Deadwood, brothels, call buttons, and my daughters

by Mr. Sheehy

I’m spending today and tomorrow in Deadwood, South Dakota learning the history of the early days of Deadwood–1876-1890, before the train arrived, the rough and tumble days of gold camps and gambling and brothels. In Of Mice and Men George calls a brothel a “cat house” and today I discovered that the term apparently originates in Deadwood. A gentleman whose name I didn’t bother to write down Fatty Thompson was on the same cattle train from Cheyenne that brought Bill Hickock to Deadwood. He was returning home with a load of cats to sell to a local  madame. Apparently the brothel was infested with mice and rats and when the rodents would appear the customers had a habit of drawing their weapons and firing away–a dangerous situation for those on the floor below. Bringing in cats dramatically increased the safety of the first floor patrons even as it garnered a new reputation and name for the brothel.

My instructor teaches another class that spans the later years of Deadwood’s history, covering . . . the gold mines and gambling and brothels. I suppose the character of a town doesn’t change that much with the passing of time. I was surprised to learn that I was three years old when the last brothel in Deadwood was shut down (1980). One gentleman who grew up in Deadwood says that during hunting season his dad would go out and shoot deer and then sell them to men who, having never made it to the woods on their Northern Hills hunting expeditions, needed to bring home evidence of a more wholesome recreation. We learned that during hunting season the girls were barely allowed out of the house because business was so brisk. Joking about brothels is one thing when you’re talking about 1880, but–for me anyway–talking about 1980 seems to highlight the sad above the  silly.

A day touring a town of stories supplies me with more than I can tell in a day. Sitting down to dinner, Eldest peppered me for my tales. With a full page of notes listing details my children might like, I was prepared for the grilling. The tidbit they latched onto most tightly concerned the Adams House. You see, part of the Franklin family’s motives in building their house was to display ostentatiously their wealth and success. Thus, among features like electricity and an abundance of indoor sinks, the house was outfitted with a series of call-buttons for the servants. Press a button and a light goes on in the kitchen letting the servants know not only that they were needed, but where they were needed. The buttons were near the light-switches in most rooms, but in the dining room, the call-button was conspicuously absent. Wouldn’t this be the most important room for such a button?

In this room, the button was placed more strategically than on the wall. You see, like my family, members of the Franklin family always used the same seats at the table. This fact made it possible for special call-button arrangements. Under the rug in front of her chair, the lady of the house could press the call button with her foot, surreptitiously summoning the staff to address any needs at the table.

My girls liked this. Eldest asked somewhere around six million questions about it. When would the lady ring it? How would the servant know? What would the servant do when she arrived? What would the lady say when the servant came? The questions inevitably led to presentations and before long we had summoned our make believe servant to the table to fill Eldest’s water and to squeeze more syrup onto Smiles’s plate. The girls eagerly joined the make-believe, eventually clearing the entire table, one dish at a time, as I continuously stomped on my call button.

Tomorrow I return, my ears attuned for something as wonderful as a secret call-button.

Isn’t history great? Aren’t stories wonderful? I like to make things up for my children–I claim authorship over some half decent tales about a humble farmer name John–but reality usually fuels my imagination and those of my kids with more than I could concoct.

Inevitably, I come to thinking about teaching amidst all this. When we have to battle to make students enjoy this kind of thing, we must be missing something. What’s not to enjoy? If stories like this are not enjoyable, what is? If students are complaining about why they need this, perhaps it is because we have buried our leads, to steal a reporter’s terminology. Perhaps we have buried the fascinating information beneath dates or literature devices. Perhaps we have forgotten that the most interesting thing about the Adams House is not that an opulent seller of cigars built a house, but that he put in a little button for his wife to secretly call the servants.

I never thought once about the relevance of what I learned today; certainly neither did my daughters. I think when August rolls around and I begin to consider my school-year plans I’ll spend a bit of time reviewing the material I pass along. I’ll have to ask myself what kinds of call buttons and brothels I may have hidden under the rugs.

Thanks for reading.

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