Wallace, Idaho, has three museums that represent proud cornerstones of its story: a mining museum, a train depot and a brothel.While prostitution was common in Wild West-era towns, Wallace didn’t just tolerate the profession, it embraced it for more than 100 years. Illegal brothels openly flourished as late as 1991. In the new nonfiction book “Selling Sex in the Silver Valley: A Business Doing Pleasure,” Wallace native Heather Branstetter explores the history of sex work in Wallace from the perspective of the people who live there.
Branstetter, 36, remembers becoming aware of prostitution around the third grade when a classmate rumored to be the granddaughter of a madam suddenly moved away after a local brothel shut down. As a University of Idaho student in 1999, mention of her hometown still raised eyebrows among male classmates. After watching the HBO series “Deadwood,” she decided Wallace had just as interesting a story to tell. She proposed it as the focus for her doctoral dissertation at the University of North Carolina, but her professors discouraged her. They didn’t think she could find enough information.
“They didn’t understand Wallace,” said Branstetter.
Branstetter is now executive director of the Historic Wallace Preservation Society. She’ll discuss her book Thursday, March 8 at BookPeople of Moscow at an event co-sponsored with the Latah County Historical Society. She talked to Inland 360 about Wallace’s history of prostitution and how her research changed her perspective on sex work.
How did you go about researching a topic that is not generally discussed?
Branstetter: I dug up tons of previous archival research from pre-World War II. For the period after World War II, I also used oral histories of people. I did 99 interviews. I offered anonymity; I wanted to make sure people felt comfortable speaking to me. Some people went by nicknames so that people locally would know who they were, but someone from Spokane or somewhere else wouldn’t.
You found that prostitution was accepted in Wallace for multiple reasons: as a service to single men, for economic benefits, to the perception that it kept local women safe.
Branstetter: And the kids too, the kids were considered safe. Someone brought that point to my attention the other day.
The women working in the brothels cultivated feelings around town that they were protecting the women, children and families, while providing a service to single, unmarried men. And also married miners (laughs), though they didn’t advertise that as much.
They gave a lot of money to the community. Kids could always go up there to sell their fundraiser tickets for school. They gave a lot of money to the schools. They supported different things the town needed — a new cop car, paving the streets. It was always a good way to supplement the town revenue.
You explore how the brothels and madams followed a strict code of conduct.
Branstetter: They were very good about (keeping a clean image). They advertised they had regular doctor’s visits and there was a ritual of cleanliness involved in individual interactions. They cultivated what was almost a fetish for cleanliness. They’d wash the men before and after. A bubble bath was a very popular service.
Everyone said ‘they’re very clean and well regulated. They check in with the sheriff’s office and with the doctor. They’re not hanging out in bars or on the streets, not like those street walkers in Spokane,’ because God forbid, we be anything like Spokane (laughs).
You write that locals viewed the brothels in a positive light, as a way of bringing business to town, including lots of college students.
Branstetter: There were a lot of college boys who came from Gonzaga, UI and the University of Montana. There were tons of young guys who would come. Also a lot of men came down from Canada.
Who were the women that worked as prostitutes? Did they come from out of the area? Were they locals who fell on hard times?
Branstetter: They came from other towns. They weren’t recruiting from the local girls. Local girls were forbidden from taking part, even if they wanted to. That was part of the background check that they would do at the sheriff’s office. They also wanted to keep organized crime out of the operations.
A woman would have an interview with the madam of a house and the madam would send her down the street to get a picture taken. She would be fingerprinted at the sheriff’s office and investigated. It was very unofficial but it was official. (The UI Library has a collection of photos taken by Nellie Stockbridge of many of the women before 1963.)
Did writing this book change your opinions on sex work?
Branstetter: Yes, definitely. I went into the project without an opinion on the politics of it. Today there’s a lot of discussion about how sex work is exploitive to women but I also think for some women it’s the only option. I’m in support of decriminalization.
It was not good for the women; if they had other economic choices, they took them. (Records show) that some served in the military during World War II. They were Rosie the Riveter. They were involved in sex work before WWII, the military paid a good wage, then they went back to sex work after.
Times have changed a lot since then, women have many more opportunities, but for some it’s the only option. I met a woman the other day who said that was her case. She said Wallace did it the right way. Women were running the businesses. We tried to keep the pimps out of town. We tried to keep it women-run and safe for women.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Author Heather Branstetter discussing “Selling Sex in the Silver Valley”
WHEN: 7 Thursday, March 8
WHERE: BookPeople of Moscow, 521 S. Main St., Moscow