There weren’t many professional opportunities available in the 1940s for a young woman like Edna Milton. Born in rural Oklahoma, one of 11 children, she left her Dust Bowl-ravaged state with her family in search of a better life in California, Arizona and Texas before going back to Oklahoma.
After a brief marriage at 16, Miss Milton left her husband and was reduced to earning a living through her charms and wiles. She was a prostitute in Houston and Fort Worth before arriving in La Grange, Texas, in 1952. She went to work at the Chicken Ranch, a brothel that was technically against the law but tolerated by all.
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 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.
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 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 possible 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.”
Within days, Texas officials ordered the Chicken Ranch to be shut down.
The townspeople rallied to Chadwell’s defense, and the sheriff took a petition of support, with thousands of signatures, to the governor’s office. Gov. Dolph Briscoe Jr., D, refused to see him.
Chadwell had been one of the most generous philanthropists in Fayette County, donating to the local hospital and sponsoring a youth baseball team — the Demons. She and her “girls” were regular customers at local hairdressers, clothing stores and grocery markets, but after the Chicken Ranch was closed, the town became the subject of jokes on late-night talk shows. When Chadwell tried to buy a house in La Grange, her down payment was returned because of the negative publicity.
King, a Washington-based writer, adapted his Playboy article into a musical play, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” which debuted on Broadway in 1978 and was nominated for several Tony Awards. Dolly Parton played a character based on Chadwell in a 1982 movie version.
According to the Associated Press, Chadwell told her nephew, “The only thing in the movie that was correct was that there was a whorehouse.”
Edna Arretha Milton was born Jan. 3, 1928, in Caddo County, Okla. Her nephew said her family lived in sharecropper’s shacks and even in wagons.
At 16, Chadwell was living in California, she later told writer Jayme Lynn Blaschke, when she was pushed into a marriage to Elva A. Hutson; they later divorced. She had a son who died in infancy.
With no other resources, Chadwell moved to Texas and turned to prostitution.
“She told me she was on the brink of starvation,” said Blaschke, who is writing a book about the Chicken Ranch.
After the Chicken Ranch was shuttered in 1973, Chadwell was a hostess at a restaurant in Dallas and briefly ran a bar in Fort Worth. (Both were called the Chicken Ranch.)
She was married four times, including to Glen Davidson, who died in 1982, and to Clayton Chadwell, who died in 1997. Survivors include two brothers and a sister.
Chadwell had always hoped to attend college, Blaschke said, but poverty drove her in another direction. She spent her later years largely in seclusion.
In addition to the play and movie, the rock band ZZ Top had a popular song about the Chicken Ranch called “La Grange.”
For years, men kept driving to La Grange, only to find the Chicken Ranch falling into ruins in the Texas countryside.