We all have different sides to our personalities and it’s always fun to see the various aspects of people we know and admire. One of the most ladylike and professional, in the truest sense, women I know is Carolyn Joyce, director of group sales and marketing for the Fort Smith Advertising and Promotion Commission. Never in your wildest dreams, upon meeting Carolyn, would you believe one of her alter egos is a madam. Never fear. Carolyn portrays Miss Laura, a real-life custodian of ladies of the evening during Fort Smith’s Wild West frontier days, as a living history character. Prostitution was legal during those days.
Miss Laura’s establishment, a stunning 1903 architectural beauty on the Arkansas River, is one of the last surviving on what was called Bordello Row. Hers was a high-class operation, the best on the row and she had rules of conduct her “employees” had to adhere to.
After having several reincarnations, the building stood empty and fell into a state of disrepair. Entrepreneur Donald W. Reynolds purchased the former house of ill repute in 1963 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. It was an upscale restaurant prior to 1992 when Miss Laura’s Social Club became the official visitor center for Fort Smith. That’s when Carolyn came up with the idea of using Miss Laura as a living history personage. The madam was created as a marketing tool to provide a lighthearted look at the colorful history of the row in frontier Fort Smith.
The interior of the structure is a museum in addition to a visitor center. It’s worth a visit to learn more about Fort Smith’s incredible past. The Old West heritage here is faithfully preserved, warts and all. An eclectic array of additional museums is available, ranging from the General Darby Home and the Fort Smith Trolley to the Fort Chaffee Barbershop and Fort Smith Museum of History, with a number of others in between. All complement nicely the story told by the Fort Smith National Historic Site and the Bass Reeves Statue. When you visit, you’ll find out why True West magazine selected Fort Smith as the Top True Western Town for 2013.
Those who attend the 39th annual Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism, March 3-5 in Hot Springs, can hear Carolyn recount how Miss Laura has complemented the Fort Smith tourism industry. Make your plans to attend.