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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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