Sara Holodnick and Marissa McGrath have a passion for local history. In 2010, the two decided to share their passion for Bellingham lore by founding Good Time Girls, a series of three guided historical walking tours.
In December 2013, Holodnick and McGrath opened The Bureau of Historical Investigation, a gift shop doubling as the base of operations for the tours. The tours have gained notoriety over the years, but the duo still remembers the strange looks they would receive during their initial tours.
“When we first started people were like, ‘What are you? What is going on?’ because we dress in costume,” Holodnick said. “I remember giving our first tour; we were dressed in corsets, walking down Holly Street and somebody leaned out the side of the car and yelled, ‘What is happening?’”
Five years later, the tours have expanded in content material.
“We cover a wide range of topics, specifically about women and marginalized groups,” Holodnick said.
Currently, The Bureau has three different tours: the Sin and Gin Tour, the Gore and Lore Tour and Holly History Tour.
“I remember giving our first tour; we were dressed in corsets, walking down Holly Street and somebody leaned out the side of the car and yelled, ‘What is happening?’”
The Sin and Gin Tour focuses on the brothel and saloon history of Bellingham, while the Gore and Lore Tour focuses on murder mysteries, ghost legends and the history of transient populations in Bellingham.
Holodick said the Good Time Girls have recently designed The Holly History Tour to respond to the current political climate.
“The Holly History Tour has been really awesome for moments like right now with our political landscape,” Holodnick said. “We have been giving people an opportunity to see where they fit into history as they are trying to process what’s happening in the world right now.”
The tour focuses on different controversial aspects from Bellingham’s history, including topics like sexism and racism, that occurred when the town was first getting its start in the late 1800s through the early 1900s.
The Holly History Tour is led by Hayley Forney and Jane Burleigh. The duo have been working these tours from the very beginning.
One of the first topics Forney and Burleigh cover on the tour is the treatment of women in Bellingham in the 1800s and 1900s. During this time period, many women turned to sex work because it provided more financial stability than traditional jobs available to women at the time. Teachers earned about $50 a month, seamstresses earned $1.26 a week and women who worked in the cannery made $1.24 a week, compared to sex workers who worked in brothels and made $1 for every 15 minutes of service.
“We had a rampant illicit area where sex work was happening a lot as well,” Burleigh said. “The reason being for that, if you were a middle-class or upper-class man who wanted to see a sex worker, you wouldn’t be caught dead going into the red-light district. Everyone would know why you were there.”
At the time, sex work was legal and taxed by Whatcom County. In fact, 11 percent of the city’s budget came from money gathered from sex workers, Burleigh said.
The Horseshoe Cafe has been a staple in Bellingham since it opened in 1886, making it the longest continuously open restaurant in Washington. When the cafe first opened, it was one of the few businesses in town welcoming sex workers, Burleigh said.
In the 1800s and 1900s, the city of Bellingham had a law against street walking. This law kept women from going outside, shopping, restaurants and, most importantly, banks. Instead they would take their money and put it in a safe located inside of The Horseshoe Cafe.
Women could hang out there and drink knowing their money would be safe, Forney said.
For those who took part in the tour, the history of sex work in Bellingham came as a surprise.
Western alumna Zoey Ferenczy, 23, was visiting friends and decided to attend the tour with them.
“I had no idea that [Bellingham] had a big red light district down here or that there was a difference between the red light district that was legalized and the one that was not,” Ferenczy said.
One of the first documented instances of racism in the city were riots caused in response to a large Sikh population. In 1906, an influx of Sikh immigrants moved to Bellingham to work at the lumber mills, Forney said.
By 1907, there were about 200 Sikh immigrants living in Bellingham. The white population in the area became enraged because they thought they were losing jobs due to the immigrants, Forney said. Sikhs were attacked and dragged from their living quarters and places of employment.
Police did little to combat the violent hate crimes the Sikh immigrants were experiencing. The only action that was taken was rounding up all of the Sikh immigrants and putting them into the jail in City Hall, ostensibly for their own safety. The police force held them there until they could force them to leave town by train and go to British Columbia, Forney said.
No participants in the mob were ever prosecuted.
Another instance of racism in Bellingham was the large Ku Klux Klan presence that had offices downtown, located right above what is now Bayou on Bay, in the late 1920s early 1930s.
The Washington State Klan was part of the second wave of KKK activity in America. It was mostly founded by members from the Oregonian chapter, which had one of the strongest chapters in the country at the time.
Forney shared photos taken in 1926 of the Daughters of the KKK, dressed in their robes, as they walked down Cornwall Avenue.
The Klan didn’t have much to protest pre-World War II in the Northwest, so they turned attentions to other groups and became increasingly anti-Catholic and anti-foreigner.
For Ferenczy, going on the tour and learning the history didn’t change her opinion of Bellingham.
“The history is proof of how far we have come, and even though our history is pretty tainted we are definitely taking the steps forward,” Ferenczy said.
Forney and Burleigh said they are trying to make sure people are educated and don’t forget the way the city used to be.
“This is really important history that we should know and history that we should denounce,” Burleigh said.
At the end of this year, Holodnick and McGrath will close the shop, refocus and get back to what they love: providing the tours.
“The overhead of maintaining a physical location can be challenging if you’re wanting to actually make a living off of owning a business,” Holodnick said. “We’ve also determined that retail is not what our passion is: The history and the sharing of the stories is the bigger piece of it for us.”