A new downtown Bozeman restaurant is telling the story of the state’s red light era.


Walk downstairs to the basement level of 233 E. Main Street in Bozeman, and you’ll be transported back more than a century, to the year the town was founded. Reminiscent of an upscale saloon, est. 1864 Noir Bar and Restaurant is windowless and dimly lit, its character best illuminated by remnants of the original brick building built in 1882 and destroyed by a gas leak in 2009. Despite the low lighting—or perhaps because of it—the space is inviting— alluring, even.

It has likely been a long time since anyone galloped a horse down Main Street, and even longer since the now-boutique block between N. Bozeman and N. Rouse was known for its women of the evening, significant characters in the founding chapters of Bozeman’s story. But as the lives of such folk fade further into the past, this basement Noir bar is recasting them in the spotlight.

The establishment’s executive chef, Allison Fasano, and general manager, Blake MacKie, opened the restaurant together just this year. The cuisine is influenced by their hometowns and lived cities of New York, Las Vegas, Austin, and Hanoi, Vietnam. Though a blend of cultures and creativity inspires the food, the name, branding and ambiance pay unmistakable homage to Bozeman’s colorful history.

Allison and Blake met a few years ago while working at another Bozeman restaurant after moving from bigger cities in the fall of 2021. Last winter, they joined forces to build their shared vision of exceptional food and drinks, Montana history and support for the local community. Portraits of characters from Bozeman’s earliest days border the top of the bar and adorn the walls, while dimmed lighting with glowing red accents pays tribute to the notorious red-light district that once encompassed this block of Main Street.

It’s October, and MacKie sits across from me at a table in one of the two private dining rooms in the restaurant. Deep red curtains frame the room’s entrance, and the stoic eyes of Bozeman’s historic enterprising characters watch us from the walls.

“Montana’s history is so dark and unforgiving, valiant and gorgeous; it’s both fascinating and haunting,” MacKie says as he pens his way down a list of cocktails he serves up to patrons from behind the bar. “There’s the Story’s Sipper, named after Nelson Story Sr.; the Sliver of Liver, named after Liver Eating Johnson, a notorious outlaw in this region; and the Plenty Coups, a famous chief for the Crow Nation, among others.”

A photo taken from the northeast side of Bozeman shows an elevated view of Bozeman, looking southwest toward Main Street. The Bozeman Hotel is seen on the left side in the background. Mendenhall Street and the red light district can be seen just to the right of the Bozeman Hotel. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE GALLATIN HISTORY MUSEUM
est. 1846 owners Allison Fasano (left) and Blake MacKie, pose for a photo on the restaurant’s opening night. PHOTO BY LO HUNTER

“These women changed their names like they changed their clothes. They are so difficult to trace because many were totally anonymous; they wanted to be anonymous.” – Ellen Baumler, former Montana Society interpretive historian

A Sanborn Fire Insurance map from 1904 annotates at least eight “female boarding” houses, the map company’s euphemism for brothels, between N. Bozeman and N. Rouse avenues, one of which still stands directly behind est. 1864. The two-story stucco house, now home to the Extreme History Project, was built in 1891 by early settler and wealthy businessman Joseph Lindley. Lindley acquired the property when Frankie Buttner, one of Bozeman’s first madams, died, intending to rent it as a brothel. Lindley later mortgaged the house to Nelson Story, who rented it to several prominent madams of the era, including Libbie Hayes, who remained the head of the household for more than a decade.

From the time of the Montana Gold Rush in the 1860s, prostitution was a lucrative business, though not without sacrifice for the women who entered into it. These women often also worked as nurses and cooks for miners in the early days. It wasn’t until families began moving into mining towns that prostitutes were pushed out of “civilized” society and into restricted districts. From the 1890s through much of the 20th century, Montana’s Wild West of outlaws and mining boomtowns became home to red-light districts that rivaled those in much larger cities like San Francisco and New Orleans.


While history books recall men flocking westward during the mining booms of the 20th century, less remembered is the movement of women, who were among the early entrepreneurs; madams employed the largest population of women on the frontier and set up businesses throughout Montana in burgeoning towns across the state. They provided housing for thousands of women who would likely have otherwise lived on the streets, and played a prominent economic role in developing cities across Montana.

A Billings Gazette article dated November 1993 noted that the town of Billings received $25,000 a year in fines from the red-light district. As recorded by the Gazette, brothel owners paid property, school and county taxes, as well as license fees, and often filled the pockets of city officials and police officers.

Throughout Montana, brothels were largely run by women, many of whom gained significant wealth, matching that of the powerful bankers, ranchers and capitalists in their communities. In Bozeman, there is no evidence of pimps—men running brothels and making the most significant cut of profits; women essentially ran the industry. But the profession was not without plight; most women—madams and their working girls—notably died young of disease, drug overdose or the effects of alcoholism.

The consensus amongst Victorian townsfolk of the time was that prostitution was “an unavoidable evil,” wrote Derek Strahn, former city historic preservation officer. Women of the evening were a common sight throughout frontier Montana, most partaking in sexual commerce out of economic necessity or in search of financial freedom.

Ellen Baumler, an interpretive historian for the Montana Society for 26 years, became fascinated with the subject of Montana’s brothels around 1995 while writing a plaque for the Dumas Hotel in Butte. Through her research reviewing Sanborn Fire Insurance maps and city censuses, she has continued learning what she can about these elusive, enterprising women of history.

“These women changed their names like they changed their clothes,” Baumler said. “They are so difficult to trace because many were totally anonymous; they wanted to be anonymous. They didn’t want their families to know what they were doing or for people to look down on them. Many of them entered prostitution for only a short time—most wanted to marry and become respectable members of society.”

Accounts of such history are pieced together through old newspapers, censuses, obituaries and often embellished stories passed down over the years. “There are a lot of ‘facts’ and stories that people have made up about these women,” Baumler said. “The truth is, we just don’t know much about their lives, and many of them wanted it that way.”

The interior of Bozeman’s new restaurant, est. 1864, is designed to evoke a sense of the historic Bozeman and the old red light district it pays homage to. PHOTO BY LO HUNTER


Stories of Montana’s ladies of the night abound, though not all can be corroborated. A few women who notched their place in history did so by gaining significant fame and financial success in their time.

One such woman is Louisa Couselle, who, having achieved impressive wealth as a brothel owner in Helena, relocated to Bozeman, where the competition for prostitutes was nearly non-existent at the time. By 1875, “Mrs. Lou” purchased at least 15 lots and extended mortgages to other residents, including Roberta Warn, aka Kitty Warren. Under Couselle’s mentorship, Warren purchased multiple properties and made a lasting name for herself.

By 1878, Couselle was wealthier than roughly 95 percent of Bozeman’s citizens, and the Avant Courier Annual Almanac listed her as one of the 59 “heavy taxpayers of Gallatin County.” The two women died within a year of one another, Warren at the age of 25 in 1885, leaving an impressive estate valued at $20,000, and Couselle in 1886 at 54. The two madams are remembered for having laid the foundation for the flourishing red-light district that would thrive for many more decades.

In 1898, Bozeman’s first mayor, John “Vesuvius” Bogert, sought to tame the town by collecting monthly fines from as many as 18 local prostitutes and madams, including Lizzie Woods, who ran a large brothel on E. Mendenhall Street. The price to stay in business was $10 a month. This city revenue helped justify the continuation of the red-light district into the 1900s.

While Bozeman’s madams were sewing their pseudonyms into the fabric of Montana’s history, the madams in Butte were building what would be the largest and most notorious red-light district in the state. Between 1878, when its first brothel house opened, and 1917, when the city shut down the red-light district, Butte was home to hundreds, if not thousands, of prostitutes. The Dumas Hotel, the longest-running brothel in the country, was built by the Nadeau Brothers, Joseph and Arthur, and was active from 1890 through 1982. Madam Lillian Walden purchased it in the 1940s, and it stayed in the hands of madams thereafter. The hotel highlights the class segregation of the times, with tunnels running from the Butte mine to the basement of the hotel. While laborers entered the hotel through the basement via these tunnels, the main floor was designated for the middle class, and the second floor was reserved for the wealthiest of society.

The arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883 ignited Missoula’s own raucous red-light district. For decades, the houses along West Front Street produced thousands of dollars in taxes and fees for the city treasury. The Line, also known as Midway Plaisance, the Bad Lands or the Restricted District, referred to all of West Front Street and most of West Main Street, which were lined with houses of ill repute, namely immigrant communities and sex workers.

As restricted areas formed across Montana cities, Chinese communities also took root. “Both were marginalized communities, and they had an important relationship with one another,” Baumler said. “Women relied on the Chinese doctors who would give them remedies they couldn’t get from Western doctors.”

Missoula’s “Madam of Front Street,” Mary Gleim, operated eight brothels, but her claim to fame is having attempted to blow up the residence of her competitor, Bobby Burns. She is remembered for smuggling lace, opium, diamonds and Chinese railroad workers; a conviction for attempted murder; and prison time in Deer Lodge. When she died in 1914, she left an estate of $100,000 and instructions for her tombstone to face the railroad tracks so she could bid farewell to the railroad men who were her customers.

In 1914, women in Montana won the right to vote six years before the passage of the 19th Amendment. With this milestone came moral reform, including prohibition and anti-prostitution laws. City officials across the state cracked down on the red-light districts, increasing the arrests of madams and their working girls. In 1917, Montana Attorney General Sam Ford officially criminalized prostitution statewide. Restricted districts faded into the shadows, leaving very few records of what occurred there. “But, it never ceased completely,” Baumler said. “Prostitutes went underground and continued working.” They continued to operate through the 20th century away from the public eye.

The cocktail list at est. 1864 tells the story of Bozeman’s past, with many named after notable characters like Liver Eating Johnson and Nelson Story Sr. PHOTO BY LO HUNTER
A bartender slings drinks at est. 1864. PHOTO BY LO HUNTER


Underground in contemporary Bozeman, MacKie gestures to a black and white framed portrait of Louisa Couselle hanging above the long wooden bar that he and Fasano built themselves.

“In old towns like this, [prostitution] was a major segment of what took place,” MacKie says. “It is what it is… maybe some people say it’s distasteful, but this was a reality and a big piece of the economy here—Couselle was that first silent business partner in Bozeman. Nelson Story Sr. financially supported the brothels and took care of the ladies involved. We want to share those stories.”

On any given night, locals and out-of-towners alike gather at the noir bar to enjoy Fasano’s unique twists on age-old dishes like “Baked Montana,” a spin-off of Baked Alaska, or one of her favorite pasta meals that reminds her of Sunday dinners growing up in Brooklyn. “I source as much of the meat and produce locally as possible,” Fasano says. “I always cook like a Nonna; my background is Italian, and I went to [culinary] school in Italy; I love food that tells a story.”

From Fasano’s house-made pasta, to the dimmed ambiance and antique lighting fixtures, Fasano and MacKie have created an experiential narrative, braiding strands of their own stories with those of this block of Main Street.

“Montana has a long-standing culture which we highly respect, and we just want to be a part of it,” MacKie says. “We’re not coming here to change everything. That’s why we named it 1864 — to pay homage to everything Montana was and is.”

That’s 1864, as in the year Bozeman was established. And the tribute runs deeper. The font of their logo is in the handwriting of William Alderson, who wrote the original document signing Bozeman into official jurisdiction of the United States, and the number 4 in est. 1864 is colored red, a nod to the red-light district that flourished in this very location.

Behind the bar, MacKie is quick to tell a story about the drink you choose, many of which he named after Montana madams or another one of Bozeman’s historical figures. Sure, this town is nothing like it was 100, 50, or even five years ago, but here, in its infamous red-light district reimagined, patrons get a taste and a sip of one piece of Montana’s often-forgotten history.

Inside Mountain Outlaw

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Sophie Brett Tsairis is a freelance writer in Bozeman, Montana. Storytelling is her way of sharing the human experience and keeping curiosity alive.