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little Wyoming history

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jodywy

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http://www.deadwoodmagazine.com/archivedsite/Archives/Girls_Lusk.htm
Girls of the Gulch
"I thought the name of the place was Lust."

One year after the last house of ill repute in Deadwood bit the dust under the auctioneer's hammer, another historical Dakota Territory brothel met the same ignominious fate.

The auction in Lusk, Wyoming, conducted on two warm August days of l981, had the same carnival atmosphere as the one in Deadwood in July of l980, and offered the same type of souvenirs --- brass room keys and bedspreads, naughty nighties and silk hose. Both sales attracted many of the same antique dealers, collectors and curiosity seekers from as far as California, New York and Florida.

But there was one big difference between the two events.

A smiling Pam Holiday mingled with the crowd and signed autographs for bidders on the contents of Pam's Purple Door in Deadwood. The Lusk sale was a sad wake for the madam who became a Wyoming legend during the 60 years she operated the Yellow Hotel, catering to politicians and cattle barons, businessmen, oil roustabouts and cowboys.

By the time of her death in l980, 92-year-old Dell Burke had become an almost-respectable citizen of the community, a member in absentia of the Lusk Chamber of Commerce and the local country club.

Because of her intimate acquaintance with many of Wyoming's most prominent people, the Ohio-born madam was able to operate with relative impunity for six decades of managing one of the most successful brothels in the area. One civic leader admitted she had the town in the palm of her hands for years. "Maybe it's because I know too much for everybody's good," Dell confided.

Dell arrived in Lusk in 1919, sweeping into the little town of 10,000 with the Lance Creek oil boom that was brought in hundreds of virile young oil field workers. "I thought the name of the place was Lust," she later told a reporter.

Setting up in a tent, Dell and a girlfriend immediately began serving customers. They rented a house from the mayor of the town, brought in more girls and Dell began her long career as the lusty lady of Lusk. Within a year she bought a large, two-story structure across from the railroad depot, freshly painted in the bright yellow shade tint that gave the bagnio a nickname. Now abandoned, the Yellow Hotel has faded in color, but not in the memories of Lusk residents.

Dell was a "real good-hearted old girl," according to one man.

The girls weren't too shiny when she got hold of them. She cleaned them up and dressed them and made them look like real good-looking ladies.

Those "good-looking ladies" were introduced to the community when the enterprising madam sent them out to stroll the street with her Pekinese in their arms, a clear signal to the male populace that there was a new girl in town.

Walking the dog wasn't the only method Dell utilized to promote her brothel. While Deadwood houses flashed neon signs (Cozy Rooms, Shasta Rooms, etc.) Dell Burke went them one better. Her Yellow Hotel was advertised on roadside billboards. Along with other civic-minded citizens, Dell paid for the painting and upkeep of several billboards on roads leading to Lusk. The signs included the name of the sponsoring business as a courtesy.

The billboard program was only one of many community activities and individuals that benefitted from Dell's generosity. Some Lusk residents claim Dell's name was at the top of nearly every charity drive donor list. She gave money anonymously to needy families, churches, and community fund raisers and funded the college education of at least two young men.

Between billboards and word of mouth, the Yellow Hotel's fame spread. Dell's eight girls were kept busy entertaining "Johns" who dined on the "best steaks in Wyoming" prepared by Dell's Chinese cook, danced to music from a live orchestra and eventually found their way upstairs with the bed companion of their choice.

Liquor was an indispensable part of the brothel business, so despite Prohibition, the Yellow Hotel continued to serve booze along with sex and gambling, a service that caused the madam continuous run-ins with the law. In 1928 and 1929, Dell's establishment was busted with great regularity, paying fines from $25 to $300 for various charges, including illegal possession and sale of whiskey, lewdness, prostitution and gambling.

Dell was no dummy. She soon figured out a way to avoid the long arm of the law. In 1929 the Lusk Light and Power Department power company faced the necessity of immediately replacing equipment that supplied the town with lights and water. Lusk officials were struggling to finance a $22,300 engine and generator when Dell came to the rescue with a personal loan that "bailed us out when we were about to go under."

In the spring of 1930, when the Sixth Judicial District Court authorized an injunction that closed the Yellow Hotel "to all but private dwelling purposes" until the end of the year, Dell called in her markers. She reminded city fathers she could shut off their water, literally, and suggested they refrain from interfering with her business when the injunction ended on December 31.

Needless to say, there was no further official harassment when the Yellow Hotel reopened with the new year and again began adding substantial sums of cash to the local economy. There was no doubt about the origin of the money deposited at the local bank. One bank employee recalled the distinctive smell of Dell's greenbacks.

Dell and her girls always wore perfume ... the money they brought into the bank always made the place smell wonderful. The smell would last until the money had been withdrawn. It was always a rush in the morning to open up the vault and get the first whiff of perfume.

Although successful in getting the law off her back, Dell set her own code of conduct for her business. She closed the hotel on Sundays so "none of the boys come here instead of going to church. I certainly wouldn't want any of my girls competing." Her girls were warned about speaking to anyone outside of the hotel unless spoken to first and firmly told they must never divulge the identity of any of customer.

Dell Burke was actually the last "working name" assumed by Mary Ada Fisher, born July 5, l888, in Somerset, Ohio, the youngest of John and Almeda Fisher's four children. Mary Ada 's family came west to Dakota Territory in 1898 and settled in North Dakota just a few miles from the Canadian border.

Married at age 17, Mary Ada soon decided the domestic life wasn't her bag. She crossed the border to Calgary, then moved north to Juneau, Alaska, where attractive women were a rare commodity. The petite, auburn-haired beauty, who now called herself Marie, made $10,000 in one year, practicing the world's oldest profession in the land of the midnight sun.

Like other frail sisters of sin, Marie migrated south when the gold boom busted --- to Seattle, Portland, and Butte, Montana --- then followed the oil and money trail to Casper, Wyoming. When Casper city fathers declared war on prostitution, the attractive 30-year-old Marie lit out for Lusk and became Dell Burke.

Her success in the small Wyoming town enabled Dell to prosper right through the 1929 stock market crash, the Great Depression and World War II, but her business waned as the oil boom faded in the late l940s. By the late l970s only one or two girls made the circuit into Lusk for the hunting season and national guard encampments.

By the time the last paying customer came through the door in l978, the 90-year-old madam really didn't need to make any more money. Investments in real estate and oil stocks provided a comfortable retirement for Wyoming's most popular madam.

A month after her 91st birthday, Dell fell on the sidewalk in front of her hotel, breaking a hip, and spent the last few years of her life in a hospital care center. When she died on election day of 1980, Dell Burke's estate was valued at nearly $1.3 million.

A Nashville songwriter's tribute entitled Dell Was a Lady was released by High Plains Records a year later.

Lusk will never be the same; our hearts will never mend.

God has gained an angel, Wyoming's lost a friend.
 
A

Anonymous

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Interesting article Jody...There are lots of stories about the old western houses of ill repute...
I read an article once about the "rooming houses" of Wallace Idaho- where they said that after the last of the half dozen or so houses were closed down in the late 70's/early 80's- that the city and county had to raise everyones taxes because the working girls and madams had boughten all the new cars and equipment for the Police and Sheriff's office for years...Without that donation they needed more tax money...
 

Soapweed

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That was a bit of interesting Wyoming history, Jody. A friend "acquired" one of the old yellow wooden doors off of the Yellow Hotel in Lusk. He brought it to my son, Sparky, to have some decorative legs installed to make it into a coffee table. Sparky used his blacksmithing skills to come up with some nifty stands. I saw the project in Sparky's shop at the time. My suggestion was to get some pretty girl manequin legs, complete with garters and silk stockings, for a more authentic look in holding up the coffee table. :wink: The twisted iron legs won out. :)
 

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