Postcard From Miss Laura's House of Ill Repute

In the early 1900's, Fort Smith, Arkansas was a wide open raucous border town located next to the still untamed Oklahoma territory. Outlaws with loot from robberies and holdups like the James Gang, the Dalton Gang, the Younger Gang, Belle Starr and Cherokee Bill all came and stayed a while. Cowboys with a month's pay, rowdy's looking to blow off steam, soldiers from the fort, outcast characters and a few God-fearing pioneers passed through or settled down in the town. Each had their own reason for being there, seeking their own adventure, seeking their own pleasure. Fort Smith was eager to accommodate all requests.

Front entrance of Miss Laura's
At that time, houses of ill repute openly catered to one of the many vices sought and enjoyed by the men while in town. The bustling red-light district with its 6 houses of prostitution and 66 saloons on Front Street along the Arkansas River became known far and wide as simply "The Row." It was here in 1903 that Miss Laura Zeigler borrowed funds from a respectable local banker and opened a new high class brothel. It proved to be an astute financial decision as business boomed from the very first day. It was so good that Miss Laura paid off her $3,000 loan in just 17 months.

Side entrance
Although it was a bordello from the start, it was originally named the River Front Hotel and it quickly became one of the most celebrated "services" house in the entire Southwest. Miss Laura's ladies were known to be the most refined and healthiest "daughters of joy" in all of Fort Smith (the girls were given a thorough physical checkup every month and if any "illness" was found, they were out of action until cured). Miss Laura herself was well educated, poised and had an air of class about her. However, she was known to have confronted any rowdy customer with a loaded and cocked hog-leg.45 pistol. Problems were few and far between once word got out.

A handyman was employed full time to keep everything clean and in working order. Beautiful stained glass windows were installed. Customers were not allowed to put their dirty boots on the Victorian furniture. The girls were required to keep the rooms where they lived and entertained clean and orderly. With their name engraved on a wooden plaque on the transom above their door, they took pride in their room and had them outfitted in decidedly feminine wall paper and furnishings.

Painting in the front parlor
For a number of years, life at Miss Laura's was like one continuous party - song, dance, gambling and other pleasures were all there. Champagne was kept chilled in an upstairs bathtub and served to the customers at no charge. The only piano player in town played popular tunes in the front parlor while patrons mingled with the ladies. The upscale class, cleanliness, and attention to their wants and needs paid off. Men willingly paid $3 in Miss Laura's for a commodity the other 6 sporting houses charged $1 for. When some of the church-going citizens began clamoring to have the sporting houses closed down and the "fallen doves" driven from town, Miss Laura didn't have to worry as the sheriff, the mayor and most of the other prominent local men were regular patrons who enjoyed free entertainment.

By 1910 however, there were more families and church-going citizens who called Fort Smith their home and they were tired of the frontier permissiveness. Politicians and community leaders started feeling the heat and fearing for their jobs and status in the town. In January, a very questionable "freak" accident happened. In the middle of the night, an oil storage tank next to The Row exploded. The blast was so great it was felt throughout the city. A wall of flames roared down Front Street and engulfed the brothels, sending scantily clad ladies and their very embarrassed customers running down the street. It became known locally as "the night of the lingerie parade."

Stained-glass windows were installed throughout the house
It was also a night of a miracle. Strong winds had pushed the fire from one end of The Row toward the other end where Miss Laura's stood. The roaring flames were within 75 feet of the building when all of a sudden the wind shifted direction. Of the 7 brothels in Fort Smith, 2 were burned to the ground and the others were severely damaged. Miss Laura's escaped with no damage at all.

Business was especially good for the rest of the year at Miss Laura's and in 1911, having made her fortune, Laura Zeigler sold her property to Bertha Gale Dean (known as "Big Bertha") for $47,000, a very nice sum of money when the average person earned just $545 in an entire year. The now wealthy Miss Zeigler moved away from Fort Smith, left her past behind her and completely dropped from history.

The room of a "fallen dove"
The new owner of Miss Laura's didn't keep up the maintenance of the building and replaced the high class girls with cheaper, less refined women of the night. Soon, the remaining buildings which survived the fire declined and the area became a slum where none but the most desperate visited. It became a haven for drifters, drunks and down-on-their-luck gamblers. Even though prostitution was outlawed in Fort Smith in 1924, Big Bertha kept the building in operation as a brothel until 1948 when Miss Dean died and the building was abandoned.

In 1963, the decayed and still abandoned building was scheduled to be demolished, but Donald Reynolds, founder of the Donrey Media Group, saw the need to save an important part of Fort Smith's early days. He purchased the property and began renovations. Restoration work was slow, but 20 years later in 1983, the building re-opened as Miss Laura's Restaurant and Social Club.

The restaurant lasted for a few years, but closed when business declined. The Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau then made the decision to purchase the property and restore it to the glory days when it was a high-class brothel. In the fall of 1992, Miss Laura's reopened as the Fort Smith Visitor Center. 

Today, it is listed on the National Register of Historical Places. Where ladies of the night once greeted visitors with the lure of the world's oldest profession, local volunteers now man the property, telling tales from way back when and giving escorted tours of the grand old building. They like to say, "Our brothel still caters to out-of-towners." It's interesting, it's entertaining, definitely worth a stop, but I'm pretty sure that phrase doesn't mean exactly the same thing it did way back when!