Summit’s Historic Yesterdays: Montezuma’s resident red light lady
Editor’s note: This tale comes from Mary Ellen Gilliland’s humorous local history, “Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods.” The book captures the high-spirited antics of shysters and shady ladies, swindlers and rogues of 1800s Summit County mine camps. Old-timers interviewed by Gilliland provided most of the book’s savory stories.
Her real name was Ada Smith. She ran the house of ill repute in Montezuma, the 1865-founded town that sprang up with the discovery of valuable silver ores which seamed the 12,000- and 13,000-foot peaks characteristic of the Montezuma Mining District.
Dixie, regarded as a fallen woman by the prim matrons of the silver town, fell into a class of persons that Victorian morality publicly labeled degraded but practically tolerated as an integral party of 1800s society.
The Victorians had an amazing number of names for the less than moral members of their society. For prostitutes, their names included: soiled dove, lady of the night, red light lady, girl of the line (when crib housing lined alleys), fallen woman, whore, trollop, strumpet, baggage, chippy, floozie, drab, harridan and frail sister.
How Dixie got to Montezuma we don’t know, but we know quite a bit about how long she stayed, along with her personality and quirks.
Montezuma, an 800-strong town in 1880, had its main street lined with hotels, restaurants, saloons, a general store, blacksmith shop, livery stable, mine offices, a meat packing plant and even a candy store.
The town flourished when 11,541-foot Webster Pass over the Continental Divide provided a vital connection to South Park and Denver in 1878. A year later, William Austin Hamilton Loveland built his skyscraping Loveland Pass road, nearly 12,000 feet at the Divide. On this new route, ore freight rumbled out of mountain-barricaded Montezuma to Denver markets. Stagecoaches and freighters brought in passengers and supplies like good whiskey and the 1800s gourmet favorite, canned oysters. Miners, merchants and madams all cried, “Hurrah!”
The Snake River city incorporated in September 1881 and immediately cracked down on crime. Montezuma’s sporting element now winced as drunks forked over steep $5 to $25 fines, based on degree of dissipation. Gamblers paid $5 to $20 for indulging in popular pastimes such as faro, keno, shuffleboard, bagatelle or playing cards with intent to gamble.
Degraded women scurried from the law’s glaring new language: “No bawdy house, disorderly house, house of ill-fame or assignation, or place known as a dance house shall be kept or maintained within the limits of Montezuma.” Fines, ranging from $5 to a startling $50, exceeded those of drunks and gamblers.
All this legal posturing failed to faze Montezuma’s resident red light lady, Dixie, who kept a neat white cottage back from Main Street. (Her home still stands on the right as you enter Montezuma.)
When Montezuma rode high on the price of silver, Dixie employed several of what the Victorians called “frail sisters.” When the Silver Panic of 1893 brought economic disaster, Montezuma’s soiled dove flew solo.
In an era when proper ladies dressed in subdued gray, brown and black, Dixie sported huge picture hats with gaudy orange and fuchsia scarves.
As loud as her scarves were Dixie’s cheers at local ball games. The town madam loved baseball. Each local town did also, fiercely supporting their own teams. Dixie seated herself in the stands, probably planning to zipper her lip. But when the competition intensified, a stream of blistering language disparaging the opposing team blared from her mouth. The proper matrons had to remove their children from the stands and seat themselves on rocks near the playing field.
Unlike Denver’s voluptuous Mattie Silks, Montezuma’s madam resembled a skinny old maid. Elizabeth Rice Roller in her “Memoirs from Montezuma, Chihuahua and Sts. John,” remembered seeing Dixie often as the madam shopped in the Rice family store. (Elizabeth was shushed into the back room when Dixie came in.) “She was known to all as ‘Dixie’ but Ada Smith was not glamorous. I can’t recall that she was, in our times, ever even good looking — a little bit of a woman with a wrinkled face like a dried up apple.”
Though Dixie had a bony body she possessed a soft heart. “She bought Columbine tinned milk by the case and fed it to the town dogs and cats,” Elizabeth wrote. She loved coupons and deals, and also purchased huge jars of beef extract because the label offered a premium and because she used it to sustain Montezuma’s dog population.
Her soft heart extended to former patrons when the prospectors, often disabled by hard work and mine accidents, grew feeble. Dixie carried soup to their cabins and nursed them through illnesses, possibly including the 1918 influenza epidemic.
She maintained “a certain dignity,” according to Roller, and “kept her girls in line, insisting that they conduct themselves quietly to avoid the ill will of the community.”
Mary Ellen Gilliland’s “SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado,” has captured the colorful gold rush. She details the misbehavior of history’s miscreants in her “Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods” and recounts the story of the region’s first town in Breckenridge. Gilliland is also the author of the popular guide,”The Summit Hiker.” All are available from The Next Page Bookstore or online at alpenrosepress.com.
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