If you have ever heard of the small town that is La Grange, chances are you know it due to the infamous history of the Chicken Ranch. Although many stories and rumors exist about the Chicken Ranch, the truth is much less inflammatory. But the truth is, the Chicken Ranch was the Oldest Continually Operating Non-Floating Whorehouse in the United States when it shuttered its doors in 1973.
In 1905, Miss Jessie Williams arrived from the Waco area after changing her name from Faye Stewart. Miss Jessie may be considered by some to have been a madam on an epic scale, a woman of rough-hewn country charm and shred backwoods tenacity. Having made a pact of mutual coexistence with law enforcement along with the security of financial prosperity, Miss Jessie abandoned the tattered downtown hotel they occupied and moved her business to the southeastern outskirts of town. In 1915, Jessie and a partner, Grace Koplan, purchased eleven acres of land on Rocky Creek Road. This became the permanent site of the Chicken Ranch.
Grace fell in love and moved away with her new husband after selling her part of the business to Jessie for $1200. Her last known residence was in Wichita Falls, where she worked as a waitress while her husband worked on the railroad.
In the early years, Miss Jessie’s house was a Texian version of the classic houses of New Orleans. Drinking and dancing took place in the front parlor while the latest music emanated from the Victrola. In 1919, a statewide prohibition amendment was approved. No one considered shutting down the prostitution, but the sheriff did ask that the drinking be curtailed.
Miss Jesse ruled the house with a firm hand. Nothing exotic was allowed, and none of the bedroom doors had locks on them. Miss Jesse would walk the halls and if she heard any customers giving her girls a hard time she would chase them out with an iron rod.
The Chicken Ranch supposedly got its name when the Great Depression hit. Though the Ranch had plenty of clients, times grew harder and income harder to obtain. Therefore, Miss Jesse began the “poultry standard” of charging “one chicken for one screw”. Soon chickens were everywhere and the establishment officially became known as the Chicken Ranch. The meat and the eggs provided the household with plenty of food and extra income came from the sale of chickens and eggs. The brothel was listed on the tax rolls as a poultry farm.
Probably the most famous of the Madams, Edna Milton arrived at the Chicken Ranch from Oklahoma in 1952. She started as a worker but eventually took over for Miss Jesse and proved to be just as capable and entrepreneurial.
While Edna was in charge, the only major changes to the building itself was the addition of air conditioning. Supposedly, when Edna signed the mortgage, the structure looked like a typical Texas farmhouse, having whitewashed pine siding, dark green trim and no recognizable architectural style. The last addition made to the house was a dining room. The house had a total of sixteen bedrooms each equipped with its own tiny lavatory.
Miss Edna continued the tradition of philanthropy started by Jessie Williams. She contributed to local organizations, churches and any other group that bothered to ask. She even made a sizeable donation to the local hospital. No social contact was allowed with the local citizens but the girls did shop in the local stores on a regular basis.
It was in 1973 that Marvin Zindler, a reporter from KTRK-TV in Houston, decided to make a real name for himself and started bringing media attention to the Ranch. He claimed his motive for exposing the Ranch was for the Texas Department of Public Safety and local police to combat organized crime and corruption at the Ranch. Governor Dolph Briscoe was forced to close the establishment due to the excessive media coverage.
Some time later Zindler came back to La Grange for a follow up story. While reporting on the Courthouse lawn, Sheriff Flournoy caught wind of Zindler’s arrival and went to ask him to leave. Very soon a heated discussion between the two took place, ending with Sheriff Flournoy shoving Mr. Zindler to the ground. Some say the Sheriff actually struck Mr. Zindler, pulling off his wig and throwing it, while the Sheriff denied every laying a hand on him. This resulted in Mr. Zindler taking legal action against the Sheriff in a lawsuit of $3 Million. Residents of the county rallied behind their beloved friend and sheriff and created the T.J. Flournoy Defense Fund. When the settlement was reached, it was unclear how much exactly the Sheriff was required to pay due to the terms of the settlement making the amount secret. The Sheriff assured it was much less than the $3 Million that Zindler threatened.
A very successful musical was written about the Ranch. Edna herself had a silent role in the Broadway production which later turned into a movie, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”. Edna later died in 2012 in Phoenix, AZ at the age 84.
Two lawyers from Houston bought the building and land and moved the main house to Dallas in 1977. It opened as The Chicken Ranch restaurant in September of 1977, with Miss Edna as the hostess. The building and furniture have since been auctioned off and the remainder of the original house has been left on the property in very poor condition.