INTRODUCTION TO LA GRANGE
By John Ronan Broderick
GENESIS OF 19TH CENTURY LA GRANGE
During what it is referred to as the “Spanish Period” (c. 1680 to 1820s) in early Texas, the site of present-day La Grange was an early crossing of the Colorado River along La Bahia (Lower Road) of the El Camino Real (King’s Highway). The actual precursor to the city of La Grange and Fayette County can be traced back to the first Anglo-American settlers in the area, Aylett C. Buckner, of Virginia, and Peter Powell, an Englishman who came to Texas from Baltimore, Maryland.
Sometime between 1819 and 1821, these two men settled on what came to be known as Buckner’s Creek, which originated in what is now southeast Bastrop County and traveled 33 miles through what later became Fayette County before emptying into the Colorado River just south of present-day La Grange. Their abode was slightly west of the site of the future town.
It is likely that the reason the creek was named after Buckner instead of Powell is because Buckner had made three previous incursions into Texas, whereas this was Powell’s first trip, thus could Buckner claim a seniority of sorts. According to the Texas State Historical Association’s (TSHA) website, www.tshaonline.org, Buckner was a “filibuster [‘a person engaging in unauthorized warfare against a foreign country’ (Oxford Languages)], Indian fighter, Old Three Hundred colonist, and folklore hero of colonial Texas.” (Author’s note: Much of what follows is appropriated from this same website, an invaluable resource. As a member of the TSHA, I heartily endorse it for the serious student of Texas history.)
Born circa 1794, Buckner first came to Texas as part of the Gutierrez-Magee expedition of 1812-1813, which was a joint filibustering expedition by the United States and Mexico against Spanish Texas during the early years of the Mexican War of Independence. His second foray into Texas occurred in 1817, this time under the command of Francisco Xavier Mina, another filibuster operating in cooperation with the United States. It had some minor successes, but Mina was eventually captured and executed by the Spanish, who still controlled Mexico. Buckner eluded capture and returned to Texas again in 1819, with Dr. James Long on yet a third failed filibustering expedition.
Buckner’s thirst for such adventuring apparently evaporated and, in partnership with Peter Powell, he settled, circa 1820, on the substantial tributary named after him. This was of course prior to the establishment of Stephen F. Austin’s colony on the site of present-day La Grange in 1822, by part of the group that came to be known as the “Old Three Hundred.” Since they were already ensconced there, both Buckner and Powell were naturally included in that illustrious classification of colonists. Buckner received one sitio (320 acres for a single man) of land from the new independent Mexican government on July 24, 1824. Buckner later died in combat at the Battle of Velasco in June 1832, against that same Mexican government.
Meanwhile, things continued apace in the future La Grange area. Sometime between 1826 and 1831 (opinions vary), Tennessean John Henry Moore built a twin blockhouse, aka “Moore’s Fort,” as protection from Comanche depredations. Over the 80 years of his long life, Moore developed a fierce reputation as an Indian fighter, participant in the 1836 Texas Revolution (Colonel of militia at the Battle of Gonzales), and Texas Ranger, always willing to serve when called upon to do so. He, too, is numbered among the “Old 300.”
The blockhouse he built was relocated to nearby Round Top in 1976, for restoration. It remains there, a Bicentennial gift from Moore’s descendants to the Texas Pioneer Arts Foundation. It is the oldest structure in Fayette County. It also served as the first church in the county. Moore’s Fort gave birth to a small community of settlers, many presumably also from Tennessee, on May 17, 1831, at the site of La Grange.
Powell and Buckner had parted company and Powell moved southeast about 120 miles to what was to become Matagorda County, where he and a new partner, William Kingston, received a sitio of land on Caney Creek from the Mexican government on May 8, 1827. Powell was with his old partner, Aylett C. Buckner, at the Battle of Velasco in 1832, when the latter was killed there. The point here is that La Grange was originally settled by three Texas heroes–Buckner, Powell, and Moore.
In 1837, during the Republic of Texas era, La Grange was platted and designated by the new nation’s legislature as the county seat of the newly organized Fayette County. According to one source, both town and county were named in honor of the French aristocrat and military officer, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, who had fought in the American Revolutionary War. La Fayette had heroically commanded American troops in several battles, including the Siege of Yorktown. He was a close friend of General George Washington’s. His castle in France was called the Chateau de la Grange-Bleneau, hence the naming of the town La Grange, subsequent to the Marquis’s death in 1834.
An alternative, though related, theory about the naming of the town is set forth by author Frank Lotto in his 1902 book, Fayette County, Her History and Her People. In it he states: “The first settlers had come from Tennessee and named their new home after their old home, La Grange in Tennessee. (La Grange is French, the name of La Fayette’s estate, and means ‘the mansion.’)” Coincidentally, the Tennessee La Grange is also located in a county named Fayette. It seems to me a likelihood exists that the town had been christened La Grange, circa 1831, before the Republic of Texas legislature designated it the county seat of the newly formed county of Fayette, which name they may have appropriated from the county in Tennessee.
An aside: I can recall my first trip to the Alamo as a six-year-old boy, wearing my authentic Walt Disney/Fess Parker/Davy Crockett coonskin cap. My father, who was born in Nashville, Tennessee, proudly pointed out a plaque on the wall of the interior of the Alamo, which listed the names of the brave men who had given their lives there. It was arranged in alphabetical order by state and it was easy to see that the number of combatants who hailed from the state of Tennessee vastly outnumbered those from any other state. My father told me that was why Tennessee was called “The Volunteer State.”
Therefore, it seems logical to assume that at least a plurality of the 1837 Texas legislature was comprised of former Tennesseans who may have influenced the naming of Fayette County, Texas, because of the pre-existing town of La Grange, thereby maintaining a continuity of sorts with their Tennessee heritage. Regardless of whether Tennessee was an intermediate stepping-stone for the naming of the town and county, it all harkens back to the Marquis de La Fayette, n’est-ce pas?
The capital of the nascent republic remained in a state of flux until 1839, when the Capital Commission decided on Austin as its permanent home. La Grange had also been in the running for this distinction and had defeated eight other towns for the honor. But in a surprise move, President Sam Houston vetoed the legislature’s vote and it did not have enough votes to override his veto. How different might things have turned out for La Grange had Houston not exercised his authority in the matter?
Despite Texas winning its independence from Mexico at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, incursions by the Mexican Army into the Republic of Texas continued sporadically into the 1840s. On September 18, 1842, one of these incursions resulted in the Battle of Salado Creek and the Texian Army emerged victorious.
Unfortunately, about a mile away from and concurrent with that battle, 53 Texians, on their way to the Salado Creek battle as reinforcements—many if not most of them from Fayette County–under the command of Captain Nicholas Mosby Dawson, were being slaughtered by 500 Mexican cavalrymen. Like Santa Anna at the Alamo, the Mexicans showed no quarter, not even when Dawson, outnumbered ten to one, attempted to surrender.
Had this same Mexican cavalry joined their comrades at the main battle, perhaps the Mexicans may have prevailed. They chose instead to kill off this small contingent of Texians. The colonists’ bodies were later buried in shallow graves in the mesquite thicket where they had been murdered. The incident was ever after known as the Dawson Massacre.
Three months later the Texians of the Mier Expedition, which had departed from La Grange after meeting under its still-standing “Historic Old Oak Tree,” aka the “Mustering Tree,” were captured in Mexico after being similarly outnumbered by the Mexican Army in battle. Many managed to escape their captors, but 176 were eventually recaptured and were sentenced to death by the despot, Santa Anna.
Keep in mind, this was the same cowardly Santa Anna who had been captured by Sam Houston’s soldiers after fleeing the Battle of San Jacinto wearing a dress, trying to disguise himself as a woman. American diplomats interceded on behalf of the Texian prisoners and Santa Anna agreed to execute only one out of ten. This resulted in the infamous “Black Bean Death Lottery,” whereby 17 men were chosen at random by the drawing of a black bean from an earthen jar otherwise filled with 159 white beans. They were executed on March 25, 1843. All 17 accepted their fate like men and died like men, bravely facing the firing squad, heads held high. Many were from La Grange and Fayette County.
Their bodies were disinterred by the Mexicans and returned to Texas in 1848, at the conclusion of the Mexican War of 1846, when the victorious United States dictated the terms of the peace. By that time Texas had already been annexed by the U.S., said annexation in December 1845, being the incident that had triggered the war. Their bodies, along with those from the Dawson Massacre, were reinterred together in a mass grave with a sandstone vault in La Grange on September 18, 1848. The ceremony was attended by more than 1,000 people, including former President of the Republic of Texas, current Senator from and future Governor of the State of Texas, General Sam Houston.
The site, located on a scenic, 200-feet-high limestone bluff overlooking the Colorado River, is now known as Monument Hill. In 1933, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas purchased a new granite vault for the tomb, and in 1936, the Texas Centennial Commission erected a 48-foot monument to mark the mass grave. Aside from the Alamo and Goliad, there is probably no more hallowed ground in Texas than this one in La Grange. Respect must be paid to courageous men murdered by barbarians. And so it is. For each year, La Grange commemorates “Texas Heroes Day” on the weekend closest to September 18th, honoring at the Monument Hill Tomb the men who fought and died to maintain the independence of the Republic of Texas.
In 1848, the continent of Europe was engulfed in revolutions. This was especially true in Germany, where immigrants fled in droves for America to escape political, economic, and religious persecution. The state of Texas was one of the most attractive locales to them and they established, or greatly increased the populations of, communities all over the state: Boerne, Fredericksburg, New Braunfels, Brenham, Schulenberg, to name but a few. La Grange was also one of these magnets that drew the German, and later, the Czech settlers, whose cultural influences can still be felt 170 years later. They also brought with them a frugality and a work ethic second to none.
(Note: Much of what immediately follows is pretty much a paraphrase of John Leffler’s history of La Grange as published in the TSHA’s Handbook of Texas.)
Postal service in La Grange was established in 1838. The economy was essentially plantation-oriented, which naturally meant there were slave holders, probably many from Tennessee, where Moore had come from, and other southern states such as Virginia and Maryland, where Buckner and Powell had hailed from.
The last recorded fatality attributable to Native Americans (Wacos the tribe suspected) occurred in September 1840, when La Grange farmer Henry Earthman was killed and scalped while attempting to recover eight horses stolen from him by the Indians.
The town’s first newspaper, the La Grange Intelligencer, began to be published in 1844. Also organized in the 1840s were the first Presbyterian and Methodist churches, pretty much the predominant Protestant denominations in the South during the mid-19th century.
The city of La Grange incorporated in 1850 and there were at least four schools by the mid-1850s. With the arrival of the initial wave of German immigrants in the late 1840s-early 1850s came the first Lutheran congregation in 1851, and in 1859, the German Free School opened its doors.
It is a given that where there are Germans, there will also be beer, speaking as one who is at least 1/8 German myself. And so it was that in 1860, a German immigrant, Heinrich Kreische, established one of the first commercial breweries in Texas. It was situated, along with his home, on the same prominent bluff as Monument Hill. It was called “Bluff Beer,” and during the 20-plus years of its operation the brewery became the third largest in Texas.
The 1860s were not kind to La Grange due to the Civil War, but more especially the Reconstruction years that followed in its wake. For many Germans were anti-slavery, and Fayette County, because of its large German and Czech population had voted against Secession from the Union, as had many other counties in Texas comprised predominantly of immigrants from European countries. Many of these German immigrants had refused to fight for the Confederacy, choosing instead to return to Germany or flee to Mexico for the duration of the war. When the war ended many returning Confederate Army veterans, embittered toward local Germans in general, instigated several altercations, some of them quite serious.
The only disruptions of the peace worse than those between the Germans and the Rebel veterans were those between the defeated Confederates and the Yankee troops garrisoned in the vicinity as a result of U.S. President Andrew Johnson’s draconian Reconstruction policies. For many of the Union troops were black, which did not sit well with the former slave-owning white Confederate veterans, whose world as they knew it had been turned upside down. There were many near-riots as a result of these encounters.
But this was nothing unique to La Grange, for many other Texas towns experienced similar racially motivated episodes between the white citizenry and their black Union occupiers, often exacerbated by the rapidly emerging Ku Klux Klan. Nearby Brenham springs to mind, where Federal troops burned down an entire block of the downtown commercial district in the wake of a racial incident. Navasota, too, had its share of troubles along these lines during this period. La Grange apparently managed to at least keep the Klan out of its affairs.
In 1867, there was an outbreak of yellow fever, which decimated the populations of many Texas towns. La Grange lost approximately 20 percent of its population, as did Brenham and Navasota. The victims, which also included many Federal troops, were often buried in mass graves. Somehow La Grange managed to hold on, fighting these disparate battles on so many fronts, even major floods in 1869 and 1870 from the adjacent Colorado River.
In 1880, La Grange got a much-needed shot in the arm when the Galveston, Harrisburg (Houston) and San Antonio Railway built a spur to the town, enabling it to grow as a commercial trade center for the region. This success was augmented by the construction in 1883 of La Grange’s first bridge across the Colorado River. Over the course of the next 20 years the town grew by the proverbial leaps and bounds, adding churches, schools, banks, newspapers, electric service, waterworks, another bridge, an opera house, gristmills and cotton gins, a developing downtown commercial district, not to mention the still extant, magnificent three-story stone 1891 Fayette County Courthouse. Between 1870 and 1900, the population had more than doubled, from 1,165 to 2,392. Thus did the 19th century end on a high note for La Grange.
For any architectural history buff, La Grange is a must-see town in Texas. Not only is it the second stop on the 40-stop Texas Independence Trail, which begins in nearby Bastrop, it has been designated a “Texas Main Street City” as a result of its revitalized downtown commercial district which preserves the town’s historic 19th century past. Seven sites have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP); of these, four are also shown on the Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks (RTHL). Another eleven sites are also listed on the RTHL register. Allow me to provide them for you here. The year shown is the date of construction.
National Register of Historic Places
1841—Nathaniel F. Faison House, the oldest building in La Grange; (RTHL).
1891—Fayette County Courthouse and 1883 Fayette County Jail; (RTHL); State Antiquities Landmark. This unique courthouse is a truly magnificent structure designed in the Romanesque Revival style. It utilizes four different types of native Texas stone in its exterior construction: Blue Muldoon Sandstone; Belton White Limestone; Pecos Red Sandstone; and Pink Burnet Granite. It has massive arched doorways and windows and a central atrium to promote good lighting and natural ventilation. The 1883 County Jail was in use until 1985.
(Note: I am indebted to a 2005 U.S. History paper titled “The History of La Grange, Texas,” authored by Jamie Rapp, a junior college student in the Alamo Colleges District, for these architectural details, as well as for particulars concerning “Texas Heroes Day,” the 1913 Flood, and the Chicken Ranch, yet to follow. This was a truly remarkable research paper for a college freshman. This individual is probably a tenured professor of history at a major university by now.)
? Fayette County Courthouse Square Historic District, the city square upon which the courthouse is located, as is the Veterans Memorial located on the lawn in front of the courthouse.
1848 –Mier Expedition & Dawson Massacre Monument & Tomb; (RTHL); State Historic Site; State Antiquities Landmark.
1849-1850—Henry L. Kreische Brewery & House; State Historic Site; State Antiquities Landmark
1865—St. James Episcopal Church; (RTHL).
1940—State Highway 71 Bridge at Colorado River.
Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks
c. 1865—Kallus House
c. 1884—Meerscheidt House
c. 1870—Kaulbach House
1835—Earthman Farm (originally owned by Henry Earthman, who was the last fatality of marauding Indians in Fayette County in 1840).
c. 1862—Hermes House
1852—City Library Building
c. 1840s—Bradshaw Killough House
1860—Old Masonic Building
c. 1894—Lenert House
c. 1856—John Vogt Homestead
1856—Beer Office & Bottling Company
LA GRANGE STATISTICS
According to World Population Review, the current population of La Grange is 4,662, predicated on the latest 2020 US Census estimates. It has a land area of 4.1 square miles and a population density of 1,127.2 people per square mile. It is the 381st largest city in Texas. The average household income is $57,927. Median rental cost is $822 per month, and the median house value is $123,900. Median age is 36.7 years, and for every 100 females there are 106.2 males. Languages spoken: English only—67.47%; Spanish—27.45%; other–5.08%.
20TH CENTURY REVERSALS OF FORTUNE
The first major catastrophe to strike La Grange in the new century was the flood of December 4, 1900, in which nearly 160 homes were damaged or destroyed. The population of the town declined greatly during the first 25 years of the new century. The flood of 1900 was undoubtedly a contributing factor, as was the even more devastating flood of 1913, the worst in the town’s history.
According to Jamie Rapp’s aforementioned, superbly researched college paper:
“The portion of the Colorado River that flows through La Grange is in the lower basin of the river, aka ‘Flash Flood Alley.’ In 1913, a result of the flood was the merging of the mouths of the Colorado and Brazos Rivers, which formed a lake 65 miles wide until the flood waters subsided. One-half million acres were flooded, causing total devastation to the city. “
Little wonder, then, that people and businesses were in steady decline the first quarter of the 20th century. Just when things seemed to be recovering somewhat in the last half of the Roaring Twenties, the stock market crashed on October 24, 1929, the worst economic event in world history, sending the nation spiraling into the Great Depression. The number of businesses in La Grange declined from 130 in 1931 to only 75 by 1933. Still, the little town held on, as did the rest of the country, until FDR’s New Deal policies could take effect. And by 1939, the town had indeed bounced back, recording 140 businesses and approximately 3,000 residents.
Then, on September 1st, 1939, Adolph Hitler invaded Poland with his Blitzkrieg, plunging the world into World War II. Since La Grange had no heavy industry to offer the war effort, its only contribution was its traditional cotton production, which would be necessary for the millions of uniforms needed to clothe American fighting men. When the war ended in 1945, so did the nation’s need for the town’s primary product, cotton, decrease mightily.
During the 1950s and 1960s, La Grange’s civic leaders made valiant efforts to attract new and varied industries to town and were somewhat successful in this endeavor. According to John Leffler’s article on La Grange in the Handbook of Texas, this resulted in a new “mattress factory and a furniture-manufacturing plant, two banks, two cotton gins, three hatcheries, seven feed mills, and more than 100 retail establishments. By 1969 it also included a bottling plant, a structural-steel fabricator, and a business that built laminated beams.”
“A LIL’ OLE BITTY PISSANT COUNTRY PLACE”
Two events catapulted La Grange into the national spotlight in the summer of 1973. The first was the release, on July 26th, of the song, “La Grange,” by “that little ol’ band from Texas,” ZZ Top, which made a not-so-subtle reference to the prostitutes working at the worst kept secret bordello in the state. As you can see from the lyrics, which I have reproduced below, the three-piece band didn’t have to say much on their primarily instrumental blues song to get their message across.
“Rumor spreadin’ ‘round/In that Texas town/About that shack outside La Grange/And you should know what I’m talkin’ about/Just let me know if you wanna go/To that home out on the range/They got a lot of nice girls/Have mercy/A haw, haw, haw, haw, a haw/A haw, haw, haw/Well I hear it’s fine/If you got the time . . . “
If the first event was akin to the firing of a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with double-aught buck into the front door of the Chicken Ranch, the second was as if the atomic bomb had landed simultaneously on La Grange and Sealy, Texas, instead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. For Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe gave the order to shut down the Chicken Ranch and the Wagon Wheel brothels, respectively, in those two Texas towns on August 1st, less than a week after the release of ZZ Top’s song. Brother, talk about unlikely “coincidences!”
The closures of the two bordellos took no one by surprise, of course, especially after more than two years of bad publicity and the unrelenting “investigative reporting” of Marvin Zindler, a television journalist with ABC’s Houston affiliate, KTRK, Channel 13, “Eyewitness News.” I knew Marvin casually when I was a young Houston police officer and he was a Harris County deputy sheriff. We used to run into one another in the little nighttime D.A.’s office at 61 Riesner Street, where HPD was headquartered.
Marvin was not particularly well regarded as a law enforcement officer among his peers, so I reckon he decided to carve out a second career in TV journalism, where his flamboyant style would make a bigger splash and bring him more local recognition. His Friday night restaurant reports warned the Houston citizenry of those restaurants that had “slime in the ice machine” and “mouse droppings in the food pantry.”
Occasionally, though, he accomplished something of a positive nature, as when he was able to secure much needed dental treatment for a destitute woman, free of charge, from his and my mutual friend and dentist, Dr. Harvey W. Fodell. And not all the restaurant reports were of a negative nature either. For Marvin’s, and my, favorite restaurant, Pino’s Italian, owned by the Farinola brothers, Pino and Adriano, also mutual friends, always got rave reviews from Marvin. When Marvin died in 2007, all three of these men served as pallbearers at his funeral.
There was no way to side-step the story of the Chicken Ranch in any recounting of the history of La Grange and Fayette County, so I decided to research it properly, not restricting my efforts to Internet postings. The most recent book on the subject was written by Mr. Jayme Lynn Blaschke and was published in 2016 by The History Press. It is called Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse. It is endorsed by none other than former five-term Texas Lieutenant Governor William P. “Bill” Hobby, Jr., as “the best account of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas ever written.” Good enough for me. Much of what follows in this section is taken from Blaschke’s book.
Nearly a half century after the closing of the Chicken Ranch, the La Grange Chamber of Commerce decided to embrace its history rather than try to sweep it under the carpet, when they elected to erect a sign on the outskirts of town advertising the city as “The Best Little Town in Texas.” This is of course a tongue-in-cheek reference to the farcical musical play and movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, produced in the aftermath of the events in 1973.
Prostitution in Texas dates back to the Spanish period, when whores in San Antonio and El Paso plied their illicit trade. When the Anglo-Americans began to filter into Texas in the early part of the 19th century, bawdy houses sprang up in virtually every settlement of note, including nearby Houston and Galveston. “Away from the cities, in smaller, rural agricultural communities like La Grange, prostitutes tended to enjoy a better life than their urban sisters. . . . The brothels were smaller, unpretentious but clean. The farmers, cowboys and other common men who patronized the country whorehouses were rarely wealthy but were open to marrying a ‘soiled dove’—no small consideration” (Blaschke, p. 23).
Prostitution in La Grange likely began circa 1844 in a backstreet saloon close to the ferry that transported travelers across the Colorado River. There they could whet their thirst and satisfy any sexual urges they might have. Also located in the vicinity was the horserace track. Gambling, drinking, and whoring were then and are now kissing cousins. Thus did the brothel prosper for the next 50 years or so in an area known as the Kalamazoo vice district.
The Germans and Bohemians that began to overtake the original Anglo-American settlers in sheer numbers had a more tolerant, liberal attitude toward prostitution. This may have been attributable to their European background and/or a difference in religions–the Europeans being predominantly Catholic or Lutheran, the original settlers, now outnumbered, being Protestant. Plus, as previously noted, the Europeans were, on the whole, fonder of alcohol than their Anglo-American brethren. The majority ruled, so alcohol consumption and prostitution became staples of La Grange society, as in most other Texas communities where Europeans outnumbered the “Old 300.”
Eventually, however, the brothel district was relocated to a part of town where the population was predominantly black. It was referred to as “the Shacks” and was viewed as something of a comedown for the illicit trade that had formerly occupied nicer accommodations in a boarding house in the Kalamazoo district. This coincided with the appearance on the scene, circa 1913, of Fay Stewart, aka “Aunt Jessie” Williams, who became the new madam of “a wretched hotel in a shanty town straddling the segregated black neighborhood” ( p. 32).
It seems that everyone in town, including Aunt Jessie herself, wanted the brothel out of the more public part of town. Thus did she partner with Grace Koplan on July 31, 1915, to purchase, for $700, an unpretentious farmhouse situated on eleven acres about a mile outside of La Grange. And here the institution later known as the Chicken Ranch was born, hidden away from the town’s sight but not its knowledge and acquiescence. Aunt Jessie later bought out her partner and became the sole owner of the house of ill repute.
Aunt Jessie was apparently a savvy businesswoman and began to build enduring relationships with La Grange merchants and bankers. She was even generous in donating large sums of money ($10,000 on one occasion!) to local civic causes, such as the local hospital. In order to protect her vulnerable enterprise, Aunt Jessie began to develop a friendly relationship with the county sheriff, August Loessin. Rules were established between them about what would and would not be tolerated on the grounds of the whorehouse, mostly relating to alcohol consumption. Additionally, Aunt Jessie acted as an informant of any criminal activities she or her girls became aware of through their brief encounters with petty crooks who liked to brag about their exploits to try to impress a pretty girl.
In 1924, Aunt Jessie’s relationship with the sheriff’s office continued when August’s younger brother, “Mr. Will,” was elected to the office. It is said that the new Sheriff Loessin made a nightly visit to the Chicken Ranch to gather gossip from Aunt Jessie. Moreover, he laid down a few new rules of his own to ensure a more controlled situation: though beer was sold on the premises, no drunkenness would be tolerated; no gambling; and mandatory weekly medical examinations of the girls to check for venereal disease. And twice a year the sheriff would give the Fayette County Grand Jury a full report on activities at the bordello. Aunt Jessie agreed to all the sheriff’s conditions. As if she had a choice in the matter.
Along about 1947, a 19-year-old prostitute by the name of Miss Edna Milton showed up at the Chicken Ranch looking for work. At that time Aunt Jessie was 62 and in declining health due primarily to uncontrolled diabetes. Not long afterward, one of her legs was amputated as a result of the diabetes, which left her either confined to a wheelchair or bedridden. Her new whore, Miss Edna, was a hard worker, but she was also very frugal, always saving for that inevitable rainy day.
Over the next four years Aunt Jessie’s health began to deteriorate as did her mental acuity, and she began to lose control of the daily management of the whores and the whorehouse. “By the middle of 1961, the sedate country whorehouse had turned downright wild and rowdy as Aunt Jessie completely lost control and the inmates took over the asylum” ( p. 58).
The new sheriff, T.J. “Big Jim” Flournoy, was having none of it and ordered Aunt Jessie to shut down the whorehouse for good and get rid of the girls. Frugal Miss Edna, sensing an opportunity, bought the Chicken Ranch on November 27, 1961, for $28,500, which represented a 4,000% return on Aunt Jessie’s initial investment 45 years earlier of $700. The monthly payments on the owner-financed mortgage were Miss Jessie’s sole source of income, aside from some meager rentals on one other property she owned.
Legend has it that the way the Chicken Ranch acquired its name was during the Great Depression, when money was scarce, and the customers were allowed to pay for the girls’ sexual favors with chickens or other livestock. This made for a good yarn, so Aunt Jessie allowed the myth to be perpetuated.
The truth of the matter, however, as related to author Blaschke in an interview with Miss Edna, was that on one occasion a Fayette County Grand Jury had decided to investigate the premises themselves. It was recommended to Aunt Jessie that she purchase a whole bunch of chickens (fairly inexpensive in those days) and pass the place off to the jurors as a chicken farm. The ruse apparently worked, the jurors left, feeling they had done their civic duty, and the girls ate a lot of fried chicken in the weeks to come. So much for “printing the legend.”
Blaschke asserts that not only did the common folk patronize the Chicken Ranch, so did the rich and famous, among them many state legislators from nearby Austin. He alleges, with some seemingly detailed, credible corroboration from former whores and Miss Edna, that the following men were patrons of the Chicken Ranch: Bob Hope, who treated all the men who worked on his concert tour to an evening’s entertainment there one night after a show in Houston; renowned Houston criminal attorney Dick DeGuerin, in his younger days as a student at U.T.; oilman and one-time gubernatorial candidate Clayton W. Williams, Jr.; and Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons of the iconic Texas rock band, ZZ Top.
“U.S. representative Charles Wilson, widely known as ‘Good Time Charlie,’ for his relentless partying and womanizing, denied ever visiting the Chicken Ranch, although he allowed that he may have ‘driven past it a time or two’” (p. 128). Future Texas Governor John Connally and his brother Wayne, a future Texas state senator, and President Lyndon B. Johnson were also frequent patrons. These latter three were at least discreet in their visits’ timing or had one of the girls brought to them rather than visit the Chicken Ranch in person. In other words, Miss Edna Milton had “connections” at the absolute highest levels of state and national government.
Meanwhile, back in Houston, Marvin Zindler’s out-sized ego, flamboyant, in-your-face style, and questionable testimony under oath in a criminal trial had gotten him into hot water with the recently elected Sheriff of Harris County, Jack Heard. Given a choice to resign or be fired, Zindler chose to be fired and called a news conference to announce it to the TV cameras he so adored being in front of.
I went to the trouble to watch the 1982 film, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which I had never seen before, as part of my research for this article. The big opening number is Dolly Parton singing the hilarious “A Lil’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place.” I knew of course that it was a farcical musical that took great liberties with the truth. Nevertheless, I was immensely entertained for a couple of hours and did see certain incidents portrayed that actually took place, though with a more dramatic Hollywood flair attached to them.
One of the most comical was the physical altercation that occurred between the sheriff (Burt Reynolds) and the Zindler-like reporter (Dom DeLuise), wherein the sheriff yanked off the reporter’s toupee in the scuffle, an incident that, in real life, resulted in Zindler filing a lawsuit against Sheriff Flournoy.
In the movie, the Texas A&M cadets played their historical/hysterical parts as well, travelling en masse to the Chicken Ranch to reap their rewards for winning a football game against their cross-state rival, the University of Texas. In Blaschke’s book, Miss Edna attested to having a particular fondness for the A&M cadets. Even though U.T., University of Houston, and Rice University students were also frequent visitors, the Aggies were her favorites.
It was a rite of passage to manhood in the 1950s and 1960s for a Texas boy to pay at least one visit to the Chicken Ranch. With its closure in 1973, the Chicken Ranch became a legend, and bragging rights abound today among senior citizens who can now (proudly?) say, “I do declare, there were times I was so lonesome I took some comfort there,” as Paul Simon described such rendezvous in his song of that period, “The Boxer.”
One of the things both the book and the movie stress is the notion that some folks do not know the difference between crime and sin. You see, for all the hullabaloo that was stirred up over the Chicken Ranch, the fact of the matter was that the crime of prostitution was in the state of Texas only a misdemeanor, thus could not be prosecuted by state law enforcement officials such as the DPS (Department of Public Safety) or the Texas Rangers. It was strictly a local matter.
Lagging third behind the NBC and CBS network affiliates in the nightly news ratings, the ABC affiliate in Houston, Channel 13, took the drastic step of recruiting Zindler to come work for them, even though he had no formal education or training in journalism whatsoever. The station’s brass knew one thing: Zindler was an attention-getter, and the common viewers liked his over-the-top style. He was pure entertainment. A few months later he was knee-deep into the Chicken Ranch and Wagon Wheel brothels expose. Right time, right place for Zindler. Wrong time, wrong place for Miss Edna and her girls.
The newly elected State Attorney General, John Hill, had allowed one of his assistants to head up his newly formed organized crime task force. In February 1973, it launched an investigation of the Chicken Ranch and Wagon Wheel brothels, operating on the (unfounded) assumption that organized crime was behind both operations. This task force was headed up, I learned from the book, by Tim James, a former HPD policeman who had been one of my training officers when I was a rookie in 1968. I knew Tim to be a hard-working, strait-laced, by-the-book cop, who happened to possess keen political instincts.
Even then, Tim held a law degree and was adding to his resume by a stint with HPD before moving on to greener pastures with the Harris County District Attorney’s office. Ever politically minded, Tim even ran for office for the state legislature, endorsed by John Hill, who Tim introduced me to at a fund-raiser for his campaign, circa 1971, when Tim and I were still nominally friends. He ran, naturally enough, as a law and order candidate, and many of us at HPD supported his campaign, which he lost to his Republican opponent. I lost track of Tim after that.
Tim had an interesting pedigree, for he was the son of one of the greatest of the 1930s and ‘40s Big Band leaders, and my personal favorite trumpet player, the incomparable Harry James. His stepmother was THE World War II pinup girl and beautiful blonde actress, Betty Grable, whose legs had been insured by her studio, 20th Century Fox, for $1,000,000, by Lloyd’s of London as a publicity stunt.
Tim was not overly fond of Miss Grable, holding her responsible for the breakup of his parents’ marriage. Possibly as a result of this experience Tim had a moral streak that denounced sexual sins like adultery and prostitution. I was not surprised to learn, then, in reading Blaschke’s book, that Tim had been the one to instigate the investigation of the Chicken Ranch and Wagon Wheel bordellos. Everyone has an axe to grind.
In an indirect manner, then, I suppose we can lay this investigation, which led directly to the closing of the Chicken Ranch, at the feet of Miss Betty Grable, the most popular actress of the 1940s. Hugh Hefner later admitted that her famous pinup inspired his Playboy Magazine concept of the centerfold. Miss Grable died, coincidentally, on July 2, 1973, one month before the Chicken Ranch was shut down.
Tim James’s investigation ran into a brick wall, as had previous investigations by the DPS and Texas Rangers. One of his task force members, Herb Hancock, decided, on his own, to secretly take the matter to someone in the press who he felt could bring enough heat to bear that the politicians would eventually be forced to take action. He chose Marvin Zindler. On the 4th of July 1973, Hancock handed over a purloined copy of the investigation report to Marvin with his assurance that the reporter would not reveal his source. Zindler kept his word.
Armed with the official report, Zindler convinced the powers-that-be at Channel 13 to let him run with the story. He was assigned another reporter and a cameraman to assist him, and the young reporter went undercover to the Chicken Ranch to prove prostitution was in full swing. In order to do so, he of course had to submit to experiencing the guilty pleasures himself. No sacrifice was too great, he reckoned, to obtain the truth.
After a few weeks of Marvin’s nightly news reports hammering away on his investigation of the alleged organized crime behind the two houses of prostitution in La Grange and Sealy (which was never proven, by the way), the politicians were forced to cave in. At a meeting in Governor Dolph Briscoe’s office held on July 31, 1973, most of the major players were present. Noticeably absent was Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby, who had a good relationship with the Chicken Ranch. Noticeably present was the governor’s wife Janey.
“’I say this with all affection, because I’m very fond of Dolph,’ Hobby said, ’but Janey, his wife, . . . [the Chicken Ranch] is the kind of thing she would just go ape over. I think that had a good deal to do with Dolph’s reaction’” (p. 212).
“[Herb] Hancock, too, felt that Janey Briscoe’s ferocious opposition to the brothels dramatically limited the governor’s options in responding to the situation” (p. 212).
After wrestling with the problem all night, the next day, August 1st, 1973, Governor Dolph Briscoe made the fateful phone calls to the two county sheriffs, Flournoy and Maddox, ordering them to shut down, immediately, both whorehouses. The governor later admitted, “’For several days afterward I kept waiting for someone to point out that I had no legal authority to close the place down, but no one did,’”
After all was said and done, there was no smoking gun; no evidence, much less proof, of the involvement of organized crime; no confirmation of payoffs to politicians, especially the sheriffs; no corroboration of assertions by Texas state law enforcement personnel or Marvin Zindler of a statewide prostitution ring; no so-called “white slavery.”
The closest anyone could come to evidence of bribery were the generous, civic-minded contributions made by Aunt Jessie and Miss Edna to La Grange’s hospital, city swimming pool, and Little League team. Whoa! Such diabolical schemes! Quick, manacle and shackle those felons! Oh, that’s right, prostitution was not then, and is not now, a felony. It is a simple misdemeanor, like a traffic ticket, or public intoxication, or vagrancy.
And these ladies were no vagrants by any stretch of the imagination. Let me remind you: these were “working girls,” (pardon the play on words)–young women who paid for their room and board at Aunt Jessie’s and Miss Edna’s boarding house known as the Chicken Ranch. They had no hospitalization plan, even had to pay for their mandatory weekly medical exams out of their own pockets. They caused no trouble in town, avoiding any establishment that served alcohol, always deferential to the other law-abiding citizens of La Grange. As Dolly Parton asserted in that song, the Chicken Ranch was “just a lil’ bitty pissant country place . . .ain’t nothin’ much to see . . . lots of good will and maybe one small thrill, but ain’t nothin’ dirty goin’ on.”
I am reminded of the Shakespearean play, Much Ado About Nothing. Marvin Zindler would do just about anything to sensationalize an incident if he could get a good headline or a few soundbites out of it. His Friday night restaurant reports focusing on “slime in the ice machine” were in my opinion more newsworthy than his closure of two Texas institutions where the “world’s oldest profession” was practiced. All he accomplished was the dispersal of the girls to other houses of ill repute in large cities like Houston, Dallas, Austin, or San Antonio that were not as well controlled, either from health or behavior standards, as Miss Edna’s Chicken Ranch. Yeah, Marvin did the citizens of Texas a real public service there, didn’t he?
But the legend of the Chicken Ranch lives on thanks to three enterprising artists from Texas who turned The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas into one of the biggest hits in Broadway history and a successful movie musical when everyone thought that genre of film was dead and buried. Perhaps syndicated Texas newspaper columnist, Dave McNeely, hit the nail on the head when he opined, “’Somewhere here there is a moral. If anyone can figure out what it is—other than chickens coming home to roost—please let me know’” (p. 239).