I’m traveling across mid-America.
Destination? St. George, Utah. Starting point? Middle of Nowhere, Michigan. First night’s stop? Hurley, Wisconsin, and all its hype.
If you locate Hurley on a map, you will find it at the far western tip of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, just over the state line. Hurley is a quirky little town if you buy into the hype and looks even quirkier if you talk to residents about the hype.
Hurley’s last official census listed the population as 1,523, small by almost any standards. Its tag line in the promotional material is “Four seasons of fun at the top of Wisconsin.” Nestled near the shores of Lake Superior, this isn’t hard to imagine. Another of its claims to fame is that in 2005, Hurleyites set the Guinness Record for the longest ATV parade with 687 vehicles stretched over a two-mile span. That’s impressive.
There is another face of Hurley, however, that floats just beneath the surface of the Chamber of Commerce’s image of good, clean family fun available any time of year.
In downtown Hurley, which is approximately four blocks long and two blocks wide, there are 13 bars and grills. In what the locals refer to as “the lower block,” there are seven strip clubs. Yep, you read that right. It seems this is one kind of fun not limited to any specific season of the year.
And yes, I’m more than a little uncomfortable writing about the exploitation of women for what can only be assumed to be less than minimum wage. There is just something, however, that is oddly demented about what is happening in a little burg just off the highway that traverses Wisconsin and Minnesota. I was tempted to check out a club or two, but dear husband would have none of it, and I didn’t want to go it alone. Instead, we went to the one bar in the lower block that was not a strip club. Known as the Dawn’s Never Inn, we had been assured it was a legitimate business. At least now. In its time, shortly after it was built in 1924, it was a hangout for gangsters and prostitutes. Among others, Ralph Capone, Al’s uncle, was said to be a regular. Hype, maybe.
Despite its name, Dawn, the owner, was actually in at the inn and served us from behind a massive mahogany bar laden with intricate carvings. She said that rumor has it that all bars that existed during prohibition (1920–33) were connected by underground tunnels enabling gangsters to retreat if the FBI, or revenuers decided to raid the town. Given the number of drinking establishments in Hurley, it is shocking the place hasn’t caved in on itself with that number of tunnels running under the buildings in town.
Back to Dawn, she keeps a picture of a woman named Ruby on the bar. It’s a small black-and-white framed shot of a woman dressed as I remember my mother dressed in that era: a slim, sharp cigarette coat, felt hat tilted backward on a head of curls, and shoes with chunky heels and ankle straps. The similarity with my mother ends there, though. Ruby was the first madam of the establishment. As Dawn put it, Ruby took care of the girls and watched after them. Wink, wink. I took that to mean she was the madam, but I suppose she could have been a house mother. Except that the housemother image doesn’t fit with the hype of Hurley.
Dawn has a second framed picture on the bar. This shows Ruby posing proudly with her new husband, Nuncio Santorelli. (You can’t make this stuff up. Dawn may have embellished her facts a bit, but this is Hurley.) After Nuncio married Ruby, the rooms on the second floor above the bar were converted to legit overnight rooms for the loggers. Nuncio insisted that Ruby retire from “the business.” Nuncio even ordered the bedroom buzzers, once used for signaling “customers” that purchased time had elapsed, be removed lest the loggers be accidentally aroused from their much needed night’s rest.
There is a sad downside to Hurley, however, beyond the obvious. There is a pall of gloom on the streets here. So many bars, so few other businesses. Where do the kids go when they want to ride their bikes downtown?
And yet, there is the history of a heyday at a time when people knew where Hurley was and what it was known for. So you can’t blame them for the hype.