Miss Edna, as she was known, later became the sharp-witted proprietor of the Chicken Ranch, which later catapulted to Broadway and Hollywood fame as “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
After publicity tours and a non-speaking part in the Broadway production of “Best Little Whorehouse,” Edna Milton Chadwell spent the past 29 years living in retirement in Phoenix, where she died Feb. 25.
She was 84 and had complications from injuries suffered in a car accident in October, her nephew Robert Kleffman said.
If not exactly beloved, the Chicken Ranch was certainly renowned long before Mrs. Chadwell came on the scene. Prostitution was legal in parts of Texas well into the 20th century, and La Grange — a town of a few thousand people midway between Houston and Austin — had a history of bordellos dating from before the Civil War.
Mrs. Chadwell’s predecessor as madam of the Chicken House, Jessie Williams, had bought some property about two miles outside La Grange and was in business by 1915. The establishment got its name during the Depression, when cash-poor customers paid for services with chickens and other farm produce.
Miss Jessie also established a firm code of morality at the Chicken Ranch that Mrs. Chadwell reinforced when she took over in 1961. Doctors examined the women at the Chicken Ranch each week for venereal diseases. Drunkenness, violence and cursing were not tolerated among customers.
“It’s never caused no trouble round here,” Sheriff T.J. Flournoy told Texas Monthly magazine in 1973. “No fights or dope or nothin’. I ain’t never got no complaints.”
The Chicken Ranch was frequented by businessmen, soldiers and college boys from the University of Texas and Texas A&M. In a Playboy magazine article, Larry L. King wrote, “Veteran legislators . . . could have driven to the [Chicken Ranch] without headlights even in a midnight rainstorm.”
In July 1973, flamboyant Houston TV reporter Marvin Zindler went on the air with a story exposing the Chicken Ranch as a den of rampant prostitution. He said that in two days, he counted 484 men entering the unmarked building, which contained 11 bedrooms. He suggested that there may have been links to organized crime.
When Sheriff Flournoy was asked what was going on at the Chicken Ranch, he said, “It don’t take a very . . . intelligent man to know what’s going on up there. Any little farm boy knows what’s going on up there.”