How do you celebrate Mother’s Day when on the road in Arkansas? That was my husband’s dilemma. There was no question in my mind. The answer was simple. “Do something!” Our children called but they were so many miles away.
We were on our way home to Napa from our recent road trip. We had planned to visit Bentonville, Arkansas, the birthplace of Walmart and the home of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art recently built by Alice Walton with part of her Walmart fortune.
Waking up to cloudy skies again, my husband wished me a happy Mother’s Day and suggested we have a nice dinner somewhere when we stopped for the night. We went to dinner almost every night but maybe he meant something a little more fancy than the highway favorite, Cracker Barrel.
We were near Fort Smith, Arkansas, and it was a short drive from there to Bentonville so we had some time on our hands. What was there to do in Fort Smith? The town has a rich frontier history, which has been featured in books and films.
Marshall Rooster Cogburn, as played by John Wayne in “True Grit,” was a fictional U.S. Marshall based in Fort Smith for the Federal Court located there. Fort Smith was featured in the book and TV series, “Lonesome Dove.”
Back in those frontier days, there wasn’t much to do in Fort Smith when not chasing crooks and punching cattle. What there was seemed to revolve around drinking and socializing at social clubs down along the river.
As we drove into Fort Smith, Philip seemed to know exactly where he was going. He drove down toward the Arkansas River and pulled up to an old, two-story, apple green building with white trim. I had no idea what he was up to today.
One of my Cornish immigrant ancestors was a shotgun guard on the old Homestake Mine gold wagons in Deadwood, South Dakota. When we were visiting Deadwood a few years ago, I bought a book about the “Upstairs Girls.” My husband knew about my interest in this subject and thought I might enjoy a visit to one of the most famous such places in the West, Miss Laura’s Social Club in Fort Smith on Mother’s Day. It was a little unusual but an interesting way to spend a rainy morning.
We walked through the white picket fence surrounding the house. There was an awning over the double door saying, “Miss Laura’s.” We entered, walking into the pretty foyer. There we were greeted by a bearded gentleman in Western attire who welcomed us to Miss Laura’s Social Club and Visitor’s Center. This was going to be so different from all of my other Mother’s Day celebrations. My husband had surprised me with this tour of an historic house of ill repute. This was better than a fancy dinner.
Immediately, we were taken back in time. This establishment was on the banks of the Arkansas River and had been the most elegant of the houses on Bordello Row. It was restored to its original glory and was now used as the official Visitors Center for the City of Fort Smith. Carolyn Joyce, administrative coordinator, helped to restore the house and often greets visitors in the role of Miss Laura.
Mr. Robinson, in his role as a patron of the establishment, showed us the impressive and elegant furnishings and decorations from the stained glass windows to the burgundy velvet furniture and lace window coverings. Everything was in a Victorian style and must have been impressive to the gentlemen of Fort Smith. They came to relax, smoke a cigar, have a sip of brandy and partake of the other offerings of the establishment. He showed us the large bar at the end of the long entrance hall. This is where guests would spend time drinking at the long bar with its huge mirror covering the back wall. It was all very comfortable with tables and chairs for visiting and socializing.
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Downstairs was very proper, but what I really wanted to see was where the Upstairs Girls worked. Finally, we were taken up the winding staircase to this forbidden area. At the top of the stairs, a long hall greeted us with large bedrooms opening off each side. They were lovely and had expensive furniture dominated, of course, by a large bed. Pastel silk gowns, dresses, and lingerie filled each armoire.
I remember seeing robes with feathers around the collars casually flung over the bed side chairs. One of the larger rooms had a claw foot bathtub in the corner ready to be filled with ice and champagne for some big spender. “Lonesome Dove” star, actor Robert Duvall, had contributed to Miss Laura’s building renovations and his name had been given to one of the rooms. Robert Duvall was etched in the glass over one of the bedroom doors.
Mr. Robinson told us that an evening at Miss Laura’s wasn’t cheap. A first-class evening might cost as much as $10. The hostesses were carefully chosen, taught special talents and closely watched over by Miss Laura. Everything the girls needed in the way of dresses, hats, feathers and lingerie were delivered as they weren’t allowed to go out into the community except on special occasions.
Once a year, Miss Laura treated them to the theater for plays where they had their own box seats far removed from their customers and the hard looks of their customers’ spouses.
We learned that these social clubs played a large role for the town’s business men back in the day. This was before the country club, and “playing a round” didn’t refer to golf. It was hard to remember that this was the Visitors Center for Fort Smith. I kept waiting for a pretty young thing to come waltzing into a room. They did have the usual gift shop with souvenirs like post cards, garter belts, hats, and T shirts.
As we left Miss Laura’s, I thought of the role such places played in other cities, such as our hometown of Napa. Napa had quite a history as a “wide open” county with many such establishments scattered here and there. When Philip was city attorney of Yountville in 1968, there were still several in town.
The best known, May Howard’s, was right here in downtown Napa. May Howard was a legendary figure. She and her girls lived in a large home with lots of bedrooms and bathrooms near the corner of what is now Clinton and Soscol Avenue. Unfortunately, the house was torn down when Soscol was widened and extended in the mid 1970s.
Long-time Napa District Attorney Jim Boitano was raised in the area. His father owned a grocery store at Main and Clinton. Jim used to sell the Saturday Evening Post door to door. May Howard was one of his customers. Years later, long after May Howard had left, the house went up for auction. According to Jim’s widow, Margaret Boitano, Jim placed the only bid. Soon, Margaret and Jim Boitano owned the former May Howard house which they used as a rental until it was torn down.
The next time you stop for a red light on Soscol near Clinton Street, you could be in the middle of Miss May Howard’s living room.
It’s too bad the house wasn’t restored and converted into the Napa Valley Visitors Center. We could have had our own Miss May’s Social Club and Visitors Center. It would have been a colorful reminder of this part of Napa’s history.