The next time you’re passing through Idaho, Take a little detour and head for the old silver mining town of Wallace, home of the historic Oasis Hotel & Saloon. It’s a bit different now than when mining sparked the settling of America’s West, providing the catalyst for entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, swindlers, and ladies of the evening to gather and offer their services to the wild and raucous miners.
Wallace, Idaho was not even a resting spot on the cross-state Mullen Road in 1884 when Colonel Wallace arrived here and staked his claim. Within two years of the Colonel’s discovery of silver more than 500 fortune seekers had moved in. The Sunshine Mine alone produced more silver than all the mines on Nevada’s famous Comstock lode and Wallace had made its indelible mark on the pages of Western history.
Today the whole town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One of the more infamous historic buildings, The Oasis Hotel & Saloon at 605 Cedar Street, served as an openly active bordello until 1973 when the law forced Ginger, the proprietress (sometimes known as the Madam), to remove her colorful neon signs.
However, the move by the long arm of the law was a pragmatic one, serving only to make her establishment less noticeable to certain of Wallace’s moral critics. Under this less obvious, but well-known guise, the Oasis continued to operate.
“The girls were brought here in groups, and rotated, one week on–one week off,” explains Eva, who conducted our tour. “They were kept here pretty much all the time. The only place they could go was to the post office. The town’s people didn’t want to be mingling with them. A hairdresser was brought in once a week.
In their rooms each of the girls had a button. If a man was giving her a hard time, drunk or something, she could press the button and it would ring a bell in the sheriff’s department and the police would come take care of it. They didn’t need any guards, just the madam who lived upstairs with the girls.”
The two-story brick structure built in 1895 was one of the few to survive the 1910 fire that destroyed much of the town that at the time had men outnumbering women 200 to 1. The FBI showed up In 1988 to investigate reports of gambling in the saloons. Ginger and her entourage wisely decided that the Feds had different goals than the local constabulary (most of whom were known personally), and vacated the premises faster than autumn leaves before a winter wind.
In such a hurry, in fact, they left behind their clothing, make-up, toiletries, food, and personal effects that are now part of the display of the Oasis Bordello Museum. Oh, did I mention that after the FBI moved on, Ginger was encouraged to return and reopen the Oasis? But she declined, deciding instead to retire.
Wallace is located 49 miles east of Coeur d’Alene on Interstate 90, 12 miles west of the Montana border. The Oasis Museum is open daily 9 to 5 from Memorial Day to Labor Day.