Richard Jernigan -> RE: Cowboy Boots (Feb. 11 2020 6:40:01)
The mythology of the cowboy is one of the lasting American myths. The world has bought into it, as well as many Americans who actually know little about what a cowboy's life was really like.
I don't remember any movies that depict the beginning of the cattle boom. It didn't start on big ranches where they raised a sizable herd and drove it to Dodge City. It started with people rounding up the wild longhorn cattle in the south Texas brush country. The Austin author "O. Henry" wrote his Cisco Kid stories about that time and place. The longhorns were the descendants of those brought by the colonizers from New Spain (now Mexico). During the early cattle boom entrepreneurs would form a big herd collected from various freelancers, mostly of Mexican descent, hire some cowboys, a chuck wagon and a cook, and head north to the railhead. If they made it with most of their cattle, and the market was right, they would come back with saddlebags full of $20 gold pieces and try their luck again.
Many of the first generation of trail drovers were of Mexican descent. It's well known that American cowboy equipment and practices are recent descendants of Mexican cattle culture. The wild cattle were easily spooked and stampeded, making the trail drover's job a dangerous one.
Once people saw how much money could be made taking a herd to the railhead, they started putting together ranches and domesticating the longhorns. Lyndon Johnson's grandfather and great uncle were of the last generation of big ranchers in the central Texas Hill Country.
When the white people showed up, the Hill Country was grassland. Overgrazing cattle on it stripped the grass cover from the thin layer of topsoil, which promptly washed away down the hillsides with the winter rains. The big ranches in hilly country became worthless, and were soon covered in "mountain cedar" (juniper) and scrub oak.
A little further west, around Fredericksburg, the land is level. There are prosperous farms and a burgeoning wine business.
In south Texas Captain King put together the King Ranch, domesticated herds of longhorns, and began a breeding program to produce superior beef cattle adapted to the subtropical environment. South of the King ranch much of the grassland was overgrazed as well.
My father used to say that when he was a boy you could sit on a horse in Raymondville and see the Gulf of Mexico. It was a slight exaggeration. It's at least 20 miles from Raymondville to the Gulf. But in the early 20th century the country in between was grassland, with a few patches of "brush"--small thorny mesquite and huisache trees. Cattle eventually spread the seeds of mesquite and huisache in their excrement. By the time I was a boy any land that hadn't been cleared for farming or kept clear for convenient cattle handling, was thick thorny brush.
In the 1920s, land developers from elsewhere showed up, bought many of the derelict ranches, cleared the land and sold it to farmers from Oklahoma and the midwest. The land is immensely fertile. At places in the Rio Grande delta the topsoil is 200 feet (60 meters) deep. Rainfall is adequate and fairly reliable at the seacoast, but it rains less and more sporadically as you move inland.
The Great Depression hit agriculture years before it hit finance and industry. Many of the farmers went broke with the bottom falling out of crop prices, and occasional droughts.
An irrigation system using water from the Rio Grande was built, starting as a public works program under Roosevelt's New Deal. It was extended through the 1950s. My mother's brother-in-law left south Texas in the late 1920s or early 1930s. He and his brother inherited their father's farm in Mississippi.
In 1947 he returned to Texas. He rented 200 acres of irrigated land and planted a winter cabbage crop. We visited them that winter. They lived in a little "box house" with no electricity, no running water, and an outhouse down the path out the back door. They had a much nicer house back in Mississippi, but they sold it to move back to Texas. That little shack helped to save money while they gambled on the cabbage crop. The gamble paid off. Their harvest came in at the top of the market.
The profit from the cabbage crop let him buy that 200 acres of land. Ten years later he owned 950 acres. He and his son farmed it, plus another 1000 acres which they leased. They raised cotton in the summer, vegetables in the winter--both high stakes gambles. They had built nice big houses with all the conveniences, from yellow pine timber logged off the Mississippi farm, milled and seasoned, shipped to Texas. They were multi-millionaires. In 1957 a million dollars was a lot of money.
Some of the middle sized ranches, 15 to 30 square miles, made it through the early part of the Great Depression pretty much as subsistence operations, living off the land. Irrigation and moderate oil production made them profitable by the beginnng of WW II.
A few of the ranches still run cattle. Since the big 19th century cattle boom ended the business has been pretty much a game of chance, but you can afford to keep cows if you can subsidize them with farming and a little oil production. You might even make a little money on cattle once in a while, and keep a few descendants of many generations of vaqueros employed, if you like that kind of life.
My father didn't. He left home at age 16, worked in the east Texas oil fields, went to sea, bossed a construction crew of Mexicans building the big refineries in Port Arthur, and so on.
Looking for more stable employment, he went to work for his mother's first cousin, who owned the Ford dealership at Ballinger, a small town near Abilene. On his first day the owner said, "We're going to go repossess a car," and handed my father-to-be a shotgun.
"Why do we need to go armed to repossess a car?"
"Times are hard. Even the bootleggers* are broke."
At age 22 Dad accepted his father's offer to get him a place at West Point via the local congressman. He had always wanted to fly, and went into the Army Air Corps.
Except for summers on the ranch, I have always been a city person. My brother retired pretty far out in the Hill Country, a good ways from the nearest town. Our grandfather made sure that we and our cousins were like brothers and sisters, so the lawyers haven't been able to start any fights to make money breaking up the ranch.
That happened to the last big Spanish land grant along the River Road in south Texas as recently as the 1980s. It happened to the last Spanish land grant on the California coast just a few years ago. It happened to the Schreiners' YO Ranch near Kerrville since I retired and moved back to Austin ten years ago.
Faustino Yturria (Fausto Yturria, Jr. if you please) has held on to his father's ranch, which descends from a Spanish land grant bordering the King Ranch on the south. Besides cattle and horses, part of it is now stocked with exotic game, which people pay to shoot.
The YO may have been the first to import African game and charge people to "hunt" them. Bob Snow was the YO foreman at the time. The Schreiners had hired him away from the Fish and Game Department. Before working for the state as boss of the game wardens he made his living as a hunting guide in south Texas and the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico. As far as I know black bear, cougar, wolves and mule deer are still plentiful in the Sierra, but I doubt that many Americans go hunting there these days. Bob's older brother Luke was Sheriff of Willacy County for 42 years, and one of my father's best friends.
The exotic game business must have become saturated. When my brother retired, he and his son-in-law bought a parcel in the Hill Country that had been part of an exotic game ranch within 40 miles of San Antonio. Since then they have acquired another couple hundred adjacent acres from the same source. It all has seven-foot wire mesh fences, so they have their own herd of white tail deer, and no coyotes. Hawks keep the rabbits in check. His daughter's horses add to the scenery.
Someone told me that the Cavazos had gotten most of the old Cavazos Ranch away from the King Ranch in a lawsuit. They said Captain King and his partner Mifflen Kenedy had defrauded their ancestors.
All the little "ranches" I know of between here and Houston are weekend getaways for rich people.
When we went to the charreada (Mexican rodeo) last April during Fiesta San Antonio, Larisa asked me about the museum next to the hotel. I had never been inside, so I said "Let's go." Turns out it is filled with artifacts from the 19th century and early 20th century Texas ranches. I spent at least 45 minutes talking to a couple of the volunteer guides there--old people from old ranch families.
*Prohibition was still in effect. It was illegal to sell or manufacture alcoholic drinks. Of course, people did it anyhow. A bootlegger was a person who sold whiskey or other alcoholic products.