WALLACE, Idaho - Most towns would keep secret the salacious details of the past. But, most towns are not Wallace, Idaho. In Wallace, prostitution helped form the community's foundation. Now, those dirty little secrets sit right in plain sight.
Along Cedar Street in Wallace, you can see the remnants of the old red light district. Doorways, once referred to by color, lead to stairways; at the top, long hallways of rooms that served as brothels for decades.
"If you want to go back to the turn of the century, pretty much the second story of every building in Wallace was a brothel," Linda Hornbuckle explained. Hornbuckle is a tour guide at the Oasis Bordello Museum. The museum is a time capsule, freezing in time the moment this brothel closed in 1988.
But, before we talk about how it ended, we have to go back to how the sex trade began. When the discovery of gold and silver turned an old camp by the river into the center of the mining universe, men moved to Wallace by the thousands.
"[At the turn of the century] in Wallace, the men outnumbered the women 200 to one," said Hornbuckle. Many thought mining towns could not survive without whorehouses.
"The women in the houses were able to make the argument that it's a part of a mining town identity to have sex for sale," said Dr. Heather Branstetter. Branstetter is third-generation Wallace and has literally written the book on the history of the sex trade here. That book came out in May and is selling faster than the publisher can print it.
Dr. Branstetter has spent years digging up a past no one bothered to bury.
"That was my biggest research question," she explained. "Why did this last so long? Why was Wallace going strong as far sex work and the sex industry goes?"
The answers vary widely. But, the houses succeeded, in large part, because of an idea shared even today: the idea that men could not control their sexual urges and that prostitution kept the community safe. Madams often said giving access to sex kept men from cheating on their wives with the women down the street. One madam claimed she kept more marriages together than the clergy.
The madams paid taxes and gave to charity, even paying for little league uniforms and to outfit the high school band.
"The madams contributed so much in anonymous ways that people don't know about," Dr. Brantsetter explained. "They would leave money at the grocery store for people who couldn't afford food." Many in Wallace say they don't remember ever having to do a school fundraiser; what they needed was always provided.
In 1972, the state of Idaho no longer allowed cities to legalize prostitution. But, in Wallace, it was decriminalized. Madams were expected to follow regulations, like not hiring local girls and keeping the women off the streets in their off hours. But, over time, the industry declined. By the mid-1980's, only a few houses were left. The AIDS epidemic and a declining mining industry shut down most of them before federal agents ever could.
Dr. Branstetter's work will keep alive many of the stories still told in Wallace bars, long after the men and women who lived them pass on.
And, you can see the living history yourself at the Oasis.
Madam Ginger and her working girls left in a hurry in 1988 and never came back. Their rooms sit preserved exactly the way they were, down to cigarettes in the ash trays and a price list on the wall.
The most popular service: straight, no frills. $15 would get a customer eight minutes, with time kept on an egg timer in the kitchen.
"There were five girls here," explained Hornbuckle. "Each girl was making $100,000 a year in the 70's and 80s. They had to split that 60/40 with Ginger.
Ginger had enough to retire to Coeur d'Alene; she passed away a few years back. Most of the girls moved on to other houses, leaving very little information about where they'd gone.
Some have come back to the Oasis to take the tour.
People in town will tell you that some women stayed in Wallace. Some married local men and raised their kids here.
But, no one in town will tell you who they are or where to find them.
Turns out, some secrets do stay buried after all. Even in Wallace, Idaho.
For more information on how to get Dr. Branstetter's book, visit her website.
You can visit the Oasis Bordello Museum at 605 Cedar Street in Wallace.
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