Chief Justice Raymond Givens and his colleagues on the Idaho Supreme Court made Pete Piersanti rich.

On Dec. 3, 1953, the court effectively outlawed slot machines in Idaho, forcing the future Cactus Pete to sell his stake in Island Park Lodge and move his one-armed bandits south of the border.

But Contact, Nev., 20 miles south of the Idaho border astride U.S. Highway 93, was a long way for Pete’s customers in Idaho, so Piersanti moved up the road to the frontier itself, opening Cactus Petes Motor Lodge.

Originally a gas station with slot machines, by 1958 Cactus Petes was a successful 15-room hotel and aircraft runway built to accommodate the growing numbers of visitors, mainly from Idaho.

Piersanti was an old-school wizard of odds. Born in Superior, Wyo., the youngest of six kids of Italian parents, he grew up in Ogden, Utah — a tough place to run a gambling operation — and by age 25 owned a local bar and grill with a card room in the back, and a pinball machine distribution company. After a stint in the Army during World War II, he and other members of his family set up shop at Island Park.

Pete made money there, but nothing like he would in Jackpot.

The original Cactus Petes, across U.S. 93 from Don French’s Horseshu casino, was a cinderblock building with few slot machines, six rooms and hot-water mineral baths. For a time, there was no electricity or phone service in Jackpot, and Piersanti himself tended bar.

In partnership with A.L. “Bud” Gurley and Dale Wildman, Piersanti developed Cactus Petes Desert Lodge in 1958. Twin Falls contractor Ray Neilsen, whose son Craig would later build Ameristar Casinos, constructed the complex.

Piersanti and Gurley bought out Wildman, and eventually took over management of the Horseshu. Gurley died in 1967, and Piersanti became a partner with Neilsen, George Detweiler of Twin Falls and Al Hurley, Pete’s bookkeeper. In 1969 they built a two-story, 50-room motel.

Piersanti sold his interest in Cactus Petes in 1971. After a brief stay in Las Vegas, he bought the Senator Club in Carson City and renamed it Cactus Jack’s Senator Club. He ran it until 1989, then retired to Lake Tahoe, where he died in 1994.

Don’t worry. He died a happy — and rich — man.

And you know what? I don’t think he missed Idaho.

Steve Crump is the Times-News Opinion editor.

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