Whether before or after consolidation, few people in Las Vegas history have left a larger footprint than Ivan J. Hilton, who arrived here from Chicago in 1928 suffering from tuberculosis, seeking recovery in the salubrious climate of northern New Mexico. Born in Springfield in 1898, Hilton had been a successful Chicago stock broker and businessman.
Hilton had heard of the famous sanitarium founded in 1904 by Dr. William T. Brown in Valmora, northeast of Las Vegas, and arrived there by train in hopes of regaining his health — and unlike countless others, Hilton enjoyed a speedy recovery, and decided to stay. After regaining his robust physique and active disposition, and as part of his continuing recovery, Hilton started a dude ranch near Rociada, and also ran cattle and farmed there.
In 1934 Hilton opened the first Buick, Oldsmobile and GMC dealership in Las Vegas (at the triangle where Grand, Jackson and Seventh Streets intersect), and by the 1940s he established Hilton Motors on Grand Avenue, in a sprawling new blonde-brick building, now Fred’s Lumber.
A decade later, Hilton opened another dealership at the corner of East National and 11th Street. (From 1940 to 1949, Hilton Motors was the largest GMC truck dealer in the Rocky Mountain area.)
All the while, Hilton became involved in the civic and political affairs of Las Vegas and San Miguel County. An ardent FDR Democrat, in 1936, Hilton was elected state senator for San Miguel County, and later assumed his longtime position on the New Mexico State Highway Commission — a position he wielded assiduously to improve Las Vegas.
In the early 1940s, it was Hilton who conceived and spearheaded the triangular urban highway project which transformed Grand, Mills and New Mexico Avenues from primitive roadways into a modern-day highway system, complete with first-ever street lighting (and a bridge on Mills), for which he made several trips to Washington to secure funds and cut through bureaucratic red tape.
It was also Hilton who established the highway district headquarters in Las Vegas in 1942, resulting in much-needed employment and construction of the highway department complex on north Grand Avenue (city hall since the early 1970s).
Always a mastermind in finance and investments, in 1949 Hilton managed to satisfy a maze of federal regulations to establish the First National Bank, at the Union Block on Sixth Street.
Hilton was president of his “one-man” bank until shortly before his death in 1989, when he was succeeded by son-in-law Ray Litherland. Known as Community 1st since 2008, the bank is still owned by the Hilton family, and now located in the Crocket building, acquired and renovated by the bank in 2010. (Many Optic readers will recall watching in amazement as Hilton quickly retrieved any paper he was looking for, from a foot-deep pile of documents, ledgers and scattered papers which toppled over every inch of his massive desk.)
Hilton’s First National Bank has made hundreds of millions in loans to area residents, and even today it is not uncommon to hear many older people in Las Vegas say, “Mr. Hilton started me in business,” or “Thanks to Mr. Hilton, I was able to buy a car,” or “I have my house because of Mr. Hilton.” Aside from his daughter Joyce and her husband Ray Litherland, through the decades Hilton’s right-hand men at the bank were Frank Weddington and Charlie Crews Sr., followed by Arthur Montoya and Herman Garcia, all deceased.
Hilton was also a long time mayor of East Las Vegas, and dominated city government in New Town for most of the 1940s and 1950s. His leadership was not confined to the east side, however, and Hilton’s parachute factory in Old Town provided some 300 jobs for local women for almost two decades — and from his first days here, Ivan Hilton was among the first Anglos in Las Vegas to reach out to the Hispanic community in both business and politics.
Hilton also served on and off through four decades (1930s through 1960s) as a member and chairman of the Highlands University Board of Regents, always providing steady leadership and wise counsel, all the while making substantial financial contributions to Highlands, which in 2004 dedicated in his honor the newly constructed Ivan Hilton Science Technology Center. (Hilton had previously donated the building site to Highlands.)
In 1986, when Hilton was 88, he took a liking to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ray Powell Sr., and decided to help Powell’s election. In what would be his last political hurrah, Hilton called the writer, who was then Democratic County Chairman, and suggested (directed) that a Las Vegas fundraiser be held for Powell. When the writer intimated there was not enough time to raise much money, Hilton replied, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” and the 1986 photograph which appears with today’s column shows Powell accepting the contribution — which came mostly from Mr. Hilton and was substantial.
For six decades Las Vegas was remarkably influenced by Ivan J. Hilton, who ranks among the titans in our town’s 20th century history.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.