OWATONNA — When Don Laughlin stepped into the Izaak Walton building on the Steele County Fairgrounds the Saturday evening of Fair Week, his eyes grew wistful with nostalgia.
He had come in that very building when he was a boy growing up in Owatonna, he said, and had seen then some of the same aquarium tanks that line the wall now , though obviously not with same fish.
Laughlin had journeyed back to Owatonna less than a week before in his private jet — not an uncommon trip for him — to visit the Steele County Free Fair.
“You can see anybody you want to see at the fair,” he said.
The rumor was that the recently completed Steele County Free Fair would be the last fair that Laughlin, now 88, would attend. But when you ask him point blank whether that fair was his last one, he smiles and his eyes twinkle.
“I said that the last time,” he said of his trip back to the fair two years ago, “but I always come back.”
In some ways it’s a bit of a surprise that Laughlin ever came back to Owatonna since he left in the mid-1950s and went out west to make his fortune — quite literally.
How big of a fortune?
According to celebritynetworth.com, Laughlin, who “rose to riches from humble beginnings,” Laughlin has a net worth of $1 billion — a figure that Laughlin himself does not dispute. Nor does he dispute his “humble beginnings.”
He grew up on a farm in rural Steele County, where his father was, as he describes him, “a part-time farmer and a part-time drunkard.” But that didn’t stop the entrepreneurial spirit of young Laughlin, who even as a boy worked as a trapper. And with the money he earned trapping muskrat and mink, at the age of just 12 years old, Laughlin made a purchase that would change his life forever.
He bought a slot machine.
At the time, slot machines, though not quite legal, were tolerated by local authorities. Some were in the basements of pubs in Owatonna where Laughlin watched his mother play the machines.
It intrigued him so that when he saw an advertisement for a slot machine in Billboard magazine — yes, they could be purchased by mail-order at the time — he purchased one and entered into a 50-50 agreement with a local store owner. The two split the money made by the machine 50-50.
Soon he purchased more machines and placed them in more locations around town. Business got so good that he wasn’t getting much sleep at night because he had to make the rounds to make sure the machines were working.
“You don’t make any money with a broken machine,” he said.
Of course, news of his endeavors didn’t stay a secret, and while he was a student in high school — a 16-year-old ninth grader, as he recalls — a school administrator got wind of the slot machines and called Laughlin into his office.
“He said, ‘You can’t have slot machines and go to school.’” Laughlin recalled. “I told him, ‘I don’t have them here.’”
But the administrator gave him the ultimatum: either get out of the slot machine business or get out of school. For Laughlin, there wasn’t much of a choice. He was, after all, making about $500 a week — more than three times what the school administrator was making. So he opted to get out of school and stay in the slot machine business right here in Steele County.
And he might have stayed had it not been for Luther Youngdahl.
“Gambling in Minnesota: A History,” published in 2005 by the Minnesota House of Representatives, describes how pervasive gambling, especially slot machines, were in the state in post-World War II Minnesota, even though the machines were illegal.
“An estimated 8,000 illegal slot machines were being operated in Minnesota and the annual revenue from these machines was estimated at $4 million (equivalent to about $35 million today),” the history reads. “Many of the machines were operated … with little interference from local law enforcement.”
In 2019, that $4 million would be worth just shy of $52 million — which makes it understandable why some wanted in the business. That is, until Luther Youngdahl came into the picture.
In another Minnesota House history of gambling in the state, Youngdahl, who was elected governor in 1946, is described as “a Christian first and a politician second, someone who once said that ‘politics is the machinery by which society makes its moral decisions.’ The Republican son of devout Swedish immigrants who ‘read the Bible a lot and were definitely opposed to sin,’ Youngdahl made it his personal crusade to rid the state of illegal gambling.”
In 1947, under Youngdahl’s guidance, the state enacted an anti-slot machine law that made possession of the machines grounds for revocation of business licenses, including liquor licenses. The law and its enforcement drove slot machines out of Minnesota. And it drove Don Laughlin out with it.
“He (Youngdahl) put me out of business,” Laughlin said.
So by the mid-1950s Laughlin made a decision to go to the one place in the country at the time where gambling was legal — Las Vegas.
A TOWN CALLED
Don Laughlin wakes up every morning at 10 a.m.
For those in a 9 to 5 job, that may sound late, but that’s just until you discover that he works every night until midnight. And this from a man who is nearly nine decades old.
“I like to work,” he said. “I don’t like to sit around.”
Which is why he doesn’t go fishing, even though he admires the fish in the Izaak Walton Building’s aquariums.
That work ethic, cultivated in him from when he was a boy trapping mink and muskrat during Steele County winters, served him well when he made the move to Las Vegas.
“I went to Nevada and worked for the outfit,” he said.
The “outfit,” as he called it, was just another name for the mafia.
“They were wonderful people to work for,” he said with a shrug.
In his early years in Vegas, Laughlin worked as a bartender by day and attended card and dice dealer’s school by night. It paid off — not a phrase that everyone can use in Vegas, but one which described Laughlin.
In just a few short years, Laughlin had saved enough money to buy his own business, called the 101 Club, a casino in North Las Vegas. Within 10 years, he had sold the place for $165,000.
That same year, Laughlin began to scout the Mohave Desert in his private plane, when a stretch of land near the Colorado River caught his eye. The land was called Tri-State because three states — Arizona, California and Nevada — come together in that general vicinity. Arizona and Nevada were separated only by the Colorado River and California was a short 10 miles away.
There was an old, boarded-up eight-room motel there, Laughlin recalled. And the town itself — if you can really call it a town — had a population of just about 55 or 60 in it and the surrounding area.
“The previous owner had abandoned it,” he said of the motel.
But where other people saw a money pit, Laughlin saw an opportunity. After all, both Arizona and California outlawed gambling at the time, In Nevada, it was legal. Laughlin was so interested in the property that he bought the motel and six acres of riverfront property for $250,000.
He started fairly small with his new property, dubbed the Riverside Resort, with just 12 slot machines and two gaming tables. The resort offered all-you-can-eat chicken dinners for just 98 cents. And a guest could stay in one of four motel rooms that the motel offered. So what did they do with the other four motel rooms? Laughlin and his family occupied them.
As the business grew — and boy, did it grow — Laughlin and others in the community wanted to make the tourists more comfortable and make things more convenient. One early change that they sought to make was to have an actual post office in Tri-State. But before that could happen, the area needed an official name as opposed to the moniker by which it was going.
The year was 1967 when they applied with the district postal office in San Francisco for a post office of the small town. Laughlin still remembers the visit by the officer for the U.S. Postal Service.
“His name was O’Neill,” Laughlin said.
When he told Laughlin that the town would have to have a name, Laughlin, thinking of his business, suggested that they call the town “Casino, Nevada,” but O’Neil scoffed, saying that the Postmaster General did not like names associated with gambling. Laughlin protested, noting that there was — and is — a community near the Idaho line named “Jackpot, Nevada.” But O’Neill stood firm, saying that they would have to come up with another name.
Then, according to Laughlin, O’Neill had a suggestion for a “good Irish name.” The name O’Neill suggested was “Laughlin.”
Don Laughlin didn’t disagree.