The La Grange Chicken Ranch

It’s Wild-Card Wednesday.  That means anything can happen.  Today, we’re going to talk about a famous brothel that operated for many decades–some say more than a century*–in La Grange, Texas.

*A prostitution ring was in evidence in La Grange as early as 1844.  It ran out of a hotel in downtown La Grange.  A widow named Mrs. Swine managed three women from New Orleans out of the hotel lobby.  Business was conducted in a rented room.  The entrepreneurs were run out of town during the Civil War for being Yankee sympathizers. 

The Chicken Ranch of La Grange has been immortalized in song, on stage, and in film.

In 1973, ZZ Top recorded “La Grange,” which has been one of their most successful songs.  It rose to #41 on the Billboard Pop Singles List in 1974.  Rolling Stone named “La Grange” number seventy-four on their 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of all Time.

Give it a listen:

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was first a musical that opened in 1978.  It was made into a movie that starred Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton in 1982.

Here’s the synopsis (courtesy of wikipedia):

A brothel has been operating outside of fictional Gilbert, Texas for more than a century. It is under the proprietorship of Miss Mona Stangley, having been left to her by the original owner. While taking care of her girls, she is also on good terms with the local sheriff, Ed Earl Dodd. When crusading television reporter Melvin P. Thorpe (based on real-life Houston news personality Marvin Zindler) decides to make the illegal activity an issue, political ramifications cause the place to be closed down.

Watch the trailer:

As is usually common, fiction and reality share a few key elements.

  • The Chicken Ranch operated illegally but was known and tolerated by the lawmen and citizens.
  • The madam of the chicken ranch shared a close relationship–though probably not a romance–with law enforcement officials.
  • The Chicken Ranch was closed due to efforts by an investigative journalist.

This simplified version barely scratches the surface of a fascinating history.  The truth, while not as pretty as fiction, is sometimes a lot more interesting.

Appearances are not everything.  That neat Victorian style farmhouse in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

was a far cry from the real Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas.

Fun Factoid:  The house used for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was also used as a set for House of 1000 Corpses and The Ghost Whisperer.

The real Chicken Ranch–1937

The real Chicken Ranch was a typical Texas farmhouse with whitewashed siding and some outbuildings.  As business expanded, rooms were cobbled onto the house in a haphazard fashion.

The brothel that would later become the Chicken Ranch came into existence somewhere around 1905.   Miss Jessie Williams–whose real name was Faye Stewart–bought a house in La Grange and established a brothel there.  It quickly became known as a nice place that catered to politicians and lawmen and didn’t serve drunkards.

Around 1915, a crusade against houses of ill-repute began to take shape.  Miss Jessie bought ten acres outside La Grange.  This location is the one where the famous Chicken Ranch operated.  It is just two blocks from the Houston-Austin highway.

Miss Jessie and Employees

In 1917, the Chicken Ranch began advertising via mail.  Business boomed.  The local sheriff began a practice of visiting the madam each evening to see if any clients had boasted of crimes and to find out the local gossip.

The Great Depression lowered the price of everything, including sexual services.  Because so few people had money, Miss Jessie was forced to take goods for services.  The price was one chicken per sexual act.  That’s how the place became known as The Chicken Ranch.

In 1946, a new sheriff came took over.  Business went on as usual with one change: the new sheriff had a phone line installed at the chicken ranch.  That way, he could call and get the scoop instead of making a daily visit.

In the 1950s, Jessie Williams retired.  Edna Milton purchased the business and renamed it Edna’s Fashionable Ranch Boarding House.

In the ranch’s heydey, it employed sixteen prostitutes.  Ms. Milton ran the business much as Miss Jessie had.

The rules for the working girls were

  • No drinking
  • No tattoos
  • No visiting bars or cafes in town (in other words, no fraternizing with the locals)

Prostitutes were photographed and fingerprinted as a prerequisite for beginning work at the chicken ranch.  After employment began, they were required to visit a doctor once a week for a checkup.

Edna Milton maintained good relations with the community by purchasing goods from local merchants on a rotating basis.  Milton also contributed to civic causes and became one of La Grange’s largest philanthropists.

Alternate angle of the Chicken Ranch

The charge for services was $15 for fifteen minutes.  The girls were required to turn over seventy-five percent of their earnings to Ms. Milton for room, board, and medical expenses.  At its peak in the 1960s, the ranch earned $500,000 a year.  The “girls” kept as much as $300 a week for themselves.

At Texas A & M, visiting the Chicken Ranch was apparently a rite of passage.  Read one young man’s account.

The Chicken Ranch — 1973

Nothing lasts forever.  In 1972, the Texas Department of Public safety surveilled the ranch for two days and observed nearly five hundred customers entering the ranch.  Texas Department of Public safety asked local law enforcement to close the Chicken Ranch, and they complied.  The Ranch was open again in just a few days.

In 1973, Houston television reporter Marvin Zindler began an investigation into the Chicken Ranch.  At the time, he claimed it was on an anonymous tip.  Later, he admitted the tip was from the Texas Attorney General.  The Chicken Ranch was suspected of being part of an organized crime ring of brothels.

Because the local authorities would not help, the Attorney General’s office hoped a television personality could make the issue public enough to close down the Chicken Ranch.  The ploy worked.  The Governor of Texas got involved.  After a very brief investigation, the ranch was shut down for good.

To read a more detailed account of Zindler’s investigation, click here.

Outside the Chicken Ranch, a sign was displayed naming the guilty party:

It was the end of an era.  For two years after the closing, potential customers visited the ranch in hopes of buying some companionship.

The house was purchased by private individuals from Houston.  In 1977, part of the house and original furniture was moved to Dallas and made into a restaurant.  The restaurant featured Edna Milton as a hostess.  It closed in 1978.

This is what is left of the famous Chicken Ranch of La Grange:

If you’re a legend tripper, the GPS coordinates are 29.91335 / -96.83475.  Warning: this is private property.

Thank you for your interest in this article. I often receive requests for further information on these articles. Please understand my knowledge of this topic is limited to what you’ve read in this article. I have no plans to update or expand these articles. I am currently focusing on my fiction writing career and am no longer writing or researching for non-fiction articles. If you’re interested in seeing what I write, please check out the My Fiction page on this website or visit my Amazon Author Page on amazon.com. 

39 thoughts on “The La Grange Chicken Ranch

    • Hey, get this: the other price for services was something like $1.50 per sexual act. In the first-hand account I linked to, the price was $8.00. Can you believe that?

  1. Well, being that my husband’s last name is “Delagrange” I know he’s going to love this post! Great details about this brothel, Catie, and I loved the pictures. This is the second one I’ve read today. I think Jess wrote one today as well about the prostitutes of yesteryear.
    Thanks for a well-done history lesson. I wish there had been such interesting history lessons in my school when I was young.
    Patti

    • Patti, I’m so glad you enjoyed the pictures. The were the most time consuming part of this post. It was no trouble to find one or two pictures, but finding this many was tough.

      I did read Jess’s post. It was very well-written. I’ve had that book in my TBR pile for a year. I think she inspired me to get my hiney in gear and read it.

      I’d be curious to know what your husband thought of this post. :D Thanks for stopping by.

  2. The first time I heard about The Chicken Ranch was from the Burt Reynolds/Dolly Parton movie, When The Chicken Ranch first opened, houses of ill repute were a normal part of society and I imagine most women put on blinders as to their existence so I probably would’ve done the same. Fascinating history, Catie. Thanks for sharing.

    • Interesting point, Sheila. I’d be curious if the sexual revolution of the 1960s made them an anachronism or if it was something else. Incurable diseases? More options for women?

      I’d have definitely not protested the Chicken Ranch’s existence…especially if they supported my business. LOL

  3. What gets me is that they had MEDICAL benefits. These women were more cared for then most and while some may disagree with their choice of profession, sex is a natural part of the human experience. Another interesting tidbit, it that prostitutes, madams and brothels footed the bill to build much of the infrastructure of the west. They knew it was good for business and had the connections to get decently priced contracts. In the end, that all changed and the states used their “moral advantage” to steal the efforts of these women.

    Excellent post, Catie. And, yes, I would have allowed them to do business.

    • Good point, Gene. All I saw was the practical side of the medical benefits–STD control and birth control. However, back then, it was probably an excellent perk. Most jobs didn’t provide medical benefits. Heck, I can remember not so many years ago when “insurance” was really only helpful is something catastrophic happened.

      Okay. I never knew about madams and the old west. It makes sense, but I never knew about it. This is when I wish I had paid more attention in history class instead of reading Stephen King books under my desk. :D

      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Fascinating post, Catie! Amazing that it lasted as long as it did before being shut down. Ohio outlawed prostitution in 1915, so it went pretty much underground then. Like Ms. Milton, the proprietor/madam of Dayton’s most well-known brothel (I can’t remember her name right now LOL) was a huge philanthropist, and her girls were very well-treated. As for business… hmmm, if it wasn’t causing problems and was bringing other business to me, I’d be hard-put to judge!

    • Ooooh, would you ever be willing to do the brothel in one of your My-Town Monday blogs? I’d love to see it. Especially pictures.

      I found the thing about Edna Milton being a philanthropist interesting. It was quite a genius idea. I’d have never thought to do that in her shoes. I can see where it made the community tolerate the brothel even more happily.

      And I totally agree with you. I wouldn’t care about the brothel being in town on principal alone. If they brought unsavory characters to the area or were otherwise nuisances, that would be an issue. The way they made their money would not.

  5. One chicken per sexual act – that is amazing. What a fascinating read! It’s amazing how cared for the women were, as Gene said, and he’s right, they did foot the bill to the west’s infrastructure. I loved the firsthand account, too.

    • That first-hand account was rather something, wasn’t it? I found myself wrinkling my nose but unable to quit reading. It was laugh out loud amusing at parts.

      One chicken per sexual act translated to $1.50 if you wanted to pay cash. I wonder what $1.50 would be in today’s money? And the first hand account paid $8.00 for his experience at the Chicken Ranch. Amazing.

  6. I LOVE this post! Doesn’t every Texan know a little something about the Chicken Ranch in La Grange? In fact, one of my high school teachers said he saw the place (after its closure, I think…I hope) and described to our class what it looked like. I’m sure none of us shared this information with our parents, and he was a terrific teacher! But I learned a lot more about the history of the ranch from your post. Oh yes, “La Grange” is definitely one of the best ZZ Top songs. Thanks, Catie!

    • How interesting about your high school teacher! I bet he went in college as a customer. LOL I really, really wanted to find a picture of the interior online to share with y’all, but I never did.

      ZZ Top is pure Texas….as much as Sir Douglas Quintet…and Pantera…and Willie Nelson. Texas is so diverse. I never realized that until we started taking our vacations in our home state. We see stuff that I can’t believe I’m seeing in Texas. Anyway, I digress.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  7. on ,
    lynnkelleyauthor said:

    Thanks for the ZZ Top song. That’s one of my husband’s favorites! I had no idea that’s what the song was about! What an interesting and informative post. Edna looks like everybody’s sweet grandma. Who woulda thunk? I love all the photos that you added. Melvin Zindler looks like a real dweeb. He’d make a great character in one of our stories, wouldn’t he? Oh, and I love how the ranch got its name. That’s pretty funny. Would I have looked the other way if it helped my business? Depends how desperate I was. If my family was starving, I’d probably look the other way, but being the mother of a son, I’d have mixed feelings. And I sure wouldn’t want to live or have my business next door to the ranch!

    Oh, I just told my husband about your post and how I didn’t know that’s what the ZZ Top song was about and he laughed and couldn’t believe I didn’t know that. Then he started singing the words, “They got some nice girls–haha!” Now he’s telling me that “House of the Rising Sun” is the same thing and said I live in a sheltered world and blah, blah, blah. He thinks he’s funny. Sorry I said anything to him. Haha!

    • Personal curiosity inspired me to dig up Edna Milton’s picture. It was very important to me to see what she looked like. Marvin Zindler was a very flamboyant Houston TV personality. He later went back to La Grange after the Chicken Ranch was closed down and tried to interview Sheriff T.J. Flournoy. Flournoy got angry and broke two of Zindler’s ribs and snatched his toupee off his head. LOL

      I knew about “House of the Rising Sun” and have actually walked past the site in New Orleans where it once operated. New Orleans has a super interesting history of prostitution and brothels.

      As for turning a blind eye, I probably would unless the Chicken Ranch folks were noisy or nuisance neighbors. I’d much rather have quiet people who did something I didn’t like than a houseful of partiers who had a beer bash every weekend and we so loud I couldn’t hear my TV in my house. I’ve had both and much preferred the quiet ones.

      Thanks for stopping by. :D

  8. Great post, Catie. Edna Milton certainly didn’t look like the cliche madam, did she? She looked the picture of respectability. Just goes to show you can never judge a book by the cover (:

    • You never can judge a book by its cover. Edna Milton obviously had some natural business sense. She bought the Chicken Ranch from the original madam when she was something like twenty-seven years old. She really made a go of it. Thanks for stopping by. :D

  9. Very interesting- as always! Personally I believe sex work should be legal- because a nice little brothel like that is much better then crack whores on the streets. Also I think it’s stupid for prostitution to be a crime, how many centuries are we going to keep something illegal that ins;t going to go away? There were brothels in ancient Greece hello- it’s not called ht eoldest profession for nothing.
    Anyway fun post!

    • Alica, I sort of wonder why it’s illegal, too. I’m sure there’s some factor I’m just not getting. However, making prostitution illegal seems to make it a breeding ground for other illegal activity–drug use, human sex trafficking, etc. I might be wrong about this, but I think prostitution is legal in Amsterdam.

      Thanks for stopping by and for your insightful comment. :D

  10. I LOVE Dolly Parton so I hope everyone runs out and rents Best Little Whorehouse in Texas right away!

    And no tattoos! Well Catie, we better hope this writer thing pans out. :)

    Great post! And great minds do think alike. We shall now dub this day Brothel Wednesday! Tune in for Burlesque Thursday, Strip Tease Friday, and Granny Panties Saturday, ooops Saturday will have a pre-post of Laundry Time With Jess and Catie! We’ll have all our readers’ knickers in knots!

    • Jess–My mouth sort of fell open when I read “no tattoos.” Then I remember that tattoos used to really be considered a mark of the dregs of society. I’ve heard it put that only criminals and trashy people sported them. The only reputable people who were allowed to have tattoos were soldiers.

      Your proposed blogging schedule had me howling. Thanks for stopping by. :D

  11. Have to admit, prior to your post, my knowledge of The Chicken Ranch was limited to what I’d learned from watching THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS. And now I know the rest of the story! When am I going to learn that Hollywood doesn’t tell everything? :)

    An aside, on my last pilgrimage back to the house I’d grown up in it was revealed to me the old place had been a house of ill repute back in the late 1800s. Not quite as famous as the Chicken Ranch, though, but oh, of those walls could talk! :)

    Thanks again, Catie, for another great history lesson (where were you when I was in high school? I might have enjoyed History class more if we had lessons like this!)

    • I’ve heard the term “telescoping” for how Hollywood reports true events. They take the big points and the story is about those. So on The Best Little Whorehouse, the story became about a tolerated house of prostitution being shut down by the efforts of an investigative reporter. All the cool details–like one chicken per sexual act–got lost in the shuffle.

      Very cool about the house you grew up in! I’d love to see a blog post on it if you’re game.

      If you’d known me in high school, all I’d have taught you was how to read Stephen King under your desk. History in school just wasn’t very interesting, was it? Thanks for stopping by. :D

  12. I’m still wondering what they did with all those chickens. Can you imagine how many chickens a day they would bring in?

    Every gold strike had miners who were grub-staked by prostitutes. I don’t doubt Gene’s statement.

    • Interesting thought. It couldn’t have taken that many chickens to feed them all. Perhaps they did catering, too?

      Thanks for stopping by.

  13. I never knew that “Best Little Whorehouse” had a basis in a real place – I always learn something new and different when I visit your blog : )!

  14. Pingback: The End is Near (and we deserve it). . . . Police Crash Cars While Showing Off for Chinese « Author Piper Bayard

  15. Hi Catie. I enjoyed the ZZ Top song as I read the Chicken Ranch’s fascinating history. I think the local police probably viewed it as a business minding their business, providing a service and paying taxes/making charitable donations to the community.

    I liked the photos and laughed when I saw the old building caving in on itself. Don’t know why I thought it was funny. Maybe subconsciously I’m relieved it’s no longer a reality of life in that little town.

    • Glad you enjoyed the song. Are you sure you’re not an honorary Texan?

      I agree with what you said about law enforcement. As long as the Chicken Ranch caused them no problems, I am sure they were glad to look the other way.

      As for the pictures, I am disappointed I didn’t find any of the interior during the brothel’s heyday.

      Thanks for stopping by. :D

  16. on ,
    Mark said:

    Lived in La Grange for a while, and I had the opportunity to do a lil research, Had one old fella tell me he used to go out there every Saturday night, and how he missed it. What amazes me is according to my research, there were parts of the true story of the Chicken Ranch. The location was obviously changed. What is left out is that there was a sister brothel in SEALY, right off I-10, and the framework of the building still stands, minus a roof. Both were closed down on the same day–but Sealy had a motel go up with an interesting name–THE RANCH–and an interesting, to say the very least, reputation, even to the present day. What the movie also leaves out is that business did not stop when they closed the Chicken Ranch. It went to a local motel as well. There are other sister brothels that came from the Chicken Ranch–notably in Wharton. and a few other cities. It is my opinion….and only that….that to some degree, organized crime was involved. But I think the circumstances of the closure of the Chicken Ranch deserve some closer inspection. I’ll leave it there.

  17. on ,
    Marv said:

    Fascinating story! Curious – how did you ever find the GPS coordinates?

    • There is a book called The Crime Buff’s Guide to Outlaw Texas, which has GPS coordinates for a BUNCH of famous sites. Thanks for stopping by.

      • on ,
        Mark said:

        Don’t kn ow if you heard or not, but Edna Milton passed away this week. Interestingly, her personal lawyer passed away on almost the same day. I knew him. He never said a word or gave away her secrets.

  18. If you ever get a chance to see The Best Little Whorehouse on stage, do it, Catie. The Burt Reynolds movie is but a pale shadow of the production that won Tony Awards on Broadway. And while the play runs fast and loose with the facts, it’s far more accurate to what transpired than the film. I’ve done a little research into this whole Chicken Ranch thing, see. ;-)

    • I will do that. It has been YEARS since I went to watch any kind of play. I used to enjoy that so much. Thanks for stopping by.