HISTORY HERE AND NOW Aug. 07, 2009
Colorado Avenue once home to bevy of madams
I love Friday mornings. That’s when Billee Abell and I go shopping. Billee owned and operated a preschool for years, so sharing knowledge comes easily to her, and what a gift it is for me.
Sometimes what I learn is not what she would have shared with her young students. This past Friday was one of those times.
We talked about the early-day madams here in Grand Junction.
Billee said the houses on South Avenue in the 500 and 600 blocks were known as the high-class district. The houses in the 200 and 300 blocks on Colorado Avenue were known as the “Barbary Coast.”
The four most famous madams were: Broken Jaw Nell; Vanna Harris and Jean Harris, no relation to each other; and Kate Stone.
Billee remembers Vanna as being slender and nicely dressed in well-tailored clothes and wearing black lace silk stockings and heels. She would walk down Main Street, her back straight, face held high, never looking to the side.
Billee’s sister, Alta Senter Barbour, a graduate of Woodbury School of Design in Los Angeles, designed and made clothes for Vanna and her girls in the early 1940s. Vanna would bring her girls to Alta, where they were measured, then designs and fabrics discussed.
When Vanna returned to pick up the garment, she always paid with $1 bills.
Billee remembers Jean Harris as being rather large but always well-dressed, and that Jean and her girls frequently checked out the costume jewelry at the then-new Kress Store.
Jean’s house was in back of Lumley’s Veterinarian Hospital at Fifth Street and South Avenue and was known as the “Doubledecker” because it was the largest of the houses.
Dr. Lumley checked on Jean often and one day found her lying on the floor with a broken hip. He took her to St. Mary’s Hospital and stayed there with her until she died.
The nuns had heard Jean refer to Lumley as “Doc,” so they assumed he was her physician and asked him to sign her death certificate, which he did, thinking that this would have been fine with Jean.
The third was Kate Stone, who was known as Madame Butterfly. Billee said that when Kate died, her attorney, Scot Hickman, sold her household belongings at auction.
In the mid-1930s kids would drag Main Street, or as they called it, “Scraping the gut,” and part of their route would be to drive down Colorado and South avenues to see if they could spot anybody they knew going in and out of the houses.
It was said that the town folks would be shocked if they knew who the guests were. These guests apparently could move out of the public eye from house to house on “catwalks” between houses.
Rumor also had it that certain strategic Democratic Party politics were hashed out at the Second and Colorado address of Kate Stone in the 1920s and 1930s, where the party leaders would gather for a private dinner. No money business — or so they said.
It was no secret that the madams and girls gave generously to most of the charity drives, but they wanted to remain anonymous because they felt their money wouldn’t be accepted
if the residents knew where it came from.
Except for one of the big murders in the 1930s, which involved one of the girls from Second and Colorado, it was said that the madams and girls didn’t have too many run-ins with the police.
Billee said the houses started to fold when the city stepped up restrictions on prostitution.
The girls had to have a physical every 10 days, and each house could only have three girls. Also, the “do-gooders” put a great deal of pressure on law enforcement to shut them down.
This morning, Billee and I are off shopping again, and I have no idea where our conversation is going to take us or what I’ll learn, but I know it is the best day of the week.
Kathy Jordan is retired from The Daily Sentinel and involved in many preservation efforts, including the Avalon Theatre, the railroad depot and the North Seventh Street Historic Residential District.