The La Grange Chicken Ranch was a brothel in Texas made famous by the musical play (1977) and movie (1982) The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, after being made infamous by Marvin Zindler of Houston's KTRK Channel 13 (1973). It saw 34 US presidents, the Civil War, WWI and WWII, the Korean War, and most of the Vietnam War pass by while it went about its business.
The Chicken Ranch started business way back in 1844, making it 129 years old when it was finally shut down (incidentally, also making it the longest continuously-running brothel in America). It got its name during the Great Depression, when money was scarce and the girls started accepting chickens instead of cash. As the story goes, the place was nearly disease-free because the girls would get regular medical checkups, and its clients ranged from privates and generals in the military to all levels of Texas politicians. And the IRS always got their cut of the profits, a tidy sum considering sources placed the annual gross revenue at over $300,000 in the 1960s.
So long as it wasn't hurting anyone, the nearby town of La Grange, and indeed the whole county of Fayette was content to let the brothel do its peaceful business. Unfortunately, higher up in the Texas chain of law enforcement, the Texas organized crime division thought there was something a little more sinister going on. The Chicken Ranch was suspected of organized crime connections, ranging from money laundering to narcotics connections to gun running. But since the place was under the jurisdiction of local law enforcement that didn't seem to want to do anything about it, and the rest of Texas didn't really care about some little whorehouse in Fayette county, they had to rectify one or both of these conditions before anything could be done. As it turned out, the easier one would be to make the rest of Texas care.
ABC affiliate KTRK in Houston received a call from a lawyer working for the organized crime division (which they would claim for 25 years was an anonymous tip) about two brothels doing business in Austin county and Fayette county. Consumer affairs reporter Marvin Zindler (Melvin P. Thorpe in the play) sent reporter Larry Conners (omitted from the play) to get the story. He made his first stopover near the town of Sealy in Austin county to visit the newer Wagon Wheel, and then visited the historic Chicken Ranch in Fayette county near La Grange.
Once in La Grange, Conners proceeded to get a camera inside the Chicken Ranch to get pictures of the prostitutes and clients. When one of the girls found the camera, he was kicked out of the brothel but stayed outside to get more pictures. This brought out Madam Edna Milton (Mona Stangley in the play), who gave a short, angry interview that stopped just short of admitting it was a house of ill repute and denied outright any allegations of organized crime connections.
It wasn't long before this lead to an interview with Sheriff T.J. Flournoy (Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd in the play), who again pretty much admitted on camera that yes, there's a whorehouse over there but no, it's not causing any trouble so there's no reason to shut it down. Again, any allegations of organized crime connections or pay-offs were flatly denied, and in fact were never proved by anyone.
The news story did its part though, and by shining a spotlight directly on the Chicken Ranch Channel 13 was able to bring enough attention to the place that Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe was forced to do something about it. Sheriff Flournoy was ordered to shut it down, which he did on Wednesday, August 1, 1973, bringing an end to the Chicken Ranch's 129 year history.
The story would have ended there, but in 1974 Marvin Zindler came by to do a follow-up story on La Grange, to show that the closing of the Chicken Ranch didn't have any effect on the local economy. While he was there, he was physically assaulted by Sheriff Flournoy, which was caught on tape. The Sheriff exposed the videotape to sunlight to destroy it, but didn't know how to destroy the audio, which survived. Zindler claimed that Flournoy broke a rib in the altercation, but a lawsuit was settled out of court and Zindler donated the money to charity.
Then in 1977, Larry L. King wrote a musical based on the story, calling it The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The play was turned into a movie of the same name in 1982, starring Dolly Parton, Burt Reynolds, and Dom DeLuise.
The Chicken Ranch is now the name of a legal brothel operating near Las Vegas, Nevada. Its web site is:
golFUR tells me that ZZ Top also wrote a song about the brothel, called La Grange.
http://abclocal.go.com/ktrk/story?section=stationinfo&id=3300910 - Channel 13 looks back at the story 25 years later.
And thanks to Tato for help and encouragement.