“I thought all towns had whorehouses; I didn’t know it was different until I got to be a teenager. I just thought that was the way it was.”
— Kristi Gnaedinger, Former Maid at the U&I Rooms
Today, if you take a trip into the mountains of northern Idaho and drop into the geographically isolated valley that once produced more silver than any place in the world, you will find the town of Wallace. If you pause to look around this town, which is home to fewer than 1,000 people and subsisting through continued mining operations and tourism, you might find yourself drawn to the Oasis Bordello Museum, where you can tour one of the town’s historic brothels. This voyeuristic journey into the not-so-distant past will take you up a long narrow staircase, past an old jukebox, down a dark hallway, and into rooms preserved since the Oasis’s last working girls abandoned town in 1988. The women, warned that the FBI would be coming, likely planned to retrieve their belongings later. But the federal agents stuck around instead, launching a longer term undercover investigation while the Oasis women moved on permanently.
Occasionally, some of the women now return to take the bordello tour, pausing to share their experiences with museum proprietor Eva Truean and perhaps grab a five-dollar bill beneath the Pegasus figurine on a bedside stand. Or so the story goes…
For more than a century, Wallace’s underground economy, built on illegal gambling and old-West-style brothels, functioned much as it had during the early mining camp days before Idaho officially became a state. The town’s vice district survived Progressive era reform, a national social hygiene crusade waged by the War Department during World War I, the economic depression of the 1930s, and went on to do booming business during World War II. According to local historian John Amonson, by the mid-1950s the town had settled into a comfortable holding pattern: residents would elect only government leaders who would allow the continued functioning of the prostitution industry, even driving away the few pastors or priests who dared advocate for reform.
According to Wallace residents and former maids for the houses, the regulated presence of women available “served a community need” when they made their services available to so-called tramp miners, semi-nomadic laborers who moved from one mining community to another. By performing quick sessions in tiny rooms located on second floors in a designated part of town, these women (often semi-nomadic themselves) supposedly kept the streets safe for other women at night. They brought money into the community by attracting truckers and college kids from around the region and the madams gave back generously. Wallace’s brothels were even internationally known, drawing visitors from Canada and recognition in London. Aside from a brief shutdown in 1973, when state government officials attempted to intervene, Wallace’s brothels were illegal yet embraced, a famous open secret.
The final house, known as the U&I Rooms, located a few doors east of the Oasis, finally closed in 1991, just a week or two before 150 FBI agents raided the area in “the biggest single Federal law-enforcement raid ever in the Rocky Mountain region,” according to New York Times columnist Timothy Egan:
The raid had the effect of shutting down the last brothel and gambling in local bars, even though the larger purpose of the raid was to punish the sheriff at the time for alleged corruption within the department (disgruntled deputies had initiated the FBI’s involvement). The U.S. Department of Justice was ultimately unable to substantiate its case—there was a mistrial the first time around, and the sheriff was acquitted the second time around—because, as the late defense attorney Sam Eismann told me in 2010, it was simply a part of the town’s culture to allow regulated sex work in designated houses and gambling in the bars, no corruption necessary. In fact, as the late former mayor Moe Pellissier explained when I interviewed him in 2014, you would not be electable and/or would be run out of office if you tried to put a stop to the underground economy in Wallace.
In 1991, the last figurative red light ceased operations at the same time as the town also held a funeral for and buried the last *actual* red light on Interstate 90, as the freeway was rerouted above the town rather than through it. Wallace shifted from selling sex to selling the past, re-branding itself as “Historic Wallace.”
Just as Wallace adapted to shifting economic forces that shuttered many other rural towns, the madams and working girls adapted to and endured major reform periods during which other vice districts shut down. The industry in Wallace survived moral and social hygiene crusades, and continues to influence the town’s understanding of itself even now, as illustrated by the bordello museum. The resilience and longevity of the brothels, especially when considered alongside an influence on the town’s sense of identity, makes the stories one can tell about Wallace an especially compelling case study.
The following questions remain at the heart of my project moving forward:
How does the community of Wallace frame its understanding of the past?
How did the social code of the town create a collective identity that valued prostitution alongside traditionally sanctioned institutions?
How did these women, segregated yet admired, persuade community members their presence was important, despite the moral and legal implications for the town?
What sort of ethical code was at work, and what role did government and community leaders play as the town negotiated its values?
Because my research asks how we work together to create culture, identity, and negotiate our values within communities, it has been of significance in both popular and academic spheres: a fascination with stories and desires prohibited in “polite company” enabled the spread of gossip about the brothels and their role in Wallace, and those who could not otherwise satisfy subversive desires lived through the stories of others. As historian Katherine Aiken suggested to me in 2010, the presence of tolerated prostitution gives the “upright” members of the community an excuse to discuss taboo topics. Through the years, the community could point to the brothels and know the town hadn’t abandoned mining camp roots—and accompanying libertarian values—forming the residents’ sense of collective identity.
Wallace, a rural, working-class town where the currency of community news and norms flies by word of mouth, has been an instructive case for examining how gossip orients cultural values and group identity as they circulate in a persuasive and creative way within the community. My approach to this research takes seriously the resonance of rumor within the interconnected dynamics of time and space: communal acts of creating and passing along stories reverberate at a frequency that harmonizes the traditions of the past with the unpredictable developments of the future. In other words, gossip is a stabilizing force. Small talk offers a productive point of entry into the social values grounding a community’s sense of shared identity; it offers my research an entry point as well.
My vision is that this project will be part of a larger movement demonstrating how community-based research and writing can serve public audiences while also upholding academic standards and influencing new scholarship.