Ross Street circa 1905. (Photo by Red Deer Archives)

Ross Street circa 1905. (Photo by Red Deer Archives)

DAWE: Red Lights in Red Deer

Red Deer in its early days was generally a quiet and law-abiding community. For example, in 1917, there were only two people incarcerated in the city’s police cells during the entire year. For many years, there was only one constable in town as there was too little crime in the area to justify a larger police force.

An exception to this law-abiding nature took place nearly 20 years ago in 1905 and 1906. Red Deer was experiencing a wild economic boom. The population of the Town nearly tripled from just a few hundred to almost 1500 in three years. The local land titles office registered the highest number of homestead entries in all of Western Canada.

The community was full of energetic young newcomers, anxious to start a new life and secure a prosperous future.

Not everything that they got themselves into was wholesome and above board. Gambling became a problem. Consequently, Town Council drew up a by-law which strictly prohibited slot machines and other gambling devices. Attempts were also made to try and keep “swindlers”, “card sharks” and “fakirs” out of town.

The illegal sale and consumption of alcohol were also growing concerns. The town’s cells, which were located in the home of the local fire chief, were increasingly filled with young men “sleeping it off”. The fire chief’s wife made drapes so that her children could not see who had been incarcerated overnight.

Yet another social problem emerged. Red Deer acquired a brothel. It was not a large, pretentious building, but rather a small, unassuming house on the outskirts of town. It had at least two residents. The owner’s first name was Alice, and she used a variety of surnames. Her associate’s name was Dorothy.

The establishment soon became widely known – the town was still small enough that such things didn’t remain a secret for very long. Yet curiously, the local police did nothing about it.

Finally, on June 13, 1905, a provincial government inspector came down from Edmonton and raided the establishment. He charged Alice with the illegal sale of liquor, and with “being a vagrant, keeping a house of ill fame and being an inmate of same”.

Alice was fined $50 and costs for the liquor offence and the same amount for the latter charges. To put the size of the penalty into context, $2 per day was then considered a very good wage. The $100 in fines would be the equivalent of a well-paid person’s salary for 3 and a half months.

Surprisingly, despite the severity of the penalty, this did not close the brothel down. It continued to operate for another eight months.

On February 20, 1906, another government inspector and a detective from Edmonton raided the house again. This time, both Alice and Dorothy were charged and convicted of illegally selling beer, whiskey and port wine and of keeping of house of ill fame. $150 in fines were levied.

According to the front page article in the local newspaper, the magistrate, who was also the editor of the paper, “warned the two women that if they were brought up again, the consequences would be very serious” and “advised them to clear out at once or the house would be under strict surveillance”.

The article added that the names of the men found in the house were given to the court. However, the magistrate/editor did not feel compelled to publish these names in the paper. He also did not include them in his official report to the authorities in Edmonton.

The women appear to have taken the magistrate’s advice and left town. The community still continued to have some troubles, however. When Judge Harvey held circuit court in Red Deer a few days later, there were eleven criminal cases on the docket. One man was charged was charged with stealing a horse, another was charged with fraudulently selling a horse and a third was charged with keeping a horse in his possession not belonging to him. There was a case of a young man being charged with inflicting bodily harm by shooting, but the judge acquitted him on the grounds of self–defense.

By 1907-08, the great boom began to ebb, and Red Deer soon was back to being a quiet and law-abiding community.

Michael Dawe is a Red Deer historian and his column appears on Wednesdays.

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