Stella Darby (1902 – 1977)
The Pacific Northwest often conjures images of beautiful landscapes and bustling cities such as Portland and Seattle. But the region, and particularly Oregon, also has a long history of sex work. Prostitution and military service have maintained a consistent presence in twentith century Oregon.
As early as World War I, state officials worked to eradicate sex workers by conflating them with venereal disease. During World War II, the War Department gave authorization to create “prostitution-free zones.” But in places like Pendleton, Oregon, which was once a site for entertainment and various forms of vice, that proved to be a larger challenge.
In the nineteenth century, thousands of Chinese laborers lived in the Pendelton, Oregon. Since racist people prevented them from appearing outdoors at night, they developed an interconnected system of underground tunnels to network and trade goods. The tunnels were later used for bootlegging during the prohibition era, adding to the popularity of vice in the town. Pendleton’s police department was deemed to, “have no control over gambling and prostitution,” in the town and by 1942, most soldiers in the area knew that, “all roads lead to Pendleton for those seeking recreation.” The town was known as a sex work center and one of the most popular brothels was located above these underground tunnels, The Cosy Rooms owned by Madam Stella L. Darby.
Stella Darby: Beloved Madam of Pendelton, Oregon
Born Stella Louella Richardson in 1902, she opened the six-girl brothel in downtown Pendleton, Oregon in 1928. The Cosy Rooms occupied space on the second floor of the Medernach Building located at 333-339 South Main Street. The thirty-two steps that led to the brothel became known as the “32 Steps to Heaven,” and the brothel thrived alongside the saloons and opium dens in the area.
The archive doesn’t provide a ton of detail about Stella Darby’s early years. We do know the twenty year old had never been a sex worker, but her brothel became one of Pendleton’s most popular locals. Stella Darby married twice. Her first marriage ended in divorce in 1937 and in 1946 she married Royal Jean Eicker, a World War II veteran and laborer. Eicker moved into Stella Darby’s property at 337 Main Street in Pendleton, and worked as a printer and owned a janitorial services business in 1957. In each city directory however, Stella is listed as “Stella L. Darby” and the proprietor of the “Cosy Rooms.” The couple divorced in 1957 for cruelty, but Eicker remained in Stella Darby’s property, possibly as a boarder.
Stella Darby is said to have been a rather benevolent person, always giving food and clothing to those in need, and encouraging her employees to pursue education, save money to obtain financial freedom, and to strive for higher social status. She also ensured that her girls had their spiritual needs met. Stella Darby and her employees were not welcome in Pendleton, Oregon beyond the red-light district they occupied, and that included local churches. It is said that Stella Darby created a small chapel inside the brothel for the girls to worship, and traveling preachers would give sermons as they passed through town.
Stella Darby’s Famous Brothel: The Cosy Rooms
The Cosy Rooms closed in 1967 and it appears that Stella Darby died in Walla Walla, Washington in October 1977. In 1993, Stella’s biographer, Pam Severe McKay, purchased the old brothel and converted The Cosy Rooms into The Working Girls Hotel. The Medernach Building is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places and is currently owned by Pendleton Underground Tours. In 2014, a bronze statue of Stella Darby was sculpted by a local art teacher and placed at the museum’s entrance, so that Stella Darby still greets guests of her establishment. This sculpture is the only privately-owned piece on the Pendleton Bronze Trail.
Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher is a historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century United States and African American history and gender studies. Prior to attending IU, Charlene led a domestic violence/sexual assault program as well as a large reentry initiative in New York City, assisting women and men in their transition from incarceration to society. She also served as a lecturer of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College and an adjunct lecturer in Global and Historical Studies at Butler University. Keep reading…
Year: 1940; Census Place: Pendleton, Umatilla, Oregon; Roll: m-t0627-03380; Page: 81A; Enumeration District: 30-38
Washington State Archives; Olympia, Washington; Washington Marriage Records, 1854-2013
Ancestry.com. U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Link to source.
Oregon State Archives; Salem, Oregon; Oregon, Divorce Records, 1946-1968
Oregon Secretary of State. “Oregon Vice: Prostitution and Venereal Disease Vex Officials,” in Life on the Home Front: Oregon Responds to World War II. Link to source.
Alexander, Greg. “Pendleton Underground Gives a Green Light to the Red Light District,” Go! Eastern Oregon, August 23, 2021. Link to article.
Aney, Kathy. “Statue of Stella Darby Unveiled in Downtown Pendleton,” in East Oregonian, August 26, 2014. Link to article.
Cowan, Ron and Gerry Lewin, “Tour of Town’s Underground Displays the Real West,” in The Statesman Journal (Salem, OR) December 10, 1990, 9 and 12.
Frazier, Joseph B. “Pendleton: Underground Provides a Glimpse of the City’s Raucous Past,” in The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), May 24, 1998.