Wanted: a new owner for Malheur County landmark

The White Horse Inn in McDermitt was once a wild place. The Oregon-Nevada border runs right through the building. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Gregg)

McDERMITT – Like the mines that once filled this border town with men and money, the historic White Horse Inn, has been closed since the late 1980s. 

However, after being listed for sale last summer, there is potential for life to be breathed into the classic building that straddles the Oregon-Nevada border just outside of town. 

“It has a lot of potential,” said Astrid Schweigert, of Cowboy Country Realty in Winnemucca. The new owner “has to be somebody who loves historic buildings, who loves the history behind it and is willing to do the paperwork to establish it as a historical building.” 

Schweigert is one of two realtors representing the property. Since the state border runs through the center of the building, the seller must be represented by realtors from both Nevada and Oregon.  

The property is for sale for $295,000. 

“There’s been no offers but many inquiries,” said Nancy Gregg, of Jett Blackburn Real Estate Inc. in Burns. Gregg is the realtor representing the Oregon side of the building. 

Owner Joe Van Eeten bought the White Horse Inn in 2008 after selling his ranch in Winnemucca. 

Van Eeten, a veteran who served in the Vietnam war, intended to turn the shuttered building into a haven for veterans. 

“My priority is health for the Vietnam veterans,” he said. In the nineties, Van Eeten ran a retreat named Base Camp Bravo over on the Oregon coast where veterans could decompress and gain access to benefits. After the retreat closed over land use issues, Van Eeten and his wife moved east to pursue ranching. 

While his location may have changed, Van Eeten’s vision of bringing the White Horse Inn back to life as a restoration center for veterans hasn’t changed, he said.

“God told me to do this so here I am,” said Van Eeten. “He told me, ‘This is your mission, you have to have patience,’ so that’s what I’ve been doing. “That’s the mission I’m on, to bring my brothers home.”

Van Eeten said he has poured $150,000 of his own money into restoring it, he said. 

Van Eeten did extensive work on the basement of the building, pouring new concrete, adding support beams, and redoing the roof, according to Gregg. 

“I’ve never quit,” said Van Eeten. I’ve slowed down for certain reasons but mission has stayed the same.”

While Van Eeten has made some progress on making the White Horse operational again, he’s run out of money, he said. 

The building’s electrical and plumbing services need to be upgraded, and some of the 21 rooms upstairs need repairs, said Gregg. 

“I’d like to see the place prosper – maybe someday,” said John Albisu, 74, who has lived in McDermitt his entire life. 

“It was popular when the mines were going,” he said. Albisu recalled the time when the White Horse Inn was known as the Commercial Hotel. 

Back in those days the owners sold liquor out of the basement, he said. 

The White Horse Inn, built in 1915, was once a wild place, with the state line running through the dance floor. 

Patrons could order drinks and gamble on the Nevada side of the room and would pay on the other side of the room in Oregon, avoiding the sales tax. 

“It was a cool place,” said Albisu. Over the years, the White Horse Inn passed through the hands of various owners and at times housed a cafe, a general store, and – some say – a brothel upstairs.

“There were women up there,” said Albisu. “I don’t know if it was lawful or not, though.”

While the specifics of just what exactly went on at the White Horse depends on who’s telling the story, each tale was tied down with fond memories.

“The White Horse used to be a really beautiful place,” said Lorraine Huttman, 67, who has lived in McDermitt since she was 3. 

“When I was a kid, my brother and I used to walk there because our house was just 200 yards away,” she said. “I’d hold his hand and we would walk on over and knock on their back door, they’d open the door and give us suckers.”

“They had a restaurant. I worked there when I was 14,” she said. “Miners went there. That’s what kept this town going.”

Mining was once big business in McDermitt. The Cordero and McDermitt mines yielded mercury. 

Miners would work hard all day and then come into McDermitt to spots like the Say When casino, The Orevada hotel, and the White Horse Inn to let loose.

“We used to dance there when we were younger,” said Howard Huttman, Lorraine’s husband. Howard went to high school in McDermitt in the late 60s and later moved back in 1985 after marrying Lorraine. The two have lived across the street from the White Horse Inn since then and said that it’s been closed ever since.

“Right now it’s just there,” said Howard of the building. 

While the White Horse Inn has been closed down for over two decades and on the market for over a year, Van Eeten believes that by either selling it or finding an investment partner, he can bring the building back to life.

“I’m not going to quit,” he said of his efforts to turn the White Horse Inn into a part of the community once again.

“We cannot save the whole world but we can save where we live,” he said. 

Reporter Carolyn Agrimis: 541-473-3377.