Governor Dolph Briscoe and the Chicken Ranch

Dolph Briscoe, Jr. was the 41st governor of Texas.  He was born April 23, 1923 in Uvalde County, Texas to Leigh Adolphus (Dolph) and Georgia M. Garvey Briscoe.  His grandparents were Leigh Adolphus (the first of his Briscoe ancestors to be born in Texas) and Lucy A. Briscoe.  Going further back on the Briscoe side, his great grandfather was Robert Permenias Briscoe and his great grandfather was Andrew Briscoe, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence and a settler in the old Fort Bend area.

Dolph grew up on the family ranch in Uvalde.  Upon his graduation as valedictorian of Uvalde High School, he entered the University of Texas at Austin.  There he met Janey Slaughter.  In 1943, Dolph enlisted in the United States Army as a private, serving in the China-Burma-India theater and rising to the rank of officer.

Dolph, Jr. had considerable exposure to Texas politics via his father who was acquainted with Gov. Ross Sterling.  Dolph, Sr. was appointed to the Texas Racing Commission by Gov. James Allred. Dolph, Sr. also served on the board of First State Bank of Uvalde with John Nance Garner, also a long time Uvalde resident.  Dolph, Jr. recalled the family being invited to stay at the Governor’s Mansion in Austin by Gov. Sterling when Dolph was still a boy.  An early memory was being invited to sleep in Sam Houston’s bed in the Governor’s Mansion.

He won his first election when he ran for State Representative in 1948, serving from 1949 to 1957.  Dolph, Sr. died in 1954, leaving Dolph, Jr. to run the ranch, and Dolph, Jr. left politics for a time.  The family ranch was an operation of considerable size.  At one time, the Briscoe family were the largest land owners in Texas.  Dolph was a long time member of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and in 1960, became the youngest person to serve as president of the organization.  While heading up the ranching industry Association, he helped raise $3 million dollars in voluntary contributions to assist in the eradication of the screwworm infestation in Texas and the Southwest.

Dolph, Jr. ran for Governor in 1968 in a crowded field of candidates trying to follow Gov. John Connally, but only finished fourth in the Democratic primary.  He ran again, four years later.  This time, he successfully defeated Rep. Frances (Sissy) Farenthold for the Democratic nomination and Republican Hank Grover for the Governor’s seat.  The state had been previously rocked by a political scandal known as the Sharpstown scandal and Dolph was considered to be a reform candidate.

Among his accomplishments were adding $4 billion dollars for public and higher education, increasing Texas teacher salaries along with salaries for state employees, expanding services for needy residents.  He appointed many African Americans to state boards along with the appointment of the first African American district judge.  He was known as being fiscally responsible, as he accomplished this without increasing state taxes.

Briscoe was known for favoring law enforcement.  The Chicken Ranch was the name of a long time brothel outside La Grange, Texas.  It was a successor to an earlier entity that had operated for decades inside La Grange.  The last operation is thought to have been set up around 1915 by a woman using the name of Jessie Williams.  Although the business was illegal, local and state law enforcement ignored it and allowed it to remain in operation.  Williams stayed in relatively good favor with the city and Fayette County officials by donating to worth causes and otherwise doing good deeds in the area, also supposedly informing local law officers of other illegal activities that she or her employees may have learned.  Local legend had it that during the Great Depression that the owner would accept chickens in exchange for services, which contributed to the name The Chicken Ranch.  During the world wars, the business was known for sending care packages to area troops.

Running of the business eventually passed to Edna Milton, a former sex worker at the Ranch.  Milton later acquired the property and business from Williams’ heirs and is said to have continued her predecessor’s relationship with local law enforcement.

In 1973, Houston journalist Marvin Zindler published an exposé that focused attention on the Chicken Ranch and during the tenure of Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe, it was closed once, reopened briefly and after another piece by Marvin Zindler, it was closed this time for good.

After being shut down as a brothel, the real estate changed hands a time or two, with some of the buildings and furnishings being moved to Greenville Avenue in Dallas as the site of a restaurant owned by William Fair III, which was only open a few months.  There was also later a bar on Lemmon Avenue in Dallas that briefly operated from around 1979 to 1980 under the same name.  Both businesses had in common the involvement of Milton who served as hostess of the restaurant and supposedly had an interest in the bar.  The story of the brothel was the subject of a book, a Broadway musical, and a song by the Texas band Z. Z. Top.

Briscoe served as Governor from January 16, 1973 to January 16, 1979.  Following his final term as Governor, Briscoe retired from politics and returned to Uvalde.  Dolph and Janey were quite active in philanthropy, and were known for their support of the Witte Museum and University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.  Dolph had a long time interest in Texas and American history and donated $15 million to the Center for American History, now known as the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History and also served on its Advisory Council.  Dolph also made a founding contribution to the Kate Marmion Regional Cancer Medical Center in memory of their late granddaughter.


(Image credit: Findagrave)

Janey had always actively campaigned with Dolph and the couple was known around the state for their support of charitable causes.  She is credited for the campaign to have the Texas Governor’s Mansion named as a National Historical Landmark.  Gov. Briscoe passed away on June 27, 2010, having been predeceased in 2000 by Janey.  Both are interred in the Brisco Frio Ranch Cemetery in Uvalde.

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