Chicken Ranch (Texas)

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Coordinates: 29°54′48″N 96°50′05″W / 29.91339°N 96.83475°W / 29.91339; -96.83475

The Chicken Ranch was an illegal brothel in the U.S. state of Texas that operated from 1905 until 1973. It was located in Fayette County, about 2.5 miles (4.0 km) east of downtown La Grange. The business served as the basis for the 1973 ZZ Top song "La Grange", and the 1978 Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, as well as its 1982 film adaptation.

Early history[edit]

The brothel that became the Chicken Ranch opened in La Grange, Texas, in 1844. Run by a widow known as "Mrs. Swine", the brothel operated in a hotel near the saloon, and featured three young women from New Orleans, Louisiana. The women under Swine's employment used the hotel lobby for entertaining, and rented a room upstairs for conducting business. The brothel was successful for over a decade, but closed during the Civil War when Swine and one of her prostitutes were forced to leave town as Yankees. After the war, prostitution was endemic in the local saloons, but no official records were kept.[1]

Miss Jessie Williams[edit]

La Grange, Texas, in 1908

In 1905, Jessie Williams, known as "Miss Jessie" (though born Faye Stewart)[2] bought a small house along the banks of the lower Colorado River and opened a brothel. Williams maintained a good relationship with local law enforcement: by excluding drunkards and admitting politicians and lawmen, she ensured that her house was tolerated. In 1917, after learning of an imminent crusade against the red-light district, Williams sold her house and purchased ten acres (40,000 m2) outside the city limits of La Grange, two blocks from the Houston–Austin highway.[3] This was the final location of the Chicken Ranch.[1]

In 1917, the Chicken Ranch began advertising. Under the direction of two sisters who worked in the house, the prostitutes sent packages and letters to local men fighting in WWI. The advertising, and an increase in automobile ownership, increased the traffic flow to the brothel, and new rooms were subsequently added to meet the increased demand.[1] The brothel "looked like a typical Texas farmhouse, with whitewashed siding and a few side buildings," which held the chickens.[4] The unlit brothel entrance was discreetly located at the back of the house, which featured 14 rooms. No external signage marked the brothel's presence within the house.[5]

Every evening, the local sheriff Will Loessin would visit the Chicken Ranch to learn the latest gossip and whether any patrons had boasted of crimes. Many local crimes were solved with information gained from these visits. Sheriff Loessin often paced the halls, and, using an iron rod, would eject patrons of the brothel for abuses toward its employed prostitutes.[1]

During the Great Depression, Williams was forced to lower her prices. As the Depression lingered, the number of customers dwindled and Williams had difficulty making ends meet for her employees. She implemented the "poultry standard", and charged one live chicken for each sexual act. The number of chickens at the brothel exploded, and soon the place became known as the Chicken Ranch. Williams supplemented her income by selling surplus chickens and eggs.[1]

In 1946, Jim T. Flournoy took office as sheriff. He immediately had a direct telephone line installed at the Chicken Ranch so that he could continue his predecessor's practice of gathering intel from the brothel, without having to travel there each evening.[1]

Edna Milton[edit]

Williams began suffering from arthritis in the 1950s, and in 1952 a young prostitute named Edna Milton came to the ranch and eventually took on many of the day-to-day responsibilities of operating the brothel. After Williams died in 1961, Milton purchased the property,[6] which she officially renamed Edna's Fashionable Ranch Boarding House.[5] Milton maintained many of Williams's rules for the girls. They were prohibited from drinking or getting tattoos and were not allowed to socialize with the residents of La Grange. Before beginning their employment, the prostitutes were fingerprinted and photographed by Flournoy and underwent background checks. After beginning work, they were required to see the doctor in town weekly for a checkup.[5] To encourage support from the townspeople, supplies were bought from local stores on a rotating basis. Milton also contributed to local civic causes, becoming one of La Grange's largest philanthropists.[1]

The Chicken Ranch was highly successful. In the 1950s, the Ranch employed sixteen prostitutes. On weekends there was often a line of men, mostly students or soldiers from nearby military bases, at the door. Students at Texas A&M University also made an unofficial tradition of sending freshmen to the Chicken Ranch for initiation.[1] The Chicken Ranch was preferred because many of the girls were allegedly University of Texas students.[5][7]

Each prostitute would have between five and twenty customers per day. In the 1950s, they charged $15 for fifteen minutes ($152 in today's terms).[1] The employees were required to give 75% of their earnings to Milton, who paid for all of their living and medical expenses. At its peak in the 1960s, the Ranch earned more than $500,000 per year ($4.3 million in today's terms), with the prostitutes keeping an additional $300 per week for themselves ($2,600 in today's terms).[5]

Edna Milton Chadwell died in Phoenix, Arizona, at the age of 82, on February 25, 2012.[8]

Closure[edit]

Houston journalist Marvin Zindler whose reporting led to the closure of the Chicken Ranch

In November 1972, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) surveilled the Chicken Ranch for two days, documenting 484 people entering the rural brothel. At the request of a member of the DPS intelligence team, local law enforcement closed the Chicken Ranch for a short time. It reopened, and in July 1973 Houston television reporter Marvin Zindler began an investigation of the Chicken Ranch. Zindler claimed for many years that he began the investigation because of an anonymous tip. Governor Dolph Briscoe closed the operation, only to have it open again after a few months. Zindler then shed more light on the operation, which led to the Ranch being permanently closed.[9]

Now, 25 years ago I told a little fib when I said I got into the act because of an anonymous tip. The tip was actually a phone call from the office of the Texas Attorney General John Hill. Hill asked the chief of his organized crime division Tim James to get me involved in closing the Chicken Ranch.

— Marvin Zindler in a 2005 interview[10]

Tim James[11] was in the office when Hill asked Fayette County District Attorney Oliver Kitzman to close the Chicken Ranch. Hill explained the interest the DPS and the Attorney General had in seeing that any organized crime was shut down. According to James, Kitzman responded: "There's nothing that the people in this county want to do about it, Mr. Hill. There's nothing that we're going to do about it. It's not of great concern to the people who've elected me." According to James, Kitzman then stated that he would investigate anyone that Hill sent to his district. The Attorney General then suggested that Zindler be called.[10]

James called Zindler in the hopes that the television personality could apply the right kind of pressure to get the Ranch shut down. Zindler interviewed Kitzman, who admitted to knowing about the Chicken Ranch, but claimed that he had never tried to close down the brothel because "we have never had any indication by anyone that these places are a problem to law enforcement."[10] Sheriff Jim T. Flournoy, who had been overseeing the La Grange area for 27 years, denied that the Chicken Ranch was involved in organized crime, and denied that he had been bribed to keep the place open. Zindler approached Governor Dolph Briscoe about the matter. After a very brief investigation, which found no evidence of a link to organized crime,[1] Briscoe and Hill ordered the Chicken Ranch to be permanently closed.[10]

On August 1, 1973, Flournoy called Milton and told her that she was no longer allowed to operate. A handmade sign on the building blamed Zindler for the closing.[10] Flournoy then went to Austin to meet with the governor, armed with a petition opposing the closure and carrying 3,000 signatures. Governor Briscoe refused to meet with him.[1]

Legacy[edit]

For two years after the Chicken Ranch was closed, potential customers continued to arrive. The house was purchased by two Houston lawyers. In 1977, part of the house and the original furniture were moved to Dallas, where it was opened as a restaurant, with Milton as the hostess; the restaurant closed a year later.[1] In 1979, Milton opened a bar on Lemmon Avenue in Dallas also named The Chicken Ranch; the bar operated for a short period and closed a year later.[12]

The Chicken Ranch was the basis for the 1978 Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and 1982 movie adaptation. It also inspired the ZZ Top song "La Grange".[13]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Pilcher, Walter F. "Chicken Ranch". Handbook of Texas. Retrieved 2008-08-10.
  2. ^ "The Road To The Chicken Ranch". Texas Monthly. 2016-05-03. Retrieved 2019-12-21.
  3. ^ "The legend of the Chicken Ranch". UHCL The Signal. Retrieved 2019-12-02.
  4. ^ Staff, San Antonio Current. "9 Photos from 'Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch'". San Antonio Current. Retrieved 2019-12-02.
  5. ^ a b c d e Hensley, Laura (2001). "Best little kept secret". Bryan-College Station Eagle. Archived from the original on 2008-03-18. Retrieved 2008-08-10.
  6. ^ Freemantle, Tony (2012-03-01). "Last madam of the Chicken Ranch dies". San Antonio Express-News. Retrieved 2019-12-02.
  7. ^ Dent, Jim (1999). The Junction Boys. St. Martin's Griffin. p. 165. ISBN 0-312-26755-X. Retrieved 2008-08-10.
  8. ^ Freemantle, Tony. "Last madam of infamous Chicken Ranch has died." Houston Chronicle. February 29, 2012. Retrieved on February 29, 2012.
  9. ^ Popik, Barry (6 September 2005). "Chicken Ranch (or, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas)". Retrieved 30 December 2012.
  10. ^ a b c d e "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas". ABC-13 KTRK News. 2005. Archived from the original on 2007-12-02. Retrieved 2008-08-10.
  11. ^ "James, Tim". James & Hightower Attorneys At Law. Retrieved 13 March 2020. Agent-In-Charge of Organized Crime Unit – Texas Attorney General
  12. ^ "Governor Dolph Briscoe and the Chicken Ranch". Texas History Notebook. 2019-07-18. Retrieved 2020-02-16.
  13. ^ "Billy Gibbons Talks ZZ Top's Hit 'La Grange' During AXS TV's 'The Big Interview with Dan Rather'". AXS. Retrieved 2018-11-13.

Further reading[edit]

  • Blaschke, Jayme Lynn. Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse. Charleston: The History Press, 2016. ISBN 978-1-46713-563-4
  • Hutson, Jan. The Chicken Ranch: The True Story of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. San Jose: Authors Choice Press, 1980, 2000. ISBN 0-595-12848-3
  • King, Larry L. The Whorehouse Papers. New York: Viking Press, 1982. ISBN 0-670-15919-0
  • Agris, Joseph, M.D. White Knight in Blue Shades: The Authorized Biography of Marvin Zindler. Houston: A-to-Z Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-9712348-1-7
  • King, Larry L. Of Outlaws, Con Men, Whores, Politicians, and Other Artists. New York: Viking Press, 1980. ISBN 0-14-005755-2
  • Reinert, Al Closing Down La Grange Texas Monthly, October 1973