San Francisco earthquake sent prostitutes to Madera County

Pieces of the Past

Bill CoateOctober 27, 2011 

The lumber room of the Madera County Courthouse Museum is an amazing repository of artifacts, photographs and maps of the industry that gave birth to Madera County. It is comprehensive in its displays and thoroughly enjoyable. There is, however, one thing missing, and perhaps this is due to the good taste of the curator and her assistants.

One looks in vain in the lumber room for any record of one of the most lucrative, economic corollaries to timber harvesting in the mountains--prostitution--which grew to major proportions after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

That gigantic shift of the earth shook the ground in concentric circles from its epicenter for hundreds of miles. Shock waves were felt even in Madera, but these geological ripples were nothing compared to the social disturbances that emanated from the City on the Bay following this disaster. The major consequence of the earthquake for Madera County was to bring scores of displaced prostitutes to the vicinity of Sugar Pine, the company town of the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company.

Now, prostitutes were nothing new to the mountains of Madera County. They had been around during the early logging days, just as they had shown up at the mining camps. If fact, one of the first "bawdy houses" patronized by some Madera County loggers bore the unusual name of "Kanook." It was located about four miles from Sugar Pine and drew its customers from the mill area.

It was, however, the 1906 earthquake and fire that sent many of the ladies of the night scampering in search of "better working conditions." Many were naturally enticed to come to "Kanook." Such was the size of the influx that additional accommodations were needed, so a tent community, "Happy Camp," was erected two miles south of Fish Camp, just west of present day Highway 41. Business thrived, and in a short time the women hired carpenters to build them a wooden house.

By 1910, a third red light district made its appearance in the vicinity of Sugar Pine. It was named "Tipperary" and sprang up about 100 yards south of the Chowchilla-Wawona Road. This latest lumber camp brothel became the most popular of the Sugar Pine bawdy houses. It consisted of a main parlor house, three bedrooms, a front room, kitchen, and four individual cabins. In the front room stood a manually operated player piano and console phonograph.

Nearly all of the adult residents of Madera County knew of the existence of what were called "the Sugar Pine Houses," unless they were in complete denial. It was common knowledge that the girls charged $2 for ordinary visits and that a stay overnight would be five times as much. The latter visits were primarily confined to Saturday nights, given the work schedules of the lumberjacks and mill men.

Just as the lumberjacks worked seasonally in Sugar Pine, so did the prostitutes. They would arrive about a month after the mill started operating again after the winter. The girls ranged in age from 18 to 35 and were generally in good health. They traded at the Sugar Pine store and received medical care when necessary at the company hospital.

Sugar Pine prostitutes were never worried about a customer's age. According to author Hank Johnston, "Many a teen-aged lumberjack, his courage fortified by liquor, engaged in his inauguration at one of the mountain parlor houses." If one was old enough to work in the woods, one was old enough to visit the houses of ill repute.

The era of Sugar Pine's "sporting houses" lasted almost 20 years, and they must have been profitable enterprises. How else could the fact that they opened up season after season be explained? By 1918, however, that part of the history of Sugar Pine was fast coming to an end. The lumbermen were no longer bound to the mountains by limited transportation. The automobile made escape possible, even during the height of the lumber season. Entertainment that was just a bit more sophisticated was in easy reach of Madera and Fresno from Sugar Pine. Then came the "Red Light Abatement Act" and Prohibition. The death knell for prostitution had definitely sounded.

Tipperary was the first house to close. Then came Happy Camp and Kanook. By the 1920s the town of Sugar Pine was free of the debilitating influence of the "world's oldest profession." Lumber operations continued in the mountains until 1931. In that year the last log was cut. The mill in Madera continued for another two years, and then it closed.

Today little remains of the lumber industry--once the most important economic force in Madera County. Sugar Pine currently exists only in the memories of old timers and over in the Madera Courthouse Museum, but even there, one only hears whispers of the peccadilloes of some of Madera County's pioneer lumberjacks. Such was their positive impact upon the growth of Madera that few would have the audacity to stand in judgment of them or their weekend activities.

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