Thanks to its status as a pop culture icon, many people think they know the story of the infamous Chicken Ranch. The real story of this Texas brothel is more complex, lying somewhere between heartbreaking and absurd.
For more than a century, dirt farmers and cigar-smoking politicians alike rubbed shoulders at the Chicken Ranch, operated openly under the sheriff’s watchful eye. Madam Edna Milton and her girls ran a tight, discreet ship that the God-fearing people of La Grange tolerated if not outright embraced. That is, until a secret conspiracy enlisted an opportunistic reporter to bring it all crashing down on primetime television.
Through exclusive interviews with Milton, former government officials, and reporters, Jayme Lynn Blaschke delivers a fascinating, revelatory view of the Ranch that illuminates the truth and lies that surround this iconic brothel.
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A History that Grows in the Telling
The Chicken Ranch was a brothel, pure and simple. Not so pure, and nowhere near as simple, were the motives of those who closed it down. Therein hangs this tale.
Not that this story hasn't been told before, after a fashion. Four decades removed from its spectacular, primetime closure by a crusading Houston television station, the "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" remains one of the most infamous brothels ever to operate in the United States, if not the world.
Yet the trappings of the tawdry, media-driven sex scandal — titillation, notoriety, celebrity — are ill suited to what never amounted to anything more than an unassuming little country whorehouse tucked back amidst the post oaks and cedar trees just beyond the city limits of La Grange, Texas, less than a mile off State Highway 71 on an unpaved county road.
The Chicken Ranch, unlike the personalities that came to dominate its final days, was never larger than life. The owners kept their heads down and noses clean, paid their taxes and stayed on the good side of the law and politicians. The brothel's relations with the community at large were helped immensely by its madams being generous civic benefactors.
The fact that prostitution flourished in La Grange for well over a century did not make the town unique. In that aspect, at least, La Grange claimed no different pedigree from the scores of other cities and small towns across Texas that found a booming trade in illicit sex.
What set the Chicken Ranch apart was its venerable history. By 1973, it was the last man standing, so to speak, the lone holdout against changing times that shuttered pretty much all of its one-time contemporaries. The story of the Chicken Ranch is very much the story of Texas, in a literal as well as metaphorical sense.
From the earliest days of the Republic of Texas, long before vast oilfields covered the landscape and "black gold" made the state rich, the Texas economy depended on three industries: cattle, cotton and timber. A casual observer of the time could not be blamed, though, for thinking of prostitution as a fourth major cash crop.
As Texas' frontier society developed, sex followed settlements. One of the earliest records of prostitution dates to 1817 in what eventually became San Antonio, when nine women were run out of the Spanish colonial outpost for whoring. Unsurprisingly, that did not end vice in San Antonio, or anywhere else in Texas for that matter.
Prostitutes soon appeared in every Texas settlement of note. El Paso, the westernmost city in Texas and a crossroads of the Spanish empire in the New World, had to contend with prostitution on an ongoing basis, but the newer, Anglo-American settlements found out firsthand that commercial sex was not a genie easily kept in the bottle. Houston, established following Texas' 1836 independence from Mexico, grew so rapidly that by 1840, the Harris County Commissioners' Court licensed scores of bordellos in a futile attempt to keep the city's rampant vice under control. Galveston, which developed into an important seaport after its founding in 1830, attracted prostitutes right from the start to satisfy lusty sailors. Despite this statewide precedent, prostitution did not find its way to La Grange quite so quickly or directly.
For thousands of years prior to the arrival of European settlers, a variety of Native American tribes continuously inhabited the land that would compose Fayette County. At the time of Stephen F. Austin's colonization efforts in the 1820s, Lipan Apaches and Tonkawas predominated, but Waco and Comanche raiding parties were also common. It didn't take any great imagination to see why the region so appealed to the various tribes. The fertile Colorado River Valley bisected the land west to east, rich with pecan, black walnut and oak trees. To the north stood an arm of the Lost Pines Forest, with the rest of the area dominated by rolling blackland prairie and post oak savannah. Wild game abounded, with buffalo, white-tailed deer, black bear, beaver and countless other species thriving in the forests and fields.
La Bahia Road, an important route through Texas since at least 1690 under Spanish colonial rule, cut through the heart of the region, crossing the Colorado below a prominent, two-hundred-foot limestone bluff. Enterprising Anglo pioneers from the United States set up trading posts near the crossing, taking advantage of the regular traffic, but not until 1822 did settlers of European descent — members of Austin's "Old Three Hundred" — arrive in significant numbers.
Almost from the start the whites and the natives clashed. The first recorded battle occurred in 1823 on Skull Creek, when a hastily assembled troop of twenty-two settlers destroyed a Karankawa camp harassing whites along the river. The Karankawas, more commonly associated with the Texas Coastal Bend, were generally reviled by settlers and rival tribes alike for their reputed cannibalism. At the end of the fight, twenty-three Karankawas lay dead, without the loss of a single settler.
The settlers and the Lipans remained on relatively good terms for the next decade, with Lipan warriors often serving as scouts for the whites and both groups uniting against the ever-present threat of Comanche raiders. Relations with the Tonkawas were cooler. Indian attacks constantly threatened the isolated farms and homesteads. Many settlers died in raids, but far more natives died through the settlers' retaliations. During the years of the Republic of Texas, the influx of newcomers from the United States and Europe displaced the tribes, forcing them westward. The last recorded Indian raid casualty in Fayette County came in 1840, when a party of Wacos ambushed and shot Henry Earthman.
For nearly twenty years prior, however, the isolated settlers viewed Indian attacks as a most serious threat. To guard against the danger, in 1826 Tennessean and Old Three Hundred settler John Henry Moore built a fortified blockhouse half a mile from where La Bahia Road crossed the Colorado River. Over the course of the following decade, newcomers took advantage of the protection offered by "Moore's Fort," as it was called, and by the time of the Texas Revolution, the town of La Grange had coalesced.
In the heady aftermath of the Battle of San Jacinto, with Texans reveling in their independence from Mexico, La Grange experienced perhaps its closest brush with fame prior to the closure of the Chicken Ranch more than a century hence. Formally created during the Second Congress of the Republic of Texas in December 1837, Fayette County was carved from the existing counties of Bastrop and Colorado. Formally platted at that time, La Grange was designated the county seat. The following year, the Texas congress voted on a permanent location for the young nation's capital. La Grange won on the second ballot, beating out eight other communities, including Bastrop, Nacogdoches and Richmond.
Celebrations in La Grange were short-lived, however, as President Sam Houston unexpectedly vetoed the legislation, and congress failed to muster sufficient votes to override. Instead of a capitol building, La Grange settled for a mere courthouse.
Still, things changed rapidly for La Grange, capital or no. The nascent Texas republic, thinly populated and vulnerable to Mexican invasion from the south and hostile tribal raids from the west, threw open its doors to European immigrants. Thousands of Germans answered the call, lured as much by the promise of free land as by overcrowding and lack of opportunity in the mother country. The fractious German states organized the Adelsverein — an administrative body charged with establishing a "New Germany" in Texas — and the influx of immigrants quickly led to the founding of New Braunfels and Fredericksburg, with five other smaller settlements established along the Llano River. In 1843, the Adelsverein purchased more than 4,400 acres in Fayette County, naming the land Nassau Farm. The land never became the hub of German activity in Texas as intended — the Adelsverein ultimately designated New Braunfels for that role — but immigrants making their way to the frontier settlements along the Llano River used Nassau Farm as a welcome way station. Many of these early settlers liked what they saw and chose to homestead in Fayette County instead of the frontier.
A decade later, a wave of Bohemian immigrants followed the Germans. Rather than a formal, government-sponsored movement, the Bohemian influx came as more of an individual, populist response to the letters of Reverend Josef Arnot Bergmann, an early settler of Cat Spring, Texas. Bergmann's glowing reports about available land and opportunity inspired many poor Czechs to strike out for Texas. The influx of new immigrants had an immediate and lasting impact on the population of Fayette County. The newcomers founded the communities of Dubina, Praha and Nechanitz, while many more moved into the existing towns of Fayetteville and La Grange. By the end of the decade, Fayette County had grown to become the epicenter of Czech culture in Texas.
"Most of the population was German or Czech," said Oliver Kitzman, a former district attorney who served Fayette County. "If you look around the country, you'll see when the Czechs came over they settled in the blackland prairies and the Germans settled in the hills, the more rolling places. I don't know why that is, but it's true. They were a frugal, hardworking people."
A frugal, hardworking people who knew how to have a good time. A mix of Catholic and Lutheran, their ideas on proper observation of the Sabbath — with feasts, celebrations and lots of music and dancing — clashed with the more austere, Puritanical views of the Anglo settlers from the United States. Significantly, they also brought with them a general European tolerance of prostitution. The Americans viewed the newcomers as aloof, an understandable conclusion considering the language barrier and the fact that the Germans and Czechs shared more in common with each other than with the Americans. On the other hand, the Anglos were nothing short of patronizing toward the Europeans. Before long, it didn't matter: increasing numbers of Germans and Czechs steadily displaced the early Anglo settlers, forever altering the culture of Fayette County and La Grange.
No contemporary records documenting the opening of the first brothel in La Grange exist. Why should there be? The arrival of prostitutes was not something breathlessly reported in the pages of the La Grange Intelligencer, and even if it were, a fire in 1850 destroyed most of that newspaper's archive as well as its successor, the Far West.
Lack of evidence didn't prevent Jan Hutson from providing plenty of detail in her 1980 book, The Chicken Ranch: The True Story of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. As Hutson tells it, the very first madam to run a brothel in La Grange arrived in 1844 on La Bahia Road from New Orleans, that infamous Sodom-on-the-Mississippi, with a covey of three "soiled doves" in tow. A full two years would pass before the violent, tumultuous existence of the Republic of Texas came to an end with its annexation as the twenty-eighth state of the Union. From then on, prostitution operated continuously in La Grange for the next 129 years.
Of these women's lives in New Orleans, or whether they made any detours along the way, nothing is recorded. It strains credibility to suggest that they set out from New Orleans with the actual intent to settle in La Grange, a tiny frontier town barely known to anyone east of Nacogdoches, if even that. It is far more likely that their intended destination was San Antonio or possibly the new capital of Austin. In any event, circumstances forced them to stop in La Grange, and in La Grange they stayed.
The newly arrived madam came to town sporting the most unfortunate name of "Mrs. Swine." It's doubtful this was her real name, or even an alias willingly chosen, for obvious reasons. Short, obese and unkempt, with an unattractive upturned nose and "piggy" features, she claimed to be a widow fallen on hard times. Wearing only black garments of mourning that had seen better days, Mrs. Swine's sole connection to a life of wealth and luxury — past or present — was a diamond ring encircling one pudgy finger.
Whether or not Mrs. Swine actually existed is debatable, to put it kindly. While the origin of the Chicken Ranch — or, at the very least, a brothel that eventually became the country whorehouse known as the Chicken Ranch — is consistently dated to the 1840s by oral histories and local lore, the same cannot be said of Mrs. Swine. In fact, the earliest reference to her appears no earlier than Hutson's 1980 book, a full 130-plus years after the assumed founding of the brothel and 7 years after the Chicken Ranch closed its doors for good.
In short: Mrs. Swine is a complete fiction.
The fact that Mrs. Swine is often cited in post-1980 articles and literature as the original madam in La Grange does nothing to change the fact that no evidence exists supporting the idea that she ever lived. By the same token, no conclusive evidence exists disproving her, either. If the widowed Mrs. Swine is a likely fiction, then she is a convenient one. Prostitution certainly flourished in nineteenth-century La Grange, as it did throughout Texas and the Old West. Somebody had to be first, it stands to reason, and if nothing else, the homely, crude widow dressed in black makes for a good story.
An alternative version of the Chicken Ranch's origins told by Edna Milton Chadwell, the last madam of the brothel, makes no mention of Mrs. Swine, although it pegs the date close to 1844. According to Miss Edna, two women were traveling across Texas in a covered wagon with a hired hand along to handle the driving and also serve as protection. The travelers got as far as La Grange, approaching the ferry landing, when the wagon broke down, beyond the hired man's ability to repair. Stranded, without money or shelter, the two women resorted to selling themselves to get by.
"Those girls did it right there in that wagon," Miss Edna said. "I don't know what the man was doing right about then. Maybe he was just trying to find a job, too. Or maybe he was letting the men in town know there was some women out there. I don't know what the deal was. This is all hear-tell stories because there's no way to verify any of it."
After a while, the trio abandoned any plans they had to repair the wagon and continue their journey. Instead, they took up residence in a saloon on Lafayette Street near the river. Efforts a century later by Miss Edna to locate the original site ended in failure; the building and any signs of where it once stood were long gone.
A third — and possibly the most interesting — version dates the origin of the brothel to 1842. Or, not the brothel exactly, but rather, a track along the Colorado River flood plain at the end of Colorado Street, adjacent to Lafayette and the ferry landing. Head-to-head match races between horses were held there, along with the requisite gambling. A brothel soon followed as a matter of course. The racetrack (and, by extension, the brothel) was established by a La Grange businessman in partnership with a senator of the Republic of Texas representing Fayette County. James Seaton Lester of Winchester — who just happened to be one of the first trustees of Baylor University — served in the Texas senate during the first, second, fourth and fifth congresses and in the house during the third congress. James Webb of Austin served in the senate for the sixth and seventh congresses. Both had strong ties to La Grange, and either could be the brothel-owning senator of lore.
At the time, Lafayette Street served as the main thoroughfare through town, one leg of the historic La Bahia Road, running northeast to southwest. It extended all the way to the Colorado River, where a ferry operated until 1883. The steady flow of travelers proved irresistible, and before long, at least one wood-frame saloon went up between Water Street and the river, just a stone's throw beyond the city proper. The saloon's prime location took advantage of the abundance of thirsty, road-weary travelers and, as a matter of course, offered several rooms to rent. It is here the mythical Mrs. Swine — or Miss Edna's stranded whores — took up residence. The saloon operated continuously as a brothel for at least the next fifty years.
That nobody took particular notice of a brothel setting up shop in a backwater saloon is hardly surprising. The decade-long existence of the Republic of Texas was an eventful time for La Grange and Fayette County, and the years of statehood prior to the Civil War no less so. The republic's near-constant state of war with Mexico led to the spilling of much Fayette County blood. Many men from La Grange participated in the ill-fated Dawson and Somervell Expeditions, dying in the subsequent massacres.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch"
Copyright © 2016 Jayme Lynn Blaschke.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. A History that Grows in the Telling,
2. Aunt Jessie,
3. Miss Edna,
4. Trixie, the Throw-Away Dog (and Other Societal Rejects),
6. Big Jim,
7. Everybody Who's Anybody,
8. What Doesn't Kill Me ...,
9. The Wagon Wheel,
10. Marvin Zindler, Eye! Witness! News!,
11. Wheels within Wheels,
12. Not with a Bang,
13. Hell to Pay,
14. Didn't See That Coming,
15. Enduring Legacy,
About the Author,