Tag Archives: dolores arnold

i wish i could have met dolores

It’s been about a week and a half since I read from my work at the Wallace Brewing Company’s Orehouse Tasting Room. It was a packed house: the News Press claimed there were “more than fifty” attendees, but during the question/answer period afterward I counted sixty-four people in the standing room only audience. I was grateful for the opportunity to share some of my in-progress writing in person.

So this post is for those who missed out for one reason or another. Below is a transcript of what I read. For a blog bonus, I’ve added pictures.

Thank you to Chase and Cathleen for hosting this event and inviting me to participate. Thank you to the Wallace District Mining Museum, who funded much of my research.


I wish I could have met Dolores. That wasn’t her given name, of course. She was born Mary Giacolone and she died Maria Greer. But for most of her life, she was Dolores Arnold, savvy businesswoman who ascended from working girl to madam of a successful brothel franchise in Wallace, Idaho from 1943 until the late 1980s. Dolores’s story, like her identity—an invented persona she assumed for forty years—is a mix of fact and fiction that became its own reality. Dolores knew that stories repeated often enough could blur together and create a believable myth. She harnessed that power to create a world here, a world where the sex industry could be relatively safe and widely supported by the vast majority of the community, despite its illegal nature.

I’ve conducted more than seventy-five interviews during the course of my research and almost every single person I talk to repeats the following phrases: “The houses offered relief for single miners and kept local women from getting raped. The women were clean and didn’t solicit around town or on the streets.” But especially: “The houses were good for the local economy; they gave so much back to the community.” It’s no accident that these phrases are the univocal chorus around town to this day. They are the result of Dolores’s forty-year reign as queen. One woman I interviewed characterized the brothels as “The United Way of Wallace,” adding that she thought there should be a statue of Dolores in this town (Stewart).

Dolores had striking beauty, even well into old age. “People were in awe of her,” one man told me, “she could have been a movie star earlier in her career” (Higgins). I think people responded to her unguarded, empathic demeanor and the confident way she carried herself, all of which she expressed through her eyes. Taller than the average woman, Dolores had long dark hair and a wide smile. She sensed the motivations of others and noticed details overlooked by most people. Those who knew her describe her as charming, warm, funny, graceful, and elegant. She made everyone feel special. She also had a reputation for strict professionalism in all of her business dealings, prompting a higher standard of excellence among subordinates, colleagues, clients, and community members.

Dolores Arnold taken by Dick Caron, Dec 1 1965

Candid of Dolores Arnold in 1965. (Photo courtesy Dick Caron)

If I could talk to Dolores today, I would ask her what her childhood was like, what drew her to Wallace and what influenced her decision to exchange sex for money. I would ask her what she learned along the way. I would also ask her if she ever had mixed feelings about owning and managing an illicit business commonly perceived as immoral and exploitive, despite its widespread acceptance in Wallace.

Like many women drawn into the sex industry during the 1940s, Dolores suffered a traumatic childhood. Her parents were Italian immigrants who met in New Jersey. Dolores’s father worked in a glass factory there at the time of her birth, and in the early 1920s they moved to Spanaway, Washington, where they bought a farm worth $2,600 in 1930 (1920-1930 US Census data). Dolores’s mother died when she was just six, leaving her widowed husband to raise Dolores and her three siblings, including younger sister Janet and two younger brothers. Before Janet died, she met with Dick Caron to talk about her childhood. During this conversation, Janet said Dolores and her siblings were left to raise themselves after their mother’s premature death, and they often dealt with “adverse conditions” as a result. They found out later that their mother had relatives they never met. Janet assumed they stayed away because they didn’t want to feel obligated to take in the kids. They “were better off for being alone,” Janet claimed, “made us tough.” It did not, however, make them close. While Janet did not interfere with her sister’s life, she also didn’t support it (Caron notes).

Just a year and a half after Dolores’s mother died, the stock market crashed, and the country plunged into the Great Depression. Dolores did not finish high school and moved to Wallace in 1943 at the age of twenty-three, after working in the shipyards at Bremerton, Washington, where she was a “Rosie the Riveter” (Caron notes, Barnard Stockbridge Collection, Mogenson, Morrison, and Truean). She’d heard that Wallace was the place to go if she wanted to take advantage of a particular arrangement here that could be lucrative if approached in the right way.

According to Gary Morrison, a Wallace boy who befriended Dolores in the 1960s when he delivered groceries to the Lux Rooms and considered her “like a family member,” Dolores’s move “was a business decision.” Morrison said she explained it this way:

I made up my mind that I could do that. Once I agreed that I could do that and just set that part of me aside, and said, okay this is business, I’m not going to whine about it, I’m not going to beat myself up about it. That’s what I’m going to do. Once I’d decided that I could accept that, I got in the car and I drove to Wallace. Somebody had told me about Wallace, having these—I had to hunt around and ask people, I didn’t know where the houses were.

She began working on the floor at the Lux Rooms, above where the Sixth Street Melodrama is now.


Front of the Sixth Street Melodrama. The Lux was upstairs until 1977, accessible only from Kelly’s Alley, to the north of the building. (Photo by author)

Timing contributed to Dolores’s successful career: she arrived at an opportune moment for the sex industry, after the introduction of penicillin, which cured most sexually transmitted infections, and before the eruption of AIDS (Roizen). During this era, the brothels were open 24 hours a day, doing “booming business” serving military men (Mayfield, Gordon). Even though Wallace was officially off-limits, sailors and airmen frequently visited. They came from Farragut Naval Base near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Washington. To get around the off-limits designation, military men would buy a bus ticket for Missoula, Montana, and get off in Wallace to visit the houses without leaving a paper trail that would get them in trouble (Filer). They were not allowed to wear anything but their issued uniforms and madams wouldn’t let them upstairs unless they were in street clothes, but they found a way around this obstacle as well. A cleaning business accessible from the alley behind Cedar Street was known to rent civilian clothes to enable them to visit the brothels while maintaining the appearance of propriety (Filer).

It’s unclear how long Dolores worked before she was able to buy the Lux Rooms because there are multiple conflicting stories about how she came into the means. One man told me she tried to get a loan from the bank but was turned down (“AH”). There are rumors asserting that she received the money from Hank Day, the prominent mining executive she had a relationship with (Higgins). Another man said Dolores told him she “saved every bloody dime. And put it in the bank” (Morrison). Others guessed she invested in mine stocks (Posnick, “JA”). The written record shows that she and Lonnie Greer bought the Lux Rooms from Mary Albertini in 1953 for $7,000 dollars [clarification here: they bought the *building* from her, not the business…].


Hallway of former Lux Rooms, looking east into the madam’s room. (Photo by author)

Dolores built her business into a classy operation, which she expanded in 1968, when she bought the Jade from her friend Loma Delmonte and turned it into the Luxette. Dolores worked hard to create the image of community caretaker and was almost universally admired around town. The walls of her personal room at the Lux, where she entertained especially privileged guests, were adorned with 18 karat gold fleck paint imported from Italy for the price of $200 a gallon and her closet was full of fur coats (“Tommy”). Dolores began the practice of advertising by giving away Playboy-style pinup girl calendars personalized with her business name and other houses followed her lead by passing out similarly styled matchbooks. “In today’s era,” one local businessman told me, “she would easily be a top executive in a large corporation. She was that good. She was instrumental in forming a consortium with the other madams to buy the community stuff” (Higgins). Dolores worked to promote prostitution as a profession as legitimate as anyone else’s (Hulsizer, Houchin, Michael).


Bay window looking out of madam’s room. (Photo by author)

Dolores was friendly and outgoing yet known for her discretion, which was partly what kept her in the good graces of the community. She hosted private parties for local civic organizations like the Gyros. Despite one exception that several people noted, there was no sex at these parties, which operated in accordance with the “underlying and rarely spoken agreement” that they “wouldn’t fall into some kind of a debauchery, you know, a big orgy that then would be talked about in the community for the next century,” as one man put it (Morrison). Dolores is also in a regional newspaper saying, “People always think the worst of these places. But we do it right” (Henderson). “Doing it right” probably contained some sexual innuendo, but she was also referring to background checks and doctor’s visits. When the women first arrived to work at the houses, police officers took their mug shot and fingerprints, sent copies to the FBI and Immigration, and received a rap sheet back. The officers would then call the brothel managers with the information to ensure they weren’t employing underage girls or anyone who appeared to have connections with organized crime (Jacobson). “Doing it right” also referred to discretion: the working girls “would never come up to a guy around town and say that she knew him,” one woman told me, adding, “they kept their personal life personal and their business life professional” (Schonhanes).

Most of the people I’ve interviewed make sure to mention how the madams tipped generously for deliveries and bought most of the raffle tickets for various fundraisers. Although there’s no doubt that Dolores was generous, she was also very aware of public relations, and she purposefully appealed to the classic “heart of gold” stereotype. She was the biggest contributor around town, renowned for winning all the raffles and then turning the prizes into donations, passing along her Demolay turkeys to families in need (Morrison). Dolores notoriously bought the school’s band uniforms, in part, rumor has it, in exchange for an agreement that they would no longer march around the streets to practice early in the morning.


Gold-veined mirror in the entryway of the Lux Rooms at the corner of 6th and Cedar, where Dolores relocated in 1978. (Photo by author)

The madams and women who worked in the houses emphasized the positive. Men and women alike repeat that the houses were symbiotic with the town, which operated according to a “live and let live” system of morality. The madams circulated sayings that explicitly connected their work to family and community values. For example, “Dolores often said that she saved more marriages than any clergyman ever did.” (Higgins). The madams donated money in visible ways to local government, schools, charities, and churches. They knew that word of their works would travel if they maintained a consistent image.

And word did spread. A New York Times article discussing the temporary closure of the houses in 1973 notes how Dolores gave baskets of food to the families of the [ninety-one] miners who died in the Sunshine Mine disaster the previous year (“5 Brothels Shut”). Another newspaper story claims that “Dolores Arnold and her contributions to the town of Wallace are legend, and most of the legend is true,” although one “rumor—that she has solid-gold bathroom fixtures in her apartment at the Lux and Luxette Hotel—needed clarification. Gold plate, Dolores explained, not solid gold” (Henderson). This article, written during the 1980s, also corrects a popular legend about her Cadillac that nevertheless continues to be repeated: “The house madam seemed amused by another story that she orders a new Cadillac in Spokane every year and pays for it in cash. ‘That’s a lie… My Cadillac is 14 years old’” (Henderson). One story often told locally involves a robbery or fight at one of the houses, resulting in a court case. Dolores was called as a witness, and at one point, the lawyer asked her which way the door in the brothel opened. She said to him, straight-faced, “you know damn well which way that door opens” (“FG,” Higgins, Achord). According to another version of this story, it wasn’t Dolores but a girl who worked for her, and she was fired because of her lack of discretion (Magnuson).


Bathroom with original pink sink at the remodeled Lux Rooms in 2015. (Photo by author)

One of the more popular services was said to be the bubble bath (“Betty,” Mooney, “Paul”), even though it was also one of the most expensive. Terry Douglas, who maintained the “coin operated amusement devices” in the house’s bars and jukeboxes, related a story about his boss giving him money for a bubble bath experience, which he’d been hesitant to try out because of the cost. Douglas closed his story by saying with a smile, “And I’ve never forgot it. And we’re thirty years later.”


Bathroom with original bathtub at the remodeled Lux Rooms in 2015. (Photo by author)


I’ll just go ahead and leave it there for now. To read more about the houses in and around Wallace through the years, you can visit my website: abusinessdoingpleasure.com. Sign up to receive future posts via email and stay updated on the project, which will be published as a book next year. For now, I have overview DVDs on sale for $10.00. Please feel free to ask me questions or share your stories! I’m grateful to be able to share this work with you and it’s such an honor to open for Keith, whose writing I admire very much…

reading at the wallace brewery—7:00 pm on jan 13, 2016

A week from today, I’ll be reading an excerpt from my work on the history of sex work in the Silver Valley! Please come join us at the Wallace Brewery (610 Bank St., Wallace, Idaho) on Wednesday, January 13, beginning at 7:00 pm.

Wallace Brothel Signs

I’m actually the opening act for the Idaho-raised author, Keith Lee Morris, who will be reading from his recently released novel, Travelers Rest, a surreal and time-bending story set in a fictionalized version of the town of Wallace. I just started reading it last night and I’m already hooked by his observations about the characters and chilled by his description of Wallace as a snowbound bermuda triangle.

Travelers Rest Cover Art

For anyone who hasn’t yet read Morris’s work, I highly recommend you also check out his earlier novel, The Dart League King, which is set in a fictionalized version of Sandpoint, Idaho.

This reading is going to enable a lot of opportunity for us to talk and hang out (and I think play darts and pool) afterward. PLUS, the Wallace Brewery has excellent beer at very reasonable prices (personally, I love their Vindicator IPA and Huckleberry Shandy).

Also of interest to readers of this blog, the theme of the Brewery is distinctly brothel-oriented, including lots of the old Playboy-style calendars Dolores Arnold used to give away as party favors. I’ll have copies of my DVD for sale (more on this in a couple of days!) and Morris should have copies of his books for sale that I’m sure he would be happy to sign. So if you’re local-ish, come down, enjoy a drink, and chat with us about Wallace portrayed in both fiction and nonfiction!

spreading love, gratitude, and feedback

Thank you for sharing stories, sending pictures, and writing in to let me know what you think! I wanted to set aside space to share responses people have offered in the wake of my last few posts, so I’m including some reader mail below. There are some groups and people out there with overlapping interests, so I am also trying to help spread the word if you aren’t aware of one another.

First of all, my overview article from last week generated huge interest, receiving more than 2,500 page views in the first 48 hours. That feels like hitting the big time for this nascent little blog…

abbi on broad city

abbi on broad city

Spreading the love, in case you weren’t aware but may be interested:

The Facebook groups “You know you are from the Silver Valley if…” and “Old School North Idaho,” along with the Facebook pages “Only in Wallace Idaho” and “Love Wallace Idaho” are all active and interesting spaces where people are sharing regionally specific and historic interests. And of course there is also Huckleberries Online (the Spokesman’s North Idaho blog), and the Wallace Idaho Chamber.

There is a whole discussion thread on Only in Wallace that addresses rumors about tunnels under the town connecting various brothels, bars, hotels, and businesses. I have also heard the rumors—especially concerning the Smokehouse building—but I don’t have any more credible information than anyone else on this front… Something to explore further?

The Historic Wallace Preservation Society is asking for more Silver Valley photos, stories, and help doing research so they can make videos that celebrate and share the Valley’s legendary past.

And if you want more information regarding locations, here is little video from a few years ago:


I’m psyched to have connected with another person from Wallace who is also in the writing industry:

Reader Mail and Stories:

People I didn’t previously know have been writing to me via the contact form or sharing stories in comment sections on the Facebooks or on the Huckleberries link to my piece (if the post was public, I included the name associated with the post, but otherwise I didn’t, and I am happy to update this post to revise according to personal preference):

Fascinating to find out more… having grown up in Wallace (50’s) where we just took this all for granted but knew little about it. — Patricia DraGoo Bumgarner

Very interesting, would love to have the book. My mom worked at Runges furniture in Wallace, she talked often of how nice the madams were when they came into the store. We all new about the houses….. — Diane Werlinger Ketchum

I grew up in Wallace, and one day walking down the alley behind the Oasis they had posted a sign on an 8×10 piece of paper reading, “We’re closed. Beat it!” The double entendre was so obvious and amazing, even to a teenager as I was at the time, that I burst out laughing right then and there. I wish I had ripped it off the door. But did not keep that souvenir. Don’t remember the year but I suppose it was 1973. Wallace was a great place to live, but it’s a bit odd to have strangers ask you directions to the “butt huts” when you are a little kid. Luckily, I was able to give directions by the time I was 7. Just like everyone else.

And the world’s oldest profession worked well in a male dominanted mining town. No child molestations, no rapes, and a woman could walk home safely, alone, when her shift ended at one of the local food and drink establishments. I believe there were 13 different licensed liquor establishments, and 13 churches of all religious genres. Everyone was happy until the Feds moved in over missing out on tax money revenues. The “rooms” were always upstairs over some licensed liquor watering hole; and my Dad always joked that he was the only bar in town with no f***ing overhead; the only one story saloon in Wallace, Idaho. — Susanne Neville

I was raised there. I have nothing but nice things to say about them. I worked beside them, They helped us and they made huge contributions of our community in more ways then one. — Aunt LesLee B

Very interesting. We lived up there in the 70’s and used to party a lot in Wallace. I remember the brothels in the alley. My husband used to deliver groceries to many of them in the 60’s. He worked for Britt’s grocery in Osburn. He said all the madams were very nice to him and tipped good. — Lynda Murray

My favorite comment was attributed to a guy vacating his business below one of the brothels. When asked why his business failed he supposedly said ‘Revenues was okay but there was just too much …… overhead’. 🙂

It used to be that you could find all those books at Silver Capital Arts. Norma Bradford always made sure he had books on the area. — Debi de Bruijn

I wrote about the Wallace brothels in my book, Bobby Convict. — Bobby Wilhelm

So interesting. I grew up in Wallace too. I worked at Idaho First National Bank and met Dolores Arnold in the early 70’s. — Lynn Towne

Telling it like it was, and should still be.

I am reading your “selling sex” and loving it!! I wish I would have known about this sooner. My Grandma was Dr [name omitted] nurse and had to do all the check ups on the girls. When she passed away she gave us all the medical notes and records that she had hand written.

Very interesting! I didn’t know prostitution lasted so long. I grew up in the Sunshine Mine Housing Area until 1963. — Donna Myers Roark

I remember back in I think 1973 when the U&I rooms put a sighn on the door. It said Closed, Beat It. LOL — Dave Parsons

I found this to be very interesting but have some questions(which will remain private)concerning the actual knowledge of the material presented by ‘personal interviews’ and that gathered by research assistance.both sources of which could be called,in some cases customers. — wheels

boy do those of us who grew up there remember they used to order tons of fingernail polish from Lockhart’s Drug Store Kerry and would pack it up but Bill delivered it

Saw your piece on the brothels. I came across an estate sale about two years ago and a lady had old doors covering the walls of her garage with numbers on them. I inquired about buying one but she said they weren’t for sale. Apparently they were the old doors in the 1890’s of one of the old brothels!!

My mother’s mother, [name omitted], cooked for Delores Arnold in the early 50’s. Delores gave my grandmother a little pomeranian. My dad, [name omitted], did carpenter work for Delores in the early 50’s and said they joked around a lot. Delores bought cookies from my mom and would send my sister and me money for Christmas. I have some pictures of Delores that are better than the ones I saw on this site. She was a beautiful woman—slim and with dark hair and eyes and dressed in pretty dresses and high heels.

Or as they used to say of John “Pozzie” Posnick’s Silver Corner Bar & Grill, located downstairs of the Lux Rooms, “Pussy up, Pozzie down.” — deepee

As my cousin, [name omitted] might have related to you, my great-uncle, [name omitted] owned the building housing the Oasis until his death in the 1940s.  He had come to Wallace in the late 1890s and founded the Rainbow Mining Company, which would later become Coeur d’Alene Mines Corp. I grew up in Pinehurst, and while working at Uncle Bunker on weekends and attending the U of I during the week, I was often accompanied home by friends interested in ‘seeing’ Wallace.  🙂 It was an incredible time for the town in the 1970s, before the mines closed.  Then, I was in Kellogg in 1991 when the FBI came to town, raiding 54 bars around the Valley.  That was a sad day in our history, but one that was destined to happen someday. Thanks for the article and for all of your research.

That was really interesting…I had no idea.. Thank you.

And the messages below were in response to my NPR interview from earlier this month, which is also an overview-type of piece. I linked to it on March 7, but if you missed it and would like to check it out, here’s a link to the radio program’s website (it’s the first sixteen minutes): http://withgoodreasonradio.org/2015/03/the-madam-next-door/.

Heard your discussion on humanism and civil exchange of thought a few minutes ago on WHRO. Thank you for putting yourself out to the public in this regard. Open minded conversations are so rare in our culture.

Dear Professor Branstetter: This Spokane native was delighted to tune in to NPR and hear you talk about Wallace, Idaho. How well I recall the shock and dismay upon being told that my high school sweetheart and a bunch of his friends had ‘made the big trip,’ as they called it back then in 1959, to Wallace. On my last Seattle to Virginia drive, I spent several enjoyable hours exploring your quaint historic town. Your interview was great fun and a big surprise, coming from a professor at VMI!

This message was from a friend I went to high school with:

Heather, I just listened to you on the radio!!!! with a group of ppl all from Wallace and we knew maybe 10% of the true history of the town I love even more now. I could have listened to you talk all night about it. I can’t imagine the information that you must have received on this journey and you put it together flawlessly. The whole time I was thinking I know her;) I am so excited to read the whole project. Please come see me when you are in town next. I hope you are well, and again that was truly amazing:)

And this email came in via my father, from one of his friends:

I thought it was great coverage of the topic. Obviously a tremendous amount of detailed background work went into this. I concur with Heather that I don’t see sex work as a moral failing. And I am not opposed to commercial industry if it is free from trafficking, violence, risk to workers, chem dependency, exploitation of individuals with limited capability or behavioral health problems, etc. I think Wallace provided an advanced (although not perfect) infrastructure for safe sex industry practices. People desire the services and people who freely choose the employment all benefit. I guess I think most of the folks I knew had similar leanings and had a fairly mature perspective. The one area I’m not sure I agree with Heather is the notion that small stories with moral content played much of a role in shaping the culture or support for the industry. I think people saw this topic in a broader context. The sex industry sort of fit the communities laissez faire attitude in general — that is still in much evidence today (e.g. If I want a drink at 3:00 a.m. why can’t I get one at the Wallace Corner or Sweets?) That is why I keep coming back 😉

I’d like to close with a response to the last comment. I absolutely agree with this suggestion regarding our laissez faire attitude and I did talk about this during the interview (which they edited down from fifty minutes). Yet community attitude alone cannot explain the extent to which the brothels were embraced so widely. Nor can it account for the longevity of the arrangement as it worked in Wallace. How do we create and change culture in the first place? The value system undergirding our communal attitude through time did not appear out of nowhere–it came from somewhere.

Of course there are the economic influencers, combined with the relative geographic isolation of the Silver Valley. Boomtown-style demand for sex work continued even as Wallace transitioned into a longer term mining town. The economic logic was both sustainable and self-reinforcing, especially when you take into consideration the decriminalized and regulated gambling industry that flourished in tandem. Plus, Wallace had political influence when it was producing more silver than anywhere in the world. State leadership in Boise (eight hours south) was content to take the revenues and let the panhandle “go its own way” as Egan’s Times article put it.

But through the course of my research and thinking these past four years, I have come to the conclusion that continued maintenance of the brothel-based system as it worked in Wallace was also the result of explicit connections to the community’s shared understanding of itself. Live and let live attitudes were cultivated and reinforced through informal yet persuasive “lines of argument” echoed throughout Wallace’s history, oriented in part toward protecting the town from outsiders, and repeated by people during small talk. Storytelling invented and worked to stabilize a sense of collective identity as the town evolved over time. I’m working on an article that documents and explains these aspects, connecting each saying repeated in small talk to its emergence in specific events and eras in Wallace’s history. This is my main research-based intervention for the more scholarly side of this story, I think. I am also working to highlight these elements as I continue progress on the book version.

Anyway, it’s been really helpful to hear your thoughts, and I’d love to hear more feedback, comments, critiques, stories, research tips, observations, etc., so please feel free to contact me in whatever way you feel moved.

the madam next door

This past Monday I drove to Charlottesville to be interviewed for the nationally-distributed public radio show With Good Reason. It was interesting—and a little weird—to do what the producer Kelley called “performing a conversation.”

You can listen to the show here (I’m the first 16 minutes or so):

And here is a transcript featuring my portion of that show:

“The Madam Next Door”

The town of Wallace, Idaho is like a lot of other mining towns in the West. It’s small, with old brick buildings and a beautiful mountain backdrop. But there’s something that makes Wallace a little different from other towns. Until 1991, prostitution was practiced openly and even embraced by the townspeople. I’m Sarah McConnell and this is With Good Reason.

SM: Today, Wallace, Idaho is home to a bordello museum which is housed in a former brothel. Heather Branstetter grew up in Wallace, where until 1991 prostitution was effectively decriminalized. She’s now a professor of English, Rhetoric, and Humanistic Studies at Virginia Military Institute and she’s been interviewing townspeople in Wallace uncovering what it was about that community that made it so accepting of its madams. Heather, tell me about the tiny town of Wallace, Idaho. It was a mining town, was it silver?

HB: Yeah, silver and lead and zinc. And there’s still a lot of silver there, but it’s just a matter of it being economical to extract.

SM: And you grew up in that area.

HB: I did, I was born and raised there. I graduated high school in 1999. And while I was growing up, the town was about a thousand people and now it’s dropped down in size to about seven or eight hundred.

SM: The amazing thing about Wallace is that the brothels and the whole culture of brothels in this tiny, mountain, beautiful turn of the century town, the brothels were embraced and even sort of regulated by the town.

HB: Yeah, that’s right. So Wallace wasn’t unusual in that it had brothels because most mining camps did, especially up through World War I or so. At that point in time the War Department decided to try and shut down all the red light districts, and many red light districts across the country didn’t make it through the time. The War Department was very concerned that the red light districts were spreading venereal disease and during that time Wallace did shut down for a little while or at least operated more quietly.

SM: What were the names of some of the most well known brothels?

HB: Well, the most well known brothel was called the Lux and that brothel was run by a madam called Dolores Arnold and she’s the one who everybody talks about. She was very beloved and she later expanded into another house called the Luxette. And there was also the Jade Rooms, the U&I Rooms, the Arment Rooms, and those were around for a long time.

SM: You were a very small girl before the brothels were finally shut down, but your father and grandmother had also lived in Wallace.

HB: Yeah, that’s right, my grandma was born and raised there. Dad lived most of his life and graduated from there. We had a lot of other family, too, in the area as well.

SM: What do you think they thought of the brothels?

HB: For most of the people growing up in Wallace it wasn’t any, we didn’t really recognize that we were any different than anybody else, basically.

SM: You were just a nice, small mining town.

HB: Yeah and it wasn’t as though the houses were like operating out in the open. It wasn’t as though the women were out soliciting on the streets or, you know, hanging out in the bars a bunch. It was just kind of like, you knew where to go, and we kids, you know, when I was a kid we definitely gossiped about it. I remember going to the city pool and someone would point at a window on the way there and be like, “that’s where so and so house is.” The kids had a fascination with it in the same way, I think, as some of the adults did, who weren’t actually involved.

But during the [19]70s and [19]80s there were a good deal of people from around town, like high school people, who would go hang out, especially at the U&I Rooms. They were pretty good friends with some of the women who worked up there. And Lee was the madam that ran that house and she had this idea that the way you keep your employees happy is to help them have a social life and not feel isolated from the rest of the community. But it was just sort of something that you came to understand was a part of the town and then what a lot of people told me was that they didn’t realize our town was any different until later. Of course, my friends and I, my generation, we realized it when we were about ten or eleven, because that was when the FBI came in and there was a big deal, it was a big deal.

SM: Do you remember the time the FBI came in, was it one big raid?

HB: It was one big raid, it was actually the biggest raid in the Rocky Mountain region, ever. So I don’t remember the raid itself. I remember the protests afterward. People took to the streets to protest the FBI’s presence and thought that it was really overkill the way that they’d come in. And this was around the same time as Ruby Ridge, and Waco, I believe, so it was kind of all wrapped up together.

SM: And what happened with the raid? This was when the brothels were completely shut down. Presumably, there were no brothels after that?

HB: Well, so I should say, most people in Wallace don’t believe that the FBI raid was actually responsible for shutting down the sex work and the sex industry there. Basically most of the houses were shut down before. I think that they shut down in connection with the FBI actually arriving in town and they were in an undercover sort of way surveiling. But Dolores’s houses shut down because she had Alzheimer’s, and Ginger and the women from the Oasis left around the same time and that was in 1988. So there was really only one house in operation; it was the U&I Rooms, and that one continued until just a couple of weeks before the raid.

SM: So why did Wallace embrace the sex industry for so long? Why was it any different than any other tiny, successful mining town?

HB: Well, I think that’s it’s the power of small talk and gossip and storytelling with a moral component. So people were repeating phrases over and over again until they sort of stuck. So some examples of those are, “oh well, live and let live, we’re an old West mining town,” or “the houses prevent rapes and they serve a community need because we can’t have these miners with their needs unmet running around town and we need to keep the quote good girls safe.” Things like that would circulate around town and it cultivated pretty widespread acceptance of the girls and their business.

After World War II, you see the madams really pretty proactively connecting themselves to civic values and to philanthropy and then you hear phrases like, “oh they gave a lot back to the community,” or “they take care of the kids.” You hear people repeat that they gave money for band uniforms. What you don’t hear as much and what I think was really important was that Dolores also gave food baskets to the families of the miners who died in a mining accident during the [19]70s. People really liked the idea that the madams were giving back to the community and taking care of the kids in ways that women traditionally do.

SM: Is it true that the police actually sort of regulated, as opposed to police the brothels?

HB: Oh yeah, that’s right. They supported the industry. So basically, when the women came into town to work in Wallace they had to go to the Sheriff’s Office to get fingerprinted and have a background check run, and they had their photos taken. And so I have copies of those files from 1952 until 1973. So you can see they made notations of the women’s appearance. They made notations of their history and their background, who they were associated with. They wanted to make sure: a) that they weren’t associated with organized crime; b) that they were over twenty-one. They also wanted to find out if according to their rap sheet, whether or not they’d run into some sort of trouble. It was also to communicate with other police departments across the country, too, in case there was some kind of case they could assist on.

SM: Wasn’t there an FBI background check on some of them?

HB: Yeah, that’s right. Most of them were corroborated by the FBI, they would take the files and they would send a copy into the FBI and I think also to immigration as well.

SM: Isn’t that crazy?

HB: Yeah, yeah, so Hoover’s stamp is actually on these files, I mean it wasn’t as though—it was very openly operated—it wasn’t as though anyone was pretending that it didn’t exist.

SM: And what do you think the Sheriff’s Office got out of this, favors in exchange for this sort of cooperation with the brothels, or money, or what?

HB: Throughout time you can really document the way that the madams and the houses interacted with the other civic organizations and government around town, right, so in the very beginning in the mining camp days, the saloonkeepers were sort of supervisors and they served that protective role, to some extent, and then they were also directories for people coming into town. Then after you had more regulation, after people got scared, after there was a moral panic about trafficking, and after there were fears about venereal disease, then it shifted a little bit so that the town’s health and sanitation committee was really more involved with the brothels. And at that point, the women were paying to say, pave the streets and create a sewer system. So basically there was a reciprocal exchange all throughout history.

SM: You’re saying the madams were big businesswomen in the small town.

HB: Yes, and they especially rose into power post-WWII, so previous to WWII, the madams had limited power, but after WWII when Dolores Arnold and Luoma DelMonte (she ran the Jade), when they came on the scene they were able to really become united with the city government. And it wasn’t the case that bribery needed to happen. That was the federal government’s allegation in 1991, that basically the women and also the bartenders and bar owners who were running gambling out of the back rooms were bribing the sheriff, but that would be a misunderstanding of the case. Basically, the sheriff wouldn’t get elected unless they were able to say, “no I’m not going to shut down the houses.” The mayors wouldn’t be elected unless they said, “yeah, we’re going to let the houses continue to run the way they have been.

SM: Are many of the women still alive?

HB: Yeah, yeah. The women who were the last madams are around 70 years old. Grandmothers, basically. Then some of the other women are still rather, you know, still rather young.

SM: Where did they go? What jobs did they find?

HB: In the service industry, mostly, so, like food service. Some of them moved to Nevada, because as you know brothels are still legal in most counties in Nevada, or many counties in Nevada. But yeah some of them, I think, retired, too. So… But others of them have had hard lives. I know one woman was in and out of jail afterwards and I know another woman has suffered from some addiction. So there’s that, too.

SM: Who were the women? Were they local?

HB: No, Wallace didn’t like the idea that local girls would become sex workers. So even though people talk about it like, “it was a business like any other,” the reality is, it was mostly women from out of town who were on what was called “the circuit.” The miners during the [19]50s, 60s, 70s, into the 80s, were more transient, traveling from town to town doing their specialty jobs. And the women did that too. They would travel from town to town depending on where business was booming more.

SM: And what about the men, these were mostly miners working fairly nearby, or did they come from far and wide, many states over, other than the transient miners?

HB: It was both the local men as well as truckers, men from Canada, some universities from around the area, so it was really a wide variety of people.

SM: Was there violence, and was there violence toward the women?

HB: Sometimes. The fact that the police were regulating meant that they did have some level of protection, but it also doesn’t mean that things didn’t happen sometimes. One of the women I talked to, she was a maid up in the houses and she spoke about the madam’s husband or boyfriend coming in and he pushed her down the stairs trying to get at the money that was in the lock boxes. And she was pregnant at the time. She ended up in the hospital as a result. And so there were definitely incidents that happened.

SM: So now that you’ve learned from a grown-up’s perspective and done all the oral history recordings and research, what’s your take on this tiny town where you grew up?

HB: I think there was really a reciprocal relationship and I think that the situation in Wallace was much better than in many areas. On the other hand, I also believe that there were lots of women who came from really rough backgrounds and who were probably coerced into sex work or were perhaps made vulnerable to a pimp, by running away from home, and ended up in Wallace in that way. So some of the girls had pimps who were in other cities, which doesn’t make any sense. If you’ve got a madam then you don’t need protection from a pimp. So I have a lot of, I just have really mixed feelings about it, I guess. I don’t think that freely choosing to engage in sex work is a moral failing, and I think that most of the town would agree with me on that.

I think that what I really noticed was: if we want to answer this larger question about how we create culture and how we change culture and how we negotiate our values, then we should really take a look at these seemingly insignificant things that we say to each other in passing, or little stories that we tell each other that have this moral content to it. One thing that you’ll notice if you spend any time in Wallace is that people are great storytellers there. It’s the way that the town transmitted—and continues to transmit—information about who we are and how it is that we come to a collective sense of ourselves.


Right after doing the interview I came down with the flu or something like that, so I’ve been unable to write much this week, but I’ve been working on another post I’ll publish by next weekend that returns to the sheriff’s office files like I promised in my last post!