the demise of something – a way of life, a business, just about anything short
of bananas – is a risky undertaking.
A good for instance is a story on
the front page of the July 22, 1905 edition of the Kerrville Mountain Sun. The
first deck of the story’s headline, “Thousands After Texas Public Lands,” was
true enough, but the sub-head put the newspaper out on a pretty thin mesquite
limb: “Believed to Mean End of Big Ranches.”
While the Hill
Country editor at least couched that assertion with a qualifier, well more
than a century later, Texas still has plenty of big
ranches. What Texas doesn’t have is nearly as much
public land as it did in the early 20th century.
Back then, the state
still owned 18 million acres of undeeded land, but the General Land Office was
getting ready to sell off 6 million of those acres for a minimum price of as little
(at least by today’s standards) as a dollar an acre.
“There promises to
be lively bidding for the state lands which are to be placed upon the market September
1,” the Mountain Sun story began. “Thousands of letters of inquiry concerning
these lands and the method to be followed in purchasing them have reached J.J.
Terrell, State Land Commissioner, during the past four weeks.”
the scale of that pending land sale in perspective, the story noted that the entire
state of Delaware consisted of only 1.2 million acres. In other words, Texas
would be selling the equivalent of roughly four Delawares. Or two Connecticuts.
Or a chunk of land slightly more than the size of either Massachusetts, New Hampshire
or New Jersey.
Not surprisingly, some of the letters the land office received
came from would-be buyers in those states. Not to mention just about every other
state in the union.
At this point in the story, the editor sticks his figurative neck out and predicts
the demise of big cattle ranches in Texas. On paper,
the premise seemed logical enough. Much of the land the state intended to convey
to the highest bidder had been leased to ranchers in West Texas.
But many of those leases were expiring.
“There are many stockmen who will
be unable to carry [on] their business after the expiration of leases of the land
in question,” the newspaper said. “Some of them are seeking new locations in Mexico;
others are going to Arizona and New Mexico.”
While some ranchers did move
part of their operation out of state, what the newspaper said next proved a bit
overbroad, to say the least: “The day of big ranches in Texas
is over. The irrigationist and the stock farmer are taking their place with a
rapidity that must be really alarming to the old time cowman.”
did the article in the Kerrville
newspaper say that big ranches were headed for their last round up, cattleman
had even been sent through the chute by the railroads. Apparently, the corporate
transportation giants did not believe they made enough of a profit in shipping
T. J. Freeman, general attorney for the T&P [Texas and Pacific] Railroad, in his
argument before the Interstate [Commerce] Commission recently on the subject of
freight rates on live stock, frankly stated that the T&P did not care for cattle
traffic; that the road would prefer that no shipments of live stock from the big
ranches be made over it…,” the newspaper reported.
Paraphrasing the Tennessee-born
lawyer, a man who had come to Texas not long after
getting his legal training, the newspaper said the railroads had come to believe
that “the big ranches and large cattle shippers belong to the times that are past.
They must go the way of the buffalo
and Indian and give room to the advance of the agricultural and stock farmer.”
course, as Freeman pointed out in the article, Texas cattlemen were “contesting
every inch of their ground…”
No matter Freeman’s view, and despite the
fact that in 1911 the lawyer became president of the railroad, his line and its
competitors continued to carry Texas cattle to stockyards in Fort
Worth, Kansas City, Chicago and other points until the development of paved
highways allowed the trucking industry to get into the cattle-shipping business.
while a lot of land changed hands when all that public acreage went on the market,
in the long run, Texas cattlemen and their ranches proved more enduring than railroads
as the various lines went out of business, fell into court-ordered receivership
or got consolidated into larger operations.
Today, only two major rail
lines serve Texas, while the Texas Department of
Agriculture estimates the state has nearly a quarter-million farms and ranches
covering more than 130 million acres.
Mike Cox - October 23, 2013 column
Ranches & Ranching
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