to writer Larry King’s hit Broadway play, “The Best Little Whorehouse
in Texas,” not to mention the movie with Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds,
most residents of Fayette
County don’t mind that one of their more popular landmarks is
the site of a long-abandoned brothel.
For those unfamiliar with this aspect of late 20th century Texas
social history, Gov. Dolph Briscoe – supposedly at the urging of
wife Janey – ordered the La
Grange Chicken Ranch shut down in the summer of 1973.
Opened in the 1840s when Texas was an independent republic, the
venerable establishment got its name not because its proprietor
raised poultry on the property, but because during the hard times
of the Great Depression, the owner-operator accepted chickens in
lieu of cash for the services of her staff.
As attorney general back in the 1950s, Will Wilson was the first
state official to try to close the Chicken Ranch. Someone from Austin
brought all the necessary paperwork to the Fayette
County courthouse, but the DA would not take the case. His official
response, supposedly, was that he was unaware of a house of ill
repute within his jurisdiction.
“Let me tell you a story,” he is said to have told the assistant
AG. “A man and his wife came to town and started a candy company.
The wife didn’t like the idea of a house of prostitution in the
county, so she started to circulate a petition to shut it down.
Do you know how many signatures they got? Two – his and hers.”
Not only that, their business suddenly went from sweet to sour (to
the extent of former customers tossing their candy dispensers out
in the street) and they had to leave town. Meanwhile, business continued
as usual at the Chicken Ranch.
For some Fayette
County residents, the ranch provided a different form of recreation.
One women who grew up in Schulenburg
said that local couples favored a dance hall not too far from the
“On Saturday nights, girls would get their boyfriends to drive them
by the ranch (how the guys knew its location apparently was not
discussed) and they’d write down the license plate numbers of all
the cars outside,” she said. “The next morning, they had fun seeing
who was parked at what church.”
this is well enough known, especially among Baby Boomers and older
folks, but until recently, I’d never heard a treasure tale connected
to the Chicken Ranch. Of course, there’s not a county in Texas that
doesn’t have a treasure story, including Fayette.
And the more historic counties generally have multiple legends of
But a Chicken Ranch treasure story is as rare as the proverbial
hen’s teeth. Even more unusual is a report of someone actually finding
something of value connected to a hidden-loot legend. When what
could be considered buried treasure is found, it is almost always
accidental and seldom reported.
Working in her garden one day back in the 1970s, a woman who lived
in East Austin at the time (she and her husband have long since
moved to another city) felt her spade hit something metallic. She
had been about to plant a bush, but began vigorously removing dirt
so she could see what she had found.
Digging in the black soil didn’t prove too hard, and soon she brushed
dirt from a rusty metal box. Prying the lid off, she found it stuffed
with cash. The bills were moist and moldy, but having been designed
by the government to withstand heavy use, they remained in good
enough condition to be “laundered.”
Washing and drying her un-seeded cash crop, she counted out $23,000.
Readily invoking the doctrine of “finders keepers, losers weepers,”
the woman and her husband discussed what to do with the all that
cash. Knowing the IRS would view found money as reportable income,
they selflessly decided not to overburden an already strapped federal
agency with additional paperwork. So they just kept the money.
Neither did they feel nervous enough about the possibility of a
home burglary to take the money to a bank, where cash deposits over
$10,000 have to be reported. They kept the bills hidden at their
residence, dipping into the money over the years for this or that
The house the couple lived in at the time had been around for a
while, but the unearthed bills bore fairly recent dates. Naturally,
the couple wondered who had buried the money and why. Turned out,
the money was both literally and figuratively dirty.
Somehow, the couple learned that a woman once associated with La
Grange’s Chicken Ranch had at one point lived in the house they
then owned. Whether the woman’s role at the well-known bordello
had been managerial or more hands-on was not known, but clearly
she had been high enough in the pecking order to accumulate a reasonable
amount of cash. She, too, apparently had been concerned about tax
Even though inflation ran 7.6 percent a year in the early 1970s,
a gallon of unleaded gasoline cost only 39 cents. Average annual
income was $10,512 and a new house went for around $35,500. In other
words, in the closing months of the Nixon administration, $23,000
in cold cash was not chicken feed.
The Bible doesn’t place a dollar amount on the wages of sin, merely
making the point that there’s always a steep price (as in death)
attached to wrong-doing. But in the case of whoever that long-ago
Chicken Ranch “associate” was, the wages of sin came to exactly
$23,000 in cash.
© Mike Cox
- October 15, 2015 Column
See also A
Visit to the Chicken Ranch by Lois Zook Wauson
Related Topics: People
Columns | Texas
Towns | Texas Counties |