Selling Sex in the Silver Valley: A Business Doing Pleasure

By Heather Branstetter, PhD

Above, the Oasis Rooms are on the second floor of the 2-story building on Cedar in Wallace, Idaho. Today, the building is the Oasis Bordello Museum, the second floor is “frozen in time” and available for visitors to tour. Learn more about the Oasis Bordello Museum online here: zjdarrah.wixsite.com/oasisbordello

Dr. Heather Branstetter grew up among the mountains of the Silver Valley where rumors circulated about her classmates’ grandma who ran a cathouse. She received her PhD in rhetoric and cultural studies from the University of North Carolina in 2012 and moved back to Wallace in 2015 to finish the book. You may buy signed copies from Dr. Branstetter’s website, abusinessdoingpleasure.com and schedule a book talk by sending an email to findheatherlee@gmail.com. Fans of history will find something to do in Wallace year-round, but the town’s new festival, Fall for History, features workshops and talks that focus on keeping the past alive in the present. The event takes place during the first weekend in October.

I thought all towns had whorehouses,” Kristi Gnaedinger told me in 2010 when I interviewed her for my book on the history of prostitution in the area. She grew up in the small silver mining community of Wallace, where her father was one of the doctors who examined the women who worked in the houses. Gnaedinger herself worked as a maid in a brothel called the U&I Rooms during the mid-1970s. “I didn’t know [Wallace] was different until I got to be a teenager. I just thought that was the way it was,” she told me.

Located in northern Idaho along Interstate 90 midway between Missoula, Montana, and Spokane, Washington, the Silver Valley once produced more silver than anywhere on earth, but as of this writing, only two mines remain in production. Tourists who are curious about the long-lived sex industry can tour one of the town’s historic brothels at the Oasis Bordello Museum. This journey into the not-so-distant past begins at the base of a long, narrow staircase, winds past an old jukebox where men paid for drinks to sneak around liquor licenses, continues down a narrow hallway and enables a peek into tiny rooms preserved since the last women to work there abandoned the establishment in early 1988. As the story goes, several women who used to work in the Oasis have even returned to take the tour themselves, pausing to grab cash hidden beneath the base of a statue on the bedside stand.

Above, a mug shot for June Erickson, who worked at the U&I Rooms. Photo courtesy of Heather Branstetter.

For more than a century, Wallace’s underground economy, built on Wild West–style brothels, hard drinking, and illegal gambling, functioned much as it had during the early days beginning in 1884, before Idaho became a state. As historians Patricia Hart and Ivar Nelson observed in their 1984 book, Mining Town, the town’s rowdy mining camp heritage was apparent “in its attitudes toward public vice. That heritage and Wallace’s isolation in the mountains led to an unabashed and unrepentant acceptance of drinking, gambling, and whoring, seen as commonplace elements of town life.” Most community members believed—and continue to believe—that places like Wallace, full of single miners, require an outlet for sexual release provided by professionals. Maurice Pellissier, who was Wallace’s mayor during the period when the houses closed, put it this way: “I’m eighty; the houses have been here my whole life. What would this place have been like if they weren’t here? There was a need for this sort of thing.”

Since the town’s founding, professional prostitution had been the norm in Wallace, and it continued to be accepted by the majority of residents, despite its illicit nature. The “houses,” as the brothels are often called, adapted to and endured major reform periods during which other restricted districts shut down. Across the United States, most cities had abolished any designated zones for prostitution by 1920, but in the Silver Valley, the sex industry flourished out in the open through the late 1980s, with one house continuing to operate until 1991. Wallace was seduced by the women in its upstairs rooms because their presence provided a tangible connection with the libertarian Wild West ethos of its past: the red-light district offered evidence that the town continued to inhabit a rebellious space outside the law, a place where people said “live and let live.” Single miners, high school boys and sexually frustrated married men could visit discreet professionals without worrying about social consequence, and most women in town accepted the houses in exchange for the perception of increased personal safety.

Like human nature itself, Wallace’s houses offer a messy tangle of contradictions wrapped up in a complex package oriented toward efficiency and survival: they were famous and secret, commonplace and exotic, classy and trashy, operating without regard for the law but in accordance with a strict code of conduct. As times changed, the Silver Valley’s communities could point to the brothels and know the area hadn’t abandoned its mining camp roots—and accompanying libertarian values. My new book offers the first in-depth examination of the history of prostitution in Wallace as it explores the way local storytelling and word of mouth have connected a mining town with its sex trade, past and present.

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