Ask Idahoans today what a hurdy-gurdy is, and most will have no idea. A few will probably know that a hurdy-gurdy was a kind of hand-cranked musical instrument popular in the 19th century.
But if you asked the question on the streets of any Idaho mining camp in the 1860s, anyone could tell you that a hurdy-gurdy was one of a number of young German girls brought to America in a troupe to entertain lonely men by dancing with them for a fee.
A typical hurdy company was made up of four girls, a married couple who acted as chaperones, and two or more musicians.
These were not the dance hall girls seen in so many Western movies, siren sisters of loose morals out to get the cowboys' money. When Statesman editor James Reynolds urged the 1864 Legislature to impose a tax on hurdy-gurdy girls, editor H.C. Street of the rival Idaho World of Idaho City implied that Reynolds was just being vindictive because he had probably been spurned by one of the dancing hurdies.
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This was typical of the running stream of insults the two editors exchanged, some of them so obscene they are unprintable today. You could count on these rival papers to take opposite sides of any question, but in this case Street seemed to speak with respect for these "wandering daughters [from] the sunny banks of the Oder, the Elbe, and the Rhine," and suggested that all Germans should take offense at Reynolds' slur against the hurdy-gurdy girls.
Former Gov. and Sen. William J. McConnell in his Early History of Idaho also defended the hurdies. McConnell, who was in Boise Basin in the 1860s, described what a hurdy-gurdy house was: "Saloons were more numerous in all mining towns than any other class of business, and as gambling was usually an adjunct, every possible effort was exerted to make them attractive. Talented musicians were employed at high salaries, and not infrequently girls, called 'hurdy-gurdies,' were engaged to dance with all comers who desired that kind of amusement at the nominal price of 50 cents per dance, and the drinks for self and partner, which cost 50 cents more, or one dollar net per dance.
"The girls were engaged by the proprietors of the 'social resorts' in sets of four, with a chaperone who accompanied them at all times. They were almost invariably German girls, and although they were brought into contact with rough people and sometimes witnessed even the shedding of human blood, the rude, generous chivalry of the mountain men, some of whom were always found in these resorts, was a guarantee of protection from violence, and strange as it may seem to those of modern times, these girls were pure women, who simply did the work they had bargained to do. ... The poor girls, and they danced only because they were poor, had kind hearts and wonderful patience and forbearance."
The 1870 census lists one "hurdie-gurdie" troupe at Granite Creek in Boise Basin, one in Florence, and another in Loon Creek. Although most of the hurdies had left Idaho's mining camps by that time, the makeup of the Granite Creek group, living at one address, is typical: Conrad Schneider, violinist, and his wife Catherine, natives of Hesse-Darmstadt, lived with their three children in a saloon and rooming house run by James Matthews. The company included two other male violinists, and four dancing girls aged 15, 17, 18 and 27. All were from Hessen or Prussia.
The hurdy-gurdy girls certainly filled a social need in Idaho's mining in the days when men outnumbered women seven or eight to one.
McConnell tells us that many of these girls saved their money, retired from dancing, married miners, raised families, and lived out their lives in Idaho City, Silver City or Boise Valley. They were respectable and respected pioneer women who contributed to the taming of the Idaho frontier.