LAS VEGAS (KLAS-TV) – UNLV students are taking advantage of a unique opportunity — to do some history detective work. It’s being done as part of UNLV’s Public History program
The students are cracking the case on a Southern Nevada ranch linked to Hollywood royalty.
Inside an old classroom in an otherwise nondescript building on UNLV’s campus, there’s a treasure trove of trinkets that help one understand life in Las Vegas in its early days.
The thousands of items are under the watch of the university’s Public History program. This current project is testing the detective skills of students spending their summer sleuthing on a special case nearly 90 years in the making.
“Everything you look at you kind of need to approach it with an open mind that you might be wrong,” said Kassidy Whetstone, UNLV senior.
She’s been on the front lines of identifying and cataloging hundreds of items that once belonged to a famous couple who were Hollywood royalty as the silent film era transitioned to “talkies.”
“I just fell in love with it and everything about Clara Bow,” said Whetstone who studied Bow in high school. “And so then all of a sudden to have these items from her, to be able to work with and everything about Rex Bell, just old Hollywood, all of that, I just fell in love with all of it.”
The collection comes from the once-sprawling Walking Box Ranch, purchased by Rex Bell and Clara Bow in the early 1930s.
At the time, the property covered some 800,000 acres — an area larger than the Las Vegas metropolitan area today — though most of the collection comes from the homestead the couple built on the range.
It was both a getaway for Bow from early paparazzi and prying eyes and an outlet for Bell, the Western star who was every bit as much a cowboy in real life as he was in his films.
“So, the Walking Box was designed for Clara and Rex and their children as an escape from the limelight and a sanctuary and it really has that feeling today,” said Professor Dr. Andy Kirk, UNLV History Department.
An 85-year-old home movie film captures the horses and chickens on the ranch, fun with a miniature horse and the ranch dog. It shows life on the ranch in the 1930s.
Roadsters can be seen next to some old wagons.
The property has changed hands several times in the decades since with few upgrades which is a good thing, according to Kirk.
“The old adage and historic preservation is neglect is the best friend of preservation. You don’t want people too interested because maybe they’ll ruin it. And so there was a period of what I would describe as kind of benign neglect.”
The old film and that “benign neglect” tell part of the story of life on the ranch.
The hodge podge of more personal items from in and around the ranch fill in the blanks.
“The objects tell us so much about the lived experience of people during this time period,” said Dr. Deirdre Clemente, UNLV Public History.
She specializes in material culture and heads up the public history department.
Clemente says the summer crash course is testing her students better than any classroom exam.
“And I think that’s why this project really works so well for students, because students really, you can give them a book, and you’re hoping they’re going to read it,” she said. “But if you say hold this ranching tool, and you have half an hour, and you tell me what it is, you know, you get a little different sense of motivation out of the students by actually working with the physical objects.”
Once students wrap up the project, the idea is to send everything back out to the ranch in preparation of possibly opening it to the public.
They’ve gone through just about everything but one mystery still remains.
“I would say the trunk that we’ve been doing, because there’s a lot of questions still surrounding it too, because we don’t have a key to get into it right now. So, it’s still locked,” Whetstone said.
For her, cracking the case of the big blue box is the grand finale she’s still waiting to see.
“I want to know what’s inside that trunk.”