The premise of the film is to compare the current economic downturn with the Great Depression of the last century. In order to do that, they are traveling far and wide to interview those persons who actually grew up during the Depression to chronicle how much the present day situation is similar to those dark days of yesteryear. They are particularly interested in those individuals who weathered the Depression and went on to become successful later in life. Did the Depression help them by making them stronger or did it inhibit them from reaching their highest potential?
In that respect, the choice of Link Piazzo, now 90 years old, probably offered one of the best interviews they have so far conducted. A hard-working youngster all through his childhood, Link and his brother Chet had to contribute to the support of their family early on. One of Piazzo’s best stories to illustrate how hard the hard times really were between World War I and World War II is the story of how he acquired his first bicycle. Walking a paper route in his northwest Reno neighborhood was a long and laborious process and since he did not have the means to purchase a bike, he hit upon a scheme to visit the various small junkyards that proliferated in those early years. On each sortie, he would be lucky enough to pick up an essential part, such as handlebars, wheels, tires, chain and whatever else was necessary. At one time I asked him what “make” the final creation was called and he replied “the Link Special.”
Like many of his generation, Piazzo and his brother were used to hard work. As he tells it, one day he and his brother were digging a ditch in extremely hot weather when they turned to one another and one said, “There’s got to be an easier way to make money than this!” Accordingly, it wasn’t long before they scraped together enough money to start their first commercial enterprise: a sporting goods store. Since they were both of requisite age when this country entered the war in 1941, they were both off to serve. Fortunately, they had sisters who were able to take over and keep their store, The Sportsman, going until the war ended. During this time in the service, Piazzo was a bomber pilot in the Pacific and flew so many missions that he has a large collection of medals from those days. Once they got rolling, the two brothers completely dominated not only the northern Nevada sporting goods field, but were also preeminent throughout the state, primarily due to their lucrative university and high school contracts for uniforms and equipment. This writer recalls walking into the Reno store in the winter of 1947 to pick up some personal basketball equipment for play at the University of Nevada, Reno. I had never seen a store so completely stocked in my life. What you couldn’t find on the main floor was certainly located in the commodious lower level.
As their fortunes progressed, the brothers Piazzo began acquiring large amounts of commercial real estate, most of which they converted into shopping centers. However, the largest piece of real estate that Piazzo became involved in, with several partners, was a ranch on the east side of the Truckee Meadows. They converted it into a country club and golf course called Hidden Valley and that is where Piazzo lives today in his retirement years. In the past several decades, he has also become one of the town’s largest philanthropists, donating to schools, the university, hospitals and other worthy causes.
For his part, Mayor Cashell gave a folksy interview at his office, high atop the Reno City Hall building. While he narrated to the interviewer that most of his “Depression days” had been spent as a youngster in east Texas, he was actually too young to have felt the full impact of the Depression personally. However, he said he remembered sessions around the family dining table when money was the main topic of conversation during the lean years. Arriving in Reno to stay permanently in 1964, Cashell said that he was amazed at the vitality and energy level of the Biggest Little City. Originally in the oil distribution business, with a few partners he was able to purchase the only major truck stop in the area. At that time it was a minimal installation on the outskirts of west Reno. Very soon he changed the name to Boomtown and it eventually grew to heroic proportions and became not only a favorite stop for truckers, but also for tourists and locals alike.
Always interested in athletics, he became a permanent fixture on Pop Warner and Little League fields. Eventually, he was elected to the regents post at UNR and subsequently ran successfully for lieutenant governor of Nevada. Since selling Boomtown some time back, he has been actively involved in a number of successful casino operations and is currently midway into his second term as Reno Mayor.
As to the recession/ depression issue, he noted, “The people of northern Nevada have always been a resilient group and have somehow found a way to weather all sorts of ups and downs in their lives and in their business endeavors. The pioneers in Reno who grew up during the Depression years were a tough group of guys, molded in cowboy tradition. I’m still betting we have enough of that spirit here to weather today’s problems.”
The Guy Rocha interview was set up because the former state archivist has an encyclopedic memory of literally everything that ever occurred in the Silver State. Appropriately, he had recently delivered a talk to Reno’s Good Old Days Club in which a major portion was devoted to the way in which Reno weathered the Great Depression. He noted, “Nevada as a whole, and Reno in particular, were late going into the Great Depression and early getting out. Today’s situation saw Nevada getting in early and probably destined to get out later.”
Rocha has also written several newspaper columns detailing Nevada’s situation during the Depression.
All of the local interviewees will be joining somewhat august company when the film is finished, since the producers have already interviewed a number of luminaries such as Hugh Downs, Art Linkletter, Mickey Rooney as well as many writers and economists — some 20 in all. Among those scheduled for future interviews are Ray Bradbury, Jack Lalane, Monty Hall and many more.
Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.
Editor’s note: Harry Spencer’s column is sometimes a mix of reporting and opinion. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.