I’ve lived in Laramie for 80 years, and worked downtown from the time I was 12. My girlfriends also worked—we all did to help make ends meet for our families. When I was five, my dad moved our family from Sheridan to Laramie for a job as mechanical superintendent of the Laramie Daily Bulletin newspaper. Laramie had two daily newspapers during those years, each with morning and evening editions.
Starting in 1945, I worked at the F.W. Woolworth store on 2nd Street (now the Curiosity Shop), working after school, weekends and vacations during my high school years. My girlfriend Lois worked at Sweetbriar’s ladies clothing store, and another friend was employed in a stationery store between 2nd and 3rd on Grand Ave. (now Martindale’s). She was the daughter of a contractor who had a wallpaper and painting business with his father. The brothels were good customers for their business.
1st Street reputationWe all knew that 1st Street was a place to avoid, just out the back alley from the stores on 2nd Street where most of us teenage girls worked. There were women of another sort who worked on 1st Street, in the second story above the bars there. Somehow I recognized these women when they came into Woolworth’s to shop—you could tell them because they were better dressed than most.
No cotton house dresses for the ladies of 1st Street Those women dressed elegantly in street wear that would have been very appropriate in the elegant shopping districts of New York and Chicago. But here in Laramie they stood out. Did I know then that they were not allowed east of the alley between 1st and 2nd Streets after dark? I can’t remember.
On one occasion, my friend’s dad had the contract to redecorate one of those brothels. We both persuaded him to give us a tour when all the ladies were away for the redecorating. What a place! It was more elegant than any other I had ever been to in Laramie, and to think that it was completely redone every few years.
An unusual bridal showerNow it happened that my friend became engaged to be married shortly after we graduated from Laramie High School in 1952. She was well known to the 1st Street ladies because they had watched her grow up. So the women approached my friend’s mother and said they would like to give her a bridal shower.
Oh my goodness, where to have it? Her mother was adamant that it could not be in the brothel parlor, so their family home was offered as the place. I was invited to help out and attend. I think there were about 20 ladies there. We had a beautiful brunch that day.
My girlfriend was unsure of what to do about the gifts they brought: save them and open them later in private, or open those elegantly wrapped packages while they were there. One woman seemed to be a spokesperson for the group, so I suggested that she be consulted. “Certainly, open them now,” she said. “That way if any need to be exchanged for a different size or duplication, we can take care of that.” And what gifts they were—beautiful clothing beyond anything any of us had at that time, and practical things for the home.
Of course, those women weren’t dressed in their “working attire” when they came to that daytime party—those clothes were reserved for the night.
Back zippersMy friend Lois, the one who worked at Sweetbriar’s part-time when she was in high school, was always requested when the women of 1st Street came in for purchases. Without being asked, Lois knew exactly what alterations had to be made in the evening dresses.
At that time we had to struggle into our 1950s dresses by pulling them over our heads, cinching them tight at the waist with side zippers and belts. That took some time to get into and invariably wrecked our hairdo. Lois told us that those ladies wanted a zipper all the way up the back! When they came to pick up their garments, a nice “tip” was always included. Looking back, tipping a clerk was an unusual gesture—I was a little envious.
Years later, one of my classmates from Laramie High School told me about his adventures with one of those ladies starting in 1946. He had a newspaper route downtown and had to deliver papers before school. On 1st Street the first floor bars were closed in the morning so to deliver papers to the brothels he had to go up a steep flight of steps off the back alley—going all the way up. It took much longer than just throwing the paper onto a doorstep.
One day a woman with a little dog met him at the door. She asked if he would like to earn a little money on the side by walking her dog. He was hesitant because he would have to do it before school, but the money was good, so he did—earning way more than he got for delivering papers. The job didn’t last long, but it did give him a good story to tell years later.
Wide-open townAll this took place before February 24, 1954. That was the date, I have since learned, when all the illicit activity on 1st Street came to an abrupt halt. I didn’t know it then, but in January 1954, a nationally circulated magazine called “Redbook” published a story titled “Sex Traps for Young Servicemen” by Ernest Leiser. There was no mention of Laramie in the story itself, which focused on brothels that flourished near military bases around the country. But there was a sidebar “box” that listed the top ten “wide open towns” in America.
Laramie was at the top of that list.
People of Laramie were outraged. Parents of UW students barraged the trustees with demands to “do something” or they would withdraw their children. The City Council received an urgent message from the UW trustees that the brothels be closed.
So on the evening of February 24, 1954 all of the brothels were raided and the workers there advised to leave town immediately. They never reopened. There was no mention of this in either of the papers the next day or the next week, or ever, so far as I recall. For many years all that remained were just a few businesses on the ground level; the upstairs rooms on 1st Street were uninhabited.
“Fines” requiredFor years before the 1954 shutdown, the city “fathers” of Laramie had been ignoring the fact that brothels had been illegal since the very first days of Laramie government. Rather than enforce the laws, officials required the women to pay monthly “fines,” which became de facto licenses.
In the late l940s and early 1950s, those “fines” also became registrations for sex workers. The women had to go to city hall to register, be fingerprinted, and give the address where they would be working. They were instructed not only to pay their monthly “fine” but also to report regularly to the county health officer.
This provided some ability to investigate the backgrounds of the women to see if they were wanted for crimes elsewhere. It also might have helped prevent the spread of contagious diseases and provided some control over how many prostitutes there were. One account says there were between 16 and 24 women in the heydays of the 1940s and early 1950s.
Some sources say that the health inspections happened weekly. I can’t vouch for that, but I can say that sometimes you encountered the women of 1st Street when you went to your personal doctors’ or dentists’ offices (most were on the second floor above what is now Altitude Restaurant). There would be a line of women sitting on the benches outside the county health doctor’s office. I think I know now what they were there for.
Good for Laramie?Law enforcement officers then thought that sex workers were good for the community, because they kept that activity inside; there was no need for the women to be out on the streets after dark. Crimes like rape and sexual assault were unheard of, or so they thought. There was also the rumored gossip that the “girls” contributed approximately a half million dollars to the economy of Laramie by the 1950s. Grocery stores, dress shops, shoe shops, liquor stores, etc., reaped the dollars in their tills.
A non-traditional UW student wrote an account that was first published in the Fall 1991 issue of the UW student magazine “Frontiers” though it was probably written in 1953 or shortly after. For the story, town officials such as the 1950s police chief Vern Breazeale and district court judge Vern Bentley were quoted. They echo the sentiments that the girls were good for Laramie. In the article, the writer relates the experiences of a fictitiously named young man who visited the establishments of 1st Street in 1953.
The unnamed author who patronized a Laramie brothel (an editor’s note at the end suggests it was Mark Harvey) describes the precautions the woman took to assure hygiene before their encounter. He also names businessmen of Laramie who provided information for his story. All of those named individuals were people I knew, though none are still living. I tend to believe the story in which 1st Street was indeed portrayed as “wide open” but “regulated.”
People tend to be very judgmental about the role of sex workers in society. Yet they are also very curious about the practice.
In the past two years I have led three “brothel history” walking tours of downtown Laramie. In one, I dressed as Christy Grover, a pre-1900 prostitute of Laramie, for a tour of Greenhill cemetery. Christy’s bereaved spouse erected a nice tombstone for her. Before me, there were others who have led Laramie brothel tours. They are well attended.
Part of our historyI hope these tours continue in the future as I feel there is a place for relaying that part of Laramie’s history. Others have done research that points out that the madams of Laramie contributed substantial funds to local projects. They helped finance the “Police Athletic League” that former Police Chief Barney Deti established to keep teenage boys out of trouble. They are also reported as big donors toward the construction of War Memorial Fieldhouse at UW.
It is a business that is not without a downside, for sure, as the early deaths of some sex workers attests to. Women don’t always freely choose this trade; they may not have other options, and, as the adage goes, it is “the oldest profession.” I feel there was a kind of dignity about the way these “unrespectable” women of Laramie behaved when I knew them, and it is a story worth passing on.
Editor’s Note: Germaine St. John was elected to the Laramie City Council in 1976 and served as Laramie’s mayor. Her late husband, Dale, was a school administrator; their son Greg is a retired Lt. Col. from the US Air Force. She worked at Northern Gas Co.; attended UW and was employed by First Interstate Bancorporation. She is a founder of The Unexpected Company Senior Theatre, a member of St. Paul’s Newman Center, Laramie Woman’s Club, Laramie Plains Museum Association, and Ivinson Memorial Hospital Auxiliary. Ginny Kilander and others at the UW American Heritage Center provided research assistance.