Thursday, June 1, 2017

22. Selling Sex in the Silver Valley

True confessions: I like stories of old-timey hookers. And, I'm obsessed with Wallace, Idaho. That means this book was the jackpot for me. Not only did I read it, I wrote a news story on it. Two birds, one stone. And, a fascinating ride.

I can't begin to describe to you my deep love for this little town, nestled in the mountains of North Idaho. You can't get from my current hometown (Spokane, Washington) to my childhood hometown (Great Falls, Montana) without passing through. I'd probably driven past a dozen times before I really came to understand how cool this place is. It was when I came to cover a really awful news story about an ex-con who took his teenage daughter camping, then raped her and left her for dead in the woods. They caught him because he got hungry and came to buy hot dogs at the Wallace Conoco. We came to cover his court case and realized Wallace is really an old west town, frozen in time.

Since then, I've gone deep into Wallace's past, mostly through books. I read about the fire in 1910 that nearly burned all of Wallace to the ground in The Big Burn (one of the best books I've ever read.) Then, I read about the terrifying fire deep inside the Sunshine Mine that brought the entire Silver Valley to its knees. I've stopped on road trips home to visit the historic cemetery. I've ridden in a bike in the hills nearby. I've zip-lined through its trees. But, what's always fascinated me most is what Wallace is truly famous for: prostitution. Not just in the old west, but all the way into the early 1990's.

I heard someone had written a book about the history of the sex trade in Wallace and I knew I would have to read it. Then, I heard it was selling faster than they could print it - and, I knew I wanted to tell the story on TV. That's what's cool about being a journalist; you find something that interests you, then you can get paid to go learn more about it. I called Dr. Heather Branstetter (seen above, answering all my brilliant questions) and set up a visit to Wallace.

(Here's the part of the blog where I will post a link to our TV story when it's done. You can choose your own adventure here. Either watch the story, then finish the blog - or finish, then come back and click the link. You're a grown-up. It's your call.)

Quick note: I'm going to call the author Heather from now on. Yes, she's a PhD and she's earned the title of Doctor. Yes, AP Style dictates that I refer to her by her last name. But, she's chill as hell and we hung out, so I'm going to call her Heather. I don't think she'll mind.

Heather grew up here, her family goes back generations. As she and so many other Wallace natives have told me, it never seemed strange to them that their little town had a bustling red light district. But, Cedar Street in Wallace was once lined with "cathouses." With names like The Lux, The U&I Rooms and the Oasis, they were better defined by the madams who kept them running. Heather brings these fascinating characters to life and, because very little has changed in the Wallace landscape over the years, you can practically see Madam Dolores driving down Cedar in her trademark blue Cadillac.

Heather's exhaustive research pulls together old insurance maps, city council minutes, sheriff's department records and innuendo, still whispered in the bars of Wallace. From Wallace's earliest beginnings as a mining camp, sex was for sale. One woman told me the male to female ratio back then was 200 to 1. No easier way to make money than by operating a brothel.

Old west brothels were nothing unusual, but very few communities allowed brothels to openly operate beyond the early 1900's, Wallace was an exception; Heather wanted to know why.

Aside from whorehouses being a part of mining towns, Heather has other theories about why they continued to operate her. The most prevailing is the idea perpetuated by the madams and even echoed today (as seen in the Facebook comments on our news promos for the story): it's the idea that men have uncontrollable sexual urges and they need to have a release. Many in town believed - and, still believe - that decriminalizing prostitution kept women safe and kept families together.

Also, even now, the people who live in Wallace aren't the kind of people who want the government telling them what to do.

The madams here treated their working girls well, paid their taxes and gave to charity. Several locals told me they never had school fundraisers. Money for band uniforms and little league fields always just turned up. They didn't know until they were older that it was the madams who paid for them. Prostitution got people elected to public office; prostitution got the streets paved.

"My education was funded through sex work," Heather explained.

The book doesn't glorify sex work, but doesn't make the working girls out to be victims, either. People explained to Heather that the women in Wallace had it easier than prostitutes in other areas because the brothels were women-owned. The women didn't need pimps, though many of them had them. In her research, Heather even met with a woman working in the sex trade now who said she's doing it because she wants to, not because she's been sold into sex trafficking. Have some women? Absolutely. But, not all.

It's not rainbows and kittens, but it's not sordid details of shameful sex, either. Heather's work is matter-of-fact. And, without hearing from the women themselves, that's really the only fair way to tell it.

Lucky for Heather, the madams kept impeccable records. They didn't record the names of customers, but their financials were solid. You can piece so much together by the handwritten books they left behind. And, much to Heather's good fortune - and mine! - you can walk right into one of the brothels today and see exactly how it looked back in 1988.

The Oasis building at 6th and Cedar began operating as a brothel at the turn of the century. It continued to do so until finally closing its doors in 1988. Ginger, the madam, got a tip that the feds were coming, so she and the girls left in a hurry. They never came back. Their rooms now look exactly the way they did that day in January, 1988. Cigarettes are still in the ash trays, Ginger's Atari is still on her TV. There's even a price list on the wall (top seller: straight sex, "no frills. For $15, customers got eight minutes with the woman of their choice.)

I've known about the Oasis for years, but never went in. Again, the perks of being a TV reporter! We spent about an hour there, checking out the rooms, hearing the stories, even going into the old basement where a money bag still hangs from a trap door that was used to hide gambling evidence near the turn of the 20th century.

Guys, I was in heaven.

If you live in this area of the country, you should absolutely check it out. You can easily spend a couple of days in Wallace, whether it's skiing in the winter at either of the two resorts nearby, or biking and zip-lining in the summer. They have some great beer here, too.

Why am I not the mayor of Wallace? I'm going to look into it.

I could write all night about the fascinating aspects of the trade and the compelling stories told in this book. I've been driving my husband and my co-workers crazy since we did the interviews last week! But, I want to leave a little mystery (I do see the irony here, yes.). If you have any interest in the old west, North Idaho history or prostitution, buy Heather's book! Though, you'll have to be patient. It's an extremely hot commodity right now! You can order a copy and check out her website in the meantime. 

I couldn't leave the Oasis without a souvenir. Instead of the panties or the sweatshirt with the price list on the back, I chose the tasteful tumbler. It sits on my desk now next to my mug from another brothel - the still-operating Chicken Ranch in Parhump, Nevada. Paid a visit there for a news story, too. But, that's a story for another blog.... My boss might be reading this... 


  1. I'm glad Wallace has charmed you! What a nice synopsis of the book and town.

    1. Thanks for reading - and, not chastising me for not calling you doctor!

      Your book was fabulous - it was even better meeting you. Thanks again!