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Odd Wisconsin Archive

This Naughty City

In the late 19th century, Eau Claire was a booming lumber town. But two-by-fours were not the only product it was famous for. Each spring, after trees had been cut in the surrounding forests, hundreds of lumberjacks would swarm into town. Until the rivers opened up and their winter's harvest started floating toward the mill, they would enjoy a brief interlude of wild partying in local taverns and music halls. This provided Eau Claire, like many other northern towns, with a regular seasonal income from the world's oldest profession.

Historian Bonnie Ripp-Shucha examined Eau Claire's bawdy past in a 1997 article. She discovered that in 1893 the Eau Claire Weekly Leader claimed a person "could not travel 100 to 150 feet… without passing the entrance to a house of ill fame." The number of brothels and prostitutes led another local newspaper, the Eau Claire Weekly Free Press, to call Eau Claire, "This Naughty Naughty City" in one of its articles.

Vice, particularly in the northern part of our state, gained so much attention during the Progressive Era that by 1910 Wisconsin had 48 statutes on the books regarding prostitution. Punishments ranged from 6 months to a year in the state penitentiary, though in Eau Claire "two naughty people found occupying but one bed, where they should have had two" could only be fined (the man $7.15 and the woman $19.15).

In 1913 a special state commission was formed to look into the causes of prostitution and what could be done to eliminate it. Its report concluded that most prostitutes chose the lifestyle because they could earn far more than in other jobs open to working-class women, and most communities tolerated it because they needed the revenue.

As logging waned and Eau Claire's economy diversified, the ratio of male to female inhabitants grew better balanced. Year-round residents protested and organized to suppress houses of ill repute, and the number of brothels and prostitutes quickly diminished. Today, Eau Claire is better known for its manufacturing, health care, and higher education than for sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.

:: Posted in Curiosities on February 9, 2011

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