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Dell Berke and the Yellow Hotel

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Mary Ada Fisher was born at Somerset, Ohio on July 5th, 1888, the fourth child and only daughter of John and Ameda Fisher. When Mary was 10, she moved with her family to North Dakota to settle the affairs of a deceased uncle. The Fisher family decided to stay and bought a homestead near Wolf Creek where John built the Fisher store and Post Office, which that became known as Fisher, North Dakota.

Wanting their daughter to get an education, the family sent 13-year-old Mary to Saint Bernard’s Academy in Grand Forks. As Mary matured, she found the strict religious environment too confining, and she rejoined her family, which had left Fisher and moved to Omemee, North Dakota.

Mary, or Marie as she now preferred to be called, worked at the Omemee train depot. There she met railroad conductor Stephen Law, and the two were soon married. Marie, 17 years old, was 15 years younger than Stephen. The newlyweds lived with Stephen’s over-bearing spinster sister. Unable to live under those conditions, Marie fled on her own to Canada and eventually found her way to Alaska. Taking odd jobs to make her way, the petite attractive redhead received much attention from men in the mining camps and began her life career as a “Soiled Dove.”

Marie changed her name again and was now “Dell Burke.” Her career took her to Montana and eventually to Casper, Wyoming. When Casper cracked down on alcohol and prostitution, Dell moved to Lusk, Wyoming and built a brothel known as “The Yellow Hotel” where Burke became a “madam” to provide a safe place for young ladies to work in the world’s oldest profession.

Burke had a head for business and soon the Yellow Hotel was thriving. Dell bought a ranch outside of Lusk and made wise investments. She also invested in the community, sponsoring city projects, made donations to the Churches and paid scholarships for local youth. When the city commission tried to shut her down, Dell reminded them that the city still owed her for financing the Lusk water and power plant! The Yellow Hotel stayed open!

The famous Yellow Hotel operated from 1919 to 1978. Dell Burke passed away a millionaire on this date in 1981 at the age of 93. When she died only kind words were said, even though she had operated an illegal business in Lusk for decades.

Dakota Datebook by Scott Nelson

Documentary, Dell Burke and her Yellow Hotel
Book, Good Time Girls of the Rocky Mountains by Jan Mackell Collins
Book, Frontier Madam: The Life of Dell Burke, Lady of Lusk by June Willson Read

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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