There’s a first for everything. For me, it happened on Valentine’s Day in Arkansas’ “wild west,” Located within seeing distance of the Oklahoma state line, for much of the 19th century Ft. Smith was a rough-and-tumble gateway for thousands who were headed West . . . whether by force or by choice. Cowboys, gold-seekers, bootleggers, bank robbers, murderers, Yankees and Rebels alike, and tragically Native Americans nearing the end of their long Trail of Tears came here, left their imprint, then moved on. Lawlessness was a matter of course for a town located at the western boundary of civility. Rob or even kill a man in the morning. Disappear into “Indian Territory” by high noon. Men the likes of Judge Isaac Parker tried to legislate many a man’s carnal inclinations, often using the gallows to make his judgments swift and clear. But there was one carnal instinct even the notorious “Hanging Judge” could not tame.
Some call it the oldest profession on earth. Indeed, prostitution was legal in Ft. Smith into the early 20th century. At its height, the community boasted a “Bordello Row” with seven establishments serving the needs of their male guests, locals and visitors alike. At a time when the average man earned a wage of $3 per week, a night of pleasure would cost you about a dollar . . . unless you elected to patronize Miss Laura’s Social Club. Come for a “visit,” pay $3. Coming for the night would cost you $5. Miss Laura’s guests were gentlemen of means.
A great fire, so-called progress and eventually the law took its course on Bordello Row. By the 1970s, only one house remained: Miss Laura’s. Deserted and unloved, she stood at the brink of condemnation and demolition when a succession of local saviors held off the wrecking ball feeling this piece of local architectural history, if a bit off-color, was worthy of preservation. They saved the building, but Carolyn Joyce saved its soul.
Google Carolyn Joyce and you’ll find no shortage of hits. By anyone’s estimation, she’s the First Lady of Arkansas Tourism. Just over 20 years ago when a failed restaurant left the old bordello again vacant, Carolyn had a vision. Why shouldn’t Miss Laura’s Social Club once again welcome the traveler in need of service? Of course, the “service” would be a bit different this time around. In short order, the building was reborn as the Ft. Smith Welcome Center. That Carolyn would take on the persona of Miss Laura for the grand opening was a given. That she’d still be doing it over two decades later was a surprise to all.
It was late when I arrived on a cold Valentine’s Night. Our appointment had been scheduled for hours prior, but Miss Laura left the light on for me. I entered the bordello to find her resplendent in her custom-made finery, welcoming me on the bottom step of a grand staircase, assuring me “her girls” were eagerly waiting just above. Then she began to spin a tale—the history of the place—which sounded like fiction, but was indeed fact as evidenced by numerous photographs and written records, many of which were on display. Before long I was thrilled to at last enjoy my introduction to one of her girls, as well as a self-proclaimed “doctor” who was peddling his miracle-working tonic for 25-cents a bottle (or the special discounted price of three for a dollar).
Curious to know what happened next? Sorry—I don’t kiss and tell. But you’re invited to visit Miss Laura’s Social Club for yourself on my Arkansas tour in October. Visit the Clinton Library in Little Rock, the magnificant new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s gift to the world), take a steaming mineral bath in Hot Springs and follow the trail of Will Rogers through eastern Oklahoma. When we hit Ft. Smith, I’ll make sure Miss Laura leaves the light on for you, too!
Postscript: Mine was only a visit. I didn’t stay for the night. When I returned to my hotel, a Valentine and bag of chocolate kisses were on my pillow. The message on the card read, “With love from Miss Laura.” And you know what? I’m certain she meant every word.