"This is the road to travel, but wives take care of your spouses, and keep them at home, for I assure you there are a host of bright eyes on the way to Boise."
- from C. Aubrey Angelo's 1866 book, Sketches of Travel in Oregon and Idaho
Two streets along the tracks, a town built on timber and toil. A time of too many men: Saws abuzz and itches needing scratching, alleys with rough-hewn wooden stairs leading to dark doors. A passage-point that became a destination, a seedier city than what we now know- - and far more recent than many choose to remember.Welcome to Bend and the brothels that helped build it. Where winters are freezing and we all must thaw somehow; summers too hot yet an inviting smile from an open window. Fall in love for a fee and promise to return after earning more. Tell your friends, not family, blame the altitude for late night lust. She's with who knows right now, drink up, we'll be back into the woods by sunrise. Farewell Bend as such.
First: A Bottle, Bath or Brothel?
A century ago did loggers, ranch-hands, and cowboys entered town with what in mind? Surely a bottle of swill after months in the woods or a bath to wash away layers of filth best scraped off. But a man needs a woman, as they say, and Bend had plenty to offer, at least for those able or willing to pay. It's the little known history of the world's oldest industry right here in a high desert hamlet, a place where vice was once as a much a part of our town's economy as the timber that ran out on the rails. Front and center were the "houses of ill repute" the evidence of which can still be found today, if you know where to look.
"There was little available to women. We couldn't vote, we couldn't even be secretaries back then," offers Joan Massey, a local retired history teacher who channels our legendary "destitute prostitute," Klondike Kate, (see sidebar) to educate young students about this bygone era, "The brothels were part of that scene. It was a business. So what were women to do?"
Blush not. Let's drop any pretense of the offensive nature of brothels and the ladies employed, if not the men who frequented them. These were destinations, a sin-dustry that underwrote community youth programs with under-the-table fees the brothels paid to the city, a cozy relationship that continued for decades. Further, consider the essential nature of this one business and how the evolution of Bend created a void. Upon becoming the Deschutes County Seat in 1900, Bend had a population of 21; when the Shevlin-Hixon and Brooks-Scanlon lumber mills opened on both sides of the river in 1916, Bend's population boomed by 910 percent to 6,193. This was one of the fastest growing cities in America by that measure, full of thousands of single and suddenly wifeless men arriving for work. As the O'Kane Building and lunchbox houses were being built in Bend, so too were houses of ill repute, purported to total 50 at any given time until the 1950s.
With a wink, a vast network of establishments for vice, gambling, booze, sex and companionship grew in tandem with Bend. "There was no documentation, it wasn't talked about in proper circles." explains Sue Frewing, President of the Deschutes County Historical Society, "Women didn't walk on certain sides of Greenwood Avenue alone, unless they got propositioned or worse... "The south side of Greenwood was the "good" side, while the north side was where any respectable lady wouldn't be seen. Despite the rustic elegance of the Pilot Butte Inn, this was the wrong side of Greenwood. And Bond Street was simply bad.
"Growing up here, I wasn't allowed to walk down Bond Street; it was lined with bars like the Superior Café and Original Joe's," remembers Patty Stell, Bend City Recorder, adding with a laugh, "And this was the 1950s!"
Some brothels were standalone houses, offering lodging and security to the ladies for a cut. Gambling, slots, dancing and alcohol complemented the sex, with Prohibition paradoxically approved by Oregon voters five full years before the rest of the country. Phased in by 1916 with spirits shunned yet restrictions on beer (and the local brewing industry) more lax, Prohibition meant the end to the Log Cabin Saloon on Bond Street (literally a log cabin with a bar) and a secret room being built in the basement of the new Pilot Butte Inn to stash spirits. Due to their very illicit status, local and national laws went mostly ignored in brothels. Gambling would soon be banned within the city limits, as a shooting over a card game in a brothel brought down the ire of the local authorities who decided to crack down on card games. Yet, it says much that it was the gambling, not brothels, that had to be abolished.
Other establishments were less plush, solely sex. Take a walk down the alley between Bond and Wall Streets, behind the Downing Hotel (featuring the Superior Café, later known as The Grove, now Seven) then gaze at the rear-upstairs of the buildings on the Bond side. Above and behind Seven and New York City Sub Shop were at least 20 "cozy rooms" or "cribs." During renovations along this rear stretch of buildings a few years ago, narrow rooms side-by-side and each no bigger than a closet were "rediscovered," purposely designed to use space efficiently (a single mattress) and maximize clients, thus profits. No wonder wooden stairs still wander up to the rear of these buildings, both the entrance and exit to dens of desire.
Interestingly, these cribs also feature some of the earliest skylights in the city. Not merely to take advantage of ample sun, but add revenues, as explained by Michael Long of Central Legal Services, "If you couldn't afford to buy it, you could watch it."
"A Reign of Moral Laxity"
For decades the sin-dustry and Bend worked together, maybe too closely. However unofficial and ignored with a wink, brothels paid a fee to the city (usually to the City Manager or Chief of Police), which helped to underwrite the community youth fund and summer recreation programs. According to Kelly Cannon-Miller of the Des Chutes Historical Museum, "There weren't many programs, but the kids knew who was really paying for them." Of course no brothels' names appeared on jerseys, etc., but this ad hoc tax on the sin-dustry guaranteed leniency and intervention when necessary.
The intervention came in the form of eliminating outside competition. "Circuit Riders" were common to railroad towns like Bend, women who would arrive and set up operations. Ironically, the term circuit riders originates with missionaries reaching distant outposts to evangelize, but women of "liberal sexual views" or who had been married more than once took the title while touring towns. Patty Stell, who, in addition to growing up in Bend, serves as the city's institutional memory in her position as the long running city recorder, ie the gatekeeper of all official records, including some that no longer exist. Stell mentions the full police log complete with mugshots that represented a who's-who photo-album of prostitutes and a snapshot of the industry in early and mid 20th century, "Healthy Scandinavian girls from Minnesota, Latinos, Cuban... ," recalls Stell.
These weren't Bend's prostitutes, but circuit riders that dared do business in a town that all but embraced its sin-dustry. Stell points to these mugshots as proof of how vigilant the local police were in protecting the local ladies. Only arrested were outsiders, exotic imports rounded-up and photographed for interloping in Bend. Sadly, this collection of mugshots was destroyed ten years ago because, as officially explained Bend's city recorder, "It was well outside of public records retention laws."
By 1932, Deschutes County District Attorney Ross Farnham publicly opposed the houses of sin and promised the "necessary steps to cleanup [the] situation." Taking on the sin-dustry in Bend was beyond even the District Attorney, though. The Chief of Police and City Manager were getting kickbacks from the brothels, and any legal moves were likely futile without their support. Minutes from city meetings throughout the 1930s and 1940s contain concerns about "harmony" in the police force and reminders that City Commission approval was required before the Chief of Police and City Manager "discharges anymore police officers." Were these officers trying to enforce unwritten ethics laws but being fired for doing their jobs?
Though shrouded in committee-speak and secrecy, and despite concerned citizens' demands that all findings "be made known to the public," alongside proposals for the paving of streets and adding toilet facilities at Drake and Pioneer Parks, regularly appears mentions of brothels, even a passing entry about "Sluts in our city." Tough talk in our little timber town, but then again this was the peak of the Temperance movement, the Era of Prohibition. Then the Bend Ministerial Association officially wrote the City Commission on January 17, 1934, requesting "a specific statement as to who is the responsible head of Law Enforcement in the City of Bend" due to concerns that "standards are causing a reign of moral laxity, which does not speak well for our city," a communiqué that coincided, perhaps not surprisingly, with the repeal of the 18th Amendment and the end of Prohibition.
It would take another 14 years, a special commission, and 13 charges against City Manager C.G. Reiter (who held the post from 1929-1949, during the heydays of brothels in Bend) and multiple chiefs of police to force a voter recall, impressively passed on November 5, 1948. Five City Commission members were ousted from office, including Mayor Hans Slagsvold, who dismissed the recall as being "at the request of a grudge group... " And maybe it was - a sign that concerned citizens fed up with the cozy relationship between their leaders and the local sin-dustry. Its passage was "considered a mandate for the people to discharge City Manager C.G. Reiter and Chief of Police Ken C. Gulick," according to city records. A new political and police leadership soon in place, brothels received greater scrutiny, but still offered their services in the shadows of our fair city.
Knocks at Night
For a half-century the city and industry flourished, protected by the highest government and police officials, providing much color and companionship for the community. The demise of the local sin-dustry is wraped in as much mystery as the women who once worked its halls. But one story seems plausible and bears re-telling: It is said that a local minister decided a final solution was required. So, from the altar, he started reading the names of the brothels' clients. It took only a few weeks for public outcry to finally push Bend's sin-dustry outside of city limits. No longer would Greenwood Avenue have a "bad side," nor would Bond Street be unfit for children to pass.
However sullied, other towns have preserved their pasts to promote tourism, Pendleton most proudly, yet the brothels that aided in Bend's boom, an existing draw as rich as any resort, have been erased under the dark of night, including the lumber mills that invented Bend and invited the sin-industry. Our salacious secret, poor governance aligned with houses of ill repute, this is a past easier overlooked.
Now hidden and more sinister, multiple sin-dustries have emerged, online especially, forced prostitution and human trafficking being the most despicable. Oregon was recently cited for having "a weak, incomplete and underutilized anti-trafficking law." The U.S. Department of Justice has identified Portland as one of 12 cities serving as "hubs for child trafficking." U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton summed up the sad situation best: "Anyone who thinks prostitution is a victimless crime needs to come to the neighborhoods where these pimps ply their trade. We need to support these victims."
Brothels may be a thing of the past in Bend, but there are still knocks at night, too many seemingly innocuous sites with secrets.
Under Hwy. 97, alongside the railroad tracks at the corner of NE Underwood Avenue and 2nd Street stands an anomaly: Three stories and built of wood, this yellow and unusually large house for this former mill town has passed through multiple owners and industries. Each bedroom on the second floor bears a brass number, four total, hinting that this home was once a brothel, or a hotel. You can feel it, the men waiting on the first floor, bottles being tipped back, reunions and relief upstairs...
And it's in this house that my question was answered. In the hallway, outside the cribs where men and women got cozy for a fee, the previous owner of this house found a curious trough affixed to the wall. Just above knee-level, this trough answers which things men entering Bend after months in wilds wanted first: Bottle, bath, or brothel?
As ingenious as ugly, this trough was used by men to wash their nether regions before and/or after a tryst with one of Bend's soiled doves. Then back to range or woods, to work another few months to earn enough to return. To Bend and its sin-dustry, so many establishments to choose from, any number of ladies eager to please for pay, a city that works with a wink.