The 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).
Ms. 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).