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Virginia City, Montana

Volunteers add life to streets of Nevada City
By Perry Backus of The Montana Standard

June 6, 2003

Susan O'Connell, dressed as Madame Mattie Silks
Susan O’Connell, dressed as Madame Mattie Silks — a character she’s played for the last eight years around the West. For three weekends in June, living history presentations are planned in Nevada City.

Standing in front of the small clapboard building on the edge of Virginia City, Susan O'Connell glances occasionally at passers-by. 

Visitors stare back through bug-splattered windshields at the woman dressed head-to-toe in black. She's standing in front of what was once one of the historic town's working brothels. If they'd stop, O'Connell would only be too glad to tell them a tale about the working ladies who once called Montana's mining towns home.

O'Connell has performed around the West as the famous Madame Mattie Silks for the last eight years. This summer, she's one of several people who will entertain and inform visitors — through a "living history" format — about life during the Gold Rush days in Virginia and Nevada cities.

O'Connell will perform her show in June to help kick off three living history events.

For three weekends, living history presentations are planned in Nevada City, where employees and volunteers will don period costumes and open shops along the boardwalk. "It's going to be like walking into the past for visitors. It should be a really neat program," said Dan Thyer, volunteer coordinator for the Montana Heritage Commission.

It's hoped that events scheduled for June, July and August will help kick-start an idea that's been talked about for years in the historic towns. It's an effort to convince visitors to stick around a bit longer.

"People want to know everything about the towns and they love the costumes," said O'Connell, who started her first stint at the historic cities a couple of weeks ago. "The visitors we've seen so far have been asking us where the rest of the people in costume are ... right now we're it." 

"The people who come here want the whole experience," she said. "I love dressing up for them. I always show people my bloomers. They love that."

People wanting to stroll the boardwalks filled with people in costume will have that opportunity on June 20-22 when Nevada City becomes the typical Gold Rush town of the 1860s to 1880s. Visitors can see and visit with volunteers and employees performing various crafts and talking history.

"I don't want people to be mistaken, this isn't going to be anything like a craft fair," said Thyer. "We're going to have things like a blacksmith working around a forge making period items."

And O'Connell, as Mattie Silks, will perform her "Memoirs of a Madame" show in Nevada City's Criterion Hall on both Saturday and Sunday, June 21-22, at 2 p.m. The show includes vignettes about "soiled doves" who Silks has come to know.

"No one is going to walk away and say ‘Oh, my God, how could she," said O'Connell. "My show is in no way offensive."

"Mattie Silks was a real madame in the 1880s," she said. "I talk to the audience about several different ladies. I tell their individual stories. They get to learn a great deal about the girls' lives."

As a descendent of Wyatt Earp, O'Connell has always had a love for history.

"My great-great-great-grandmother was a cousin of Wyatt Earp," she said. "I've always had an interest in history and wanted to put together a one-woman play. There really weren't that many women in the early West. Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane have already had quite a bit written about them."

Then she came across a book about the "soiled doves" of the early West and O'Connell was hooked.

"It's an untouched subject that people don't like to talk about," she said. "People don't really know what went on ... Virginia City was huge back then. At one time there were 30,000 people living around here and a large percentage of the women were prostitutes. They followed the men who followed the gold."

It was a difficult life.

"A lot of them killed themselves. Some drank themselves to death and others were killed by jealous men," she said. "Others got in, made a lot of money and got out."

"For many of them, there just wasn't any other choice. They didn't have an education and there weren't that many jobs for women," said O'Connell. "It was all they were able to do."

"I do my best to tell their stories," she said. "People love learning about this piece of history. They just eat it up."

Visitors can also expect other shows:

On July 11-13, historic craftsmen who enjoy living history fill the back streets of Nevada City.

On July 12, miners, lawyers and judges will gather for the reenactment of George Ives. The action is slated to start at 9:30 a.m. on the Main Street of Nevada City. It should run about two hours and end with the hanging of Ives at about 11:30 a.m.

Thyer said the event has attracted several real life lawyers and a retired judge to play the roles of important characters of the day. While the actual hanging occurred in December, Thyer said the decision was made to hold the reenactment when summer visitors would have the opportunity to see it.

"This was a historic event that really started the vigilante era," he said.

The final living history weekend is Aug. 1-3 with a Frontier Celebration that will feature the time period of 1800 through 1880.

Thyer said the hope is that interest in living history will grow after people have a chance to take part in this summer's events.

"This is something the Montana Heritage Commission has been asking for," he said. "We are still looking for more volunteers to help out with our programs ... if this program works, we hope to build on it and get more living history in Nevada and Virginia cities."

© Copyright Perry Backus and the Montana Standard, reproduced by permission.


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