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Montana may not want to bring back its old brothels, but everywhere I went, there seemed to be one or two on the list of things to see. Before leaving for Montana, I asked a friend of mine who had grown up in Great Falls where to eat around the state. One can't-miss, he said, the Windbag Saloon, in downtown Helena.
One side of the menu lists the restaurant's fairly standard food offerings. The other advertises the building's chequered past. Built in on top of Last Chance Gulch, the creek in which gold deposits were discovered in , the structure that houses the Windbag is a former cathouse called Old Dorothy's, which peddled flesh right up to Dorothy's death in She inherited the whorehouse from its penultimate madam, a woman named Ida who distributed gilt neckties to favoured customers. Neither Ida nor Dorothy, however, ran the most notable whorehouse in the state.
That distinction seems to lie with the Dumas brothel, a rotting Victorian-era mansion in Butte that remained open from all the way to Deserted, he says, since the 's, the crib contained ancient cigarette butts, bottles and a bed frame that saw enough work that its legs had pushed through the linoleum floor into the wooden floorboards.
The Dumas brothel, which was a museum until , is famous enough that it attracted a thief a few years back, who reportedly stole bed frames, doorknobs and some rare, antique sex toys. Now, the Dumas is shuttered and falling apart. All of this fuss over a broken-down brick mansion from the s seems odd. But in the western United States, suburban tract homes from the s feel old; the reverence residents have for their aging cathouses reflects a longing for a sense of history—any history.
Even more, Americans harbour enduring fondness for the turbulent world of unfettered freedom and vice the West's Big Sky country offered their forebears, and this sensibility is magnified in Montana.