Book review: Selling Sex in the Silver Valley

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Courtesy of Heather Branstetter


Managing Editor

It’s no secret that prostitution flourished in Shoshone County for over a century, giving the Silver Valley (and to an extent, North Idaho) a second identity other than hard working miners and loggers extracting minerals and harvesting timber.

But just because the area had two identities does not in any way suggest that they were not connected.

The Silver Valley boom towns, initially created by a short lived gold rush in the 1860’s, developed their own industries to profit off of the expanding mining industry.

As miners dug for silver and other precious minerals in the surrounding hillsides, Wallace native Dr. Heather Branstetter details in her new book “Selling Sex in the Silver Valley: A Business Doing Pleasure,” that towns such as Wallace, Idaho developed a complex sex trade to meet a demand.

Since 2010, Branstetter has interviewed nearly 100 individuals and dived into local archives with the goal of sharing the previously untold stories of these hard working women and interpreting the influence that they had on the area.

Separated into two parts, the first half of the book (part one and half of part two) gives the reader a traditional chronological history of the prostitution business in iconic and historic Wallace.

Holding few punches and revealing many of the gritty realities of the trade, Branstetter explains that regulated prostitution was generally accepted by the local populace as “necessary” to keep the many single men in the area occupied and entertained.

“Men and women alike thought commercialized sex was a natural part of mining camp life — a requirement, even, if the town wanted to meet the needs of the miners,” Branstetter says.

Tracking the progress of the trade over the years, the book does an excellent job of showing that prostitution in Wallace had to endure many ebbs in business that came with an ever changing sociological landscape.

Madams, proprietors, and supporters of the bordellos constantly had to adapt to fend off those who wanted to shut them down.

Branstetter explains that critics used both moral and medical arguments to demonize prostitution in the early 1900s.

These arguments brought about reforms in the industry such as regular medical exams for the women and a new emphasis that prostitution in Wallace was a positive thing for the city.

Decreasing sex crimes (rape), providing jobs, and bringing money into the community were used as points to support the local sex trade.

Branstetter highlights many of the madam’s acts of charity such as supporting schools by purchasing sports and band uniforms for Wallace High School.

Examples such as this effectively drive home the point that these women were directly tied to the community.

Perhaps the more exciting of the two parts, Branstetter cleverly reserves the second half of the book (the second half of part two and part three) to sharing first hand accounts from people who lived through the trade’s years of operation and commentary.

This collection of stories and conversations gives the reader a variety of perspectives that can suck you in with intrigue — especially if you are from the area.

The hardships the working girls endured are explicitly detailed out.

This is exemplified when Branstetter shares files compiled by the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office on girls who worked in the brothels from 1952 to 1973.

The variety of primary sources gathered in the second part is impressive, presenting multiple points of view on a business that prided itself on its discretion.

From former maids and customers to family members of the actual madams and girls, no stone seems to have been left unturned in regard to finding information on the Wallace sex trade.

The raw emotion, and surprising forwardness, expressed by those she interviews truly depicts a simple, yet complicated, industry with many positives and even more negatives.

After finishing the copy of the book provided to the News-Press, I feel that it is safe to say that there is no other source like this one; making it a truly unique piece of literature.

Upon completion though, I felt that the title of the book is a bit of a misnomer.

Almost all of the content in the book is focused around the city of Wallace, not the Silver Valley as a whole.

As the town that had the only designated “red light district” in the area, Wallace was the main player in the prostitution racket and deserves recognition as such.

But there were many other prostitution operations across the Silver Valley from Kingston to Mullan that had their own unique history, a history that arguably deserved some space in the book.

Nitpicking aside, Selling Sex in the Silver Valley is a fantastic read for anyone interested in the region’s history or curious about what went into such a controversial profession.

This book shows that as the years went on, Wallace and the Silver Valley transitioned from a collection of mining communities with a prostitution ‘problem’ to a prostitution hub with a mining history.

With a healthy balance of historical narrative and first hand accounts, there is something here for everyone.

Branstetter’s fascinating look at debauchery, prostitution, vice, and sex in a small North Idaho mining community hits the shelves on Monday, May 15 (History Press, $21.99).

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