DEADWOOD — For years Deadwood’s brothels were an active part of the community’s history.
But that all came to an end May 21, 1980 when federal and local law enforcement agencies raided the brothels and they were closed forever. Until now.
Today, Deadwood History, Inc.’s (DHI) The Brothel Deadwood opens for historic tours at 610 Main St., interpreting the story of prostitution in Deadwood from 1876 to 1980 in a 3,000 square-foot space that formerly occupied a “cat house” called the Shasta Rooms, aka, The Beige Door Brothel.
“It’s a 104-year history of the brothels in Deadwood, from 1876 to 1980, and we have eight rooms that we have curated to represent that 104-year period,” said DHI Executive Director Carolyn Weber, who invested thousands of hours of research into telling The Brothel Deadwood story. “There are rooms that are curated from 1876 to 1900. Then the next working room will represent 1920s and the next one will represent 1940s-50s and then the next one 1960s-70s. Those are the working rooms. There are four of those. Then there’s one, what I like to call, real bedroom that women could occupy if the house wasn’t at full capacity … otherwise you had to live out of your work room all the time.”
A parlor, a madam’s office, a madam’s bedroom, and a gift shop are also part of The Brothel Deadwood.
“The rooms are good sized, which lends itself well to the tour,” Weber said. “The madame here was Tommie Cox, also known as Elsie Irwin.”
A small theater area is also curtained off that features 15 minutes of streaming interviews with nine local individuals who interacted or had first-hand experiences with the “girls” back in the day.
“They had varying experiences up here at The Brothel,” Weber said. “One was a cleaning lady, one was a liquor store owner, some were young kids who would come up here to sell their raffle tickets or get money for whatever organization they were involved with. And then, a young guy who used to deliver dry cleaning here to the ladies. So, there are a lot of people with a lot of different stories that we captured and it’s really fun because they have a lot of good memories. Some of them are funny stories and some of them are really touching.”
Employing an estimated eight women at a time, the Beige Door Brothel is one of four “houses” in operation when they were raided and shut down in 1980.
“You had your slow seasons and your busy seasons, like deer hunting season was crazy,” Weber said. “They’d bring in extra girls to work during deer hunting season.”
Weber said that a 1959 raid of all four brothels netted 16 women, including madams and prostitutes.
The Brothel project was funded with a $50,000 loan to DHI from NeighborWorks and Deadwood Historic Preservation, as well as a $400,000 loan to Nugget, LLC from Deadwood Historic Preservation.
The idea for The Brothel came from Deadwood Historic Preservation Officer Kevin Kuchenbecker and former Main Street Initiative Chairman Bill Pearson.
“They were looking at ways to better utilize second-story levels of historic buildings on Main Street and then they brought in a South Dakota State University architecture class to get their input on what they thought would be good uses of these buildings and when they found out what this one was, they said ‘Why don’t you just turn it into a museum or a tour related to the brothel as it used to be?’” Weber explained. “So that’s where that came from.”
Weber said that, ultimately, when patrons finish the tour, she would like them to have the following take-away.
“That this was a business that was a big part of Deadwood’s economic success. They contributed greatly to the community here through their generosity to charitable organizations. They shopped at all the shops here it town,” Weber said. “I also want people to know these were real women. They were in this business because they chose to be in this business. There are a few exceptions to that and we do discuss that. But all in all, I would say most of the people that chose to work here chose do so. Also, 104 years of an illegal operation? I mean, come on. Everybody knew about it. But I always say it was the worst-kept secret in town.”
Weber said that, in fact, the community rallied to the women most times.
“If they got charged with something, the townspeople were, like, ‘Uh-uh. You’re not shutting the girls down,’” Weber said. “There are so many things people can take away, but I just like the human aspect of it. These were real people. Like all of us. Mothers, wives, sisters, friends.”
Tours are for people 16 years and older only.
Weber said it’s important to note that during these tours and all of the research and everything that DHI has done, “We do recognize that there’s a difference between sex work and sex trafficking,” she said. “And we do recognize that and we talk about that. We’re not glamorizing or glorifying anything. We’re not condoning or condemning. We’re just telling the narrative of Deadwood’s history and if you have reservations, you should probably come up and take the tour and see what it’s like. Don’t judge it until you’ve seen it.”
Weber added she is very happy to have a Main Street presence with the DHI properties, as well.
“This is an opportunity to promote our other properties and tell people to go explore all of Deadwood,” she said.
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