cycles of boom and bust, whether in the cattle industry or world economics, are
always accompanied by people who said they saw it coming all along and who, after
the inevitable crash are busy explaining why it happened and who is to blame.
It’s that way now, and it was that way in 1882 when the beef market boomed as
it had never boomed before and some people became richer than they ever imagined.
For a while.
Frontier journalist Don Hampton Biggers lived through the
cattle boom and bust of the 1880s. Biggers explained how by the time the 1882
cattle boom in West Texas occurred, the country and the wider world had heard
stories about all the free grass available in the vast expanses of the West. With
railroads opening up the area to travelers of all stripes, people descended on
the area with visions of being a “cow person.” Europeans, primarily from England,
came to see for themselves this land of sunshine and grass, where the skies were
not cloudy all day (during droughts, especially) and seldom was heard a discouraging
word, mainly because there was scan human habitation and thus very little speech
of any kind.
These investors and adventurers hit West Texas at a good time.
Rainfall had been decent. Water and grass were sufficient, if not downright abundant.
This was a land where many cows could graze until their hearts were content. The
investors came, they saw, they bought. Boom!
With no practical
knowledge or experience raising cattle, these lords of commerce from afar turned
their operations over to men who, in many cases, were only slightly more experienced
than the owners. When problems arose, as they inevitably did, their response was
to throw money at it, but money turned out to be a poor substitute for practical
The old time cowman who had operated in the area before the
boom believed that free grass was his inherent right, and the end of it doomed
him. “Any attempt to get him to secure his interest by purchasing or otherwise
getting positive possession of the land was regarded as an act of hostility or
a personal insult,” Biggers wrote. “Originally, the cattlemen were themselves
the strongest opponents of the lease law.”
The English syndicates and
the lords of various manners missed the horrendous die-offs that preceded the
boom. The scale and horror of the die-offs can scarcely be imagined today. Blizzards
blew in and the cattle drifted south, away from it, until they came to a fence
line where they mixed and mingled and walked the fence line until they dropped
dead from hunger, exposure and exhaustion. They piled up, one atop another, for
miles, dying cattle walking on top of the dead ones until they too died, on and
on like this for miles.
That happened before the investors came. By 1882,
the pastures were green and lush and the waterways were full. Range cattle that
were going for $7 a head a year before cost $35 a head by the end of 1882. “Grass
fed” Texas beef sold for $6.80 per hundredweight on the Chicago market, its highest
boom day era presented spectacles that will never be repeated in any country under
any circumstance,” Biggers wrote, perhaps not realizing at the time that economic
history also has way of repeating itself. “It was a blaze of glory in a world
of visions; a riotous feast on the crater of ruins. It was drink and be merry,
spend money and get more. The English nobleman, sent here perhaps as the ‘business
manager’ for some English company, the native millionaire and the cowpuncher were
boon companions in a social dissipation. They ate at the same table, drank at
the same bar, gambled in the same game and all come to grief in one batch.”
market stayed strong for the better part of three years but went to pieces in
December of 1885 and hit rock bottom in 1887. More horrendous die-offs followed.
The English syndicates hardly noticed the loss of their millions, but the old
cowboys noticed because, all off a sudden, their occupation was as long gone as
Biggers cited one example of a rancher with 45,000 head of cattle in 1882.
The rancher refused an offer of $1.5 million for his cattle, horses and range
privileges in 1883. In 1886 he sold out for $50,000 less than the total of his
liabilities. This was, Biggers noted, a pretty common story among West Texas ranchers
in the 1880s. He wrote: “In fact about the only men who did not suffer a similar
fate were those who were very wealthy and owed but little or the small stockman
who owed nothing.”
Twas ever thus.
9 , 2012 Column
"Letters from Central Texas"
Topics: Texas Ranching | West
Texas | Texas Panhandle |
People | Texas
Animals | Columns | Texas