La Grange, Texas
December 14, 2019
No one ever told me, so since 1973 I have been, I think the word is, "clueless." “La Grange” by ZZ Top is about the Chicken Shack, a brothel that was “a shack outside La Grange.” It was illegal, of course, but the authorities looked the other way for nearly 50 years.. Until a reporter from Houston investigated it in 1972/1973, and the state closed it. The Chicken Shack was the basis for “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” But I’m guessing you already knew all that?
The Chicken Shack building is no longer. The current owner of the property applied for a Texas historical marker in 2016. I can’t find that one was ever installed. Bummer. Would be fun to read it “On this site was a home on the range with a lot of ....
Aha, ha, ha, ha, aha.
Texas Monthly had a piece on the Chicken Ranch in 2016. Some interesting history about it and the ZZ Top song:
Though there were bordellos in La Grange as early as 1844, the Chicken Ranch did not find its home until early in the twentieth century and did not take its infamous name until the Great Depression.
According to the Handbook of Texas, a woman going by “Jessie Williams” (though born Faye Stewart) bought the Chicken Ranch property, just outside of town and just ahead of a massive vice sweep on La Grange’s red light district, in 1915. Williams always cultivated a good relationship with the town’s power structure. She donated to worthy causes, sent care packages to soldiers in France during World War I, and assisted Fayette County Sheriff Will Lossein with his investigations. Miss Jessie’s girls were under strict orders to report any pillow talk of felonious activity to her, which she would in turn report to Lossein—who visited the cat house nightly, the better to keep his eyes on Fayette County’s underworld, such as it was.
As the Depression deepened, many of Miss Jessie’s clients could no longer pay in cash, so she began to accept barter, which often came in the form of chickens. “One chicken for one screw” became the house’s “poultry standard.” And so was born the Chicken Ranch. Miss Jessie became a small-scale poultry tycoon.
In 1952, Miss Jessie hired Edna Milton, the young woman who was to succeed her. The Chicken Ranch’s final madam had been born into dire poverty in Oklahoma in 1928, the eighth of eleven children, and just in time for the Depression and the Dust Bowl. She dropped out of school in third or fourth grade and was forced into an unwanted marriage at 16. That marriage produced a child who died shortly after birth. The marriage foundered and by the time she was 23, Milton was a prostitute working for Miss Jessie.
By that time Miss Jessie was suffering from arthritis, no longer able to wield the iron cudgel she used to keep rowdy patrons in line with as much authority, nor possessing the mental energy to run her house as efficiently. She saw a spark in Milton, savvy in spite of her lack of schooling. Miss Jessie handed off more and more of the running of the place to her, and by the time after Miss Jessie passed away at 80 in 1961, Milton had completed her training program. She bought the place from Miss Jessie’s heirs for $30,000 and became Miss Edna.
Miss Edna picked up right where Miss Jessie left off. She cultivated the same working relationship with Sheriff T.J. Flournoy that Miss Jessie had with his predecessor. She donated to many of the same causes Miss Jessie had helped nurture. She installed air conditioning and added a dining room.
At its peak, in the 1960s, there were 16 girls working in as many bedrooms. Drinking was not allowed, but Miss Edna would sell you a Coke for the princely sum of $1 or a pack of Luckys for 75 cents. Off-duty cops directed traffic in the parking lot. Much of the clientele came from nearby military bases and Texas A&M, where, according to legend, a Chicken Ranch trip was part of freshman initiation.
Miss Edna charged her customers $15 for fifteen minutes, and each of her workers was expected to have between five and twenty customers a day. Miss Edna took three-quarters of the cut, leaving many of the women to take home about $300 a week, which was a decent sum in those days.
Given its place in the classic rock canon and multi-generational ubiquity in pop culture, ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” their tribute to Texas’s infamous bordello, is not just their signature tune, but probably the most widely-recognized rock and roll song ever to emerge from Texas.
Some believe the song inadvertently helped bring about the downfall of the Chicken Ranch, but based on the band’s telling, it seems they had their own connection to it. Here’s ZZ Top’s bassist Dusty Hill, speaking, as only Dusty can, to Spin in 1985:
I went there when I was 13. A lot of boys in Texas, when it’s time to be a guy, went there and had it done. Fathers took their sons there. You couldn’t cuss in there. You couldn’t drink. I had an air of respectability. Miss Edna wouldn’t stand for no bulls–t. That’s the woman that ran the place, and you know she didn’t look like Dolly Parton, either. I’ll tell you, she was a mean-looking woman. But oil field workers and senators would both be there. The place had been open for over a hundred years, and then this a–hole decides he’s going to do an exposé and close it. And he stirred up so much s–t that it had to close. La Grange is a little bitty town, and little towns in Texas are real conservative. But they fought against it. They didn’t want it closed, because it was like a landmark. It was on a little ranch outside of town, the Chicken Ranch. Anyway, we wrote this song and put it out, and it was out maybe three months before they closed it. It pissed me off. It was a whorehouse, but anything that lasts a hundred years, there’s got to be a reason.
Here’s the Wikipedia story about the closure of the Chicken Shack:
In November 1972, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) surveilled the Chicken Ranch for two days, documenting 484 people entering the rural brothel. At the request of a member of the 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 an 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 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 Jim T. 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 Governor Dolph Briscoe about the matter. After a very brief investigation, which found no evidence of a link to organized crime, Briscoe and Hill ordered the Chicken Ranch to be permanently closed.
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. Governor Briscoe refused to meet with him.
Right, what am I waiting for!