EDITOR’S NOTE: We asked Jayme Lynn Blaschke, a Texas State employee, to write about his experiences with Edna Milton, the last madam of the storied Chicken Ranch brothel who died last week at the age of 84. Blaschke interviewed Milton in 2009 for a book he is writing about the Chicken Ranch.
GUEST COLUMN by JAYME LYNN BLASCHKE
The first time I ever spoke with Edna Milton Chadwell, better known to generations of Texans as “Miss Edna,” I was seated on concrete steps smack-dab in the middle of the ruins of the Chicken Ranch. I carefully dialed her number on my cell phone, as nervous as I’d ever been in my life. When she answered, I swear my heart skipped a beat.
After I’d introduced myself — she’d been expecting my call — I told her where I was calling from. She paused only a moment, considering this, before answering, “Well, you take whatever you want, honey, and put a match to the rest.”
Yeah, that got my attention.
I first grew interested — really interested — in the Chicken Ranch several years before, when Marvin Zindler died. Growing up in Columbus, I’d always heard of the place, but never knew the story beyond the Burt Reynolds-Dolly Parton movie. The few books written about the place were… lacking, I believe, is a charitable way to put it. Nobody had ever bothered to record the history properly, taking the time to interview all the major players. This infuriated me, and I complained so forcefully that my long-suffering wife, Lisa, finally told me to shut up and write the book myself.
If Miss Edna were still alive, I reasoned, and I could find her, and she agreed to talk with me, I had the makings of a book. If any of the above questions came back “no,” well, the project was dead before it started. Through a combination of persistence and dumb luck, I learned of a nephew of hers through whom I negotiated the phone call.
Sitting on the Chicken Ranch steps, with the ruined house all around me, I explained my vision for the book. She answered that she always wanted to tell her story, but didn’t have the writing skills to do it herself. She invited us to visit her, and a month later Lisa and I found ourselves in Phoenix, ringing Miss Edna’s doorbell.
The Miss Edna who opened the door looked nothing like Dolly Parton. She didn’t even look like her younger self from decades-old newspaper clippings. No, this 81-year-old Miss Edna was stooped with osteoporosis, walked slowly because of an old hip injury and whose face was deeply lined by all the hardships she’d face in life. She looked nothing like the nefarious former owner of the most famous brothel in history — in her housecoat she looked like somebody’s grandmother.
Her home was a simple three-bedroom ranch house with dark wood paneling and the heavy scent of air fresheners lingering everywhere. Through the back door I glimpsed a swimming pool occupying most of the tiny back yard. Inside the house, every side table, counter top and book shelf held an ash tray.
The conversation started slowly at first. Miss Edna nervously pinched the skin of her forearm and made a constant, guttural double-grunt as she spoke. After about 30 minutes, her resolve crumbled.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” she asked, and proceeded to engage in the most profound display of chain-smoking I have ever witnessed. Having just gotten over a cold myself and barely keeping a lingering cough at bay, I devoured throat lozenges by the handful to keep from hacking up a lung.
Despite that, our time with Miss Edna was a fantastic experience. She proved to be a gracious hostess, offering to cook us dinner and sharing advice on where the best shopping was in town. She told of us stories of the Chicken Ranch, showed off a few souvenirs she’d kept from those days, and opened up a big box full of old photos and newspaper clippings. Some of her stories were hilarious, others downright heartbreaking. Some things she refused to speak of at all. One thing was clear, though–she’d shed all ties with her former life, and lived in quiet anonymity. She hadn’t kept in contact with even a single one of her former employees.
“One reason why I didn’t,” Miss Edna explained. “If they had family that’s worth anything, I didn’t want to mess that up. And if they weren’t worth anything, I didn’t want to associate with them anyway. The people next door, they know nothing about my past, but they’re very good people.”
She opened up about things that had nothing to do with the Chicken Ranch. She talked about the pharmacy in Pampa she worked at as a teenager when her life was still full of possibilities. She talked about the Studebaker she once owned with an engine that constantly flooded. The talked about sharing the fruit from the orange tree in her yard with her neighbors, and how she hoped to get a lemon tree to go with it. Over the course of our time with her, she ceased to be the nefarious madam from news stories who’d defied the law and peddled vice and became, instead, a real human being, flawed but compassionate, one who’d never wanted the life she lived, but had made the best of some bad situations and in the end enjoyed some extraordinary experiences.
When we finally left, Miss Edna made us promise to bring her a book once it was published. She wanted her story told, to dispel all the rumors and half-truths grown up over the years. Alas, one of my great regrets is that I did not finish it in time for her to see, but the overwhelming interest shown in her passing worldwide has convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that the story of the Chicken Ranch — beyond all the legend and mythology — is an important and necessary one to tell.
JAYME LYNN BLASCHKE, a New Braunfels resident, works at Texas State University. He hopes to complete his history of the Chicken Ranch in time to be published before the 40th anniversary of its closing in August 2013. His website is here.