Open Secret: Selling Sex in the Silver Valley

Heather Branstetter

Oasis Rooms Door Sign: 
palm trees with oasis lettering
Oasis Rooms Door Sign

“You haven’t heard of Dolores Arnold?”
I shook my head no, worried I’d lose all credibility, but unwilling to bluff my way through my first oral history interview.
“There ought to be a statue of that lady in this city.”

Like many kids who grew up in the silver mining town of Wallace, Idaho, when its brothels were active, I don’t remember how or when I first became aware of the houses and the women who worked in them, but by the time I was eight years old, I knew enough to understand the playground rumors. Even if we school kids didn’t understand exactly what went on behind the second-story windows on that side of Cedar Street, we definitely recognized that it was something to be whispered about, and we knew that it involved sex. During the year I was in third grade, in between practicing cursive handwriting and learning how HIV compromised the body’s immune system, we circulated rumors (which we believed to be true) about one of our classmates: “Her grandma is a madam at one of the houses!” we’d whisper. Even at that young age, we were attracted to and fascinated by the stories that the adults told in hushed tones.

My current book project explores the impact, influence, and role of sex work in Wallace through the years. I ask: How did social values circulate through embodied actions and small talk to enable the open secret presence of brothel-based sex work from the 1880s to the 1990s? Wallace didn’t just tolerate prostitution. In fact, most community members embraced it, making it a part of the town’s identity, an identity that persists even as the area transitions from a silver mining industry economy toward a tourism destination. I examine this rural mountain community in order to explain how the circulation of community values through the medium of shared stories and gossip across space and time enabled a century-long period during which brothels flourished.

Download PDF of Video Transcript

The larger question motivating this research is: how do communities negotiate values in order to create and change culture? How do underrepresented, underground, or outsider networks of people exert influence on systemic forces that have proscribed the available means of persuasion? By focusing on stories in circulation about Wallace’s past, I illuminate the narratives influential in creating and maintaining cultural identity mythologies of the American West.

Sign in the Oasis Bordello Museum Red Room: 
in god we trust sign with casey signature
Sign in the Oasis Bordello Museum Red Room

This research examines our fascination with stories and desires prohibited in “polite company,” which is what enabled the spread of gossip about the brothels and their role in Wallace; those who could not otherwise satisfy subversive desires lived through the stories of others. 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 considers 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.

Article in The Idaho Statesman  headline reads 'wallace defends prostitution a mining town needs brothels
Article in The Idaho Statesman, c.1989
Thus far, I have been gathering and interpreting both qualitative and quantitative data on the construction and negotiation of the history of prostitution in Wallace. I have been focusing on the women who ran and worked in the brothels, the community’s understanding of their role, and the culture of the town as it facilitated their continued presence.

I enrich and extend a body of scholarship in the field of rhetoric that seeks to understand the social aspects of persuasion as communication travels across networks, and I examine these questions while taking into account temporal and spatial considerations. My research contributes to work by scholars such as Carole Blair and Jessica Enoch: by examining the role of public memory, I ask how we work together to understand and create our past. As Jackie Jones Royster has urged us to do, I am helping to interpret and share the stories that are often neglected, “distorted,” or obscured in some way. This research contributes to our understanding of civic discourse as I document working-class persuasive narratives involved in creating community identity. And finally, the eventual book project will have cross-disciplinary relevance, reaching beyond the boundaries of academic interests, especially insofar as I am able to discuss the role of government and moral negotiations in spaces where public-private distinctions blur.

“Peter Pan” Basin for Washing Ritual, to Maintain Image of Brothels as Clean and Regulated

A part of my scholarly intervention is methodological. I have been adapting and building upon research methods developed by scholars such as Gesa E. Kirsch and John Howard, who understand the “lived and local process of archival work” as they also attend to the creation and interpretation of archives and public memory beyond traditional institutional boundaries. My work extends Julie Lindquist’s approach to documenting working-class rhetorics, as it addresses questions of collective invention, gossip, and public memory. Specifically, I have been collaborating with local community members in the creation of our shared history while documenting and tracing individuals’ stories to identify the available means of persuasion as it circulates and transforms, guided by the ever-present resonant past. The circulation of gossip—influential orally-transmitted stories with moral content, often overlooked as insignificant—has turned out to be the central component in an invisible yet immanent, private yet palpable social network that invented and continues to invent the rhetorical needs of the community. By conducting oral histories and comparing them to physical documents and historic events, I have been demonstrating how stories travel across time and space as they ossify resonant interpretations into repeated patterns, pulling the past into the present.

My work straddles academic and non-academic worlds: this project has been informed by scholarly methods and theory, yet I have been trying to make it accessible to those without a college degree. Thus far, my goal has been to create narrative pieces informed by primary research that can contribute back to the field of rhetoric (especially women’s rhetorical historiography), while also orienting toward preservation and public education. I have been helping create more accessible repositories of the community’s history, producing virtual exhibits, a website, and digital products for public education. Local historians, archivists, librarians, and other unofficial memory keepers collaborated with me on this project, which serves my hometown and others interested in history, storytelling, and women selling sex in exchange for political, civic, and entrepreneurial influence. I am excited to share some of this work here, including the video embedded above, which was first presented during the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition’s New Work Showcase at the 2015 Conference on College Composition and Communication. During that presentation, I also shared an interview recently featured on the public radio show With Good Reason:

Download PDF of Podcast Transcript


I am grateful to Jenn Fishman, Jim McReynolds, and Roxanne Aftanas for providing the important mentorship that brought this project to fruition. I am also hugely indebted to my writing group for their help, encouragement, and feedback. Risa Applegarth, Erin Branch, Sarah Hallenbeck, Chelsea Redeker, and Lindsay Rose Russell: thank you again. Thank you also to Tarez Samra Graban and Patricia Fancher for helping bring this publication to life on the web! Jameela Dallis, Kelly Bezio, Kristen Lacefield, Jessica Kee, Jocelyn Foiles, Mathias Bachman, Mary Hamann, Dave Platz, Dick Caron, Bill Mooney, Sue Hansen, Mitch Alexander, and Kristi Gnaedinger have been especially generous with their support and feedback on this project. Colleagues and friends at the Virginia Military Institute, University of North Carolina, and University of Idaho have contributed to my work in so many ways, especially Jordynn Jack, Jane Danielewicz, Dan Anderson, Todd Taylor, Joy Passanante, Michael O’Rourke, Douglas Lind, Julie Brown, Deidre Garriott, Josh Iddings, Frederick Coye Heard, Rose Mary Sheldon, Jennifer Gerow, Valentina Dimitrova-Grajzl, Meagan Herald, Jessica Libertini, Kristen Rost, Sarah Whipple, Gordon Ball, and Nicolaas Rupke.

Archivists and librarians at the Wallace Public Library and North Idaho College guided some of this research, and the University of Idaho Library Special Collections and Archives has been especially generous with time and resources ever since I began this project in 2010. Eva Truean gave me the opportunity to explore and digitize the Oasis Bordello Museum papers and take these photos. My family and other unofficial local memory keepers, archivists, and storytellers inspire my continuing desire to contribute to and share a more complete understanding of Wallace’s incredible herstories.

Works Cited

Howard, John. Men Like That: A Southern Queer History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Kirsch, Gesa E. and Jacqueline J. Royster. “Feminist Rhetorical Practices: In Search of Excellence.” College Composition and Communication 61.4 (2010): 640-672. Print.

---.Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. Print.

Lindquist, Julie. A Place to Stand: Politics and Persuasion in a Working Class Bar. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.