Floyd Lamb, the man who was 20th Century Nevada


Expanded from the 6-16-2002 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

He was King Lear, John Wayne and Citizen Kane. He was the story of 20th Century Nevada on a horse. He improved with age, going from gangly cowboy in his youth to handsome leading man in his 60s. He defied propriety and convention, but was always courtly with ladies. He attained wealth and power but was always insecure that he had not earned respect.

His story is our story. If one biography could encapsulate the history of Nevada's 20th Century, it would be the life of Floyd Lamb. The former powerhouse state senator lived the life of a lion and a legend. His white mane and chiseled, scarred, sunburned face charted a relief map of Nevada's journey through the 20th Century. Floyd should not be laid to rest without a retelling of some of the tallest tales of Lamb lore. Herewith, the bold historical outline of both the man and his state.

Rebounding from tragedy. Floyd Lamb became the patriarch of his large family in his mid-20s after his father was killed in 1939. Billy Grainger Lamb died while trying to save a seven year-old boy from a runaway horse at a rodeo. Floyd Lamb won his first political office, a seat on the Lincoln County Commission, in 1946. He died in Alamo, the town of his birth, at age 87 on June 2.

Moving to where the action is. Floyd was elected to the Nevada State Senate from Lincoln County in 1956. At the time, each of Nevada's 17 counties had its own senator, giving the smaller counties domination of the state. As the urban areas grew, many of the rural seats were eliminated (a shrinkage which continued through the 2001 legislative reapportionment).

Undaunted, Floyd moved to Las Vegas and in 1966 won a senate seat representing Clark County with no lapse in service.

The history of Nevada is nothing if not a chronicle of those who moved seeking greener pastures. Floyd was like Nevada.

Hedging your bets. Like many Nevadans, Floyd kept several irons in the fire. You never know when you're going to have a dry year, so be ready to work in the mines.

In 1965, rancher Lamb was elected to the board of directors of Nevada National Bank. Bars across Nevada still resonate with tales from once-young bankers forced to accompany Floyd on horseback into the outback to collect money from recalcitrant ranchers.

As the head of the Nevada State Senate Finance Committee, he developed the reputation of being a stingy old bastard, refusing to spend money even when the state had a huge surplus. He held up the disbursement of federal wild horse funds for decades because he thought mustangs competed too much with cattle for range forage.

But he could also be swayed. When his committee was ready to kill Nevada Magazine, feisty English-born editor Carolyn J. Hadley did the unthinkable and got into his face. Gasp. The great stone face cracked a thin smile and let the magazine survive, as it does right down to this very day.

Admitting you're wrong. Floyd once blocked equal housing legislation. He died respected by the minority community. One of his last requests was that African-American Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, serve as a pallbearer.

Worrying you're not good enough. A former campaign manager told me Lamb did not read or write very well, but few knew. He could have had the governorship for the asking in 1970, but was so concerned about damage to his image from a divorce that he did not run. He was incensed when Richard Bryan got more votes than he did when both won senate elections in 1972.

Hassling with the feds. Lamb was acquitted on federal income tax evasion charges in 1976. In 1983, he was convicted of taking a bribe from an FBI agent in an underhanded sting operation which resulted in five Nevada officeholders going to jail.

The tale has never been told till now, but Lamb and the rest could have dodged the bullet. Word of the sting leaked. The late Senate Majority Leader Jim Gibson, D-Henderson, was informed. He may have told others but did not warn Lamb.

Being kind to animals. Floyd and his brothers loved to dress in their finest Roy Rogers westernwear, saddle up and ride in the annual Helldorado rodeo parade through downtown Las Vegas. One year, Floyd's horse proved balky. He looked the critter in the eye and told him to settle down. He didn't. Floyd admonished him again with no result. Finally, in front of the huge crowd and live TV, Floyd again dismounted, took the reigns in one hand and socked the horse in the nose with the other. The stallion went down, got up wobbly, and was quite well-behaved for the rest of the parade.

Knowing when words are not enough. Floyd once knocked down Reno hotel owner Charlie Mapes in the Mapes bar. He came to blows with several legislative colleagues and even slapped and kicked longtime Associated Press Carson City Bureau Chief Brendan Riley. Lamb and the late Sen. Emerson Titlow, D-Tonopah, once had a very contentious day in the senate which was inadvertently continued that evening at Reno's Ponderosa Hotel.

Read More Floyd Lore

Obituary by longtime Las Vegas Sun capital correspondent
Cy Ryan

Former Gov. Mike O'Callaghan remembers Floyd Lamb

Las Vegas Review Journal Columnist John L. Smith on Floyd Lamb

Horse-drawn carriage takes Floyd Lamb to final resting place in native Alamo

LVRJ — State senator felled
by scandal dies at 87


"He was coming into the foyer door as I was going out," Titlow once told me.

"We both rared back to fire. I caught him flush on the chin with an uppercut and he went right down," the much smaller Titlow said with a twinkle in his eye. Recent Lamb obituaries reported the event as "wrestling.

The best Floyd story I ever heard never got reported. It may be true, or it may be mostly legend. I've gotten it from several people who knew him and I think much of it holds water.

Back in Lincoln County, one of Floyd's sisters was sweet on a guy Floyd thought no good. He forbade sis to see him. One day, Floyd was driving down a dusty road only to see his sister in a truck going the other direction -- wrapped around the no-good guy.

Floyd turned a screeching 180 and hauled after them like a bat out of hell. They stopped and got out.

The fight which ensued could have been scripted for a John Wayne-Victor McLaglen movie.

"I told you to stay away from my sister," Floyd growled as he attacked.

They fought, bit and gouged. Word spread quickly, drawing people from miles around. Floyd and the boyfriend got so tired that they took breaks between long rounds. Spectators laid down bets.

Floyd finally got the better of the boyfriend, knocked him to the ground, then ripped a picket off a nearby fence and stabbed him with it. The young cowboy got back up and they went another few rounds. Finally, Floyd got bored and slit his throat.

Fast-forward about 40 years to a young campaign manager shaking hands on an Alamo streetcorner.

"Hi, I'm campaigning for Sen. Floyd Lamb. Do you know him?"

"Yep," said a silver haired, tall drink-o-water of a cowboy.

"I've known Floyd all my life. He slit my throat once," he said, showing off his scar.

The young man blanched.

"Floyd and I are good friends and I've always voted for him," the old cowboy said.

Maybe that's the final Floyd Lamb lesson — Never hold a grudge. Nevada's still basically just a small town spread over a big geography. Today's adversary may be tomorrow's ally.

Got a hunch old Floyd might agree.

Be well. Raise hell.

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Copyright © 2002 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 33-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of NevadaLabor.com and JoeNeal.org/ He hosts Deciding Factors on several Nevada television stations. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.)Tribune since 1988.

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