Before North & Co. became the Hailey bastion for fashion, one of the city’s former foremost clothiers stocked luxury items that were sold after hours to the town’s ladies of the night. Cornerstone Realty sells houses where once love and lust were for sale. There was a time when mothers whispered to their children that Hailey’s River Street, where preschools now reign, was a “no no.”
When men raced to the West seeking gold, prostitutes were right behind them. Brothels were staples of nearly every new Western town, including those that sprang up here during the Wood River Valley mining boom.
Jewelry stores thrived and most other avenues of commerce were so in demand that they created unofficial shopping entrances and hours for these hard-working women, who spent their hard-earned dollars lavishly and enjoyed a good smoke with their drinks.
Galena was the first established community in the Valley, with a population of approximately 800 in 1879, many of them miners employed at two nearby mines. Among the dwellers there were two women known only as Emma and Enid, who entertained the workers until they were asked to leave town. According to Wendolyn Spence Holland, who wrote, Sun Valley: An Extraordinary History, the pair supposedly “retreated” up nearby gulches that were later named after them.
And in a short time, the towns of Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue were founded and soon had their own history-making red light districts.
“Every town had its thriving ‘sporting district’ conveniently located on a live-and-let-live basis, like that of Hailey on River Street,” Clark C. Spence wrote in his book, For Wood River or Bust: Idaho’s Silver Boom of the 1880s. He notes: “The girls were beyond the pale of respectability and legally or implicitly limited to specific areas. Some worked in fancy houses, some out of rooms in the dance halls, and some in squalid cribs just off the sidewalks.”
In 1884, just four years after the town was established, Ketchum had all the trademark businesses of early mining towns, including “13 saloons, four restaurants, two hotels . . . two banks . . . and many establishments euphemistically referred to as ‘female boarding houses,’” according to historical literature. >>>
Historical records show brothels on the southeast corner of Main and Fifth streets, the west side of Washington Avenue between Third and Fourth streets and lining the alley in back of today’s Sawtooth Club on Ketchum’s Main Street.
Jenny Hardy is said to have hung her covert advertisement of red curtains in the window of one of the more lavish bordellos. But as the mining boom began to fade, Hardy retired the business. She sold the building to merchant and ex-postmaster E.B. Williams, who moved it several blocks east to Main Street, and turned it into the highly respectable Williams Hotel, which burned in 1904.
Hailey soon after became a bustling community of its own and, accordingly, along with its numerous businesses, saloons and two newspapers, played host to its own ladies of the evening.
Their houses of prostitution lined River Street between Galena and Bullion streets, says Holland. Among the notorious was the “Palace of Sin,” thought to have been the one run by Peggy Palmer. Palmer’s chief rival, Dot Allen, had a bordello a block away. Allen was said to have been an exquisite beauty, well dressed and dripping in jewels, and secretly admired as a shrewd businesswoman who earned enough to send her brothers and sisters to college.
Not to be outdone, by the mid-1880s Bellevue’s red light district had three brothels filled with tantalizing women. Tawdry tales were a given, but true love was not unheard of. Miners and cowboys were ragged around the edges themselves and forgiving when it came to questionable morality.
In “Bellevue Bustled in the 1880s,” an article by John Kelley, he wrote that one man fell so hard for a Bellevue belle that he shot himself in the heart in Hailey’s old Mint Saloon, unable to bear the thought that she was in the company of other men.
Alas, maybe if he had waited, he could have made an honest woman out of his quarry, because by 1907, Holland says, Bellevue’s red light district was gone, chased out by the city charter, which ordered local government to suppress “disorderly houses, houses of ill fame.”
While other towns cleaned up their streets, prostitution still had a hold elsewhere in the Valley for many more years.
In fact, in Hailey, the houses of prostitution remained north of Bullion Street on both sides of River Street for nearly 30 more years. Brothels on River Street extended as far north as where Zaney’s River Street Coffee House is today.
Public records of these three decades are scarce since “local census takers were loathe to ruin a town’s image, few sporting women appear in the returns,” Spence writes. “The profession remained generally invisible, carried officially as ‘servants,’ female ‘hotel keepers,’ or ‘boarders.’”
Newspaper editors also largely ignored the goings-on in the red light districts, though they no doubt knew the latest news and how to get it thanks to word of mouth.
Multiple literary sources document the flashy spending patterns of prostitutes.
The best paid prostitutes seldom made even as much as $20 and half of that money went to the madam for care, room and board, according to author Anne Seagraves. What spare cash they had went to fancy clothes, jewelry and perfumes, as well as vices such as cigarettes and alcohol.
Madams typically had accounts with local merchants and the girls could charge purchases on her account. Merchants usually added a tax to the madam’s account, sometimes as much as 20 percent, and the girls made up for that difference in repayment. The result was that many found themselves in a seemingly eternal cycle of debt and repayment.
Prostitutes were expected to stay out of the public eye, so they did their shopping through backdoor entrances and at unusual shopping hours. Typically, one night per week was designated for their shopping expeditions, when area stores would open up to accommodate them.
The J.C. Fox Store, which sold dresses, jewelry and lotions, was located on Main Street in Hailey, and had just such a special entrance. Fox was said to make trips to big cities to buy the latest fashions for his clientele. He opened his back door entrance after hours for the prostitutes.
Hailey native Lois Jean Heagle recalls that her father Lawrence F. Heagle, who was later a state senator and the mayor of Hailey, worked for the local drugstore, J. J. Tracy’s, before his political career. He often delivered goods to the houses of ill-repute in Hailey. Heagle recalls hearing stories of the silver dollar the hookers gave her father during one of these exchanges. The then high school aged young man always noted how polite the women at these houses were.
Though Dot Allen might have had class, Peggy Palmer had connections. Her bordello was in a house owned by her boyfriend, and he was one of Blaine County’s early sheriffs. Prior to the 1940s, brothel madams ponied up a portion of their profits to support local law enforcement in return for their turning their heads.
Rose Mallory is a longtime Hailey resident who remembers the closing act of Palmer’s house. Mallory is a member of the Basque Inchausti family, who moved to Hailey in 1936 to open the Gem Bar & Boarding House, which catered to Basque sheepherders. Her family’s boarding house was directly across the street from Palmer’s brothel, which had by then become known as the best red light house in the Valley. But it was the beginning of World War II and people and priorities were shifting. Legal prostitution was part of that trend, and the West began to see it fade.
Whether Palmer and her boyfriend split, or she retired, the house was put up for sale and the Inchaustis bought it to accommodate their growing family. It was the early 1940s and the house sold for roughly $2,000.
The Inchausti home is one of very few remaining remnants of the time that half a dozen brothels lined the street. The building now houses Cornerstone Realty on the corner of Bullion and River streets. Most of the other houses of prostitution are lost, either to fires or new development.
When Mallory’s family first moved in, the interior design of the house was accordant with its history. The house was only as wide as the front porch. It had a tiny front room with French doors that opened up into Peggy Palmer’s bedroom. Next to that was a lavender bathroom.
The bedroom and bathroom were located on the side of the house that now faces daVinci’s Italian restaurant. Beyond that, the dance hall portion of the building faced River Street. There was also a living room and a very small kitchen. In the back were two rooms where prostitutes earned their keep. The red light had been on the River Street side, beckoning to lonely men in the night. >>>
Except for the red light being removed, Mallory said, “We lived in that house, just like that, for quite some time.” It took a while for word to get around that Peggy’s was no more.
Mallory, then a high school student, was often left in charge of her siblings as her parents worked at the bar and boarding house across the street.
“Don’t answer that door, don’t open that door,” her father would caution. “If anyone comes, tell them Peggy doesn’t live here anymore.”
And, the late night visitors did come. Shooing the other children from view, Mallory recalls lifting the curtain of a front window and passing on the information that the establishment had changed hands.
Mallory says some prostitutes went on to blend into society and lead what was considered a normal life. She remembers one who went on to become a predominant figure in the local Democratic Party, and who ended up as a much-respected citizen of Blaine County.
Depending on whom you ask, the exodus of legal, or condoned, prostitution may have heightened town morality, but it also had a negative impact on the local economy.
According to Hailey’s historic brochure, “A local merchant was heard to lament, ‘There goes the mainstay of Hailey’s business. They always paid in cash.’”
Dorothy Ann Outzs, born and raised in Hailey, was a child during these latter days of prostitution. She can remember when her parents warned her that River Street was a “no no” place. Outzs said her mother once told her a story about local ladies of the evening that reflected the sentiment of the anonymous merchant. When Hailey was a booming mining town, she said, there were numerous jewelry stores.
The businesses, Outzs said, profited very well in the young mining town until the day the town fathers decided to rid Hailey of prostitution. After that, many of them closed.
Maybe, Outzs’ mother would surmise, the ladies of the evening had been the number one customers of the jewelry stores. Or, maybe, unfaithful husbands and boyfriends no longer had to rush to the jewelry store to unbind their conscience after fulfilling guilty pleasures with these neighborhood “girls.”