The Legend of the Chicken Ranch

Chicken Ranch Historic PhotoWell... The Chicken Ranch has seen a lot of history. From its origins in La Grange, Texas, the Ranch has survived colorful times. For instance, during the Great Depression, a bartering system was implemented to pay for Ranch services using chickens. The name The Chicken Ranch remains.

Other interesting occasions included a publicized visit from Texas-born President Lyndon B. Johnson and the infamous shut down of the Ranch in 1973, now immortalized in the play and movie.

Where the West is still wild! The Chicken Ranch is located in Pahrump, Nevada, just outside of Las Vegas, has been a part of the Old West since 1844. The Chicken Ranch has come a long way and continues to make history today!

A Historic and Legendary Institution

Chicken Ranch Historic PhotoFrom the Alamo to the Astrodome, the history of Texas is filled with colorful and legendary institutions. Possibly the most interesting and unique is the world famous and historic Chicken Ranch of La Grange. With its roots in the frontier days before Texas became a state, this fascinating brothel grew, changed and developed with the land and its people over the ensuing 130 years.

The Chicken Ranch - the oldest continuing brothel in the United States - served over six generations of Americans in Texas during a transitional period that stretched from cowboys to astronauts. Those who sought the favors of the working girls included farmers, cowboys, ranchers, soldiers, politicians, businessmen and just “plain folk.” Today, The Chicken Ranch is comfortably settled in its new location in Pahrump, Nevada, just outside of Las Vegas. Following is an analysis of three distinct stages in the life of The Chicken Ranch - together they weave a tale that exemplifies traditional American initiative and enterprise at their finest.

First 60 Years - Establishing a Legacy (1844-1904)

Chicken Ranch Historic PhotoPrior to becoming a state, the Republic of Texas was dominated by strong leaders such as Sam Houston and a changing population as Easterners moved west and immigrants from Central Europe migrated to the new land to escape famine and persecution.

It was against this background of frontierism and social change that a brothel - which was not to become known as The Chicken Ranch until the 1930s - opened its doors and beds to accommodate and serve the local farmers, ranchers and cowboys. During the Civil War, soldiers from generals to privates got a brief respite from fighting by visiting the brothel and enjoying a little rest and relaxation. Following the War, cowboys on long cattle drives found the brothel a pleasant diversion from the dust on the trail. The brothel became an integral part of the life and times of Texas’ early frontier heritage.

A Tale of Two Women (1905-1973)

Chicken Ranch Historic PhotoThe modern history and the evolution of the still unnamed brothel into a famous Texas institution actually began in 1905 with the arrival of Ms. Faye Stewart (alias Jessie Williams and renowned as Miss Jessie) as its new owner and Madam - a description which fit her in the classic sense. Over the next 40 years, this dynamic woman - described as strong, generous and smart with a country rough-hewn charm but shrewd with a backwoods tenacity - brought the brothel into the modern era and made it a profitable business. She sowed the seeds for future success by making peace with the community - and most importantly - with law enforcement officers. By becoming a friend, ally and supporter of the Loessin brothers - who would reign as Faye County Sheriffs for the next four decades, she ensured that the illegal brothel would operate without legal interference.

During her tenure as Madam, she instigated the brothel’s philanthropic policy of supporting local charities and the local business community. During the Great War (World War I) she sent cookies to local residents fighting overseas. She also began the practice of having the girls receive weekly health check-ups (which is currently a requirement for a legal brothel).

Chicken Ranch Historic PhotoMs. Jessie also was responsible for moving the brothel from a battered downtown hotel in 1915 to its permanent location in La Grange - a sprawling white structure set among live oaks at the end of a gravel road on an 11-acre site midway between Houston and Austin. And, during her tenure as Madam, the brothel received its name - The Chicken Ranch. During the great depression of the 1930s, money was scarce so Miss Jessie allowed the ladies to accept produce and livestock in lieu of cash. As a result, the brothel had so many Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds in its backyard that they raised poultry to supplement their income and food supply. From this chicken barter system, the legendary name evolved.

In 1961, Miss Jessie died and was mourned by three generations of men whose passage from innocence she administered. Her last few years were spent in a wheelchair on the porch of the brothel. In her 56 years as Madam and owner, she brought The Chicken Ranch from an unnamed brothel to an institution which was even acknowledged in the Texas Legislature.

In 1952, Edna Milton joined The Chicken Ranch and worked her way up to Miss Jessie’s chief lieutenant at the time of the latter’s death. She bought the brothel from Miss Jessie’s estate and ran it until its closure in 1973 with an “authoritative confidence.” In addition to putting in air conditioning, she added a few “exotic extras.” Her term as Madam - like Miss Jessie’s - was characterized by stable management and a operation that allowed no drinking, drugs or rowdiness on the premises. (This philosophy was the forerunner of the modern day business operational approach used by the Chicken Ranch today.)

The end of The Chicken Ranch in La Grange came on August 1, 1973 when Fayette County Sheriff T.J. Flourney closed the brothel on the orders of Governor Dolph Briscoe. The catalyst for the closing of the popular and venerable brothel - one of Texas’ oldest business institutions - was a crusade by Marvin Zindler, a consumer affairs investigative reporter with television station KTRK-TV (13) in Houston. Zindler, the former head of the Consumer Protection Division of the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, believed that The Chicken Ranch was controlled by organized crime and stayed in business through political corruption - charges that he never was able to document. However, this moral crusader - who was adept to huckstering and was described as an electronic bounty hunter with a flare for publicity - adroitly used his television show to create enough public pressure to force the Governor to act.

The closing of the brothel was met with great displeasure from La Grange residents who accepted The Chicken Ranch with tolerance, if not pride. As Lester Zapalac, publisher of the La Grange Journal put it: “The citizens feel it has done no harm and a lot of good - I don’t know anybody who is against it.” Sheriff Flourney, a longtime supporter of the brothel during its 41 year as Deputy Sheriff, agreed adding: “It’s been here all my life and all my daddy’s life and never caused anybody any trouble.”

After the brothel’s closing, Edna Milton married an East Texas businessman and later worked as a hostess, cashier, payroll clerk and bookkeeper. The brothel building itself was was bought by a Houston lawyer and moved to Dallas where it was turned into a restaurant and night club. It closed after four months due to a faulty heating system and limited menu (only chicken dishes). Five years later, the furniture and furnishings were sold at auction by the Small Business Administration to recoup funds from a federal guaranteed loan (some of the paintings are now displayed in The Chicken Ranch in Pahrump, Nevada).

International Fame and a Renaissance in Nevada (1974-present)

Chicken Ranch TodayZZ Top sing about the Chicken Ranch"La Grange" is a song by the rock group ZZ Top from their album Tres Hombres, released in 1973. One of their most successful songs, it received extensive radio play, rising to number 41 in the Billboard Pop Singles list in 1974. The song refers to a brothel on the outskirts of La Grange, Texas (later called the "Chicken Ranch").

The year 1978 marked the revival of The Chicken Ranch in two distinct ways. First, on June 19, the theatrical production of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” opened on Broadway for the beginning of a four year run before moving to the four corners of the world. (Edna Milton served as technical advisor and had a small part in the play.) Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds made a movie about the Chicken RanchIt was eventually followed in 1982 with the popular motion picture production of the same name starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton. This brought international attention to this famed Texas institution.

Also, in 1975, an enterprising capitalist bought the rights and established a legal licensed brothel in the town of Pahrump, NV, just outside of Las Vegas. As prostitution is illegal in Clark County, in which Las Vegas is located, 41 acres were purchased in Nye County near the Clark County border - which makes The Chicken Ranch the closest and most convenient brothel to Las Vegas.

In early 1982, The Chicken Ranch changed ownership. While the brothel still maintains the quality and business-oriented approach espoused by Miss Jessie and Edna Milton, the traditional Madam role is now filled by a Manager and the operation is definitely in the 21st century. Customers of The Chicken Ranch now arrive by chauffeured car instead of horses or model T’s as the brothel has its own free limousine service from Las Vegas.

From the frontier to the space age, each of these stages made its own unique contributions to the myth and legend which has transformed The Chicken Ranch from an unnamed rural brothel to an integral part of American folklore.