Ladies of the Night
Fashion The Boarding House
In the wake of the lumber boom of the late 1800s that swept the North Coast, numerous
salloons sprang up in Mendocino and other Mendocino County towns. A Saturday night spent leaning on the bar was often the sum total of the social life for the hard-working loggers who came to Mendocino and the other towns that dotted the coast. Stories abound of Mendocino County's wild and woolly days before Prohibition, when thirsty loggers streamed into town for a night on the town. Many of these saloons catered to their clients according to their origin. According to documents archived by the Mendocino Historical Research, Inc. and Kelley House Museum, there were Scandinavian, Italian, Irish, Portuguese, German, among others, along with 'American" saloons, with mixed nationalities.
Silas Osborn and Frederick Heldt, also known as Dutch Fred, opened the first saloon in Mendocino sometime between 1855 and 1860 on West Main Street. Unschooled men who were unable to read or write, it was said that they kept a whiskey glass under the counter for each of their customers, dropping beans into the appropriate glass each time a drink was ordered. Dutch Fred was also said to prey on his clients who were in the habit of carrying twenty-dollar gold pieces in their shoes. Dutch Fred would get the men drunk and at the first opportunity exchange the gold for lead slugs of the same size.
A German native, by the name of William ('Billy ') Grotz first opened his bar at the corner of Lansing and Ukiah streets in May of 1895, moving the business to another location on West Main Street in 1899, according to Kelley House documents. Billy made the news in 1904 when, according to the Mendocino Beacon, 'His saloon license was refused by the Board of Supervisors, and the refusal will stay in effect until lewd women cease frequenting the place and making it unpleasant for citizens.'
October of 1870 saw a great fire in Mendocino, which wiped out many of the early businesses, but plentiful redwood and willing hands soon brought the saloons back in droves. No fewer than twenty-eight saloons have been documented between 1855 and 1907 in the town of Mendocino alone. Drink was not the only attraction, of course. A turn-of- the-century map shows nine saloons, along with three hotels with bars. In addition to these were the 'fast' houses, which housed the women who were often imported by the big lumber companies to entertain the bachelor workers of the time. These popular places were marked on local maps as FBH, or 'fashionable boarding house.' In most cases, the saloon would operate on the bottom floor of the establishment, with "lodging" upstairs. Another practice links the oldest profession in the world with the logging camps that were common in the hills above the coast. On Saturday mornings the lumber bosses would run special 'whiskey trains' into the towns, to guarantee their hard workers 'relief from their bodily urges,' and give the boys a place to spend their hard-earned paychecks. By Sunday afternoon the money would be spent, the hangover would begin to fade, and they would be headed back for another week in the woods.
Naturally there is relatively little written about the madams of these establishments, and even less about the common "ladies of the night.' Kelley House members Katy Tahja and Martin Simpson have been researching the saloons and nightlife of early Mendocino, and both agree that details about these "soiled doves" are few and far between. 'If you had anything to do with this process the last thing you wanted to do was to draw attention to it,' Katy explains. "But on one level, it was condoned. A good logging crew was hard to find. You wanted to keep the boys happy so they wouldn't wander off."
Katy relates a story that she discovered in the Mendocino Beacon about a local prostitute, who, along with her many charms, had the distinction of weighing over three hundred pounds. "One evening," Katy says, "while town father Nathaniel Kent was at a lodge meeting, the inebriated but determined woman stole Nathaniel's horse and wagon. Nathaniel, spotting the theft from the lodge window, shouted for a constable, and followed by his enthusiastic lodge brothers and various assorted onlookers, took off at a run after her.'
They did eventually catch up with her, but then were faced with a dilemma. None of the vehicles available to the town constable were capacious enough to carry the opulent lady. Eventually the mischievous whore was brought to justice in the mail compartment of the auto coach, the springs of which broke on the way back to Mendocino. Her girlfriends back in Mendocino provided the money to spring her from jail. "Although she was pardoned by the generous Mr. Kent, her fine included the cost of the repair to the coach,' Katy laughs.
Katy says that although there were the usual abuses, in many cases women who chose a life of prostitution did so willingly. 'Of course it was a sad place for a woman facing old age. But, if you had good looks and little standing in society, what were your options? You could be a seamstress going blind over-your work, or you could be a laundress up to your elbows in soapsuds all day. With this life, you had your own money, which you were encouraged to spend on clothes, jewelry, perfume - fun stuff. Plus you were taken care of, if you worked for a good madam, you had access to medical care. And you often got to see the world. In some cases the lumber barons would ship the girls around, from San Francisco right on up the West Coast.'
Martin adds, "Much of the time they were looking for husbands, and more often than not, they found them!' He goes on, 'Once they were married, they could join the church and play a more accepted role in society. Or, in some cases, they continued as prostitutes even after they were married, making ends meet during the winter, when their logger husbands were rained out of the woods."
Martin explains that, in his experience in historical research, 'You only find out about the prostitutes or the madams when they get hauled in to the judge.' He thinks he may have discovered a woman 'active in the trade" who went by the whimsical name of Cinderella Wallace. Cinderella arrived in the rough and tumble Mendocino in 1866, at the tender age of twenty. She was said to have few women friends, and to have preferred the company of men. She was known for her rough language, and was apparently comfortable walking alone at night. There is one story that relates a trick that she played on a drunkard who sang and carried on as he crossed the Evergreen Cemetery, disturbing her night after night. One moonlit night, covered by a sheet, Cinderella hid in a freshly dug grave in the Cemetery, jumping out at the man and scaring him so that, according to the Mendocino Beacon of the day, 'his cries could be heard all the way to Furytown (east Mendocino)."
The Dragon Lady was another such "lady of the night," who was said to have had the first 'mobileí den of iniquity in Mendocino, arranging for her trysts in the back of her automobile. A madam named 'Pretty Pearl" Peck ran her business behind Billy Grotz' saloon. One story recorded in the Mendocino Beacon recalls the day a house of ill repute caught fire, and the women were heard shouting randy comments at the brave men battling the blaze below. The ladies of the town were reported to have remarked that it would have been better to let it burn.
One of the most interesting of the 'fashionable boarding houses" was on
an offshore rock near Ten Mile River north of Fort Bragg, which customers accessed by way of a long wooden bridge over the freezing waters. Drunken
men repeatedly fell and met their death in freezing waters during the wee , hours of the morning, so that Fort Bragg city fathers eventually dynamited the bridge.
As more women and then children began to inhabit Mendocino along with the workingman bachelors, tensions began to grow. Prohibition in the form of 'local option' liquor elections began to be a force in the county, with ëdry days' enforcement beginning in Mendocino in 1909, over ten years before national Prohibition went into effect with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Meetings were held and debate raged, both officially in community meeting halls such as the Oddfellows Hall, and in the street where the question frequently pitted neighbor against neighbor. The incorporated areas of the county were permitted to hold 'wet or dry' elections, with Fort Bragg, Ukiah, and Willits voting 'wet.í It is believed that Point Arena, (with a population of 476 and boasting nine saloons), incorporated in 1908 in order to escape the onerous eventuality of a ëdry voteí in the rest of the county. Liquor licensing became a popular way to raise local revenues, and by 1913 there were thirteen bars flourishing in Fort Bragg, with twenty-two in Ukiah and eleven in Willits.