Ladies of the Night
June 2006, Mendocino Coast Real Estate Magazine - Story by Margi Gomez
Photos provided by Kelly House Museum
In the wake of the lumber boom of the late 1800s that swept the North Coast, numerous saloons 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 women "active in the trade" who went by the whimsical name of Cinderella Wallace. Cinderella arrived in the rough and tumble Mendocino in 1865, 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 "mobile" 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 "dry 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." 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 "dry vote" in the rest of the county. Liquor licensing became a popular way of raise local revenues, and by 1913 there were thirteen bars flourishing in Fort Bragg, with twenty-two in Ukiah and eleven in Willits. Meanwhile, Mendocino newspaper headlines declared, "Ban on Saloons Will Last for All Time!" and "Mendocino To Have One Giant Party as 14 Saloons Dispense with their Stock of Liquid Refreshments!"
Those in the Mendocino area who refused to give up their Saturday night drinking sprees were forced to hitch up horse and buggy for the long haul to Fort Bragg or Point Arena. It was said that, however tipsy, a man could always get home as long as he could find his horse. The crisis inspired a number of songs, like this lively tune, sung to the tune of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary"
"IT'S A LONG WAY TO POINT ARENA"
It's a long way to Point Arena,
It's a long long way to go,
It's a long way to Point Arena
Where the beer and whiskey flows.
Goodbye to beer and whiskey,
Goodbye to rum and rye,
It's a long way to Point Arena,
Since Mendocino went dry.
In a remembrance by Herman Fayal, Fernance Lemos who had run a popular saloon frequented by the Portuguese community, was said to have announced before his saloon closed, "Well boys, I've got fifty gallons of wine in the back room. I can't sell it so you might as well drink it."
"They started drinking in the afternoon and then left to get something to eat, and returned to finish the fifty gallons." Herman said, "I was sick for a week."
Most Mendocino saloonkeepers adapted to the new temperance law, with former saloons becoming respectable businesses of all kinds. Fen Clyma's saloon became a pool hall, Granskog's Eagle Saloon became a garage, and Billy Grotz sold out to Mr. De Grazia, who manufactured sausage and bologna. Fernance Lemos decided to go into the grocery business. Frank Mendosa, who had barely had time to- get his saloon and "chop house" on a paying basis before the law passed, turned the building into a general store, which still thrives today.
An Encouraging Outlook:
Today will decide whether Mendocino and the several other incorporated towns and communities in the county that have taken up the fight against the saloon are to be freed from its baleful influence not whether they must become its chattels for a further period of time.
The outlook is more encouraging than it was last year, and we believe when the votes are counted tonight they will show that the precincts that voted dry last year have gone dry again by increased majorities and that a number of new precincts have been placed in the dry column.
One thing is certain—that this movement will never stop until its purpose has been accomplished. It is worldwide in extent and is making great forward strides each year.
The saloon man makes nothing by trying to prolong the saloon's days. The quicker he accepts the situation and takes up a legitimate line of trade or business the better it will be for him and for all concerned. He suffers from its demoralizing influence as well as his patron, and it is pretty sure to number him one of its victims in the end.
Although many saloon owners followed this sage advice, others who were attracted to the obvious profit in illegal liquor began to flout the law, building up a secret list of customers up and down the coast form Greenwood/Elk to Caspar. Bootlegger or "blind piggers" as they were known, often used the hotels, which had officially closed their bars, to peddle their illicit wares. Former saloon owner Billy Grotz was arrested repeatedly for bootlegging. Katy Tahja notes that, "The fact that Prohibition came to the Mendocino Coast a full ten years before it reached the rest of the country made for some very colorful cops-and-outlaws scenarios." The January 24, 1914 Mendocino Beacon illustrates this point:
Two truckloads of booze of various kinds, taken in recent 'blind pig' raids was taken by Sheriff Byrnes and dumped over the bluff into the bay.
The day was a gloomy one. The wind blew in fierce gusts and the rain fell in torrents as the Sheriff and his assistants, breaking in the heads of casks, and smashing whole cases of bottles at once, threw over the high bank into the waters of the bay gallons and gallons of booze of all colors and smells.
An order such as might come from a dozen distilleries and breweries combined filled the air, and a group of interested spectators were drenched by liquor which the fierce gusts of wind blew upon them.
Some of the respectable and temperate citizens who were present must have had a time of it explaining to their wives that night how it was that the smelled so strong of liquor.
And rumor hath it that ever since Saturday all the fish in Mendocino bay have been pickled. However we do not vouch for the accuracy of this statement.
The last of the old time saloons in Mendocino and the only one still operating as a bar is Dick's Place on Main Street. In 1936, well after the end of Prohibition, former woodsman Richard ("Dick") Cecchi bought the building from Anton Lemos, who had been operating a barbershop there. The old time atmosphere at Dick's Place has drawn locals and visitors alike ever since.
This month, as part of the Kelley House Museum's "Bars and Bordellos of Mendocino" exhibit, the Kelley House parlor is dressed up as a turn-of-the-century saloon, with the upstairs bedrooms decorated as turn-of-the-century brothels by interior designer Claire Amanno. Lingerie loaned to the Kelley House by the Petaluma Historical Museum adds an extra dimension to the exhibit. Large prints of the old saloon buildings, many of which can still be seen in Mendocino, along with the Kelley House's own fascinating antique fan collection, are also on display. A living history presentation has been staged for the past two years, with local people playing the parts of prostitutes and temperate folk alike.
Saturday, June 3, Kelley House and the Skunk Train present "Outlaws and Hookers," a partial fund-raiser for the Kelley House Museum. The steam locomotive, Old No. 45 will depart Fort Bragg at ten o'clock; [9:45 a.m. from Willits]. Madam Kate and her girls will be onboard, entertaining riders with ribald (and historically referenced, of course) stories of days gone by. The Black Bart Outlaws and the Train singer will provide musical entertainment, and a generous repast will be provided at the Northspur Station. Call the Skunk Depot at 964-6371 for further information, or check out the Website at www.skunktrain.com. Visit the Kelley House on Albion Street near Lansing to see the exhibit and to learn more about this unique period in Mendocino history.