Wednesday, July 20, 2005
Pendleton's Painted Ladies - Eastward Ho! Part 5
Pendleton seems to have been the seedy underbelly of early Oregon. One hundred some odd years ago the little town was home to 32 saloons and 18 bordellos. At one time the second floor of just about every building on Main Street was a bordello, and there was even more illicit activity going on under the city.
The underground was build by Chinese laborers around the turn of the 19th century, and seems to have flourished in the time of prohibition, when the saloons, gambling venues and speakeasies moved underground along with the opium dens and Chinese jail.
The tour focuses largely on Pendleton’s brothels, in particular The Cozy Rooms operated by Stella Darby. The Cozy Rooms were located in on the second floor of the Emigrant Building (?). Locals (at least the ones prone to visiting such places) called the stairway leading to the rooms the “32 steps to heaven”.
Besides being an enabler to the whore mongers of the greater Pendleton area, Stella was an astute businesswoman who made her foray into the trade world at the tender age of 19.
She was by no means greedy, though. Always willing to help the community that shunned her and her girls (whom she is purported to have treated well), Stella was a benevolent soul, often donating clothing, money and food to the poor.
My favorite story about her was one the guide learned from an older woman who once visited the tour. As the guide started to talk about Stella, the woman blurted out “If you want to know about Stella Darby, I’ll tell you about Stella Darby!” The woman went on to tell a story from her own youth.
Apparently she was quite poor. This, of course, did not prevent her from being excited when a boy invited her to a formal dance. Still, it sunk in pretty quickly that she didn’t have a formal gown and that there certainly would be no money for a dress. Being a bold one, the girl decided the only sensible thing to do was to trot herself down to the red light district and ask a hooker if she could borrow a dress.
While Stella was accustomed to helping those less fortunate, it was the first time that anyone had ever actually asked for her help. Even though people were ready to take her donations and appreciated them in a fashion, they never really thanked her. Because of what she did for a living, she wasn’t exactly a pillar of the community. For a moment, she was stunned. She quickly recovered her composure and readily agreed to let the girl come in a pick out any dress she liked. The girl chose a blue satin number and went to the dance and had a wonderful time.
When the dance was over, she brought the dress back to Stella. Instead of making her give the dress back, however, Stella (who must have enjoyed the girl’s boldness, not to mention the fact that someone had come to her for help) let her keep it. At the time of the tour she took some decades later, the woman still had the dress wrapped in tissue paper in her attic.
In thinking about that story, it seems to me that the girl gave Stella something perhaps even greater than Stella gave her. In seeking out her help, for just a moment, she gave her respectability. She made Stella a normal neighbor, a part of the community.
The truth is that people like Stella and her girls were not really a part of the community. They weren’t truly welcome anywhere outside of their little red light district. They weren’t even welcome in church. Instead, Stella turned one of the parlors into a chapel, where she’d invite traveling preachers to come sermonize, so her girls could have church too. It must have been a very lonely life.