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The history of the Chicken Ranch

Chron columnist and Texas historian Joe Holley writes about an attempt to put a marker by the site of the infamous Chicken Ranch.

Rumors spreading round that Texas town

Rumors spreading round that Texas town

It’s been 43 years since KTRK-TV’s crusading consumer affairs reporter (“Slime in the ice machine!!”) rolled into town with a cameraman to bust the unassuming, little country brothel that had flourished just beyond the city limits for more than a century. Zindler’s over-the-top theatrics not only resulted in the demise of the brothel – and the reporter’s own beat-down at the hands of the local sheriff, Big Jim Flournoy – but also set in motion the media cavalcade featuring Larry L. King’s famous “Playboy” article, the subsequent Broadway musical and the movie version starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. “‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ remains one of the most infamous brothels ever to operate in the United States, if not the world,” says Jayme Lynn Blaschke, author of the newly published “Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse.”

The front parlor of the rambling, old frame house ended up in Dallas in 1976, reconstituted as a combination disco and chicken-themed restaurant on Greenville Avenue. “Lots of men showed up thinking it was still a brothel,” a former waitress told Blaschke. The owners hired Miss Edna, the Chicken Ranch’s last madam, to act as hostess, but she couldn’t draw the (fried) thigh and breast trade the way she could in La Grange. The restaurant lasted less than a year.

Back in Fayette County, a Waco used-car salesman named Mike McGee acquired the Chicken Ranch property in a 2009 swap with a Houston businessman. “I didn’t know what I got when I traded for it,” McGee told me by phone earlier this week.

What he got were the ruins of an old house surrounded by mesquite, huisache and prickly pear on a gravel road less than a mile off state Highway 71. Vandals, the weather and the travails of time have done their work, and by now the house is too far gone to restore. Last month McGee began the process of applying for a state historical marker at the suggestion of the local tourism board. “There’s so much interest in the Chicken Ranch, they wanted a place they can send people to, so they can look at something,” he said.

A few influential folks were not pleased, said Blaschke, who helped McGee with the application. “I’d say 45 percent of the population think it’s part of Texas history, and they should exploit it,” he said from his office at Texas State University, where he’s director of media relations. “Another 45 percent don’t give it any never mind. And maybe 10 percent of the population just about spews blood out of their eyeballs if you even mention it.”

Among the more adamant opponents – and the most influential – is longtime County Judge Ed Janecka, whose Czech ancestors settled the nearby community of Dubina in the 1850s.

McGee and Blaschke have withdrawn the application for a historical marker due to Judge Janecka’s opposition, which makes sense because Janecka would have to approve it. They may try again another time, and I hope they do. I don’t live there and it’s none of my business, but I think this is an interesting and worthwhile piece of history that ought to be remembered. I understand that some of the locals are still sensitive about this, and I can’t blame them. Maybe it would be best to wait, out of consideration for the folks who do remember the place and don’t want to be reminded of it. I do hope that someday there will be a plaque or some such to tell visitors and others who are curious that on this spot once stood the most famous brothel in Texas, if not America.

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