Reno’s remarkable rise: Joyce Cox’s book documents how the Chamber of Commerce promoted a cow town into a national destination

Reno author Joyce Cox was a human version of Google decades before the internet existed. 

While working as a research librarian in California in the 1990s, Cox fielded phone calls from people who couldn’t find answers to their questions at their local libraries. Some queries were easy to answer. Others, not so much. 

“People would ask about a song that they liked from 1948, and maybe they could hum part of it,” Cox remembered. “Or they would have only the slightest information, like there was a book their mother read to them when they were 5 years old. ‘What was the book?’” 

Cox would ask callers for details, then search indexes and library materials to find answers. She worked in libraries in California, Washington and Nevada, where she retired in 2009 as the head reference librarian at the Nevada State Library and Archives. Since then, Cox has continued to dig deep into the history of the Silver State by volunteering as a docent at the Nevada Historical Society, working with the Nevada Women’s History Project and writing books on the histories of Washoe County and Sparks. 

Her latest book, Behind the Arch: The Story of Reno, Nevada’s Unique Chamber of Commerce and the Making of the Biggest Little City in the World, is the result of five years of research. The volume details the rise of Reno from a cow town into a national destination known around the world. 

A 1953 brochure advertises Reno as the “fun center of the West.” Photo/Frank X. Mullen, image courtesy of the Joyce Cox collection

Reno historian Neal Cobb, who came up with the idea for the book, said Cox was the perfect person to take on what he said was a “humongous” task. 

“Joyce is a tiny dynamo,” he said. “She dug into everything right to the bottom. Researching the Chamber was a massive undertaking; we knew it would be a monster.” 

Cox’s book traces the evolution of the Reno Chamber, decade by decade, from a merchants’ group in the 1890s to the present. Cox combed through newspaper archives, state records and collections of chamber ads, brochures and railroad posters.  

“She wound up with a three-foot stack of materials,” Cobb said.  

Cox initially produced a much longer manuscript, now available at the Nevada Historical Society. She and her editor, Eric Moody, slimmed down the story into a 148-page volume, with plenty of historic photos and promotional images that “sold” the city to potential visitors and investors. 

Neal Cobb and Joyce Cox at her book signing at the Nevada Historical Society in February. Photo/Alex Cox

“It was fun,” Cox said. “The Chamber did a lot of ads and pamphlets and came up with a lot of slogans.”  

She also searched eBay listings for anything associated with the Chamber and found more pamphlets, memorabilia and slogans, including Meet Me in Reno; Everybody’s Going to Reno; Reno: Land of Charm; and Reno: 300 Days of Sunshine.  

“Then I would look through newspapers and other places to find out how long they used those (slogans),” Cox said. “… I also wanted to find out who they were targeting (with the ad campaigns). The ‘300 Days of Sunshine,’ for example, was aimed at people in western Oregon and the Pacific Coast.” 

Joyce Cox said that mid-20th-century advertisements for Reno weren’t allowed to promote the divorce industry, but they got the message across with images of people enjoying various adventures. This graphic, featured on the cover of a 1946 map and brochure touting local ski areas, appears in her book. Photo/Frank X. Mullen, image courtesy Nevada Historical Society

The Chamber accentuated the positive. The first Reno Rodeo made headlines as the “Nevada Round-Up” in 1919. Reno has been promoted as a mecca of winter recreation since the 1920s. The group supported the creation of Reno’s first golf course in 1936 as an essential attraction for the area. Lake Tahoe and other nearby lakes were promoted as havens of fishing and boating. The city’s wedding chapels were touted as the perfect settings for nuptials, and big-name entertainment was a draw for downtown showrooms. Nevada’s lack of an income tax was an attraction for businesses looking to relocate. 

The state’s legal brothels, gambling parlors and divorce industry were not fodder for advertising campaigns, however. 

“They couldn’t really promote the quickie divorces, but they didn’t have to,” Cox said. 

The nation’s wire services often carried stories of celebrities taking the “Reno cure” in the Biggest Little City. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the mere mention of the city’s name in a movie was often a codeword for “divorce.” 

The relentless researcher 

Others who have worked with Cox are also in awe of her dogged pursuit of facts. 

Patti Bernard, for example, in 2006 was trying to find information about Nevada’s first ladies for the Nevada Women’s History Project. But she didn’t find much about the women at the Historical Society or the State Archives. 

“There was zip info,” Bernard remembered.  

Then she met Cox at the State Archives. “She seemed more interested than anyone,” Bernard said. “She immediately started files of all the women, similar to the ones that were already in existence for the governors, so that when I came again, the files were ready to be filled with new information that we would find.” 

Cox wrote biographies of some of the women, starting with Elnora Sparks, wife of John Sparks, the 10th governor of Nevada who served from 1903 to 1908. “In Elnora’s time period, women weren’t commonly written about, other than what they wore, what they ate, how they decorated their luncheon tables, or who they were married to,” Bernard said. “… Joyce really had to work on ‘fleshing out’ Elnora. She wholeheartedly investigates until there are no more sources to be found; she is the consummate searcher for documented facts.” 

Reno historian Alicia Barber, who penned the introduction for Behind the Arch, wrote that the book recounts how the Chamber’s membership and staff “learned to navigate Reno’s unique mix of the normal and notorious, tourist town and hometown, and use those elements to shape a municipal entity and a municipal image distinct from anything else in the country.” 

For Cox, who was named the Nevada Women’s History Project’s Woman of Achievement at the Nevada Women’s Fund Luncheon in May 2023, doing research is like being the protagonist in a detective story. The facts are out there; she just has to dig deep. 

“It’s fun, and you learn a lot of things,” Cox said. “Not everything can be found on Google. You have to look all over the place … and a human can ask questions that Google can’t in order to find the answers.” 

Behind the Arch: The Story of Reno, Nevada’s Unique Chamber of Commerce and the Making of the Biggest Little City in the World (Nevada in the West Publishing, $24.99) is available at Flag Store Sign and Banner, 155 Glendale Ave., No. 9, in Sparks. Joyce Cox’s other books include Washoe County (Images of America) and Sparks (Images of America).