Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Chicken Ranch report: Rotary!

Good grief! I wholly intended to write up this report of my trip to La Grange last Thursday, but a whole herd of Distractions with a capital D afflicted me and, well, here we are.

My presentation to the Rotarians went swimmingly. There was a packed house, and I overheard more than one person say they'd come that day specifically for my talk. I had a full half hour to use this time, and I like to think I put it to good use. I went through my slide show--which is always popular, as I have some of the only existing photos of the inside of the Chicken Ranch--and then read my paper from the East Texas Historical Association conference, which audiences seem to find moving. After that, we had a lively Q&A session in which I learned something new that somehow hadn't come up before in my research. It seems that the first madam, Jessie Williams, was known locally as Aunt Jessie as opposed to the Miss Jessie I'd been using all this time. Which just goes to show that there are always new details and facts waiting to be uncovered.

This marked the fifth presentation I've given in La Grange on the defunct Chicken Ranch brothel in the past couple of years, and every single time there has been a significant percentage of those in the audience that regard me with wary civility. These are, invariably, the people who lived through the final years of the Chicken Ranch and suffered through the Marvin Zindler-led media circus that led to its closing. Lots of inaccurate and outright wrong things have been written about it in the ensuing years, and even more rumors and whispered stories. So it's understandable that they view me, an outsider, with no small amount of suspicion, expecting me to just repeat those old, tired stories based more in a Burt Reynolds/Dolly Parton fiction than in reality. Each time, I've won them over. I've had reports of elderly ladies planning to "set me right" only to depart with smiles and laughter. I've received emails thanking me and offering suggestions of additional sources. Following the Rotary presentation, I had folks come up and commend me for my extensive research far beyond what they thought possible--bearing in mind that this is for a 30 minute audio-visual presentation. The history book itself is 110,000 words long! But more than that, the Rotarians wanted to reminisce. I heard stories of visiting the short-lived restaurant in Dallas, scribbling down license plate numbers in the parking lot to see if any classmates were "visiting" the brothel, others whose fathers and mothers as local merchants did brisk business with the Chicken Ranch and all the philanthropic gifts Aunt Jessie and later Miss Edna made that improved the quality of life for everyone in La Grange. I also confirmed that H-E-B's "Texas Chicken Ranch Eggs" are indeed available in town.

But do you know what really topped the day off? Their presenting me with the Speaker Appreciation Award. Oh, I know it's not a Nobel or Pulitzer, but is a kind and considerate gesture and I appreciate it deeply. It's hanging on my office wall as I write this. You know, a fellow could get used to this public speaking stuff...

Now Playing: Eric Clapton Pilgrim
Chicken Ranch Central

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