Description: Blair detours into the wilderness of the Idaho Panhandle to hear some historical whore-stories.
Introduction: Hello! Welcome to the very first episode of BlairSleptThere! I’m your host, Blair Hopkins. So, a little background: I started BlairSleptThere as an Instagram account a couple of years ago in hopes of de-cluttering my Facebook timeline of motel pictures while I was commuting regularly between New York and New Orleans for work. I was (and still am) a pretty low-budget operation, but had scraped my way up from having to sleep in the car all the time to being able to afford the run-down no-tell motels along the borders of states like Tennessee and West Virginia, and was perpetually delighted by the questionable aesthetics of my indoor quarters.
Being on the road all the time, you come across all kinds of weird shit, but more importantly, you come across all kinds of really neat shit. Over the years I’ve shared countless anecdotes on social media, but the format doesn’t really allow for expansive storytelling. The goal of this podcast is to highlight slices of (primarily) American life, culture and history relative to it's shared spaces.
Thank you for coming along on this trip with me.
Before we get started, I’d like to shout-out my very first Patreon subscribers: Pete, Marcella, Sean, and Jackie, you ROCK. I cannot thank you enough. And to my mother, Melanie, congratulations on finally finding a way to help underwrite my wayward path that is public enough to be undeniable. You can stop calling me out on Facebook now. I love you.
To anyone else listening, please consider checking out my bonus content on the BlairSleptThere Patreon.
Today we’re talking about a place that I’ve come to really treasure over the last couple of years: the heart of northern Idaho’s “Silver Valley”, Wallace.
Wallace was founded in 1884. According to Wikipedia it “sits alongside the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River (and Interstate 90), approximately 2,730 feet (830 m) above sea level. The town's population was 784 at the 2010 census.
At one point Wallace’s mines were the most significant producers of silver in the United States. The area’s lifeblood industry has changed dramatically, though, since the early 1990s due to environmental legislation and technological advances. Also, the mines have actually been on strike for going-on two years, so for quite some time Wallace’s economy dwindled. But country folk are highly adaptable, and recently the area has begun to experience something of a renaissance. Wallace is full of staunch, hard-scrabble townies who have managed to keep the forces of both decay and gentrification at bay largely by adding the area to the National Historic Register which preserved the integrity of the downtown’s buildings. They were also aided by the valley’s natural geographic constraints on new development. There simply is not room to expand the town; new developments must take the form of replacement and renovation, rather than expansion, so there will never be a WalMart built into the mountain slopes on the edge of town. The result of all this is that the new residents infusing Wallace with money and vigor are helping to reopen businesses shuttered by recession and age.
I stayed at one of these re-imagined relics, the Lux Rooms, which rests atop another local staple, The Silver Corner Bar, and once functioned as the crown jewel of Wallace’s Red Light District.
A quick warning that today’s episode references the adult industry and as such, may not be suitable for young listeners.
Script: Wallace, Idaho is nearly invisible from the freeway; it’s tiny, it’s nestled between peaks. In all my years coursing the I-90 freeway, the only local landmark that had made its way into my consciousness was the Stardust Motel. Usually I would leave base camp, either Seattle or Ellensburg, behind schedule enough that by the time I hit Idaho it would be dark, and the Stardust’s funky vintage neon, made to look like a shooting star, would tease my gaze but I, being broke and perpetually in a hurry, would mournfully push through to Missoula where a dear old friend keeps open his couch.
I was home for Christmas in 2018 and on the drive back, I got my usual late start. By 8pm the weather turned treacherous and I, in a rare moment of “recognizing my limitations”, considered the options and remembered the Stardust.
The sign was, as it turned out, the most remarkable thing about the place, though it was very well-kept and said sign really is magnificent. I’ve since seen Stardusts all over the country, though I don’t know that it’s a chain - I think it is just a common name. Anyway, the staff and the room were both sufficiently welcoming and by 10pm, I’d settled and was ready to hit the streets of Wallace for the very first time.
It was still snowing, fat, heavy flakes falling fast, but it didn’t feel hard. It was warm and silent, the weather of introspection. I wandered around the edge of where the streetlights ended for a while, then heard ambient chatter from a bar about a block away.
I don’t remember which bar I arrived to; I’ve only recently begun collecting experiences with intent, ie writing them down, but looking back with what I now know, it was probably the spot called Metals. The crowd was light, jovial, and around my age. After an hour or so, a man struck up a conversation. He asked, among other things, what I did for a living. My book had just been released and when I I gave him the usual pitch he got super excited. “You wrote a book about what?! Oh man. That’s crazy! You have to meet Heather. You’ll love each other. Oh my gosh Heather! Get over here!”
I’m used to people introducing me to their sex worker friends when they find out about ADSW (and I love that). I was not prepared, though, to be introduced to a woman about my age who had also just released her first book. Dr. Heather Branstetter, recent author of Selling Sex In The Silver Valley: A Business Doing Pleasure.
Here it was, the middle of the night in an old mining town with a population of less than 800 people, at one of only two open bars (which happen to be across the street from each other), and I managed to stumble across a woman who wrote a book on the history of sex work in the region from the late 1800s-1990s. Ho. Ly. Shit. We gabbed the rest of the night away. After last call I stumbled back to the Stardust and into bed clutching my copy of Branstetter’s book, utterly enchanted by the synchronicity.
I missed Dr. Branstetter on my last visit to town, so we caught up over the phone after the weekend and talked about her hometown. A quick note: She was making her way back from the Midwest to Wallace by train when we spoke, so there are some spots during our talk where you can hear background noise.
Interview with Dr. Branstetter (15:17)
Dr. Branstetter: I’m Heather Branstetter, I was born and raised in Wallace, ID, which is the subject of my book ,and how we kinda became acquainted, in a bar in Wallace. I left Idaho for a little while to go to grad school and get a Doctorate outta USC. I was a professor for a while, then I quit my job and moved back so I could finish my book, which I’d been working on for... I guess it’d had been 5 years at that time, off-and-on during the summer. I decided to work on it full time and within a year I had a publication contract and finally was able to get it out there and share it with the world.
Blair: And since then you’ve participated on some documentaries and some other projects kind of in association with Selling Sex in the Silver Valley, correct?
Dr. Branstetter: Yeah, yeah... So, the main point for me wanting to write the book was to document the contributions of the sex workers who had never been really talked about or written about in our history. There’s been a lot of books written about the history of Wallace. It’s kind of an interesting place where a lot of stuff happened - strangely significant for a town that was never bigger than like, 4000 people, but no one had ever really talked about the women who contributed so much and did so much to build up our town into what it eventually became. I wanted to give them some credit because, the thing is, people were talking about them in oral histories, but once those people die, their memories die long with them and so does our cultural heritage.
Blair: Oral history is a pretty good-sized portion of your book as well.
Dr. Branstetter: It’s the last third. I interviewed over 100 people for the story. I wanted to make sure to get a wide variety of voices and I wanted to put those voices pretty much unfiltered in their own words. I transcribed all the interviews and selected pieces for the final third part of the book .
Blair: What was the most surprising thing that you learned over the course of your research?
Dr. Branstetter: Oh boy. Maybe one of the more sensational things that I learned about... It was involving… a man who was a mayor, apparently, of Wallace, and you know... I never went through and tried to document or pinpoint which mayor it was, but it must have been during the 50s or 60s because that’s when this madam - Loma Delmonte, was in charge of a place called the Jade Room. And apparently what this guy really liked to do was to have several different women take enemas and empty it into a pail for him, and then he was bottling it up for some strange reason that we don’t actually know about. Once Loma found out, she decided he was not allowed to patronize anymore. And that’s kind of extreme, you know, because one of the major aspects and benefits that sex workers provide is being able to sort of take care of people with fetishes that might seem outside the norm, and this one was too extreme for even her.
Blair: It’s the rare madam who kink-shames.
Dr. Branstetter: Yeah!
Blair: But really… like, are there any things he could be doing with that that are good?
Dr. Branstetter: I mean, I have no idea! That was a mystery, I think.
Blair: One of the things I really enjoyed about your book is the way that you weave in some of the union and labor struggles in the mining industry and how they kind of correlate to sex work and just... how those two cultures influence each other.
Dr. Branstetter: Oh, yeah, actually, the first memory that I really have about learning about Wallace’s history was learning about the “Dynamite Express” and the labor wars of the 1890s. My dad told me this story about how there was this group of miners who hijacked a train. They loaded it up with some explosives, lots of dynamite, you know, because miners work with dynamite it was available pretty freely, and they drove the train from Burke, ID, which is now a ghost town but at one point had 10k people in it. They drove the train slowly down the valley all the way to the Bunker Hill which is in what is today Kellogg, ID - it’s closed down now. They blew up the concentrator. It was one of the most expensive and biggest concentrators in the whole world at the time
Blair: Oh my god!
Dr. Branstetter: Yeah! A huge amount of money. These labor wars… that was part two basically, that was in 1899. There was a previous labor war that happened in 1892. Both of these labor wars were some of the most violent and deadly in the United States’ history. Multiple people died during gunfights and in addition to the Bunker Hill being blown up, the Frisco Mill had also been blown up in previous years. There were Pinkerton spies that were involved and then a guy ended up being hired by the labor union to assassinate the Governor. Clarence Darrow… who would later become famous during the Scopes Monkey trial, he sort of began making a name for himself during that trial. Harry Orchard, that was the assassin’s name.
Blair: It seems that there does not really need to have been so much subterfuge. Like, you could just give workers their basic human rights and it would be fine. There’s a theme here America, right?
Dr. Branstetter: Yeah unfortunately there’s a strike going on right now with the Hecla mining company, one of the two mines that is still active in the Silver Valley. It’s been going on for two years and I think three months or four months. It really wreaks havoc on our community.
Blair: The mining industry just in general has changed so dramatically over just the last generation. How is it that… Why do you think Wallace has survived and not become a ghost town, as opposed to all the other towns in the area that have not been able to successfully make a transition?
Dr. Branstetter: I really attribute it to - in the early 90s - well, it was all the way through the 1980s, which was when I was growing up, the economy kind of like, slid downhill and downhill and downhill and mines continually closed and people moved away, so by the time we were in the early 90s it was clear there was a crisis point and then the Federal Government came in and raided all the bars and said “no more illegal gambling”. They tried to pull sex work in there too even though there was only one brothel that was still open at that time.
That devastated the economy even more, because there were people getting by on gambling and it drew people in. Sex work drew people in too. So when all that kind of, you know, went downhill during the 80s we faced a crisis point and ended up transitioning to tourism. We decided “well, what are we going to do to survive? We have to figure out something”. So instead of like, living on our past - sorry, let me say that again - instead of mourning the loss of our past, we were like “let’s embrace this past and let’s sell the past”. We just decided that we were going to become “Historic Wallace”. We’re the only town in the United States that's entirely listed on the National Historic Register. We have three museums even though there’s only 800 people there. We just have decided that’s going to be “our thing”. We’re just going to fully embrace our old mining town identity and honor it.
Blair: Wonderful. And it does seem to have worked really well. You know, every time I’m there, if I go out with you or with Jocelyn, the historical context is always part of the conversations that people are having casually. There’s constant jokes and commentary about the mines or “back when my aunt was working at the brothel,” or whatever what-have-you, that’s interesting because, first of all, Wallace’s history feels very recent compared to a lot of places. And also its not contrived and no one seems ashamed… People just are very into it and it very much so seems as though the history lives with you actively.
Dr. Branstetter: That’s definitely true. I mean, you could go to Europe and find buildings that are a thousand years old. You can go over to Asia and find philosophies that are two thousand plus years old...
Blair: But I don’t know if you would have, like, the son of a miner sitting having a beer outside of the renovated bordello, talking about his aunt who used to work there... it’s just all right there.
Dr. Branstetter: Exactly. People are really proud of it. I think that one thing the women of the town did - the sex workers in particular - was sort of cement our idea of who we were together as a mining town. “We’re a mining town, here’s what we are: We’re work hard/play hard, we’re live-and-let-live. We do drinking, we do gambling, and we do sex work.” It’s all part-and-parcel of who we are. I think those attitudes and those cultural values live on.
There were some people who didn’t approve of the sex work aspect of it. There were some churchy people who think that sex work is inherently exploitative or inherently morally wrong, like, “why aren’t these men having sex with their wives”. And you know, it wasn’t as empowered, I would say.. if sex work is in any way empowering today, I don’t think it was as much back then because there weren’t as many options for woman at the time. You see a really clear pattern during WWII where... So, I looked through 531 Sheriff’s office files of women who worked in the town from the 1950s until 1973 and what you really see there is: these women, if you go back through their history of the rap sheets, before WWII they were sex workers and they were getting arrested for prostitution-related... well, they call it various things in different cities but they were essentially getting arrested for prostitution-related crimes and then during WWII they worked for the government and they worked for the military. As soon as those good jobs dried up they had to go back on the streets or in the brothels.
Blair: At the core of it is that people are trying to do whatever it is that they have to do to survive…
Dr. Branstetter: I don’t know… What I really felt like got driven home for me during the project was that if women have more options, they’re gonna to choose what gives them the best lifestyle and the most money. And for these women who worked in Wallace, they had it better than in a lot of places. The houses there were women-owned and women-run and that made a big difference in the working conditions and the monetary compensation. But I guarantee you that some of them would not have been doing that work, had they had better options. Some of them would have chosen it but some of them wouldn’t have. That was part of that time. There just weren’t many options. If you got pregnant, if you had to support a kid, if your family went through some kind of crisis… there were a lot of reasons why someone would get involved with sex work if they wouldn’t have wanted to
Blair: The availability of photo documentation is so incredibly humanizing.
Dr. Branstetter: Mmhm. That was one thing that I really lucked out on. I didn’t know what materials I would find. I had no idea how many, if any, primary resources I would find, so I just started out doing oral histories and thought “well if anything I’ll just document the oral histories”. But then I found a ton of archival materials, I found tons of old oral histories and photos, as well as those police records that I mentioned… It’s just a wealth of information.
Blair: And you work on the Historical Preservation Society, correct?
Dr. Branstetter: Yeah and I’m on the city counsel. We just got a 10k grant from the state to write an updated historic plan.
Blair: Oh that’s so cool!
Dr. Branstetter: Yeah! I think it'll help a lot with our efforts to do preservation.
Blair: Wonderful. Well, okay! Thank you so much for talking with me today. Good luck! Keep up the good luck; it’s amazing.
Dr. Branstetter: Thank you! Thank you my dear, I really appreciate that.
Blair: Hopefully I’ll be able to catch you on my way back through. I think I’m gonna be back through toward the end of august…
Since being snowed-in I’ve visited Wallace multiple times, making it a point to get to know the area better. On one of these visits Dr. Branstetter introduced me to Jocelyn and Matthais, a couple who moved to town recently with the intention of re-opening the Silver Corner Bar, an area-staple that closed in 2012, and renovating the abandoned brothel situated above the bar to function as a B&B. It was determined then that the at the next available opportunity, I should participate in local history by getting drunk at the Silver Corner and crawling upstairs to one of the girls’ former rooms. In June of this year I set out on another one of my unnecessarily long, “production probably would have flown me there but I have to do everything the hard way” drives and scheduled a detour to Wallace on my way from Central Washington to Los Angeles.
I left home this time with eyes on Atlanta, set to serve as an assistant to the costume designer on a feature film production. I was due in LA to work a week of prep but since I’ve driven the I-5 corridor between Seattle and Los Angeles more times than I can count, opted to take the long way and roll east first, visiting the crew in Wallace before hopping on I-15 to make it to California via Salt Lake City and Vegas.
I was running late, as always, and had failed to account for time zones, but I still had my heart set on a beer with Jocelyn at the Silver Corner when I passed Spokane around 11pm. Alas, I was barely over the border into Post Falls, ID when my tire pressure light came on. I hit the shoulder to find that my two front tires were toast. I’d noticed them getting a little light around the rubber before I left, but didn’t want to be later than I already was and so, decided I’d take care of them the next day. It wasn’t the first time I’d driven a distance with mesh peeking out from where treads used to be. I figured it would be fine. Gambled and lost.
Fortunately, for as low-budget and cringingly-optimistic as this operation is, I do travel with AAA. I used the wait time to effectively convince myself that sleeping in the car in a Les Schwabb parking lot on the first night of a 3-week drive was certainly a good omen. Pro-tip #2: keep a gym membership at a national chain. A workout and a hot shower may not cure all ills, but it certainly helps strip off car-sleep stickiness.
In the morning I got squared away after being laughed at by my dad (he’d told me to deal with it before leaving and, having received a text the night before, answered the phone with sing-songy “I told you so” at me. Thanks pops) and rolled my put-upon self those last 60 or so miles into the Silver Valley.
It was a perfectly palatable 65 degrees in Wallace when I rolled into the welcome center around 2pm. Slightly overcast, which gave excellent texture to the shades of green that loomed large around the mountain valley. I was the only person there, and spent some time exploring the mining exhibition, reading about the different machinery and processes used in the area. I’ll post photos at blairsleptthere.com and you should check them out. I didn't think I’d find any of it interesting, to be perfectly honest, but the Chamber of Commerce did a lovely job of curating the area, integrating a scenic walk into a full tour of industry evolution so it was actually really neat.
Now in historic Downtown, I quickly found my way to the Silver Corner bar on Cedar St. It’s in a two-story brick building, on a block that gains more neon every time I visit. The Bordello Museum is next door beneath the Oasis Motel. There’s a bank across the street and a few other, smaller businesses, all of which maintain their original facades, likely at the behest of the city council. These buildings are around 100 years old, most of them were rebuilt after a fire that devastated the area in 1910 and since then, have borne many a harsh winter and economic downturn. They stand, proud yet unassuming, reborn again and again, yet in every iteration, dedicated to the preservation of their histories. All it takes to change the calendar in Wallace is to change the type of transportation on the streets. If you squint, you can see Honda Accords turn into Firebirds, turn into Roadsters, turn into horses and it all just… works.
Walk Through w/Jocelyn (7:12):
Blair: Okay so we’re goin’! So here we are; we’re at the Lux Rooms.
Blair: We’re In Wallace, ID.
Blair: Care to introduce yourself?
Jocelyn: Sure. My name’s Jocelyn Bachmann, and this is the Lux Rooms Hotel, which is a unique stay in an old brothel.
Blair: All right! So what’ve we got going on over here?
Jocelyn: So this photo here is of Dolores Arnold. She was the last Madam to own and operate this building. She bought the building in 1977 and did a complete remodel and opened it as a brothel, the Lux Rooms, and operated that until 1988.
Over here we have some historical maps of town. So, Wallace was founded as a mining camp in the early 1880s, and quickly prostitution sprang up all over town! The city council decided that, while they thought the brothels were good for the miners and wanted to keep them in town, they didn’t want them interspersed with more reputable businesses so they designated this triangle block on the edge of town, our block, 23, as the red light district of Wallace. Pretty soon - as you can see through the maps that go through the years - pretty soon our block was chock full of brothels.
When a girl would come to town, she would first go to a house and get a job with a Madam, and the Madam would send her to the Sheriff’s office where she would have a fingerprint, mugshot, and FBI background check. This was to ensure that the mafia stayed out of Wallace. The mafia made a lot of money moving girls around all throughout the United States at that time; Wallace wanted to stay independent of that.
Blair: Would you say that sex work here was decriminalized or legalized?
Jocelyn: It was not made illegal in Idaho until 1973.
Blair: Oh, wow.
Jocelyn: Yeah. So until that time it was legal, basically.
Blair: Legal by default of not being illegal.
Jocelyn: Correct. After 1973 the Sheriff and the city council and Mayor were not only customers but also friends with all the Madams in town, and they still thought it was good for the mining industry, so instead of making it illegal and shutting down the houses, they just stopped doing the FBI background checks. The Sheriff actually took all the old records home so none of the women could be retroactively prosecuted. They just kept on until the Feds kinda caught wind of it and came in and did a big raid in ’88 and ’91. Mostly they were looking for prostitution but what they got was a whole lot of gambling, because they tipped off the Sherif that they were coming so that he would have all his guys on staff, and he immediately called all the houses and told the women “you need to get out before this time”. All the women just kinda got out of town quick and actually, no one was prosecuted for prostitution in those raids.
Blair: The irony there being that, you know, in the search of women to prosecute for societal ills there’s almost always just this traditionally “male” behavior behind it.
So for reference, we are looking at a wall that has a bunch of maps and floor plans and things like that on it. What did you use to do this? It looks really good.
Jocelyn: These are actually blow-ups of old insurance maps of the city. Women’s houses were listed as “female boarding”, often. That’s how we know back through the times which of the buildings housed “houses of ill repute”.
Blair: Excellent. And who are these gals here?
Jocelyn: These are Madams who actually worked here in this building. All those extensive records that the Sheriff took home, he actually turned over to the Wallace Historical Preservation Society. We have names, aliases, birthdates, photos of women and where they were working and in what time.
Blair: That is amazing, that all that has been preserved so well. All right, so what do we have going on this wall? We have a beautiful drawing, looks like a pencil drawing, of a couple of ladies…
Jocelyn: A family friend of ours is a really amazing artist. We gave her the opportunity to just do whatever she wanted here on the walls. She’s done kind of a timeline of pinups. They start in more of an old WWII style, and then as we move down the hallway they come up through the ‘50s.
Blair: These are great. All right, so you guys have a theme to the rooms, right?
Blair: That’s informed by the way that you renovated it.
Jocelyn: Right! Because we have all those records, we picked a few of the names and inquired around town some of the more popular ladies that worked up here in these rooms. Each room is actually named after a woman who worked here - At least her alias - We’re not sure of all of their real names. The first room that you come to here is “Cha Cha”.
Jocelyn: She was a favorite of a local guy. He said she had “freckles everywhere”. He was quite enamored by it.
Blair: A redhead?
Jocelyn: I think so! Unfortunately the photos are all black-and-white so we’re not entirely sure. She liked frilly things.
Blair: Looks like a shared bathroom situation.
Jocelyn: Yep! We have two shared bathrooms on the floor. “Frenchie” is another one of our rooms. You know, lots of pleats and frilly details.
Blair: The decor seems really in keeping with the bordello theme.
Jocelyn: We also have “Barb”, “Ginger”, “Tammy”, and “Gina”.
Blair: I really get a kick out of that saying there.
Jocelyn: Yeah. “You don’t have to obey the laws, but you do have to follow the rules”. That was kind of the way the town operated for a lot of years; You don’t have to be lawful but can’t be disrespectful.
Blair: Proper Old West sensibility.
Jocelyn: Yes. This is the other shared bathroom here: This is the “pink” bathroom. We’ve kept the bathtub and the sink original to Dolores remodel in ’77. You have a nice bright pink sink and a bright pink tub with pink tile. On the menu of services, the most expensive service you could have is an hour-long bubble bath. So these bathtubs being original, you can imagine how much commerce has gone through them.
Blair: Oh lord!
Jocelyn: We kept all of the floor-to-ceiling gold-green mirrors. We thought those were very on-theme and make a night at the Lux extra intriguing of you and your partner.
Interview with Jocelyn (8:56)
Blair: You guys have been open for 18 months?
Blair: What’s it been like, as far as expectations versus realities?
Jocelyn: I’m often surprised when people don’t want to stay.
Blair: Don’t want to stay?
Jocelyn: Don’t want to stay. A lot of people are interested and I’ll give them a tour and explain the history of the building, that it was a brothel for over a hundred years - well, not quite I guess. The building was built in 1911 and the brothel shut down in ’88.
Jocelyn: It’s interesting when people come up and… almost cower.
Blair: Like what were you expecting?!
Jocelyn: Like, it used to be a brothel! It’s not…
Blair: Like :I told you it was a brothel-themed B&B!”
Jocelyn: Exactly! So that’s been entertaining. It’s also been really exciting to see how many people are excited to be here, and seek us out and specifically want to stay in something that has so much history. That’s been nice, that people are excited. The people who are the most excited tend to come back again and again. It’s been really exciting to make those connections and build relationships.
Blair: This is very much a town that collects people of it’s like mind, right? There’s something very magnetic about Wallace. You came over from Seattle, correct?
Jocelyn: Yes. We were living in Seattle previously.
Blair: I won’t tell anybody. Your secret’s safe with me and my podcast.
Jocelyn: Well, I grew up in Idaho. I was here for a long time. Went to high school and college in Moscow, then moved to Seattle for a bit. Worked at a bunch of different bars and restaurants over there, then we wanted to have our own place, and Wallace just felt like a good fit. We were able to buy the building and open the hotel and then shortly afterwards we opened the bar.
Blair: Did you find that the town has been receptive to you?
Jocelyn: Yeah it’s been interesting. The majority of town has been very supportive. The silver Corner was a beloved bar, and the Lux Rooms was known as the “premium experience” in Wallace…
Blair: Oh Really!
Jocelyn: So to have both businesses open again it just…
Blair: You came and got the highfalutin!
Jocelyn: Yeah, it just lights a lot of nostalgia for a lot of the locals.
Blair: So much of this building’s history is a lot more recent than you might think, too, so people who have grown up here and are middle aged and beyond actually remember a lot of the characters that you’re preserving.
Jocelyn: Exactly. There’s even some people in their late twenties who have come up to me and said “man I’m so glad you opened the corner again, you know I used to drink here all the time…” and I’m like, doing the math…
Jocelyn: “…So you were 16 the last time you were drinking in here!”
Blair: I see! Is that where you got the idea for the sign you have down there that says you “no longer serve minors”?
Jocelyn: Correct. We have it on the shirts too. It says “we regret to inform you we no longer serve minors”.
Blair: Aw, Dammit!
Jocelyn: So that has been fun.
Blair: Think of the children! Where will they drink?!
Have you had any drama around the shared bathrooms?
Jocelyn: No, the people who are uncomfortable with that don’t stay here, and that’s okay. It’s not going to be for everyone. I’ve had a surprising number of people say they can’t stay here because we don’t have televisions in the rooms.
Blair: Why would you be in a place like this, like, in this town even, if you.. I guess maybe if you can’t sleep without the TV.
Jocelyn: Maybe. We have exceptional WIFI. You can get anything on your phone nowadays. But, a lot of people, you know, have their routines. They have to have television and coffee in the morning and that’s fine. There’s plenty of other hotels that will suit that. The idea here is that you can read some books about sex work, or possibly The Joy of Sex. Each of the rooms has either an Encyclopedia of Sex, or The Joy of Sex or… all sorts of different…
Blair: That is such an excellent alternative to the bibles I usually get at the hotels that I stay at.
Jocelyn: We also have Lux Rooms brand condoms in all the rooms.
Blair: Oh my gosh!
Jocelyn: You can really have an authentic brothel experience with your partner if you want!
Blair: I need one of those! Since I’m not getting laid it’ll be a souvenir and I’ll never use it. It’ll just be there on my like, rearview mirror forever.
Jocelyn: Forever. We can make that happen.
I have noticed that every time I come up here my cell phone service is a little better.
Jocelyn: We’re slowly improving the infrastructure here in our little valley.
Blair: What have you seen since you started coming out here?
Jocelyn: A lot more businesses have reopened. Wallace definitely had a hard time when the mines… a lot of mines closed all at once in the late ‘80s and only a few of them are still operating. So Wallace has really struggled in the last thirty years to kind of find a new identity and a new way to move forward with commerce and their economy.
People come just to see the town, look at the architecture, walk around. And of course we have three museums in town and a mine tour, and there’s just a lot to do here. We’re nestled 11 miles in either direction. On I-90 is a major ski hill: The LookOut at Silver Mountain, so we get a lot of recreational tourism all year long. We’re also on the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes, which is one of the “Rails-to-Trails” cycling trails through the United States. On the Montana border just 12 miles away is the Hiawatha Trail, which has been really interesting. We’ve had people from all over the world stay with us that are just in town to do the Hiawatha. I had a couple from Scotland, England, Japan, Australia, and a lot of Canadians.
Blair: One of the things about Wallace that struck me immediately is how, like… there are tons of towns that have a really vibrant prostitution history. There aren’t a lot of them that embrace it with the veracity that Wallace does. I think that’s really unique. You know, you have the museum next door, you guys have hotels that are themed, its really, really impressive and forward-thinking for an area that would stereotypically maybe be considered more conservative.
Jocelyn: I think that our little Silver Valley has always been really independent, throughout the whole history of people living here. More of a “you can do what you wanna do but just leave me alone” kind of situation, and I think that has really allowed those kinds of ideas to flourish. The people that wanted brothels open here were allowed to be open about it, didn’t have to keep it in the closet. And on the other hand, the Madams were really, really talented at good PR and marketing, in terms of getting the word out there that they support the high school band, and they buy them uniforms, and they always give the most money to each individual raffle, and they would donate money to the grocery store around the holidays so if people didn’t have enough money to get a holiday dinner, they could talk to the store owner and there was a fund set up by the Madams to help these people eat.
Blair: Right, so they’re fully integrated into the community.
Jocelyn: About from the 1950s most of the houses were run by women and I think there’s only one instance of a Madam being cited for violence. Especially in the later years, the Madams took really excellent care of anyone who was working for them. They even gave them worker’s compensation insurance. They listed the business as “seamstresses” and got them benefits, which seems unheard of.
Blair: Right! Considering nobody in modern American can currently get any goddamn benefits.
Jocelyn: It’s pretty amazing.
Blair: Who’s your favorite character associated with the establishment?
Jocelyn: Dolores Arnold is definitely the most well-known Madam in town. If anyone mentions someone that was good for the community, good for Wallace and had a reputable business, Dolores is the name that comes up the most.
Dolores’ former Madam’s suite is where Jocelyn and Matthais stay most of the time so they can be immediately available to guests. The rest of the property is open to being rented. They advertise the property solely on AirBnB, Jocelyn says, for a number of reasons. For one, Jocelyn likes the idea of the place being an “open secret” rather than something heavily advertised, in homage to how it was run when it was a brothel. Additionally, the platform allows more space to explain the layout and history, which is important not only in attracting guests who will appreciate Lux Rooms’ unique features, but also to steer away anyone for whom the property is not a good fit.
To door to the hotel is a small, unassuming one on the side of the building around the corner from the Silver Corner bar. It is key-coded. Once inside, patrons walk up a steep set of stairs and onto a small landing where they’re greeted by an enormous framed picture of Dolores. There is a long hallway to the right of the portrait that I’m tempted to describe as “narrow”, but really, it’s just moody. The walls are dark grey and lit for atmosphere. On the walls there are old city maps, portraits of women and burlesque paintings dancing their way down to the end, leading guests to their quarters.
I’ve been assigned to the first room on the right, labelled “Cha-Cha”. Each of the rooms at Lux is named for a woman who once occupied and worked out of that room - so there’s Cha-Cha, Ginger, Frenchie, Barb, Tammy, Gina, and Jodie - there’s a total of 7 rooms containing 8 double beds with a maximum occupancy of 16 people.
I believe Cha-Cha’s room is the smallest; it’s about 120, maybe 150sq ft, with a high ceiling and a small window overlooking the roof of the building next door. The bedding is exquisite; it’s silky and peach-colored with an airy ruched comforter and the perfect balance of pillows vs throws. One one side of the bed is a small stand with an ornate vintage lamp and egg timer - all the rooms have the timers; they’re another throwback - on the other side is a mini-fridge. It’s a simple, elegant and cozy room that’s meant to be enjoyed for an hour or two at a time.
Rooms at the Lux range from $55-90 each, and the entire property is available to groups for just under $300. There is a large, well-stocked kitchen and dining area and two airy, beautiful shared bathrooms - one themed pink and one blue, both with a delicate curation of glass dishware for soaps and other bathroom accoutrement, and dainty gold stands with plenty of towels. I washed up and settled in with the intention of joining the locals for all manner of shenanigans, but fell asleep almost immediately.
By the time I dragged myself downstairs it was almost 11pm. Jocelyn and a handful of people I had yet to meet were spread out on the patio seating. They were several beers in and reeling, boisterous, telling me I’d just missed all the action. Apparently less than 5 minutes prior to my bleary-eyed arrival, a moose sauntered down 6th street. I cursed my luck and set about catching up on beers.
The rest of the night was about what you’d expect from a bunch of liquored-up roughnecks (present company included) out to let off some steam on a warm summer night: a lot of laughter and small town shit-talking, at least one stop to every watering hole in town, some unearned but earnest end-of-night “I love yous”. Wallace is, in my experience, unselfconsciously convivial. Part of being welcomed is hearing all the gossip and being brought in on all the inside jokes; you are immediately along for the ride. It’s refreshing and frankly, kind of unusual. I grew up in a very small town and spend a tremendous amount of time in small towns all over the country. Wallace is by far the least clannish and most fun village of misfits I have ever come across.
The morning saw me out before my host was up. I was now a full day and a half behind schedule and while I was better for the detour, it meant I needed to haul ass. I blazed my way south, out of the mountains, through the grasslands and salt flats, and into the desert.
This episode of Blair Slept There was hosted and produced by me, Blair Hopkins, with music by Lola Johnson and research assistance by Sarah Baylinson. For photos from today’s episode, find me on Twitter or Instagram at @BlairSleptThere. If you’re interested in supporting this humble venture, please visit me on Patreon and don’t forget to rate, review and subscribe on whichever podcast platform you employ!
For more information on the city of Wallace, visit http://www.wallaceidahochamber.com/. You can and should also check out Selling Sex In The Silver Valley: A Business Doing Pleasure, by Dr. Heather Branstetter and The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, by Timothy Eagen.