Nevada’s Brotherhood of Giant Neon Cowboys

Wendover Will is a giant cowboy that looms large against the inky black Nevada sky, waving to travelers on Interstate 80 pointing to the last gambling stop before the Utah border. The neon sign is the first glittering sight you see when you enter Nevada and the last when you leave. Underneath Will’s red cowboy boots and silver spurs the sign reads, “Where the West Begins,” letting people know that they’re in Nevada, land of gambling, drinking, wide open country--and neon. Wendover Will is a classic cowboy decked out with a hat, bandana, belt buckle, gun belt and six shooter, and boots. Standing on Nevada’s eastern border, Wendover Will represents the mythos of the American West. He harkens back to the days of the Wild West, while also representing the glitzy casino culture that still permeates the state. Wendover Will, erected in 1952, is not the only cowboy of his kind in Nevada; he actually has two “twin” brothers in Las Vegas and Laughlin. 

Pioneer Club and Vegas Vic
Pioneer Club featuring Vegas Vic flag mounted, lettering, and wall signs, Las Vegas, Nevada

Vegas Vic was the first larger-than-life neon cowboy in Nevada; Wendover Will the second. Thomas Young, founder of the Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO) in Nevada, designed the neon version of Vegas Vic, mascot of the Pioneer Club in Las Vegas, which was installed for $90,000 in 1951 on the corner of First and Fremont streets. Vegas Vic already existed in illustrated form, mainly on postcards sent out to advertise for the Pioneer Club. The mascot was created to draw in visitors and was so popular that the owners of the club commissioned YESCO to bring Vegas Vic to life in neon form. The neon cowboy was complete with a moving mechanical arm and cigarette and a recorded voice that boomed, “Howdy Podner!” the same greeting printed on the postcards with the original Vegas Vic, every 15 minutes.

Vegas Vic Under Construction
Worker with Vegas Vic's head in the YESCO shop (Salt Lake City), 1951

Vegas Vic’s arm stopped moving in 1991 and his voice stopped in 2006. When the Pioneer Club closed in 1995 and Vegas Vic looked like a true weathered cowboy, the Neon Museum offered to repair and maintain the sign if the owner paid for the electricity bill. The proposal stipulated that the sign would remain under the ownership of the building owner but if the building was sold it would become property of the Neon Museum. Ultimately the owner declined the offer and repaired the sign themselves. After the Pioneer Club closed, a souvenir shop took its place. His voice stopped in 2006, but Vegas Vic still stands tall greeting passerby with his cigarette grin, an iconic mainstay of Las Vegas even as it continually shifts and changes. According to company lore, Thomas Young lost money on Vegas Vic and went looking for another location for a neon cowboy where he could make money, eventually settling on Wendover--thus Wendover Will was born.

Pioneer Hotel and Gambling Hall
Cowboy neon sign at the Pioneer Hotel and Gambling Hall, Laughlin, Nev.

Thirty years passed between the birth of Vegas Vic and the arrival of the third colossal neon cowboy in Nevada, River Rick. He stands outside the Nevada Pioneer Hotel and Gambling Hall in Laughlin, Nevada and was erected in 1981. River Rick is considered to be the twin of Vegas Vic--he is essentially the same design with a few minute differences. Located on the banks of the Colorado River, the Pioneer Hotel was the sister property of the Pioneer Club. The owner, Margaret Elardi, commissioned YESCO, the same makers of Vegas Vic, to build River Rick for $1.5 million in 1981. Presumably she wanted River Rick to be strikingly similar to Vegas Vic to keep the same old-timey western aesthetic as the Pioneer Club, banking on the popularity of Vegas Vic to attract visitors to the Pioneer Hotel in Laughlin.

Though times have changed, neon has gone in and out of style many times, all three of Nevada’s giant neon cowboys are still standing, greeting travelers and locals alike. They may be dated and in need of frequent repairs, but these idiosyncratic cowboys will hopefully stay in place because they are historic Nevada landmarks that represent the state in all its western, neon glory.