liquor license and established a brothel named The Trees near the old railroad depot on the north side of Main Street in Tonopah. But The Trees did not last long. Prompted by citizen complaints, District Attorney William J. Crowell ordered it closed on October 14, 1953, and its retail liquor license was voluntarily suspended (Reno Evening Gazette, October 27, 1953). Following the closure of The Trees, Cox joined Bobbie Duncan in establishing the Buckeye Bar on the dump of the long-idle Buckeye Mine near Highway 6 just east of Tonopah.

Bobbie Duncan and the Buckeye Bar

Mary (Bobbie) Duncan Himes was born in June 1915 in Billings, Montana. She first arrived in Tonopah from Wisconsin in 1941; she and a friend were on their way to Hawaii. At first Bobbie did not like Tonopah but after her first week she changed her perspective and decided to stay.

She worked in Tonopah’s red-light district until the outbreak of World War II, when she went to Wyoming, where she worked at the famous Yellow Hotel in Lusk. There she came under the tutelage of Dell Burke, described as a “frontier madam.”

Mrs. Burke was famous for her “training of serious ladies intent on a lifetime devotion to the profession” (Joe Richards, Mirror, January 15, 2009). Later she returned to Tonopah. She married Bill Himes, who operated the Pastime Club, located on Main Street.

After the closure of the red-light district in Tonopah in 1952 following the murder of Alice Nashlund, Bobbie established the Buckeye Bar. Initially, the brothel and bar were located in an old frame house moved to the Buckeye Mine site, located just east of Tonopah. In mid-1963, the Buckeye was remodeled and expanded; once upgraded, it became renowned throughout Nevada and elsewhere as the fanciest such establishment in the state.

Bobbie was described as having “expressive brown eyes” that revealed “her compassion, generosity, and kindness” (Gayle Kretschmer, undated “tribute to Bobbie Duncan”). Joe Richards suggests that, more than any other courtesan in Nevada history aside from perhaps Julia Bulette of Comstock fame, Bobbie was worshipped by her clientele. She was said to be content with the “simple luxuries of life,” except perhaps for her Cadillac, a high-status symbol of the time. She took great pleasure in growing roses.

In June 1987 a surprise birthday party was held for Bobbie Duncan at the Tonopah Convention Center, with more than 150 friends from Tonopah, Las Vegas, Carson City, and other areas in attendance. One attendee toasted Bobbie, saying, “All of us would like to think we have as many friends as Bobbie has. She has the love and respect of everyone who comes in contact with her.” As he raised his glass of champagne in a toast to Bobbie, he said, “Bobbie, we hope you live as long as you want to.” Justice Court Judge Solan Terrell, who could not attend, sent a letter reading, “Tonopah could stand a few more dedicated citizens like you.” Among those who toasted her at the party were Joanne Epperly, Bob Perchetti, Butch Fuson, Trish Rippey, and Ruby Moore.

With tears in her eyes Bobbie thanked the attendees, saying, “It’s the biggest surprise of my life. No one knows how wonderful it is to see all of you. Thank you all very, very much. I don’t get to see you often, but it’s been a pleasure. I love you all.”

Gayle Kretschmer concluded her written tribute to Bobbie Duncan saying, “Mary ‘Bobbie’ Duncan belongs rightfully so, to the history of this old mining town that is better for knowing her.” An engraved plaque was presented to Bobbie Duncan from her “Tonopah friends.” The plaque read, in part, “In appreciation of your generosity and support of the youth and of the community of Tonopah. This plaque, a symbol of your endless supply of heart to and for a town that has long recognized your worth” (Joe Richards, Mirror, January 15, 2009).

Bobbie’s husband, William A. Himes, Jr., had been a resident of Tonopah since 1956. He is described as being a community leader throughout that period. Himes was born in December 1903 in Buffalo, New York. He was a former co-owner and retired dealer of the Pastime Club in Tonopah. He served in World War II in the navy as an aviator. At one time he had been a 21 and roulette dealer at Binion’s Casino in downtown Las Vegas. He died at his home August 24, 1979, after a brief illness and is buried in the Tonopah Cemetery (Tonopah Times Bonanza, August 31, 1979).

Bobbie died in October 1989 in Tonopah and is buried in the Tonopah Cemetery. The pallbearers at her funeral were among central Nevada’s leading citizens: Keith Boni, Tom Jeffrey, Bob Bottom, Jimmy Joe Wallace, Bill Wilson, and Buddy Perchetti. Honorary pallbearers were Clyde Raper, Bob Revert, Ernie Longden, Bill Beko, and Chris Boni.

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