In today's Boise, rife with v-chips and nip-nixing nudity ordinances, the notion of local prostitution sounds far-fetched and almost mythical. Even from a historical perspective, it is something more suited to mountainous mining camps like Silver City or Wallace (which actually features a bordello museum), than a valley town and state capital like the City of Trees. But take heed, innocent lambs: not only did Boise feature a full-fledged red-light district several blocks long for much of its first century, the skin trade actually figured prominently into the founding of the town itself.
"The very same day the city was plotted, a saloon opened up," explains Idaho Historical Society historian Milan Kovach," and shortly thereafter, 'things' started happening--within hours. Nobody wanted to talk about it, nobody wanted to do anything about it, but everybody knew it was there."
As for what, exactly, was "there," historical documentation is vague at best--and rooting out the truth is a challenge as tempting to historians as their subjects were to lonely miners. At various points between Boise's birth in 1863 and the urban redevelopment craze a century later which led to the destruction of many former brothels, anywhere from a handful to over 100 "soiled doves" were believed to have held shop in and around the shady downtown lane known as Levy's Alley. Their clientele: a doubtless robust-smelling mixed bag of miners, ranchers and soldiers. Uncounted additional numbers of ladies of the night (though their shifts usually began at 4 p.m.) resided in the back rooms, upper floors and basements of "legitimate" businesses from the North End to Grove Street. But according to Kovach, most bordellos were identified on city maps of the time as "female boarding," making exact study difficult.
Female boarding may sound like a tongue-in-cheek code reference, but according to historian Anne M. Butler, in her landmark book Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Mercy: Prostitutes in the American West, 1865-90, Boise's denial-based attitude toward prostitution was one of the most extreme Western cases of "public officials demonstrate[ing] a variety of twisted, dishonest relationships with prostitutes." At a 1909 grand jury investigation, Boise's chief of police, a local newspaper reporter and numerous, prominent citizens were all embroiled in a scandal arising from their longstanding connection, both physically and through financial protection rackets to local madams, some of whom had been under the thumb of local officials for decades. Likewise, decades of editorials in the Idaho Statesman called for an end to what apologists labeled "a necessary evil," but despite all this, according to Kovach, "It was still a major draw to the town--and not something that the founding fathers wanted to give up easily."
Given the awkward but pervasive role cathouses served in Boise, it makes sense that the Idaho Historic Preservation Council would take an interest in the phenomena. Since 1972 the organization has striven to preserve the historic sites and resources in Idaho that other historical organizations and government agencies ignore--like railroads, rural courthouses and farms. Similarly, argues IHPC board member Nancy Richardson, "to ignore [prostitution] would be to ignore an important part of our Western culture and history." In that spirit (as well as a slightly more playful and naughty one), Richardson and fellow IHPC board member Kovach will lead Boise's second annual Bar and Brothel Tour on the afternoon of Saturday, October 16.
Inspired partly by the success of Wallace's Oasis Bordello Museum and a "Saints and Sinners" tour that involved both Oasis and the neighboring Cataldo Mission, Richardson and Kovach staged the first version of the tour in 2003 to a mostly positive response. "Someone was offended and felt we were glamorizing the exploitation of women," Richardson recalls, "But we certainly didn't try to make it a funny situation. We received plenty more calls asking when we would do it again."
Kovach adds in agreement, "This dusty, dirty little town has a story that needs to be told, and we try to tell it in as factual and as interesting a manner as possible, in order to show where we come from. It's not the pleasant, tree-lined, mainstream history of Boise, but it is point and fact the truth of what happened here."
But don't let all the talk of truth and facts imply that the tour is not meant to be fun. On the contrary, a healthy dose of irony, banter and larger-than-life-characters--like Davis Levy, German baker and brothel owner who promised the best biscuits in Boise, or Diamond Tooth Lil, Boise's most famous courtesan, who donated her jewel-encrusted incisor to an orphanage at her death--infuse the tour from start to finish. Case in point: last year's tour was conducted on the ubiquitous Boise Tour Train, whose driver, Richardson, was clad in Mae West-esque parlor garb. Kovach joined her as a character he labels, "a combination miner-businessman from the 1890s." They were met at various stops by additional history-come-alive figures, also in dancehall girl attire. All three spectacles look to resurface from the depths of old-timeyness again this year.
A second case in point: this year's tour begins and ends mere feet away from St. Michael's Cathedral on 8th Street--"Just to remind everyone that they should behave themselves," Richardson says. After all, "This is definitely not the usual tour train tour. It's never off-color or raunchy, but people who've done the train needn't fear that they've heard and seen all this before. It really is a custom tour for this specific group."
Both Kovach and Richardson are adamant that not too many secrets be circulated prior to the tour, as they relish in the looks of shock when the curtain is pulled away from the financial, cultural and moral history of their tour-goers' previously squeaky-clean hometown. Suffice it to say, not only will spectators learn the precise location of Levy's Alley (trust me, the irony is worth the wait), but those who stay sober through the bar-stops may learn a few great trivia morsels for use in future saloon exploits--like the difference between a "parlor house" and a "hog ranch," the meanings of once-infamous terms like "bagnio" and "crib," or even the long-forgotten story of the Turnverein and Harmonium Society." Along the way the history and former identities of China Blue, The Bouquet and The Rose Room will be bared, as will the contents of the bars themselves. It is only appropriate to imbibe, given the subject--after all, by 1968 Boise offered 20 saloons, two distilleries and five breweries to a population of barely 1,000. That, according to Richardson, is simply "a story that is too fun to leave untold."
Boise Bar and Brothel Tour, Saturday, October 16, 4-6 p.m., $20 (proceeds benefit Idaho Preservation Council), meet at Idaho State parking lot at 8th and State St. Reservations encouraged at 424-5111 or email@example.com.