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Far From Home : Former Ojai Civic Leaders Running 2 Legal Brothels in Dusty Desert Town

July 20, 1989|WILLIAM OVEREND | Times Staff Writer

BATTLE MOUNTAIN, Nev. — Behind the bar at the Calico Club, one of two brothels in this forlorn desert mining town, is a studio portrait of a smiling and naked Ginger Barrett.

She was once a volunteer grade-school librarian in Ojai, and her husband, Chuck Barrett, was president of the Ojai Chamber of Commerce.

They were Ojai orange farmers and civic leaders then. But now they own the Calico Club and another ramshackle wood-front brothel just down the road named the Desert Club.

Most of the trade is from the truckers who pass this way on one of the more desolate stretches of U.S. 80 in northern Nevada. But there has been a small boom in the local gold mining business lately, and the clubs cater to the miners too.

The two clubs are small but functional, with about 10 prostitutes combined. There is a bar in the front of each for small talk and rooms in the back for business.

Low-Key Atmosphere

The women who work here have names like Pepper and Jett and Angel, and the atmosphere is low-key as they wander the room in negligees and jeans. There is a jukebox at the Calico Club and even a candy machine if you happen to have a yen for some M & Ms.

But this is, after all, the whorehouse business. And there is ample evidence of that, including a sign on one wall at the Calico Club that reads, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me."

Ginger Barrett calls herself the madam of the two places, but the prostitutes who work here sometimes refer to Chuck Barrett as Mr. Madam.

Their flight from the orange groves of Ojai to the brothel barrens of Nevada came as a shock to a few who knew about it three years ago when the Barretts made their move.

It is just as much of a shock today to some of Ojai's leaders. They recall when Chuck Barrett's father, R. E. Barrett, was a county supervisor, and the Barrett family was generally viewed as a quietly respectable clan.

"I think everybody is a little bit flabbergasted," said Anson S. Thatcher, 84, one of the patriarchs of Ojai's prestigious Thatcher School, where Chuck, 47, and Ginger Barrett, 46, sent their son and daughter to prep school.

"It's really quite surprising," Thatcher added. "You have to admit it's an unusual thing to do."

Practicing Lawyer

Not only was Chuck Barrett president of the Ojai Chamber of Commerce for two years in the late 1960s, he was a practicing lawyer as well as a citrus grower, a member of the Ojai Planning Commission, a director of the San Antonio Water Conservation Board and the first president of the Ojai West Rotary Club.

Ginger Barrett was the volunteer librarian at Ojai Elementary School for three years, helped start a Youth Employment Service at the Ojai Chamber of Commerce, served on the Ojai City Parks and Recreation Commission and was a volunteer tour guide at the Ventura County Courthouse.

"We were definitely viewed as the straightest of the straight and the squarest of the square," Ginger Barrett said. "It's hard to remember how the straight world views us now. We are a little bit out of the mainstream."

But if some of the people back in Ojai take a dim view of their current activities, the Barretts make it clear they really don't care too much.

They had already raised their two children, and they were bored with their lives as farmers. According to Ginger Barrett, they found Ojai to be a "stuffy town" at times and some of the people in Ojai a little pretentious.

"Ojai, we felt, had a tendency to look down on the other communities in the county, and some of the people thought they were better than everybody else," Ginger Barrett said.

No Compelling Reasons

Chuck Barrett, who married his wife in 1963, had brought her back with him from college to the family farm. But after the death of his father in 1977 and his mother in 1985, there were no compelling family business reasons to remain.

"A year after mother died we were gone," Chuck Barrett said. "Basically, it was a realization that if we were ever going to leave, it would have to be then."

And then came the day in early 1986 when the Barretts, already thinking of a move to Arizona and more conventional investments, read in a local newspaper that the owners of Battle Mountain's two brothels wanted to sell out.

The Barretts had already sold their 32 acres of oranges and Christmas trees and the 60-year-old Spanish-style ranch house that had been their home for years. Chuck Barrett says the Ojai estate sold "in the million range," and the brothel investments were roughly half that amount.

"I was looking for investments in real estate and I said, 'Here's one,' " Chuck Barrett recalled. "We called up and made an appointment to see the books in April, 1986."

After their first visit to Battle Mountain, a town of about 5,000 people, the Barretts remained interested. But they decided they probably did not have the skills to run a couple of brothels.

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