VIRGINIA CITY — One spectator observed last weekend, “Brothel bed races, huh? Seems like win or lose, you still come out OK.”
Women in corsets and nightgowns and one in prison stripes perched on antique beds, holding onto the metal rungs for dear life while four men ran full tilt, pushing the beds up Virginia City’s main street.
The streets probably weren’t as full as they were back in the 1860s just after gold was discovered at Alder Creek and Virginia City’s population swelled to 10,000 people. Still, more than 300 people packed the boardwalk in front of the Bale of Hay Saloon for the second annual Brothel Days main event — the bed races.
Bar owners, twin sisters Gay and Kay Rossow, wanted to showcase the history of brothels in Virginia City. So in 2013, for the 150th anniversary of Virginia City’s founding in 1863, they organized a wild event — the first round of bed races.
The Rossows enlisted help welding lawnmower wheels to antique metal bed frames and lined up eight teams. Each team of five people had to include one woman dressed appropriately. Teams were timed rolling the beds up main street. The event hit a small bump last weekend, and after one of the antique beds broke the rules were amended to allow only one team to race at a time.
One young group of AmeriCorps volunteers who called themselves the Dos Verde team tried their hand at the race. They ran a good race, but they were beat out for first place by The Players, a group of young actors performing for the summer at the Virginia City Playhouse. The Players finished the course in 9.6 seconds.
Cindy Glaze, of Florida, was a rider in the bed race. Glaze and her husband, Chuck, are retirees from Florida who live and work in Virginia City during the summer.
“We sell tickets and help people pan for gold and garnets. What job could be better?” Cindy said.
Cindy wasn’t a bit squeamish about playing a prostitute in the race — it was all just for fun, she said.
Celia Crook, of Oxford, England, was traveling through Virginia City on her way back to Billings after visiting Glacier Park when she stopped to watch the races.
“We’ve never seen bed races before,” Crook said. “Is this something you do often?”
James Bargsley, who portrays vigilante John Beidler in Virginia City, explained to her, the ratio of men to women was 20 to one, so conceivably there could have been a brothel bed race or two in the Wild West.
Why celebrate brothels?
“We just wanted to do something different. There had to be a couple hundred prostitutes here. It’s a fact of life,” Gay Rossow said.
Economy of brothels
The Rossows plan to continue to make Brothel Days and the bed races an annual event in Virginia City, held around the third weekend in June each year.
Brothels were an important part of the early economy, historian Ellen Baumler said.
“Just about every town supported an industry like that,” she said.
Prostitutes and madams paid fines to local law enforcement, which helped bolster the local economy. Brothels were closed during World War I and World War II, but quickly reopened when the soldiers returned home.
Baumler, who works for the Montana Historic Society in Helena, was invited to talk about brothels as part of Brothel Days last weekend. She said some Montana brothels were in business until the 1970s, and in Butte the last brothel didn’t close until 1982.
When they closed down Big Dorothy’s brothel in 1973 in Helena, a barrage of letters — both for and against the closing of Big Dorothy’s — flooded the Helena Independent Record.
“One person wrote in, ‘My father always said a town without a whore house is a stupid place to live,’ ” Baumler said.
The Brothel Days event last weekend included a costume contest, where women could either dress as hurdy gurdy girls or as prostitutes. While there were bloomers and lacy tops and boas aplenty, Baumler said real-life prostitutes in the 1800s were more likely to wear Mother Hubbard dresses, which were like simple cotton moo-moos.
“They were wearing the dresses for easy access,” Baumler said.
Living history interpreter Leona Stredwick, who works in nearby Nevada City, also debunked the Hollywood image of a prostitute as a woman sashaying around the saloon in her corset.
“Women didn’t show their ankles because they had decency laws,” Stredwick said. “Hanging out in your corset and pantaloons would be comparable to hanging out in your bra today. It just wasn’t done.”
The prostitutes dressed like all the other women when they were strolling the boardwalk downtown, and they were always treated respectfully, Stredwick said.
“In 1865 in Virginia City, if a miner offended a lady of the evening, there were 10 miners ready to take him out because a lady is a lady,” Stredwick said.
On the other side of Virginia City last Saturday night, a fancy ball was held at the community center. Almost 100 people dressed in attire from the 1860s, dancing the Virginia Reel to music provided by a six-piece string orchestra. The ball was early enough in the evening so the participants could change clothes and head to the Bale of Hay Saloon for a much rowdier party.
Just plain folks
Stredwick said madams had become such a normal part of the community that there was a front-page story on a fight between two madams in 1865 in Montana’s first newspaper, the Montana Post, which was published in Virginia City.
“They were arrested for disturbing the peace. They were out in the middle of the street arguing over taxes. One madam was accusing the other madam of not paying her taxes,” Stredwick said.
Working women were so integral to the town of Virginia City that the people decided to name their home for a woman. It was originally proposed to name it Varina, honoring the wife of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America. That suggestion inspired an outcry from civic leaders who were staunch Unionists. The name was changed to Virginia City, a variation on the name Varina.
Brothels were not just economically important in the 1800s. In some cases they were vital to the survival of Western towns.
In Colorado, Stredwick said there is a story about a gold mining camp where there was an epidemic and the only ones brave enough to help the sick were the local prostitutes.
“The prostitutes were the ones credited to nursing everyone back to health,” she said. “They were credited with the survival of that community.”
Stredwick said that even Calamity Jane, who passed through Virginia City with her father when Calamity was 13, did a stint as a prostitute.
By 1875, mining at Alder Gulch was cut back and the population in Virginia City had dwindled to 800 people. Not surprisingly, Montanans voted to move the state capitol to the more prosperous Helena. And perhaps symbolically, Bill Fairweather, one of the original miners who discovered gold at Alder Gulch, died at the age of 39 in August, 1875, a penniless alcoholic.
Still, $90 million in gold had been extracted from Alder Gulch between 1863 and 1889 — what amounts to $40 billion today.
When the money and the men left, so did the prostitutes. For more than a century Butte would become the brothel capital of Montana with the most brothels in the state, Baumler said.
But brothels still have their place in Virginia City’s history. And for one weekend a year visitors can dress up, dance, and take a turn in the bed race down the town’s main street to revel in that history.