ASSIGNMENT 13: Exploring Eau Claire’s history of prostitution

By: Aaron Dimick Email
By: Aaron Dimick Email

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) – The Eau Claire Police Department has made several high profile prostitution arrests in the last year.

Ten men were busted in a prostitution sting last April and last month, officers arrested a Waukesha man for allegedly visiting a local prostitute.

While these occurrences have shocked the community, it turns out this illicit activity is nothing new to the Chippewa Valley.

And experts say prostitution is even part of our rich history.

WEAU 13 News explored this in a special Assignment 13 report.

From the 1860s to 1880s, Eau Claire was booming.

“The wild west was here at that time,” said Frank Smoot, the editor of the Chippewa Valley Museum.

Smoot said men were coming in droves from the east to find work in the burgeoning lumber industry.

While they found fun in drinking liquor and roughhousing, Smoot said there just weren’t enough women yet.

“When you have a great rush like that, with young men who were traveling across the west to make a living; you have a big imbalance between men and women,” Smoot said.

He said this lead to dances where men were dancing with men.

“You would have a red band around your arm and you'd be the girl for that particular dance,” Smoot said.

Like many boom towns in the Wild West, Eau Claire then saw a sizeable influx of prostitutes to meet the lumberjack's demands for sex and companionship.

The local historian said the soiled doves were often young immigrants who weren't always easy on the eyes.

“One of the prostitutes around Eau Claire was named three-fingered Mol. So that's probably some kind of description of her,” Smoot said.

Back in those days there weren’t many jobs for single women and experts say a life of prostitution offered the gals economic opportunity.

Prostitution became so big in the city that one newspaper claimed you couldn't walk 100 feet down Barstow Street without passing a brothel.

To fix this problem, red light districts were created where prostitution could operate under the watchful eye of the law.

Those were located along Water Street and in the downtown area.
Smoot said in this era many chose to ignore prostitution and let the men have their fun while others wanted to expose the city's seedy underbelly.

“There was a real effort in the 1870s and 1880s to get rid of prostitutes and seemed like an organized effort, part of which were violent. There was arson burning down brothels,” Smoot said.

But the lumber boom soon went bust.

And by the 1890s with more families, churches and schools moving in, Eau Claire started to sober up.

Open prostitution all but ended after the turn of the century.

Smoot said it's important to remember that the "good old days" were not as innocent as some choose to see them.

“People have always been people. I think in a lot of ways people are better now. People have a better understand of things now. People are better behaved now,” Smoot said.

And behind that rich lumber history lies a colorful past.

“Prostitution is probably part of the history of any town and certainly ours. They're all a fascinating rich tapestry that makes Eau Claire a complex place,” Smoot said.

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