Fort Smith Brewing Company
Pearl Starr Saison
Fort Smith, AR
At the beginning of the 19th century, the U.S. was made up of 16 states, all of which either bordered the Atlantic Ocean or sat just inland from the coast. Land that now makes up much of the South and Midwest was considered American territory but remained largely unexplored and unpopulated by non-Native Americans. The purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 nearly doubled the size of the U.S. by adding land that reached as far west as the Rocky Mountains. As strange as it might sound today, Americans once referred to these undeveloped lands (like present-day Michigan, Minnesota, Kansas, Arkansas, or Mississippi) as the “West”, or even the “Wild West”. Over time, these territories became more defined and new states joined the Union but the region still remained largely undeveloped and lacked much of the amenities found in eastern states, including law enforcement. Fort Smith was established on the western edge of present-day Arkansas in 1817 and the town of Fort Smith grew around it. Even though the town was continually occupied by soldiers (or maybe because it was) Fort Smith became one of the roughest, toughest and most unruly Wild West towns in American history, a history that is remembered every day at Fort Smith Brewing Company.
Fort Smith became famous for its lawmen, lawbreakers, judges, scoundrels and prostitutes, and is now the forever resting place of dozens of legendary outlaws as well as the officers and judges that ordered them to hang. For decades, the town had an “anything goes” attitude which inevitably caused many vagrants and ne’er-do-wells to come to the area and many of these men like to frequent the town’s many bordellos, especially the one run by Pearl Starr.
Rose Lee Reed (1868-1925), aka Pearl Starr, was born in Missouri to one of the most infamous women in the history of the Wild West: Belle Starr, also known as the “Bandit Queen”. Belle Starr was a notorious outlaw who became famous for touring with the James-Younger gang, named after the James brothers (Frank and Jesse) and the Younger brothers (Cole, Jim, John and Bob). Belle once claimed that Cole Younger was Pearl’s father, but no one knows for sure. Belle married a Cherokee Indian named Sam Starr in 1800 but he was killed in a gunfight soon after and then she ended up being the victim of a legendary unsolved murder only a few years later.
Dime store novels about the adventures of Belle Starr made her famous and Rose Reed attempted to cash in on her mother’s notoriety by changing her name to Pearl Starr. Her brother, Edwin, was arrested and imprisoned in 1889 for bootlegging whiskey to local Indians and Starr attempted to get the charges dropped but had no luck. She moved to Van Buren, AR in 1891 and began working as a prostitute at Madam Van’s bordello where she was considered to be one of the most beautiful and sought-after women in the area. After a short time, she took her savings and moved to Fort Smith where she opened her own bordello, a practice that was not only legal but actually quite prominent in the town.
Pearl’s Place sat along what was known as “The Row”, a red-light district. It was filled with bordellos, saloons and places to gamble away paychecks, and her business became quite popular. The building was appropriately identified by a large red star that was surrounded by lighted pearls and supposedly had “the most beautiful girls west of the Mississippi.” While many people will inevitably look down on Starr for running such a business, her skills as a pioneering businesswoman can not be denied.
Within a few years, Starr had relocated and upgraded Pearl’s Place and was also running multiple bordellos, saloons and slowly collecting real estate throughout Fort Smith. Her businesses were known for being of the highest quality, i.e., her saloons had the best piano players and whiskey, and her bordello’s had the finest ladies and accommodations. Starr would become a very wealthy woman, something very rare in early America, and would use her fortune to purchase a fine home as well as an expensive headstone for her mother’s gravesite. She even saved up enough money to put together a high-end defense team that managed to get her brother a presidential pardon; however, after her brother learned of how she got the money, he rejected her and any further generosity.
By the turn of the 20th century, people with more highly refined morals were moving into Fort Smith and both the city and state began to slowly crack down on lewd and violent behavior. Prostitution was banned in Fort Smith in 1916 but Starr didn’t quit the business. Instead, she hired lawyers to fight the new legislation and continued to operate for years to come. In fact, as the restrictions on brothels increased, many of them shut down, ultimately giving her even more business. She even responded to a wave of new bordello-oppressing laws by putting an even larger lighted star on the front of her building. Starr was finally arrested in 1921 and she decided that enough was enough. She closed down her businesses, changed her name and moved to Douglas, AZ where she would quietly spend the remainder of her life.
Not only is Pearl Starr remembered by Fort Smith Brewing Company’s Pearl Starr Saison, she is actually a feature of the Fort Smith National Historic Park located in downtown Fort Smith, AR and remains a legend among pioneering women of the Wild West.
From the Brewer: Pearl Starr Saison is highly carbonated, fruity, and spicy. Orange zest and coriander give it a very refreshing and comfortable taste for your palette. ABV 5.6%, IBU 18
Quentin Willard - Founder & Head Brewer