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Chicken Ranch Press Conference (1973)

Wallace and Euna Pryor

Sound | 1973

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  • The Chicken Ranch The Chicken Ranch
  • Dolph Briscoe, Jr. Dolph Briscoe, Jr.
  • Wally Pryor Wally Pryor
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In this short clip from a press conference held on August 1, 1973, Governor Dolph Briscoe answers questions about the Chicken Ranch Scandal. The Chicken Ranch was a brothel in La Grange, Texas that was in operation for over 100 years. Although prostitution was illegal, local law enforcement looked the other way in return for information gleaned from clients regarding local crimes.
The Chicken Ranch is a historical brothel in La Grange, Texas that operated from approximately 1844 to 1973. Made famous by the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the brothel's story continues to fascinate the public due to its relationship with local law enforcement, the community, and the scandal caused by its exposé by a Houston television journalist. 
 
The brothel in its earliest form was made up of a widow, Mrs. Swine, and three young women she brought from New Orleans. They took up residence in a small hotel near the town saloon, and Mrs. Swine's rules for her girls became the norm for the brothel, upheld by all three of its madames. After the Civil War, prostitution in La Grange moved out of downtown to the banks of the Colorado River. The new madame, Miss Jessie Williams, bought a small house there in 1905 and soon after upgraded to two houses and eleven acres, which became what we know as the Chicken Ranch. Williams, following Mrs. Swine's example, ran a respectable brothel that upheld good relationships with law enforcement, donated money to the community, and only admitted politicians and lawmen; no drunkards were allowed as clients. In 1917, the ladies of the Chicken Ranch began sending packages and letters to Fayette County men serving in WWI, which furthered good relations with the community. Their war efforts, combined with automobiles allowing easier access to the brothel, created a boom in business during the 1920s. Miss Jessie maintained a working relationship with Sheriff Will Lossein, who made nightly visits to the brothel to collect information on criminals that the ladies gleaned from their clients who had a tendency to brag about their exploits. Many crimes were solved through their tips, which caused law enforcement to overlook the fact that prositution was illegal in Texas. 
 
When Miss Jessie became ill in the 1950s, Edna Milton bought the ranch and took over as madame. Her relationship with the new sheriff, T.J. Flournoy, proved just as successful as that of their predecessors. Flournoy even installed a direct phone line at the Chicken Ranch so that he could collect his nightly crime tips more easily. Milton ran the brothel just as strictly as Williams had - the girls were forbidden from interacting with La Grange residents aside from their weekly doctor visits and rotating shopping schedule in town. New employees were fingerprinted by Sheriff Flournoy before they were hired, a criminal record disqualifying them from employment. Edna only permitted white, sober gentlemen to her establishment, where cursing and drinking was not allowed. She took care of the girls' taxes, insurance, living expenses, and doctor visits, leaving them with an impressive salary, even after 75% of payment for services went to Milton. Milton also followed Miss Jessie's lead in philanthropy, becoming one of La Grange's largest benefactors, and further ensuring the goodwill of the community that otherwise may have protested the ongoing existence of an illegal and immoral institution in their town. The Chicken Ranch became a part of Texas culture, heavily visited by soldiers from surrounding military bases, as well as male students from nearby Texas A&M and the University of Texas.  
 
The Chicken Ranch continued operations until 1973 when Houston television journalist Marvin Zindler ran a week-long exposé on the brothel. He largely documented the blind eye that local law enforcement and the Texas DPS turned to the Chicken Ranch, indicting them before a very wide public audience. The attention from the television exposé forced Governor Dolph Briscoe to meet with the DPS, state attorney general, and Zindler, ultimately leading to his order for Sheriff Flournoy to close the brothel for good. Edna attempted to capitalize on the Chicken Ranch's fame by moving the house to Dallas and opening a chicken restaurant, but the restaurant remained open for less than a year. The legacy of the Chicken Ranch was fictionalized in the 1978 Broadway musical and 1982 motion picture, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
41st Governor of Texas Dolph Briscoe, Jr. was born in Uvalde, Texas, on April 23, 1923, to Texas cattleman Dolph Sr. and Georgie Briscoe. He attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he met Betty Jane “Janey” Slaughter. The couple married in 1942. After graduation, Briscoe enlisted in the United States Army, fighting in the China-Burma-India theater during World War II.
 
Briscoe began a career in politics in 1948, serving as a member of the Texas House of Representatives from 1949 to 1957. As a state legislator, he held key chairmanships for the agriculture and highway committees and co-authored the Colson-Briscoe Act, which sponsored the state’s farm-to-market road system. 
 
Upon his father’s death in 1954, Briscoe returned to Uvalde to head his family ranch rather than seek a fifth term as state representative. He became president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raising Association in 1960, the youngest person to do so. 
 
In 1968, Briscoe reentered the political arena, campaigning for the Democratic nomination for Governor of Texas. While he finished fourth in the 1968 primary race, he ran again in 1972, winning not only the Democratic nomination but also the general election. Briscoe was re-elected in 1974. 
 
During his two terms as Governor of Texas, Briscoe attempted to restore integrity to the state government following the Sharpstown scandals surrounding his predecessor, Preston Smith. He focused on the maintenance of existing government agencies rather than the creation of new ones, signing a series of ethics reform and regulation laws as well as presiding over the first revision of the state’s penal code in 100 years. Briscoe also appointed a larger number of women and minorities to government positions than any previous governor.
 
Spending much of his time at his ranch in Uvalde, Briscoe was often considered an absentee governor. Many, both in and outside the Texas Democratic Party, began to question his performance and effectiveness. (Perhaps the most well known example of Briscoe’s apparent lack of enthusiasm came when he unknowingly appointed a dead person to the State Health Advisory Commission.) With liberal Democrats increasingly dissatisfied with his administration and the political backlash against his policies over racial, educational, and economic issues, Briscoe was defeated in the Democratic primary during his bid for a third term by then-Texas Attorney General John Hill. Hill ultimately lost the general election to Bill Clements, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. 
 
Briscoe left the Governor’s Mansion in 1979 and returned to the ranching business. He became increasingly active in philanthropy, donating sizable gifts to the Witte Museum, the University of Texas Heath Science Center at San Antonio, the Kate Marmion Regional Cancer Medical Center, and the Center for American History, the latter of which was subsequently renamed in his honor. 
 
Briscoe died on June 27, 2010, at his home in Uvalde following complications from heart and kidney failure. He was 87. 
Known to many as the "Voice of the Longhorns," Wally Pryor served as the announcer for UT sports from 1953 until 2002. While his voice was certainly recognizable he also played an active role as a producer – for KTBC, amongst others – and regularly served as an emcee for various events. Wally regularly worked as a producer for his older brother Richard "Cactus" Pryor. The films in the Wally Pryor collection represent a range of films from home movies, to various pieces he produced, films featuring himself, and several films featuring Cactus Pryor.