An intricate layout of brothel cribs can be found atop many of Centralia’s buildings, depicting a time long gone when bordellos were connected with secret passages and hidden doorways.
Lodging was present throughout many of the buildings as well, and the girls were just the icing on the cake, said Holly Phelps, the owner of a one-of-a-kind museum that will highlight that history.
That Bordello Museum opened Friday, showcasing some of the brothel cribs located above The Shady Lady in downtown Centralia.
Tight corridors painted red, elaborate chandeliers and pieces of history pay tribute to a woman Phelps said was an entrepreneur before her time: madam Ruth Rucker. The space — which was modeled to depict bedrooms, sitting rooms and ladies’ changing rooms — highlights the revered town madam.
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Rucker, who lived from 1908 to 1976, gave women opportunities to work at a time when women could not vote or own a business. Many couldn’t even read.
Born to a pair of traveling preachers, Rucker was a “crazy free spirit before her time,” Phelps said.
Rucker entered the brothel business during her marriage to Centralia Police Chief Otto Rucker. He helped control the money the women made as well as bootlegging operations at the time, Phelps said.
Many of the working girls who sold themselves in Centralia worked only part time. Phelps said they would hop the rails and come to Centralia when there were money troubles at home. They could make about $10 a week, then go back home until money was tight again.
“A lot of them were not these women who were just the underbelly of society,” Phelps said. “A lot of them were someone who just had to make ends meet.”
During the eight months it took to get the museum ready, Phelps said she fell in love with Rucker’s free spirit and wonderful wit.
“It was not about making money, but about having a business,” Phelps said. “She forged the way to enable all of us in a way in the bigger picture.”
Rucker ensured the women could work in a way that they were still respected.
“She didn’t feel like you should ever be the lower version of prostitution,” Phelps said. “She really felt you could elevate yourself and still be classy and maintain a decorum as a woman.”
Rucker met her demise under questionable circumstances: She was found face down in a guest bedroom, likely murdered.
According to Phelps, her funeral was standing room only.
The museum was “a labor of love” for Phelps. She hopes it will invite people to bring more stories about the working girls of Centralia, an interesting part of the city’s history.
“There was not a lot of honor for her in her family, so it’s great to share her,” Phelps said.