Raucous over the Red Light

Early Red Light District a Source of Fun, Trouble and Revenue

“Offenses against the good morals and common decency”

   With its origins as a logging and railroad town, it should come as no surprise that our little town of Whitefish was home to a red-light district. The scourge of decent society, these areas of ill repute (or ‘ill-fame’ as the official charge was in Whitefish) nevertheless prospered in Whitefish.

    For years, houses of ill fame were the primary source of revenue for the police department. Perhaps hard-earned, since a fair amount of trouble could be laid at the doorsteps of these houses of easy virtue—at least one murder and numerous burglaries took place in the red light. And Pilot headlines told the story of a child abandoned and being raised by the ladies of red light district.


Trio of ‘Regulars’ Seen in Court on a Weekly Basis Charged

   Early Police Court dockets (gorgeous burgundy leather bound books) go back to 1911, though police court started when Whitefish was incorporated in 1905. Records on early red light charges indicate that three regulars visited court on a weekly basis –an exacting appearance every seven days sure as clock work—to face charges that varied from “being drunk and disorderly” to plain old “disorderly conduct” to the far more revealing charge of “keeping a house of ill-fame”.

   Three ‘regulars’ to the courtroom, J.H. or “Jack” Matthews, Dolly Howard and Julia Schroepfer paid fines ranging from $6 to $24, with average fine being around $12.  These charges were all lumped under a formal charge under Section 7, Ordinance 32 of Whitefish’s statutes “Offenses against the good morals and common decency”. As more than one local has pointed out, such fines were a frontier equivalent of a business license. All told, these three contributed thousands of dollars to the town’s coffers. In one year alone, considering the average fine of $12, these ‘business men and women’ of Whitefish would have added over $1,800 to the general fund—a tidy sum back in those days, equivalent to over $41,000 in revenue in today’s dollars.

    Perhaps more shocking, the red-light district was located across from Central School. For years, a faction of town’s people had been trying to eliminate the red light district and in 1909, liquor licenses in the district were revoked. The red light district pre-dated the construction of Central and old habits die-hard—so the new school wasn’t exactly “the death knell of the district” as the Whitefish Pilot had predicted. In fact, it took the committee two years to study the problem and come up with a solution. The committee of three was appointed by the mayor (the mayor also served on the committee) and didn’t seem in any hurry to conclude anything. In fact the mayor’s own reluctance was only broken by demands from the new city. 

"A Less Conspicuous Spot"

    The opening of Central School on January 6th, 1911 was the impetus for a faction of citizens to organize to abolish, once and for all, these sporting women. But as a reflection of the mixed opinion on the need for these women of easy virtue—two separate petitions circulated regarding the fate of the red light district.

    According the Whitefish Pilot of August 27, 1911, “A numerously signed petition was then read (at town council meeting) praying that the red light district be moved to some less conspicuous place.”

   Following that petition, another even more numerously signed petition was read “praying that the redlight district be not moved any closer to the city than it is now.” A committee of three men was appointed to “offer any solution to the problem by offering a site in some out-of-the-way-place.” Clearly, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that the red light can exist, just secretively.

    In the end, no solution was found and officially the red light district was vacated on December 20th, 1911. “That means that the denizens of that place will have to go elsewhere for no provision has been made to house them any where else within the city limits and they cannot operate outside with out being pounced upon by the county authorities,” explained one Pilot article.

    But according to police court records, December 20th was hardly the end to the district. As late as 1913 there were formal charges against the ‘good morals and common decency’, this time against a new madam in town a Mayme Leys.

"Against the Law Doesn’t Mean Non-Existent"

    Official court records on the charge of prostitution dry up after 1913, but according to more than one local, sporting women were still in town into the 1930s. One local recalls two houses of ill repute—one green and one with red trim—operating across from Central School in 1919 when she was a girl and going to school. And as late as 1950, school superintendent Hinderman continued to complain of their illegal activities involving sporting women taking place across from the school.   

    Because no addresses were recorded as to the exact whereabouts of the houses of ill fame, there is no way to know exactly where they existed. However, many locals recall start up houses springing up in the Railway District (the corner of Baker and Railway is one site that many agree upon) and in various locations around town.

    It’s hard to get anyone to admit on the record as to the exact location of these houses—the red light seems to be a secret that we love to keep.