Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Pendleton's Painted Ladies - Eastward Ho! Part 5

Cozy Room Interior
Originally uploaded by Martina.
By the time we got to Pendleton, it was around 11:30 a.m. We stopped for a quick trip to the visitor’s center, then wandered a couple of blocks down the street to Emigrant Avenue, the site of the Pendleton Underground tour office. They say that one normally needs a reservation, but we didn’t have one. It did not seem to hurt us. The tour was fabulous and filled with lots of local history (mostly the seedy bits, which tend to be way more fun than ultimately boring stories featuring the upstanding act of upstanding citizens). It was well worth the $10 admission fee.

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.


Jen said...

Eastward Ho seems so appropriate for this entry! I really liked the Underground Tour of Pendleton, too. They had more of it open than the last time I took it several years ago - also I think the woman giving the tour was a better raconteur. There's a definite skill in keeping people from such disparate backgrounds and ages interested and engaged, and I thought she did a great job of it. In addition to the personal details about Stella Darby, I really liked the practical details she told us about - like how the people who knew how things worked never went above the 3rd stair in the Cozy Rooms because it set off a New Guy alarm. And how the ceiling tiles in the kitchen were glass, and only three of them had broken in all this time.
Pendleton always seems so Wild West to me - I mean, they definitely have the heritage, but there is something about the surrounding countryside (and probably in no small part because they still have the Roundup there every year) that seems like if you close your eyes it's possible you'd wake up back in the late 1800's.

Martina said...

Eastward Ho! is appropriate for this entry. It is this moment makes the title choice worthwhile. I really did like the Underground Tour, and I would still like to stay in the old brothel sometime. Opportunities like that just don't come up all that often in life (and that's probably a good thing!).

I had forgotten about the New Guy alarm when I wrote this. Now that you mention it, I really liked that detail as well. I really want to go back with my mom sometime this summer as I think she would like the tour.

Pendleton does still have an Old West vibe. It would be the perfect setting for a crazy time travel novel. I have to find that story about the big bad outlaw guy, who survived all kinds of fights and shoot outs, died there by falling off his horse, when it got spooked by a paved sidewalk. I think it might be in that "Roadside History of Oregon" book that you guys have.

Anyway, I'll post the rest of Agamemnon's Awesome Adventure shortly. It's going to take me quite a few installments, and I haven't even finished day one (or even the Pendleton Underground!) yet.