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Liquor and Lust

Fargo-Moorhead (the twin towns where I’ve lived these forty-five years) has a history far more interesting than many of its residents care to acknowledge.

When North Dakota entered the Union in November, 1889, it was admitted as a dry state — no alcohol. Fargo’s two breweries and multiple taverns had to close or relocate; Moorhead was the beneficiary. What Fargo did have, however, was a tolerance for sins of the flesh: prostitution was not only legal, it was a thriving local industry, with a municipally-defined red-light district. Similar conditions existed up and down the Red River of the North. Thirty years ago I did a nifty presentation on this symbiosis — the sinful reciprocity between between our two communities — but lately I’ve fallen from grace and not been on the “chicken salad circuit” for some time.

Within roughly fifty yards of the three bridges that connected the two communities, as many as fifty saloons sprang up in Moorhead following statehood (though some were already there). And close to the First Avenue Bridge, in what is now Fargo’s Civic Center parking lot (soon to become our flood protection), there were two or three houses of ill repute, the most famous of them operated by Madame Melvina Massey. A third component of admirable convenience was the legendary “jag wagon” which picked up revelers at the Moorhead bars and deposited them at Fargo hotels and Madame Melvina’s “boarding house” [its identification in the 1900 U.S. census]. A postcard up for auction tonight reminded me of this colorful local history.

Liquor and Lust

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What do you think it says about me, that I can easily imagine a “house of ill repute” in Agincourt but have difficulty conceiving its bars, taverns, and saloons.

“Mrs Miller’s Enterprise” was Agincourt’s euphemism for what may have been its sole sporting house [my grandmother’s term for such places], an institution that came into being quite by accident when Annabelle Miller’s husband died with to inherit. Their shop had been Agincourt’s finest purveyor of tobacco but that was insufficient, until her brother Armand Schert came to the rescue. His solution: remodel the stable behind their shop, which had been a stable, and outfit the upper floor with a modest lounge and four rooms for its new inmates — fillies of different sort. Does this paint me as a misogynist?

O.K., so I’ve designed and populated a whore house. [Madame Melvina’s facility in Fargo helped, because its building permit includes an interior sketch plan and the name of its architect, A. J. O’Shea!] But the city’s bars, taverns, and saloons either don’t interest me or may not be a sufficient challenge. Speak-Easies of the Prohibition Era are another matter.

Aside from my interest in the booze business [it’s low], other questions remain about the differences between the states’ liquor laws. On-sale versus off-sale; hours and days of operation; county option; resistance from the WCTU. I’ve had neither time nor inclination to do the research, except to assume that liquor was present both in the open and underground.

Keller’s Wines & Liquors in Summit, Illinois may not have dispensed their product on site. It grabbed my attention because it stood a little over a mile from the house where I lived from birth until I left for college in 1963. I could very easily have gone to school with the grandchildren of these nine fine gentlemen. Since the usual caption is missing from  this real-photo postcard, it may be unique, so I have no hesitation putting it on Broad Street, adding Mr and Mrs Keller to my cast of characters, and fleshing out its story. I hope you’ll pardon my presumption.

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