Far From Home : Former Ojai Civic Leaders Running 2 Legal Brothels in Dusty Desert Town

Times Staff Writer

Behind the bar at the Calico Club, one of two brothels in this forlorn desert mining town, is a studio portrait of a smiling and naked Ginger Barrett.

She was once a volunteer grade-school librarian in Ojai, and her husband, Chuck Barrett, was president of the Ojai Chamber of Commerce.

They were Ojai orange farmers and civic leaders then. But now they own the Calico Club and another ramshackle wood-front brothel just down the road named the Desert Club.

Most of the trade is from the truckers who pass this way on one of the more desolate stretches of U.S. 80 in northern Nevada. But there has been a small boom in the local gold mining business lately, and the clubs cater to the miners too.

The two clubs are small but functional, with about 10 prostitutes combined. There is a bar in the front of each for small talk and rooms in the back for business.

Low-Key Atmosphere

The women who work here have names like Pepper and Jett and Angel, and the atmosphere is low-key as they wander the room in negligees and jeans. There is a jukebox at the Calico Club and even a candy machine if you happen to have a yen for some M & Ms.

But this is, after all, the whorehouse business. And there is ample evidence of that, including a sign on one wall at the Calico Club that reads, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me."

Ginger Barrett calls herself the madam of the two places, but the prostitutes who work here sometimes refer to Chuck Barrett as Mr. Madam.

Their flight from the orange groves of Ojai to the brothel barrens of Nevada came as a shock to a few who knew about it three years ago when the Barretts made their move.

It is just as much of a shock today to some of Ojai's leaders. They recall when Chuck Barrett's father, R. E. Barrett, was a county supervisor, and the Barrett family was generally viewed as a quietly respectable clan.

"I think everybody is a little bit flabbergasted," said Anson S. Thatcher, 84, one of the patriarchs of Ojai's prestigious Thatcher School, where Chuck, 47, and Ginger Barrett, 46, sent their son and daughter to prep school.

"It's really quite surprising," Thatcher added. "You have to admit it's an unusual thing to do."

Practicing Lawyer

Not only was Chuck Barrett president of the Ojai Chamber of Commerce for two years in the late 1960s, he was a practicing lawyer as well as a citrus grower, a member of the Ojai Planning Commission, a director of the San Antonio Water Conservation Board and the first president of the Ojai West Rotary Club.

Ginger Barrett was the volunteer librarian at Ojai Elementary School for three years, helped start a Youth Employment Service at the Ojai Chamber of Commerce, served on the Ojai City Parks and Recreation Commission and was a volunteer tour guide at the Ventura County Courthouse.

"We were definitely viewed as the straightest of the straight and the squarest of the square," Ginger Barrett said. "It's hard to remember how the straight world views us now. We are a little bit out of the mainstream."

But if some of the people back in Ojai take a dim view of their current activities, the Barretts make it clear they really don't care too much.

They had already raised their two children, and they were bored with their lives as farmers. According to Ginger Barrett, they found Ojai to be a "stuffy town" at times and some of the people in Ojai a little pretentious.

"Ojai, we felt, had a tendency to look down on the other communities in the county, and some of the people thought they were better than everybody else," Ginger Barrett said.

No Compelling Reasons

Chuck Barrett, who married his wife in 1963, had brought her back with him from college to the family farm. But after the death of his father in 1977 and his mother in 1985, there were no compelling family business reasons to remain.

"A year after mother died we were gone," Chuck Barrett said. "Basically, it was a realization that if we were ever going to leave, it would have to be then."

And then came the day in early 1986 when the Barretts, already thinking of a move to Arizona and more conventional investments, read in a local newspaper that the owners of Battle Mountain's two brothels wanted to sell out.

The Barretts had already sold their 32 acres of oranges and Christmas trees and the 60-year-old Spanish-style ranch house that had been their home for years. Chuck Barrett says the Ojai estate sold "in the million range," and the brothel investments were roughly half that amount.

"I was looking for investments in real estate and I said, 'Here's one,' " Chuck Barrett recalled. "We called up and made an appointment to see the books in April, 1986."

After their first visit to Battle Mountain, a town of about 5,000 people, the Barretts remained interested. But they decided they probably did not have the skills to run a couple of brothels.

Personal Research

One factor that changed their minds, Ginger Barrett said, was a subsequent trip during which she worked at the Calico Club to get a better understanding of the business. She will not divulge details of her personal research, but it was a crucial part of the move. By August, 1986, the Barretts had decided they could make it in the brothel business after all.

While showing some reluctance to explain every consideration that went into the decision, Ginger Barrett provided some hints during a recent trip from Battle Mountain to the town of Winnemucca to pick up a venereal disease clearance certificate for one of her newest employees.

"I think it has to do with our general attitudes toward sex," she said. "I don't care to go into detail, but I think we have always been more open-minded on the subject than some people."

The Barretts pointed out that prostitution is legal in most of the counties of Nevada at about 40 brothels similar to the two they run. They defended their brothels as sanctuaries for women who might otherwise have to work illegally on the streets.

One night, while at dinner at the town's main local casino, the Owl Club, on what the locals consider the fancier side of Battle Mountain's railroad tracks, Chuck Barrett jokingly said he prefers being a pimp to being a lawyer.

The next morning, however, his legal training at Ventura College of Law returned. He said he has never really regarded himself as a pimp, especially since being a pimp is against the law in Nevada. What he really is, Barrett said, is sort of a hotel keeper.

Legal View

In his considered legal view, Barrett said, a pimp in Nevada is someone who encourages a woman to enter prostitution, not somebody who makes a living off the money she earns.

In any event, Chuck Barrett said, he views his new career as both fun and challenging. Ginger Barrett said that running the brothels of Battle Mountain has been a wondrous experience.

"There's hardly any other job for women that pays as much," she said. "It is a good career for a woman."

On a recent Thursday night, the highlight of the evening at the Calico Club--at least around the front bar area--was a visit from Lander County Sheriff Steve Bishop, a regular bar customer at the two clubs as well as the man responsible for making sure that all the activities there stay within legal boundaries.

As the sheriff and a former district attorney traded rounds of drinks and chatted with the Barretts, a pair of truck drivers entered the Calico, their diesel rigs parked just outside. Jett and Angel did their best to entice the potential customers into the back, but the men just wanted to drink.

Comfortable at the Bar

At times, that can be a problem in the brothel business, Ginger Barrett said. She has tried to maintain a friendly atmosphere in the front rooms, and sometimes the men get so comfortable at the bar that they decide against forking over the $70 or so it usually takes for sexual activity in the back.

Even among their own employees the Barretts have raised some eyebrows with their approach to business.

Ruth Crosthwaite, the grandmotherly bartender and manager of the Calico Club, said she quit for four months when they took over because she thought Ginger Barrett was loosening things up too much.

"The kids who work here were never allowed to drink on the job before, but Ginger changed that," Crosthwaite said. "I still think it's a mistake. But I'm not the boss. Ginger may be new to this, but that hasn't slowed her down."

There are six rooms in the Calico Club and five at the Desert Club, although Chuck Barrett is busily adding a sixth room there as fast as possible. Not only do the women service their customers in the tiny rooms, they live there during their stints in Battle Mountain.

Many of them come from Reno and Lake Tahoe, and most of them stay four months or so before moving somewhere else. Chuck Barrett said some of the women get married to truck drivers, but usually they have other reasons for leaving, ranging from wanderlust to advanced alcoholism.

There is nothing fancy about either of the two brothels. Battle Mountain isn't New Orleans. But there is a mobile home in the back that functions as the VIP room for the occasional high roller who wanders in and is willing to pay $300 to $400 for an entire evening with the woman of his choice and a large supply of pornographic movies.

Next door to the VIP trailer is another mobile home where the Barretts live. It is considerably smaller than the 5,000-square-foot home they abandoned when they moved from Ojai. There are three other mobile homes that are part of the Barrett empire here, one housing a bookstore, another a T-shirt printing operation and another serving as a dress shop.

Mobile Home Mini-Mall

Actually, the place looks like a sort of mobile home mini-mall. You can buy everything from Jett and Angel to volumes of Shakespeare and the latest Reno fashions. Right now there is a new construction project on the complex, a permanent office site that will house the newspaper they just purchased.

Ironically, there was not much controversy about the Barretts' move to Battle Mountain either there or back in Ojai when they originally bought the brothels. Only when they recently purchased a newspaper called the Battle Mountain Bugle did a furor erupt among Nevada's other newspaper publishers over whether brothel owners ought to be permitted in the Fourth Estate.

While Chuck Barrett says he has so far avoided even joining the Battle Mountain Chamber of Commerce, he explained his decision to buy the county's only newspaper as one that was inspired partly by the same sort of civic-mindedness that marked his earlier life in Ojai.

The previous newspaper owner wanted to sell out, and Barrett said he wanted to give Battle Mountain the kind of quality paper it needs. Barrett sees the purchase as a chance to add to his growing portfolio of companies and to help the community.

"This community deserves a quality paper, and that's what we are committed to giving them," Barrett said. He denied that his new role as the county's only publisher could benefit his brothel business.

"I'm not really motivated by money," he said. "It's the pleasure of starting something. Creativity. I really want to help Battle Mountain. It's a fascinating little town. It certainly would never lend itself to being thought of as picturesque. But I like the honesty here. We're not hypocrites."

Writing a History

But as much as the Barretts like Battle Mountain today, they do not know if they have found their final home yet, they said. Chuck Barrett is thinking of writing a history about his two brothels, focusing on the 1931 murder of one of the former madams, Doris Dunn.

"I don't know about the future," he said. "Right now there's an intensity to what we are doing. We have some further plans, mainly the addition of a mail-order business for our T-shirt operation. I'm the sort of person who gets very easily bored, but so far I haven't had time for that here."

Ginger Barrett said she is having the time of her life in Battle Mountain. She views the prostitutes who work for her as an extended family, she said, and has come to think of herself as a sort of den mother.

"I love it. What I love best is being able to provide a safe family atmosphere for the women," she said. "One thing I can say about the brothel business, however, is that we wouldn't want to stay in it for more than 10 years.

"You can get burned out doing this, and you want to be able to get out before you reach that point."

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