Just a few minutes chatting with Legend Jewelers owner Mark Priest and you know there’s more to his story than just jewelry. His southern accent lures you back to a distant time where men were gentlemen and ladies were lovely. His love of gemstones, geology and crystallography come rushing at you; like finding a natural spring in the middle of a dry land. But it is his connection to one of the most famous bordellos in recent history that makes your head turn.
That’s right, independent retailer Mark Priest is also the proud owner of what used to be Miss Hattie’s Bordello in San Angelo, TX. Known as the most famous bordello west of the Colorado River, Miss Hattie’s was so well-known that it’s been written into television scripts striving for period accuracy.
It wasn’t Mark’s dream to own one of the most famous bordello’s in early American history. He simply wanted to expand his store, which sat directly beside the vacant space formerly known as Miss Hattie’s on historic Concho Avenue in San Angelo. As a 30-year jewelry veteran Mark’s passion for gemology spans all stones, but his particular affinity for colored stones led him to a place where he had more merchandise than space.
“After working at Bart Mann Jewelers for 20 years I was ready to open a store of my own,” recalls Mark. “Mann Jewelers was primarily a custom shop where 80% of the work was custom orders. This is where I realized my interest in colored stones. Their romance and rarity intrigued me.”
Explaining his passion by stating that, “few things in nature can be improved by cutting them into pieces,” Mark opened Legend Jewelers in 1995. The area was experiencing a revitalization and it only took one year before Mark was ready to expand.
The building directly next to his became vacant and Mark knew the downstairs had changed hands several times. He also knew the upstairs was the original Miss Hattie’s Bordello.
“If you’re local here, you know of Miss Hattie’s. They love to talk about the lore around the bordello and they know and understand the significance of this establishment in relation to the development of San Angelo.”
After purchasing the building in 1997, Mark stumbled across remnants from the bordello in the rooms where the girls worked. A 48 star American flag was found under a bed. An old bottle of liquor, along with the owner’s business card, was uncovered behind the baseboards in the gambling room. Both items date back to the early 1900s.
Mark says he knew protection and preservation would be an important part of owning the historic building built in 1898.
“We knew we would be expanding into the downstairs and redesigning the retail area of the jewelry store as well as our shop. The upstairs, Miss Hattie’s, had been opened years earlier as a museum, but was in dire need of a face lift. The original bed frames and a nice selection of antique furniture were already in place.
“We removed anything plastic or resin. Everything is original to the time period now… even the clay poker chips from the 1920s. Miss Hattie’s was a very upscale place where lots of land deals took place so we wanted to duplicate that first-class image.”
The bordello opened around 1902 when the couple who owned the building divorced. She received the upstairs section of the building and he got the downstairs. After only a few months he left town and Miss Hattie’s opened for business. It remained enormously successful for 50 years until the Texas Rangers closed it down in 1952.
Mark has been very careful to keep Legend Jewelers and Miss Hattie’s Bordello two separate entities. While there is much to learned from stepping back in time to learn about life at the turn of the century, he is also keenly aware that the nature of the business elicits diverse reactions from people.
“My intent is to preserve and protect a very interesting aspect of San Angelo’s history,” states Mark. “The fact is, Miss Hattie’s not only existed, but operated for 50 years. On Saturday nights, this downtown area teams with people who gather to hear music, shop or eat dinner, just like they did 100 years ago. Miss Hattie’s was a part of that.”
Mark continues finding great love in his colored stones, diamonds and custom work. His Concho Pearls speak straight to the heart of his community as a custom piece offering unique qualities in each stone. His custom work still garners praise from his loyal customer base and he speaks with pride about the second generation of families who come to him for engagement rings.
And Mark, along with his wife, Lora, will continue to protect the rich history of San Angelo by maintaining Miss Hattie’s Bordello. It is their way of helping downtown revitalize itself back to the bustling city it once was. As Mark says, “If we don’t keep it up no one will and all of this rich history will disappear!”
One common tale of Miss Hattie’s: In its prime the local men came to town with their wives to shop. Stating they had banking to attend to, the men would leave their wives in the store, go across the street to the bank and follow the underground tunnel up to Miss Hattie’s. They then met back up with their wives as they finished shopping.
Fun Events at Miss Hattie’s: Mark and Lora host an annual Fall Lantern Party where attendees dress to the period (1920s) and enjoy food, drink and fellowship. Then at 10pm the Priest’s go through the building, light the old oil lanterns and turn off all electrical lights and finish the evening against the glow of the oil lamps. This recreates the atmosphere of the early ‘20s and gives a magical glow to the entire place.
Guided tours are held Tues/Wed/Thurs at 2pm and 4pm, Fri/Sat at the top of each hour. Cost is $6 per person.
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