William B. Bailey: Cowboy, soldier, hobo, nightclub owner, and rancher

Thank you to a reader for suggesting that I look into today’s topic, William B. Bailey, who lived a full life with a variety of undertakings, based on the information I was able to find.

Bailey, whose grandfather was a slave, was born on Jan. 10, 1903, in Coweta County, Georgia. He was the third child of Robert and Ella Mae Bailey, according to a biography on Find a Grave, and in 1908, his father filed a claim for a homestead near Edgemont, S.D., which is where Bailey learned the life of a cowboy.

In an interview for the book, “Quiet Pride: Ageless Wisdom of the American West,” Bailey said that when he was 14 years old, he was hired by the Army to assist with driving 300 horses from Ft. Robinson, Neb., to Ft. Riley, Kan. “While there, he lied about his age and enlisted in the Army to serve in World War I,” the article states.

Bailey married Ruth Graham, who was from Oklahoma, in 1923, and the couple had a son, William Bailey, Jr., in 1926. According to the article, Bailey would marry again — there is no explanation of what happened regarding the first marriage or who his next wife was — but later in his life during an interview, he explained that he had 11 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. 

In a newspaper article from 1981, Bailey described that he “rode the rails” during the Great Depression and picked potatoes in Idaho, fruit in California, and hops in Washington. “In 1936, he worked for a car dealership and earned enough to buy a Ford,” the Find a Grave biography states. Bailey went to Chicago at the beginning of World War II, and according to military records, he served two enlistments in the Army: Jan. 1 to Nov. 26, 1941, and Dec. 23, 1942, to April 22, 1944. 

Dwayne Kling’s “The Rise of the Biggest Little City: An Encyclopedic History of Reno Gaming” describes that Bailey first came to Reno, Nev., in 1934, working for the Works Progress Administration, and helped to build the Reno Golf Course, which was later known as the Washoe County Golf Course. After his discharge from the Army in 1944, he became part owner of the Peavine Club in 1945. “After operating for a little more than a year, the Peavine Club closed when the building was condemned and the property was turned into a parking lot,” Kling writes. “Bailey then opened the Harlem Club on the corner of Lake Street and Commercial Row in 1946. The Harlem Club was one of the few integrated clubs in Reno at that time. After their regular shows were over, many African American entertainers came to the Harlem for unscheduled jam sessions. It was common for Pearl Bailey (Bill Bailey’s cousin), Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr., and B.B. King to play at the Harlem until dawn.”

Kling describes that Bailey sold the Harlem Club in 1958, which later became known as the Soul Club, and Bailey would later co-own the Happy Buddha Club and the China Mint Club.

After he got out of the club business, he took a three-month tour of Europe and Africa and after which returned to Edgemont to live with his sister, Alice. “Together they rebuilt their parent’s original homestead and raised Angus cattle until Alice’s death and Bill’s retirement in 1988,” the Find a Grave article states.

Kling describes that “Bailey is also remembered as a civil rights advocate, president of the Reno-Sparks NAACP, and the leader of many marches and demonstrations in the civil rights battles in the 1950s and early 1960s.”

Bailey died in June 1999 (different sources list his death on either June 23 or June 24 that year), at the age of 96, in Hot Springs, and he was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, Calif. The Find a Grave article concludes, “He was a cowboy, soldier, hobo, nightclub owner, and rancher. But, most of all, he will be remembered as the 6’ 6” quiet man with huge hands who never met a stranger.”

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