Trail’s End – The Old Homestead House Museum; The Pearl of Cripple Creek
It’s been said that Myers Avenue was the liveliest street in the West. The popular tune, There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight, was first heard on Myers Avenue in Cripple Creek, the world’s Greatest Gold Camp. And it fit! For Myers Avenue was one of the largest and rowdiest streets of ill repute in all of the mining camps in the West; the site of a legendary Red Light District.
Parlor houses were big business in Cripple Creek, as in any mining camp. Businesses on Myers Avenue operated 24 hours a day with free-spending miners who were out for a good time. Pearl DeVere and her Old Homestead parlor house filled that need.
Pearl arrived in Cripple Creek from Denver in 1893. A woman described as beautiful, and strong in stature, it is a pity no photograph exists of Pearl DeVere. Pearl was one of those ladies the “good” women of Cripple Creek didn’t mention. Children were forbidden to walk near Myers Avenue, where Pearl ran her “gentlemen’s entertainment” establishment.
At age 31, Pearl had a head for business, and made a very lucrative living from the beginning. Her ladies were encouraged to wear fine clothing and were paid well enough to afford it. The common women of Cripple Creek shuddered at these women who dared to shop on Bennett Avenue. Pearl was seen daily, riding her fancy single-seated phaeton, complete with red painted wheels, and led by a beautiful team of black horses. On horseback, she would wear a different elegant dress everyday, riding sidesaddle, her derby hat cocked to one side, as she smiled brightly at people who stared. She was full of fun, and had a kind heart. She generously gave to the charity causes in town, monetarily, for she knew her presence wasn’t welcomed at the various functions.
In April 1896, following a horrific fire that devastated most of the town, Pearl rebuilt her house of ill repute in brick. The Old Homestead parlor house soon became known throughout the West. The new parlor house was quite extravagant, at least by Cripple Creek standards. Town gossip swirled at the expense Pearl spent to make her house the finest in Colorado.
Lavish decorations from imported European furniture to lace curtains and velvet draperies, adorned nearly every rooms. Large fireplaces as well as coal stoves, heated the house on cold Cripple Creek nights. Crystal gaslights, as well as electric chandeliers, kept the house in good light during parties for the rich clientele. Running water was a luxury, which improved the cleanliness of the establishment, not to mention the hygiene of the women.
Hand-painted French wallpaper, at a cost of $134 a roll, gleamed throughout, and the finest handmade hardwood tables graced the parlor and entertainment rooms. There was a telephone and even an intercom system. The tongues wagged in Cripple Creek; electricity and two bathrooms, when decent family folk had coal lamps and outhouses.
Pearl’s new establishment drew a rich clientele, where references were required of the guests. Pearl became legendary, and the Old Homestead House would become a Colorado legend. The oldest brothel museum in the country, it was established in 1958.
The Old Homestead House Museum retains the rich Victorian decor of Pearl’s efforts over a century ago. Touring this historical brothel is not only a step back in time, but an intricate look at the life of the “working girls” of a 19th century mining town.
Unlike most museums with displayed artifacts in glass cases, the Old Homestead House Museum is just that; a house museum. Stepping into the parlor, where the girls greeted their guests, the room retains the original hand-painted French wallpaper, as well as the original diamond dust mirror, and a nice inclusion of alcohol lamps.
The entertainment room contains an original turn of the century gaming table from the Johnny Nolan Saloon, Cripple Creek’s most popular establishment of its kind. Also on display in the room is a wonderful étagère, the oldest piece in the museum, dating to the early 1700s. A diamond-etched mirror hangs over the fireplace. The unique oatmeal wallpaper in this room is also original.
Many artifacts in the house museum were gifts to Pearl in an effort to rebuild her “house” following the fire, or gifts to the working girls from admiring patrons. One such gift is the crystal chandelier in the entertainment room, a gift to Lola Livingston, one of the popular girls. In the dining room, a hand-blown glass chandelier hangs from the ceiling, which was a gift to Pearl. A silver tea service is also on display in the dining room, a gift to Hazel Vernon, who became the madam of the house following Pearl’s sad death, and Cripple Creek’s longest reigning madam.
Upstairs, a long hallway includes the five rooms once occupied by the working girls. If the paying guest had not made a selection in the lower parlor room, a viewing room was available for further selection (through a window) just to the left of the upper landing. Artifacts in these rooms include beds made of pine, walnut, chestnut, and a spool bed with wooden slats supporting the mattress by ropes attached to the spooled knobs on the frame. Additional furnishings include full-length mirrors with tiger wood frames, and hand-painted silk screens. Artifacts of a personal nature include chamber pots covered with delicate crochet, a wooden commode and covered cuspidors for the tobacco-chewing patron.
Corset bags used to protect the delicate whalebone of the female garment are on display, as well as a wonderful and rare example of a hand-carved walnut corset chair.
The room at the end of the hall is known as Pearl’s room, as this is the room where she tragically died on June 5, 1897. The coroner ruled the death as an “accidental overdose of morphine.” Pearl had given a lavish party the previous evening. Upon retiring, still restless, she took a dose of the morphine to sleep. Still dressed in her exquisite $800 Paris-made pink chiffon ball gown, Pearl eventually fell to sleep. Sometime later, one of her girls checked on her. Finding Pearl breathing heavily and unable to wake her, local Dr. Hereford was summoned and did all he could, but the morphine had taken effect. Pearl died at the young age of 36. She was buried in the local cemetery wearing the Paris pink chiffon gown she had died in.
Today, the Old Homestead Museum carries on with the spirit of Pearl. In April, after years of fundraising, the museum is now privately owned.