Cattle on the Issacs Ranch, Circa 1900, Courtesy of Panhandle Plains Historical Museum
Management here is a matter of knowing what is too
much; it's an intuitive sense that doesn't just count acres
per cow. It's a subtle sense that is learned by watching
the effects of grazing, and knowing your land. There is a
phrase in farming country, that the best fertilizer is the
farmer's footprints. In ranching country there is much
that can be done to improve productivity, but knowing
the limits of use is the key to survival.
It is also the key to understanding the Texas ranching
tradition. Survival, rather than success, has been the
major concern for all the immigrants who abandoned
town or the plow and took to raising cattle.
As Texas fans across the northern end of the Gulf of
Mexico, its climate changes from over-watered to arid.
Walter Prescott Webb defined the division of the state
into the west and the east by the 98th meridian, roughly
halfway from Beaumont to El Paso. It is not an arbitrary
line imposed by the mapmaker; it roughly divides the
effects of rainfall. The vegetation mirrors its availability,
from piney woods to Chihuahuan desert, and the human
settlement of the land further reflects the change.
Ranching tradition is common to the entire state, though
its practice and its effects on the landscape vary. Frederick
Law Olmsted describes the eastern ranchers in his Journeys
Through Texas. It's not an entirely complimentary
portrait, drawn as it is from his Easterner's prejudices,
but he describes an idyllic setting where the rancher penned
out the cattle from his farmstead, and ranching was
more a matter of easy harvest than keen management.
The cattle industry had its start in east Texas and along
the Gulf, where traditions originating in the lower south
found an easy extension westward. But embedded in our
regional consciousness is the sense of ranching as a phenomena
of the arid country west of the 98th meridian.
It's from there that Hollywood has inflamed our imaginations
with images of self-sufficient, rugged lifestyles
where, as Bob Wills said, "The men were men and the
women liked it that way." Men and women both prevailed
in a difficult setting. In the western part of the
state, the extremes make for more drama, in both real
and celluloid life. Life required great vigor and much
luck. The lives of women in the west are profiles of persistence
in hostile conditions, from Indian attacks and
dustbowls; outlaws and flash flood; the unpaid mortgage
and disease. But greatest of all, especially for the
women, was the sense of isolation. Where the nearest
neighbor is miles away, and the men absent for days and
weeks, all the threats pale before the harsh realization
that you are completely alone.
The early Spanish grants measured units of land by the
hundreds of square miles in leagues and labors. Like
feudal fiefdoms, they set the pattern for ownership.
These vast estates were bought, stolen, or won in poker
hands and those who claimed the land were those who
could survive the isolation as well as more graphic hardships
of climate and human hostility. The cultures that
settled, especially the Spanish and Germanic, left their
imprints on habit and custom and language, and the
landscape set the limits within which those that worked,
The building of shelter is one witness to the adaptability
of local materials and the interaction of culture and environment.
The log, and later frame dogtrot of wooded
areas is an elegant solution to the hot muggy stillness of
summer, and where adequate wood is available, a local
solution. Stone structures of native limestone and granite
permitted solidity and endurance, qualities valued by
Germanic settlers in Central Texas. The treeless plains
of the north and west favored remarkably resilient shelters
of underground sodhouses. What the environment
demanded was often drastic change in lifestyle, but
settlers still managed to crowd portraits and pianos and
hardwood furnishings into soddies that weren't the best
climates for family heirlooms. Many of the accoutrements
of culture never made it, and the trails west were
cluttered with the discard of pianos and furniture that
came to be burdens along the trail. The jacal of west
Texas, daub and wattle structures of stark simplicity,
were open and dry, but provided shade, which in an arid
climate can mean several degrees more temperate housing.
Ranch shelter was as various as the demands of the
country. What we have memorialized as the product of
all this variety is the suburban ranch-style house with its
rambling expanse and low profile. It is far removed from
these early adaptations.
The style of a region, especially one as diverse as Texas,
is an elusive prey. One could talk about the Teddy Blues
or the Charles Goodnights, or the Mavericks or Johnsons
or many of the others who cornered land in parts of the
state and managed to pass it on through their families.
The great ranches are notorious. The XIT Ranch in the
Panhandle, set up from a grant of ten counties in Texas
in exchange for the construction of the Capitol in Austin;
the King Ranch in south Texas, now as wealthy from oil
as from ranching or the development of the Santa
Gertrudis beef breed. The 6666 near Lubbock, sup
Texas Historical Foundation. Texas Heritage, Fall 1984. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45447/. Accessed November 30, 2015.