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The Best Little Whorehouse…Museum

Have you ever been to the Center of the Universe? Nestled in a valley amid the rising pine-tree blanketed peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains of Northern Idaho lies the town of Wallace. It’s a small town — in the 2000 census, 960 people called it home — that has made a disproportionately large mark on history. If you find yourself at the point where 6th Street meets Bank Street in the southwest portion of town, look down. That’s the Center of the Universe, or at least it has been since 2004 when the Mayor of Wallace declared it to be so and put in a manhole cover to commemorate the occasion. Now look up, you’re standing in the middle of a street and you should probably move before you get hit by a car.

Once safely back on the sidewalk, you can take in your surroundings. Wallace is an old mining town, a central player in the Silver Valley, which got its name from the over 1 billion ounces of the metal unearthed from the 40 miles of rugged hills over the last 130 years or so. This outpost of the Wild West got its start back in the 1880s and was the center of national interest when tensions between miners and owners boiled over to such an extreme that lives were lost and the Army was called in to keep the peace in both 1892 and 1899. The Great Burn of 1910 wiped out most of the town, but it was quick to rebuild. Many of the buildings you see today are part of that reconstruction effort and are all listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a ploy by the town to force the federal government to build Interstate 90 over Wallace rather than through it. As a result, there is still much of that turn of the century charm about Wallace.

Photo by amanderson2 via Flickr.

Wallace is less than a square mile in area, but there are actually a fair amount of venues for drinking in the history of this western gem. To get a feel for the mining life, visit the Wallace District Mining Museum just east of the Center of the Universe or take a mine tour in one of the surrounding caves. Of course, the railroad was integral to the town’s survival, so a trip to the Northern Pacific Railroad Depot Museum is recommended. But, to really get a taste for life in a rugged western mining town, look no further than the Oasis Bordello Museum.

The Oasis was a fully function brothel up until 1988 (just shy of it’s 100th birthday), when the madame — known as Ginger — got word of an FBI raid. The ladies grabbed what they could and ran out the door just ahead of the lawmen. The G-Men ended up using Wallace as their center of operations for three years as they cracked down on lawlessness in the region, which meant the Oasis remained shuttered. However, this house of ill repute got a second lease on life when it reopened as a museum in 1993.

Enter through the gift shop, where paintings of idyllic mining life share space with seductively posed mannequins (well, as seductively posed as mannequins can be). This is also a perfect opportunity to pick up that “Good-Time Girls Cookbook” you’ve been meaning to add to your collection or my personal favorite memento: the menu mug. The menu of services as they stood on the 1988 closing date has been printed to make your morning coffee just a little more racy. “Straight, no frills” would cost you $15 and last 8 minutes, while an hour long bubble bath would run you $80. The “Half & Half Deluxe” seems like a bargain at $25.

Sign up for the Bordello Tour and head upstairs for a look at the rooms, which have been preserved exactly as they were left (even the dirty dishes in the sink) in 1988. It lasts about 20 minutes, and provides a worthwhile glimpse into the lives of the women who worked in the world’s oldest profession in this small mining town. You also get to find out the story behind the one-shoed men of Wallace. It just might be one of the more memorable museum experiences you’ll ever have.

One Response to “The Best Little Whorehouse…Museum”

  1. Kevin Ryan on August 4th, 2011

    Here’s a link to a travel video we created about Wallace that includes the Bordello Museum 🙂

    http://northernidahotravel.com/wallace-idaho/

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