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HER WORLD

Hoping to save the wild Mustang -- Ranch, that is

October 12, 2003|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

My travels have taken me to hundreds of museums, on topics as diverse as bras and beer. Aside from reading, museums are the best way for me to learn something new, especially when the subject seems strange or arcane. So I was intrigued when I learned that a drive is on to turn the Mustang Ranch, Nevada's first legal brothel, into a museum of prostitution.

Its history alone could fill a museum. The Mustang, about 15 miles east of Reno, opened in 1967, four years before Nevada started a social experiment unique in the U.S. by legalizing the brothel business in rural counties only. The idea was to keep organized prostitution out of Las Vegas. Owner Joseph Conforte gave turkeys to the poor, let Desert Storm vets use the ranch's services free and later fled the country to escape prosecution for tax evasion. He's now living -- and, some say, running brothels -- in Brazil.

The pink, neon-illuminated Mustang was seized and sold by the Internal Revenue Service. It continued to run for a time before the IRS realized the new owners were funneling proceeds to Conforte in Brazil. In 1991, IRS agents arrived with padlocks and auctioned off the contents, which included matchbooks and wine bottles with the ranch logo: a naked cowgirl baying at the moon. Then the 340-acre property was transferred to the federal Bureau of Land Management, which intended to use it to help manage periodic flooding on the Truckee River and to connect two BLM parcels contiguous to the ranch.

The BLM wants to keep the ranch undeveloped, says Terry Randolph, Mustang Ranch project coordinator for the BLM. But first, the buildings have to go, and the BLM doesn't have the $100,000 needed to demolish them. The agency's problem was complicated when it discovered the structures have mold and asbestos. So earlier this year, the agency put the bordello up for sale on EBay, the online auction service. The highest bid, placed by northern Nevada brothel owner Dennis Hof, was $15,000, which the BLM didn't accept.

Hof, who bought a lot of the Mustang Ranch memorabilia during the IRS auction, wants to move the parlor and several wings to his nearby Moonlite Bunny Ranch, where, he says, they will become a museum dedicated to saving Nevada's wild horses and to prostitution -- in that order.

When I asked him who would visit, he said, "Everyone. Everyone is curious about sex.... We get 10 to 15 families a day parked in front of the Bunny Ranch, taking pictures of Grandpa by the sign." Mustang Ranch Museum Inc., a not-for-profit organization made up primarily of former ranch employees, didn't bid.

Sharnel Silvey, the group's president, says the organization doesn't have enough money to move the place, even if it could afford to buy it. Silvey wants the ranch to stay where it is and reopen as a museum devoted to the history and sociology of prostitution. Her organization is trying to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The BLM and the state researched the property to determine whether it was eligible for listing. It wasn't, chiefly because the Mustang Ranch is less than 50 years old, a criterion for inclusion. Structures of recent vintage can qualify if they're shown to be of superior importance.

Silvey thinks the ranch is important and envisions the museum as a place that would tell the stories of the prostitutes who worked there. "This may not be pretty, but it's history," she says.

Kathryn Hausbeck, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and coauthor of an upcoming book on prostitution in Nevada, thinks the Mustang Ranch could make a great museum. "Whether we want to admit it or not, prostitution played an important part in the history of the West. If [a museum] was done right, without objectifying or exploiting women, it could help us figure out prostitution policy in the future."

It wouldn't be the first bordello museum. There's one in the silver mining boomtown of Wallace, Idaho, and in Butte, Mont., the 1895 Dumas Brothel Museum displays vintage "Merry Widow" condom tins. In Australia, where prostitution is legal, Club 181 in the western desert town of Kalgoorlie is a museum in a working bordello. And, of course, anybody interested can take a tour of the red-light district in Amsterdam.

As for the Mustang Ranch, its future hangs in the balance. Last week, the BLM listed it on EBay again, with all BLM claims to the trademark included to sweeten the pot. That interests Hof, who would like to use the Mustang Ranch name on his Miss Kitty's Cathouse near Carson City.

Meanwhile, Silvey plans to appeal to the National Register of Historic Places in Washington, D.C., so the ranch can be preserved on-site.

So what makes a place of superior importance?

What aspects of our history are worth remembering? In Las Vegas, Mayor Oscar Goodman has advocated the creation of a Mafia museum in the city's old federal building. I, for one, would visit. But then, I would visit the Mustang Ranch if it ever opened as a museum. And if I had some spare cash, I just might bid on the place.

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