In the small city of LaGrange, Texas, with a population of just over 4,000 people, huge antique shows and a charitable bike ride draw many visitors every year.
But it’s possible the infamous Chicken Ranch, reportedly the last brothel in Texas when it closed in 1973, generates more frank curiosity about LaGrange than more mainstream gatherings.
“I talk with other downtown professionals around the state and we talk about these notorious attractions,” Caleb Parks, the LaGrange Main Street manager, said in an interview. “It’s a part of your history that needs to be talked about, but it’s not always the easiest to talk about.
“If the worst that can be said is that your town was the site of the last operating brothel in Texas, that’s not the worst thing.”
Unlike some cities and towns with a “notorious attraction,” LaGrange leans into the history of the Chicken Ranch. A page of the city’s website is devoted to the history of the former brothel and Chicken Ranch souvenirs – stickers, can koozies, T-shirts, mugs, magnets, and a framed reproduction of the deed for the Chicken Ranch – are available for purchase.
LaGrange and other communities have learned that it’s often the most infamous aspects of an area’s history – the scene of Old West gunfights or Tennessee moonshine-running trails – that people are interested in.
The opportunity to remember how that history was depicted in films and other entertainment is also one that some communities embrace, whether it be the beloved 1993 Western “Tombstone,” which has become the go-to retelling of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, or “Thunder Road,” the 1958 Robert Mitchum drama that helped inspire Tennessee’s White Lightning Trail.
The history that draws visitors makes some communities proud and makes some chagrinned. Some communities embrace the controversial elements of their history and others play them down.
‘Blazing Guns’ Brings the Western Tourists
When one of my earlier true crime books, co-written by my longtime collaborator and fellow newspaper reporter Douglas Walker, was published, a history center affiliated with the local university organized not only a talk by us but a couple of bus tours of notorious local scenes. For the better part of the afternoon, we rode around on the bus and talked about infamous sites of historic murders and crimes.
Muncie, Indiana, the setting for our true crime books, is known in pop culture as the home of Garfield the cartoon cat. David Letterman went to school there and the first half of the Steven Spielberg movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is set in Muncie, although it wasn’t filmed there.
Other than Garfield as well as Letterman’s regular appearances on campus, the community doesn’t do a lot to draw tourists for its pop culture past, and certainly not for the more infamous happenings in its real-world past.
Contrast that with LaGrange or any of the Western towns that are infamous for their bloody frontier days.
Tombstone, Arizona, became famous after an 1877 silver strike made it “the fastest-growing city between St. Louis and San Francisco,” according to a 2022 piece in National Geographic.
The boomtown was marked not only by rapid growth but rapid growth in crime and corruption. Some of the lawlessness and rivalries culminated in the 1881 gunfight at the OK Corral between Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and “Doc” Holiday and the Clanton gang.
By the middle of the 20th Century, the silver mines had shut down and Tombstone had faded, but it would begin to see a revival as a tourist destination. National Geographic noted that a tourism boom followed World War II and “Tombstone began to embrace its cowboy mythology, reopening saloons, museums and creating other attractions. … Ever since, tourism has been the town’s biggest industry and employer.”
The National Park Service designated Tombstone as a well-preserved frontier community, but the U.S. Department of the Interior later said that the locals had compromised the integrity of the town’s historical presentation by distressing buildings to make them look older than they were.
National Geographic reported that the town continues to appeal to tourists, however, with attractions like the Boothill Graveyard, “recreated” on top of a former dump.
And more colorfully, the town stages regular fully-costumed reenactments of gunfights and other Old West shenanigans.
In Kansas, the state’s historical society offers “Blazing Guns and Rugged Heroes,” an audio tour of movies that take on the state’s history. How accurate are Westerns that depict Kansas history? Well, not very. A mountain looming over Dodge City, Kansas is not very accurate because of the serious lack of mountains in Kansas, the program notes.
As for notorious outlaw brothers Frank and Jesse James, Hollywood has not hewn closely to the truth in its many depictions. Hollywood styles them as Robin Hoods, the tour notes, while they were more likely to steal from the rich and give to … themselves.
In Missouri, the town of Springfield touts its history as the scene of “the nation’s first quick-draw duel,” in July 1865 between J.B. “Wild Bill” Hickok and Davis K. Tutt. The so-called “Shootout on the Square” found the two men facing off over a gambling debt and public humiliation. Tutt was killed and Hickock was acquitted of manslaughter.
The city of Springfield offers a downtown tour of the scenes that led up to and resulted in the duel, with visuals and audio available through QR codes posted in the area.
Historical markers are placed around town, including at the Park Central Branch Library, which probably offers books that elaborate on the town’s notorious history.
Sometimes history – or historical markers – can be hard to pinpoint.
White Lightning Trail Leads to … Antiques
The town of Clinton, Tennessee, is on the state’s White Lightning Thunder Road to Rebels Trail, a self-guided auto tour of cities and towns along the route moonshine runners took to deliver illegal alcohol during the years of national Prohibition, 1920 to 1933, and for years before and perhaps afterward.
“Prohibition did little to slow down a number of enterprising East Tennesseans who made some of the country’s first ‘craft cocktails,’” according to the state’s White Lightning Trail map. “The trail gets its name for the white lightning in a jug transported under the cover of darkness across the mountainous twists and turns of one of the legendary moonshine corridors.” The map presents a 200-mile loop that begins in Knoxville and continues through several towns and cities including Clinton, where just over 10,000 people live.
Clinton’s historic downtown is known for its many antique stores and specialty shops and the Clinch River Spring Antique Fair was going on when we visited.
A White Lightning Trail sign is posted on a highway directional sign outside Clinton, but few people I spoke with had any idea about the town’s history as part of the moonshine runners trail and couldn’t point to any historical markers about the trail downtown.
Town residents are quick to tell strangers about the city’s response to one of its darkest chapters, the racist backlash against the desegregation of local schools. National Guard units were called in to protect the Clinton 12 – Black students who integrated the high school in 1956 – and the Green McAdoo Cultural Center tells the story of the 12. More than one person in Clinton, when asked about moonshine trail markers, suggested visiting the center.
Some communities not only capitalize on their tragic or infamous history but seek to build and improve on it.
‘Thunder Road’ and Big-Screen Notoriety
In East Tennessee, there’s a long history of acknowledging and spotlighting the region’s history, even when it is, shall we say, colorful.
Early films about Eastern Tennessee were “primarily about hillbillies,” acknowledged Eric Dawson of the McClung Historical Collection of Knox County Public Library, housed in the East Tennessee History Center.
But those films are valuable because they give us a look at local people and history, Dawson said in an interview.
The Knoxville-area historical groups and organizations are getting out the word about that history through an exhibit, “Lights! Camera! East Tennessee” and a program, “Hollywood Comes to Tennessee.”
The exhibit looks at the region’s contributions to cinema and Knoxville-area movie stars and filmmakers, who have included actors Patricia Neal and Christina Hendricks and director Quentin Tarantino.
It’s possible there’s no movie that people associate more with East Tennessee than “Thunder Road,” actor Robert Mitchum’s 1958 crime thriller about a Korean War veteran running moonshine in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky. The story is reportedly a fictionalized version of the tale of an early 1950s moonshine runner, pursued by federal revenue agents, who ultimately is killed in a crash along Kingston Pike in Knoxville – just steps from where I live.
Various online sites maintain that author James Agee saw the crash and told Mitchum about it, inspiring the actor to shape the film. Mitchum even co-wrote and performed “The Ballad of Thunder Road” to further immortalize the connection between the moonshine runners and the white lightning route:
“Thunder Road” wasn’t filmed in East Tennessee, Dawson correctly pointed out. Director Arthur Ripley shot his film in North Carolina.
Mitchum and the film he shepherded popularized an era that helped prompt the state of Tennessee to designate the White Lightning Trail in an effort to draw visitors.
Down in Texas, the Chicken Ranch shut down in 1973. All that remains of the brothel is a dilapidated wooden building. LaGrange doesn’t have a “Home of the Chicken Ranch” sign, Parks noted. But he estimated that “about 60% of visitors ask us about the chicken ranch.”
“We have people show up and the guys ask about the Chicken Ranch and say they went when they were in high school, and sometimes that’s the first time their wives found out they went there,” Parks said.
Embracing history, especially infamous people and events, isn’t easy but is worth it, communities have found.
“It’s a complicated thing,” Dawson said.
“It’s something you want to answer about your history – but not make it the only thing your town is known for,” Parks said.
Keith Roysdon has written about Buc-ee’s, “Yellowstone,” moonshine, “Cocaine Bear” and Brushy Mountain State Pen for The Daily Yonder. A Tennessee resident, having moved from Indiana in 2022, he writes news and pop culture as well as fiction. His fourth co-authored true crime book, “Cold Case Muncie,” about murders without justice in what’s known as America’s typical small city, will be published by The History Press on August 14, 2023.