John Acuaga was an icon of the gambling industry in Northern Nevada. Even in high school, which he attended in Notus, Idaho, he had big dreams. His yearbook claimed “He would own the biggest gambling den in Reno.” John was known for his gregarious personality and his constant floor presence, where he would meet guests and make them feel welcome. As a local business leader, he valued education and reinvested in the community, providing scholarships to some 700 students. John died on June 28, 2021. He was 96 years old.
- John was born in Caldwell, Idaho, in 1925. His father, Jose Ascuaga from Orozko, Bizkaia, emigrated to the United States in 1914 where he ultimately settled in Notus, Idaho. He had come to herd sheep. A few years later, his wife, Marina Eguiluz, joined him in the states. John was one of four children, two boys and two girls, one of whom was his twin sister.
- After a stint in the military during which he served in Japan after World War II, John earned bachelor’s degrees in accounting from the University of Idaho and hotel and restaurant management from Washington State University. He moved to Nevada after Idaho made slot machines illegal in 1954.
- John is best known for the Sparks Nugget, a casino in Sparks, Nevada, that he bought in 1960 when he was its general manager. The Nugget had only opened five years before, when it was owned by Dick Graves. It started out as a small coffee shop that held a few slot machines. With his wife, Rose Ardans, John made the Nugget into a great success and they expanded it continuously during the 1960s and 1970s. One particularly popular attraction, the Celebrity Showroom, was built in the 1960s and hosted such big names like Liberace, Peggy Lee, The Osmond Brothers, and Robert Goulet. At its peak, the Nugget consisted of two towers and hosted 1600 rooms.
- John was very proud of his Basque heritage. In 1959, John organized the first Basque festival in the western United States, held in Sparks. The restaurant in the Nugget was named Orozko, after the village his parents came from in Bizkaia. In front stood an 11-foot sculpture of a Basque sheepherder with his dog (the statue now resides on the University of Nevada, Reno’s campus). And, when he dedicated the newest tower of the casino, a large ikurrina was on display.
- John’s wife, Rose, who preceded him in death in 2020, was also the daughter of Basque immigrants. Her parents, Marie Louise Harriet and Jean Leon Ardans, were from Behe Nafarroa. John and Rose met in the Nugget’s steakhouse.
Primary sources: Totoricagüena Egurrola, Gloria Pilar. ASCUAGA, John. Enciclopedia Auñamendi. Available at: https://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/ascuaga-john/ar-22795/; Carrie Roussel, John Ascuaga, Nevada Magazine; John J. (Eguiluz) Ascuaga, euskalkultura.eus