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The Chicken Ranch was an illegal but tolerated brothel in the U.S. state of Texas that operated from 1905 until 1973. It was located in Fayette County about 2.5 miles east of downtown La Grange. The business was established by Miss Jessie Williams, and was the basis for the 1978 Broadway musical and later movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
The brothel that became the Chicken Ranch opened in La Grange in 1844. Run by a widow known as "Mrs. Swine," the brothel operated out of a hotel near the saloon and featured three young women from New Orleans, Louisiana. The ladies used the hotel lobby for entertaining and rented a room upstairs for conducting their business. The brothel was successful for over a decade, but was forced to close during the Civil War, when Swine and one of her prostitutes were forced to leave town as Yankees and American loyalists. After the war, prostitution was endemic in the local saloons, but no official records were kept.
In 1905, Jessie Williams, known as "Miss Jessie," 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 and ensured that her house was respectable by excluding drunkards and admitting politicians and lawmen. After receiving word of an imminent crusade against the red-light district, Williams sold her house and purchased 10 acres (40,000 m2) just outside the city limits of La Grange, and only two blocks from the Houston-Austin highway. This would be the final location of the Chicken Ranch.
In 1917, the Chicken Ranch began advertising. Under the direction of two sisters who worked in the house, the prostitutes would send packages and letters to local men fighting in World War I. The advertising, as well as an increase in the number of people with automobiles, who could therefore travel further, helped to increase the traffic flow to the brothel. New rooms were added onto the house haphazardly to meet the demand. The brothel "looked like a typical Texas farmhouse, with whitewashed siding and a few side buildings," which held the chickens. The entrance was located in the back of the house, and led to a house with fourteen rooms. No lights or signs indicated that the building housed a brothel.
Every evening, the local sheriff, Will Loessin, would visit the Chicken Ranch to learn the latest gossip and find out if any of the patrons had boasted of crimes. Many local crimes were solved with information gained from these visits. Inside the house, Williams ensured that no further crimes occurred. She often paced the halls, and if she heard anything that suggested one of the customers was bothering a prostitute, Williams would chase him out of the house with an iron rod in her hand.
During the Great Depression, Williams was forced to lower the prices she charged. As the Depression lingered, the number of customers dwindled, and Williams had difficulty making ends meet for her employees. She implemented the "poultry standard," charging one 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.
In 1946, a new sheriff, T.J. Flournoy, took office. He immediately had a direct telephone line installed at the Chicken Ranch so that he could continue his predecessor's tradition of gaining information from the brothel, but without the hassle of traveling to the brothel each evening.
Williams began suffering from acute arthritis in the 1950s, and in 1952 turned over the running of the ranch to a young prostitute named Edna Milton. After Williams died in 1961, Milton purchased the property, which she officially renamed Edna's Fashionable Ranch Boarding House. Milton maintained many of Williams's rules for the girls. They were prohibited from drinking or getting tattoos, and were not allowed to visit the bars or cafes in town. Before beginning their employment, the prostitutes were fingerprinted and photographed by Flournoy and underwent a background check. After beginning work, they were required to see the doctor in town weekly for a checkup. 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.
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. One base supplied a helicopter for soldiers to use for transportation to the ranch. Students at Texas A&M University also made an unofficial tradition of sending freshmen to the Chicken Ranch for inititation. The Chicken Ranch was preferred because many of the girls were allegedly University of Texas coeds.
Each prostitute would have between five and twenty customers per day. In the 1950s, they were charged $15 for fifteen minutes ($131 in today's terms). 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 ($3.7 million in today's terms), with the prostitutes keeping an additional $300 per week for themselves ($2,200 in today's terms).
In November 1972, the Texas Department of Public Safety surveilled the Chicken Ranch for two days, documenting 484 people entering the Chicken Ranch. At the request of a member of the Texas DPS intelligence team, local law enforcement closed the Chicken Ranch down 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. Then Zindler stepped in to shed more light on the operation, which led to its being closed for good.
In 2005, during the interview with KTRK News in Houston, Zindler said: "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." Tim James was in the office when Attorney General Hill asked Fayette County District Attorney, Oliver Kitzman, to close the Chicken Ranch. Hill explained the interest of the DPS and the Attorney General had in seeing that any organized crime was shut down. The response from Kitzman was, '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,' said the DA. Hill then told Zindler, that he was paraphrasing a little bit, but basically what Kitzman told Hill was, 'And if you or your people come down here, I'll be the one investigating you!' That's when the Attorney General Hill suggested that Zindler be called.
Tim 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." Sheriff T.J. Flournoy, who had overseen 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 Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe about the matter. After a very brief investigation, which found no evidence of a link to organized crime, Briscoe and Texas Attorney General John Hill ordered the Chicken Ranch to be permanently closed.
The actual closing was very painless. 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. Flournoy then went to Austin to meet with the governor, armed with a petition opposing the closure and carrying 3,000 signatures. Briscoe refused to meet with him.
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 in 1978.
In 1979, Miss Edna opened a bar on Lemon Avenue in Dallas also named The Chicken Ranch. Business was not good, and the bar closed sometime in 1980.