On this day, Aug. 1, in 1973, a notorious brothel that had operated in Texas for more than 100 years was finally shut down following a series of reports by a Houston TV reporter.
Known as the “Chicken Ranch” in La Grange, the bordello was perhaps the oldest continuously running brothel in the nation, made famous by the Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
The business was opened La Grange in 1844 by a widow and three girls from New Orleans, but the women were run out of town during the Civil War as Yankees and traitors. The ranch reopened in 1905 at a house on the banks of Colorado River near La Grange.
The operation was eventually taken over by Edna Williams, who had joined the staff at age 23 in 1952. Business at the 16-room boarding house boomed thanks partially to the students and soldiers from the nearby college and military bases. For the all-male cadets at Texas A&M University, a trip to the Chicken Ranch became a rite of passage. One military base allowed a helicopter to transport customers to the ranch.
The ranch earned about $500,000 a year. All new employees were fingerprinted and photographed by the sheriff. Williams took care of the taxes, insurance, utilities, food, weekly doctor visits, maids, a cook, and laundry bills. The girls earned about $300 a week. Many of the girls were co-eds at the University of Texas.
But in the early 1970s, Texas law enforcement officers began to pressure the Fayette County District Attorney Oliver Kitzman to close the operation. Kitzman refused, saying that the people who elected him were happy with the Chicken Ranch as it was.
“And if you or your people come down here, I’ll be the one investigating you!’” Kitzman allegedly told the Texas attorney general.
That’s when state lawmen called Marvin Zindler, a colorful consumer affairs television reporter in Houston, in the hopes that Zindler could exude enough public pressure to shut down the ranch.
It worked. After Zindler’s week-long series, Sheriff T.J. Flournoy, who had overseen the La Grange area for 27 years, reluctantly told Williams she had to close up shop 40 years ago today. A handmade sign on the building blamed Zindler for the closing.
Flournoy took a petition of 3,000 signatures protesting the closure to Austin, but the governor refused to meet him.