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News >  Idaho Voices

Wallace history both weird and wonderful

Money boxes and timers sit in the waiting room at the Oasis Bordello Museum in Wallace. When prostitutes had a customer, they’d take the money and set the timer.  (File / The Spokesman-Review)
Money boxes and timers sit in the waiting room at the Oasis Bordello Museum in Wallace. When prostitutes had a customer, they’d take the money and set the timer. (File / The Spokesman-Review)

Wallace, Idaho. It’s a tiny town with big dreams. It’s been called one of the most interesting small towns in Idaho and it certainly must rank up there with the weirdest. Here are a few interesting tidbits you may or may not know about this oddly charming historic village.

•1.2 billion ounces of silver have been produced in the Wallace area since 1884, placing it near the top of “Most Silver Rich Places” in all of world history, along with Liz Taylor’s jewelry hutch.

•Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner was born in Wallace. She was known as “Judy” until she went to Hollywood at age 16 and changed her name to Lana, becoming one of the era’s most famous and glamorous movie stars. During her long career, Lana Turner was known as “the Sweater Girl” and was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for “Peyton Place.” She had a recurring role in the cheesy ’80s prime-time soap “Falcon Crest.”

•Literally every building in downtown Wallace is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Certain residents worked tirelessly back in the ’70s to make this happen after discovering tentative plans for the new improved Interstate 90 threatened to raze much of the historic area and run right through the middle of town. This is why I-90 now runs “over” the town instead.

•In 2004, Wallace Mayor Ron Garitone issued an official proclamation declaring the town to be the “Center of the Universe.” The EPA and the Department of Health and Welfare backed up this notion under the newly discovered science of “probalism” and it was peer-reviewed by La Cosa Nostra and the Flat Earth Society. Yeah, I’m not sure what it means, either. The exact “center” is at the intersection of Sixth and Bank streets, which is marked exactly by a specially designed manhole cover and a couple of street signs.

•Until the late 1980s, Wallace had a thriving prostitution industry. The local police chose to ignore the brothels for over 100 years and it wasn’t until the feds got involved that they were forced to shut down. The Oasis Bordello Museum gives $5 tours of an old whorehouse, left exactly how it was when the ladies had to scramble in 1988. A copy of People magazine is among the exhibits, its cover featuring Baby Jessica, the girl who had the whole country freaking out after falling down a well.

•Wallace used to be famous as the home of the only stoplight on I-90, until uncaring road builders finished the overpass around town and finished the town’s claim to fame. But the town was not so easily dissuaded. They had a grand funeral for the stoplight, putting it in a coffin, and had a horse-drawn hearse carry it as a bagpipe band played. Now, a sign at the old site gives directions to the Wallace Mining Museum, where the light can still be seen resting in its coffin.

•Wallace proudly has nine bars in an approximately four-block zone. With a population of 960, this means there is one bar for every 106.66 people in town. In theory, the entire town could be out getting sozzled at the same time, and this likely actually happens from time to time. Yet mysteriously there is nowhere in town to buy underwear.

•After the great Wallace fire of 1910, the Pulaski was invented there. What’s a Pulaski, you asky? It’s a mattock-axe tool used in firefighting.

•Teddy Fest. It won’t happen again for another 94 years, but if science invents a way to live that long, I’ll be there. On a sunny May day several years ago, a friend and I had decided to check out Wallace just for something to do. The town did seem a bit livelier than usual, but we didn’t really clue in until the woman behind the counter at the old corner store asked us, “You going to the parade?” She explained to us it was the 100th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to town and the parade was starting in two hours. What exciting news!

We came a bit early and found a nice wide window ledge across from the old depot to sit on and enjoy the parade. Gradually, the old timers started coming, waddling in from the other side of town six blocks away, lawn chairs in tow. Moms with a dozen toddlers, lumberjacks, the town drunk(s), pretty much everyone in town was there, lining the street along with us, looking at their watches and murmuring to each other in suspense.

Finally, from around the corner it came: a horse-drawn carriage driven by some guy with a big walrus moustache and one of those pairs of glasses with the long chain balanced on his nose a la Teddy himself. This was followed by a flatbed truck with four guys playing some kind of squawky, primitive oompah music. The End. People clapped appreciatively for a moment as these two rather sad happenings went by, and as soon as they passed, the lawn chairs were folded up, the kids gathered and it was homeward bound.

The whole thing happened so fast; we were left sitting there in shock. As soon as we realized that was it we almost cried ourselves to death with laughter. We finally gathered ourselves and headed for the car but started laughing uncontrollably again when a woman ran up in a panic, asking, “Oh no, am I too late, did I miss it?” When we told her “Sorry” she frowned and stamped her foot in disappointment. “Damn it!” she griped, as if she missed something truly beautiful and inspirational and would never have the chance to see such a divine spectacle again.

Contact correspondent Patrick Jacobs by e-mail at orangetv@yahoo.com. Previous columns are available online at spokesman.com/ columnists. For more restaurant and nightlife reviews, music commentary and random thoughts and photos, visit his blog at getoutnorthidaho.com.
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