Obituary Details

Dell Burke

(07/05/1888 - 11/04/1980)
Courtesy of The Lusk Herald, 11/13/1980

Dell Burke

Dell Burke, 93, long-time Lusk resident, died at the Niobrara County Nursing Home Nov. 4. The remains have been cremated.

The Herald is in the process of contacting a relative of Mrs. Burke for an obituary, but as of this Wednesday morning contact has not been made.

The Lusk Herald
Feature Article, Source date unknown
The lusty lady from Lusk

For most who attended the two day sale in Lusk 16 years ago, the crowd's chatter and sing-song patter of auctioneers gave the event a carnival air. That proved true, especially for those who peeked behind the red velvet drapes of the "Yellow Hotel" where a lucky few bought brass room keys, naughty-nighties, and other finery that belonged to a notorious woman they once snubbed. But for the late Dell Burke's friends, that August affair seemed more like a sordid wake.

Lusk's petite, auburn-haired beauty entered life as Mary Ada Fisher on July 5, 1888, in Somerset, Ohio, as the fourth child and only daughter of John and Almeda Fisher.

Ten winters later, while settling the estate of Mary's late uncle in the Dakota Territory, the Fishers became infected by the homesteading fever. They boarded a west bound train for Dakota and settled near Wolf Creek, where John built the Fisher Store and Post Office that became known as Fisher, N.D.

Several years later, lacking a local school, Mary's parents sent the 13 year old girl to St. Bernard's Academy at Grand Forks. There, she gained a sound elementary education from Ursuline nuns. But with the passage of puberty, the rapidly maturing "Marie"-as she preferred to be called-apparently found the strict religious environment too confining, so she returned home.

In the meantime, the Fishers sold their property. They moved to North Dakota, settling at Omenmee, about 20 miles west of their previous home. Marie, now 17, took a job clerking at the local depot, where she met Stephen J. Law, a Canadian freight conductor seven years her senior.

Newly wed

After stretching the truth and swearing her age to be 18, the couple wed Nov. 12, 1903, in Grafton, N.D. Moving into her new home there, she met the sister with whom her husband had long shared the house. But soon overwhelmed by Stephen's strong-willed sibling and fed up with his boasts that "Canadians are better than Americans," Marie left the following year to seek a life on her own.

Traveling northwest to Calgary, Alberta, in Canada, the young woman went to work at the famed resort hotel at Banff, where a smitten police chief and his son protected her from Stephen's pursuit. But when the officer's offspring turned overly amorous, she fled again, this time to Alaska.

At first, alone and desperate for money, she quickly profited handsomely from her dark good looks and men's vulnerability to her charms. In fact, while working her wiles in the bars of Juneau that year, Marie not only made $10,000, but snared a gold and diamond ring from an eager suitor.

But when he became too possessive, she threw his gift into the icy Yukon River and returned to the United States. Following brief stays in Seattle and Portland, Ore., she moved to Butte, Mont., where she said she escaped a wealthy stock grower who tried to kidnap her.

Prostitution and Prohibition

Learning of Wyoming's famed Salt Creek Field Oil boom, Marie followed the trail of males and their money to Casper in late 1917 or early 1918. She and a girlfriend set up shop in time to celebrate the World War I armistice in the notorious Sandbar district.

Despite her early good fortune there, passage of local vice laws soon hampered her trade, while the advent of Prohibition left the Cowboy State dry.

Unhappy with such restraints, she again hit the road, this time to Lusk, where a populace of 10,000 bobbed on the crest of a new oil wave at nearby Lance Creek.

Arriving there in early 1919, with her health and good looks still intact, the 30 year old "soiled dove" found herself in the midst of more men then she could easily count.

So "Dell Burke" as she now called herself, and a friend immediately set up a tent in which they served their customers. Years later, she told a reporter, "I thought the name of the place was Lust. That's one of the reasons I came.

About a year later-Jan. 5, 1920- Dell and Bessie Housley bought a stucco, two story structure near the railroad tracks at 219 West First St. From its freshly painted exterior, the bagnio derived its "Yellow Hotel" nickname

On the first floor, a center hall divided the building into a Westside waiting room, ballroom, bar, toilet and laundry. Dell's modest apartment-including a parlor, living room, bedroom, bath and kitchen-dominated the east side of the building.

The upstairs housed 10 bedrooms, each equipped with a sink, low-watt lamp, and wrought iron bed that, like magic, turned her girls' come-hither looks and smiles into cold hard cash.

Despite Dell's success or, perhaps because of it, Prohibition sensitive lawmen regularly busted her business, not only for alcohol - related crimes, but also for lewdness, prostitution, and gambling.

Determined to survive that onslaught, she concocted a scheme upon learning in 1929 the Lusk Light and Power Department's engine and generator failed, leaving the city without light and water. As city fathers struggled to find the $22,300 replacement equipment, Dell came to the rescue with a personal loan, which they later repaid at 6 percent interest.

Although legend has it that local authorities thereafter cut her a wide swath for fear she might cut off their water - literally as well figuratively - that is not true.

On the contrary, Sixth District Court Judge C. O. Brown not only convicted her on March 11, 1930, for violating the liquor laws, but authorized an injunction that closed the Yellow Hotel business.

Authorities let her reopen the establishment that Dec. 31, and Prohibition ended. Dell met with no further official interference. No longer threatened, railroaders, hunters and servicemen, among others, again swarmed the Yellow Hotel to dance with her honeys and munch on Wyoming's prime steaks.

"I had an orchestra in my place for years," she claimed, as well as a "Chinese cook, who served the best meals in the county.

As her clientele's greenbacks circulated in the local economy, they sometimes had a most peculiar effect.

As a former bank employee recalled, "You know most money is dirty. But Dell and her girls always wore perfume and the money they brought into the bank always made the place smell wonderful."

In addition to her business acumen, Dell also had a strong sense of propriety and benevolence. For example, she shut down her business promptly at midnight Monday through Saturday and, out of respect for churchgoers, kept the hotel closed each Sunday.

To protect clients, as well as the girls, she hired local physicians to regularly inspect and treat her staff. Although she toughly treated employees who drank too much or became obnoxious, she took them periodically to her 415 acre ranch east of Lusk, where they lounged on the patio, eating steaks she grilled for them on her barbecue. And their children fondly remember her gifts.

Others, too, benefited from her generosity. She supported nearly every local civic cause and some claim her name appeared at the top of nearly every charity's donor list.

Oil Boom Busts

But when the local oil boom faded into the 1940's, Dell's business, too hit the skids. Having invested smartly in real estate and blue chip stocks, however, she luxuriated in that leisure by spending more time traveling and entertaining friends.

The good life ended, however, on Aug. 4, 1979 when the aging woman tripped and fell on the sidewalk in front of her hotel, breaking a hip. Following treatment at a Scottsbluff hospital, her physician had her brought back to Lusk and taken to Niobrara County Memorial Hospital.

Once her condition stabilized, she moved into the nursing home wing.

But Dell had not lost her snap, telling a well-intentioned matron, who stopped by to read the Bible to her, "Get the hell out of my room!! and turn on the T.V. as you leave."

Despite an occasional flash of irascibility, Dell claimed, "I wouldn't trade my life for anything. I've made a lot of money. Traveled the world. For me it's been a good life."

Good indeed. When the 93 year-old died in her small hospital room in 1981, the value of her estate totaled $1.3 million. But despite her wealth, no one held a memorial service. No one sent flowers. When her family heard of her death, they simply had her cremated, her ashes strewn by the Wyoming wind across the land she loved so much.

Images & Attachments

Dell Burke

Related/Linked Records

Record Type Name
Historical Niobrara County History Series, Part 3 View Record
Historical Dell Burke View Record
Business Lusk Light and Power Plant View Record
Business Hotels: Yellow Hotel View Record
Historical Quilt Squares - Dell's Yellow Hotel View Record