Tag: gambling

Gambling Operators Bet on Douglas County

For decades, dodgy entrepreneurs gambled with the law, bringing cards, dice, slot machines, and other games of chance to area risk-takers. Douglas County gambling joints included a pool room in the Castle Rock barber shop, Woodbine, the Orchard Club, William Rubby’s place, Round-Up Ranch, and a northern Parker establishment reportedly run by a collaboration between African American entrepreneurs and Chinese immigrants looking to avoid Denver crackdowns.1

Readers of the Denver Post “may have come to the conclusion that there is nothing going on in Douglas County except a lot of gambling,” wrote editor Virgil A. Case in the Record Journal of Douglas County on Dec. 23, 1938. Case argued the operators of these illegal establishments did not belong among the “good, honest, law-abiding folks” of Douglas County. “The Lord knows we don’t want them, and we welcome their return to Denver at once.”2

Photograph of Ova Elijah Stephens, aka "Smiling Charlie"
Photograph 86.296.4145, History Colorado Online Collection; courtesy of History Colorado, Denver, Colorado.

Douglas County’s Gambling Heyday

Following the end of Prohibition, crime family-connected Ova Elijah Stephens became one of the most prolific of these industrialists, overseeing Douglas County’s gambling heyday. Known as “Smiling Charlie,” Stephens opened the Blakeland Inn in 1933. The property sat on the east side of Santa Fe Drive near the border of Douglas and Arapahoe counties. Stephens openly advertised steak dinners and dancing girls but offered additional undisclosed entertainment, including roulette, craps and slot machines.3

Photograph of the Bombed car of gambler Leo Barnes
Bombed car of gambler Leo Barnes, Rh-108; courtesy of Western History and Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library.
After three years of running the table, Stephens’ luck ran out. In June 1936, Judge Arthur Cornforth issued an injunction ordering the closure of the Blakeland Inn, citing its reputation as a gambling joint catering to the “wealthy sporting element of Denver and other places.”4 Soon, Stephens’ problems with law enforcement expanded exponentially when he and his compatriots attempted to murder former business associate Leo Barnes with a car bomb. On Dec. 8, 1936, Barnes sat behind the wheel of his parked car on Grant Street in Denver. Moments later, the dynamite placed inside exploded, destroying the car and seriously injuring Barnes.
Image of a page in the 1940 US Federal Census
Census 1940, courtesy of Ancestry.com.

A few months earlier, Barnes had worked for Stephens as manager of the dining room at the Blakeland Inn. Following the injunction against Blakeland, Barnes attempted to open his own joint a quarter-mile away by renting a place called Cottonwood Ranch. From October to December 1936, the Cottonwood raked in a profit of $8,600—roughly equivalent to $150,000 in 2019. However, Barnes neither met Stephens’ demand for a third of the profits nor heeded his warning that “if he went it alone he would not live a week.”5

A jury found Stephens guilty and he reported to the Colorado State Penitentiary, where he resided at the time of the 1940 census.6 “Many a tear will not be shed by Douglas County people if Stevens [sic] is retired from circulation for a long time,” reported the Record Journal on April 23, 1937. “And a lot more tears will remain unshed if a group of ‘criminal’ lawyers were sent along with Charley [sic] to keep him company.”7

After Stephens’ conviction, the Cottonwood reopened under the new name Broad Acres. Not long after the resurrection, an investigation in August 1937 uncovered wide-open gambling, and Douglas County commissioners opted to revoke Broad Acres’ liquor license as punishment.8 The steady stream of salacious news had taken a toll on the county’s reputation.

Newspaper clipping of a gambling notice by the District Attorney
Record Journal of Douglas County (1938, Sept. 23). Retrieved from coloradohistoricnewspapers.org.

Excising the Vice

Over the years, local officials and residents attempted to excise the vice in their midst. In 1937, the district attorney for the fourth judicial district reiterated police officers’ right to enter any place with suspected gambling activities by breaking down doors and partitions, seizing gambling paraphernalia, and destroying confiscated items, all without a warrant.9 In 1938, district attorney Clyde Starrett offered half of the fines obtained to any witness whose testimony could be used to close the gambling establishments in Douglas County’s north end.10

Law enforcement experienced some success. In 1939, O.N. Sandholm pled guilty to operating slot machines in a couple of resorts near Deckers, paying a $50 fine and $20 in fees. “If there are any other slot machine owners who want to contribute heavy fines to the county school fund, they should step right this way, and the sheriff and his men will accept their money and hammer their machines into junk,” wrote the editor of the Record Journal on July 7, 1939.11

Photograph of the Matthew Plews House
Matthew Plews House, 2008.050.0001.0005.0002, DCL Archives & Local History collection.

But crackdowns by law enforcement failed to keep Stephens away. Before his conviction for attempted murder, Stephens purchased a ranch from the Plews family.12 Neighbors may have disapproved of Stephens’ illicit activities, but they appreciated the improvements his presence brought to County Line Road, including electricity and additional phone lines.13

Mugshot of Smiling Charlie
Photograph 86.296.4150, History Colorado Online Collection; courtesy of History Colorado, Denver, Colorado.
After serving five years in prison, Stephens returned to his home at Fly’n B Ranch, known today as Fly’n B Park, and used it as a temporary location for his gambling operations as he looked for a permanent space.
Photograph of Wolhurst Mansion
Wolhurst, X-12099, courtesy of Western History and Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library.
In 1944, Stephens purchased Wolhurst, a sprawling 51-room mansion originally built in the 1890s for Senator Edward Wolcott, located a mere mile away from his home and just north of the Douglas/Arapahoe county line. Eager to take advantage of Douglas County’s lax law enforcement, Stephens built a tunnel from the Wolhurst mansion, conveying gamblers to the casino on the Douglas County side.
Photograph of the interior of the Wolhurst Club Bar
Wolhurst Club Bar, X-12118, courtesy of the Western History and Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library.

“They couldn’t gamble in Arapahoe County because old Chick Foster [Arapahoe County Sheriff], he wouldn’t allow any gambling, but the sheriff in Douglas County, he looked the other way,” said John Bowen in an oral history interview from 2010.14

Stephens lost big in the early morning hours of March 10, 1946. Around 3 a.m., 13 unmasked robbers, one armed with a machine gun, made off with $13,000 cash from Wolhurst. In a mere 15 minutes, the bandits swept through the massive estate, forcing guests—many of them prominent Denverites—to turn over their wallets and jewels.15 Fearing for their reputations, all of the victims denied any disturbance took place, and Stephens sold off his own property to reimburse his patrons for their stolen loot.16

Advertisement for Blakeland
Blakeland Inn newspaper advert. Image from “Smaldone: The Untold Story of an American Crime Family” by Dick Kreck.

Stephens refused to fold even after the bad break. Around 1954, he reopened Blakeland as a full-scale gambling hall with membership cards required for entry. But a raid in February 1956 forced him to cash in his Douglas County chips. Stephens and his wife were arrested and required to pay $3,300 in fines. The court ordered Blakeland padlocked, and all the confiscated gambling equipment was chopped up and burned at the Castle Rock dump.17 Having played all his aces, Stephens’ gambling enterprises in Douglas County finally went bust.

In the following years, as the stigma of gambling diminished and Colorado approved laws legalizing gambling in certain cities, the demand for black-market casinos declined. Ending its game of cat and mouse with illicit gambling operators, the state turned the tables, finally wising up to the fact that the house always wins.

Citations

1 Record Journal of Douglas County (1963, Aug. 15). Gambling Denied in Douglas Co. Retrieved from coloradohistoricnewspapers.org; Record Journal of Douglas County (1968, May 23). 7 Arrested From Apparent Gambling. Retrieved from coloradohistoricnewspapers.org.
2 Record Journal of Douglas County (1938, Dec. 23). Retrieved from coloradohistoricnewspapers.org.
3 Kreck, Dick (2009). Smaldone: The Untold Story of an American Crime Family. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing.
4 Record Journal of Douglas County (1936, June 26). Blakeland Inn Closed by Court Order On Gambling Charge. Retrieved from coloradohistoricnewspapers.org.
5 Smaldone v. People, 88 P.2d 103 (Colo. 1938).
6 Year: 1940; Census Place: Canon City, Fremont, Colorado; Roll: m-t0627-00463; Page: 12B; Enumeration District: 22-2. Retrieved from Ancestry.com.
7 Record Journal of Douglas County (1937, April 23). Retrieved from coloradohistoricnewspapers.org.
8 Record Journal of Douglas County (1937, Sept. 3). Sec’y of State Finds Gambling At Broad Acres. Retrieved from coloradohistoricnewspapers.org.
9 Record Journal of Douglas County (1937, Jan. 22). District Attorney Asks Co-Operation To Enforce Laws. Retrieved from coloradohistoricnewspapers.org.
10 Record Journal of Douglas County (1938, Sept. 23). Notice. Retrieved from coloradohistoricnewspapers.org.
11 Record Journal of Douglas County (1939, July 7). Slot Machine Owner Is Fined $50 and Costs. Retrieved from coloradohistoricnewspapers.org.
12 Record Journal of Douglas County (1954, Feb. 11). ’Farmer’ Stephens Is In Dutch With D.A. And Revenue Dept. Retrieved from coloradohistoricnewspapers.org.
13 John and Kate Bowen – oral history interview, Douglas County Historic Preservation Board Oral History, 2010.060.1000, Douglas County Libraries Archives & Local History Dept., Castle Rock, Colo.
14 John and Kate Bowen – oral history interview, Douglas County Historic Preservation Board Oral History, 2010.060.1000, Douglas County Libraries Archives & Local History Dept., Castle Rock, Colo.
15 Green Bay Press-Gazette (1946, March 11). Report $150,000 Colorado Holdup. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
16 John and Kate Bowen – oral history interview, Douglas County Historic Preservation Board Oral History, 2010.060.1000, Douglas County Libraries Archives & Local History Dept., Castle Rock, Colo.
17 Record Journal of Douglas County (1957, June 13). Stephens’ Gambling Club Paraphernalia Destroyed. Retrieved from coloradohistoricnewspapers.org.