The Importance of Collecting Histories of Texas Ranches

By Clayton, Lawrence | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

The Importance of Collecting Histories of Texas Ranches


Clayton, Lawrence, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


One of the sadly neglected areas in the study of culture in Texas and other areas of the West is the founding and operating of ranches. It is true that some of the larger ranches have been the subject of research and writing, for books are available on such large spreads as King Ranch, YO, Pitchfork and others. The segment of ranching culture which has been ignored is what may be termed the "smaller ranches," although some of them are quite significant in size. Several examples of such ranches will be included later.

The stories associated with ranches contain information culturally and economically significant in the development of the state because these business ventures provided in many cases the framework in which families grew up, developed and contributed to the communities near which these ranches are located. In addition, a great deal of folklore and legend is found in these stories. All of this information contributes to the so-called "myth of the West" and involves stories about hardship, heartbreak, sorrow and joy, and stories of man against man as well as man against animal and nature. In short, these are in many cases remarkable stories revealing the drama of human existence.

Although Frederick Jackson Turner in his famous frontier thesis declared the frontier closed many years ago, the remnants of that experience are still evident in the stories involved in founding and operating ranches. In fact, to people outside the state, ranching is still considered part of the native element of Texas, and that belief is, indeed, a reality. Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry recently confirmed that Texas produces more beef cattle than any other state in the U.S. A large number of ranches are still being operated in the state and will be for a long time to come because the land currently in ranching is suitable for little other activity.

Texas culture is not easy to accurately characterize. It has several large metropolitan areas including Houston, San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth, but it has in addition a number of other cities that are homes to 100,000 or more inhabitants. Such cities as Amarillo, Lubbock, Midland, Odessa, Abilene and a host of others are still significant centers of population with all the services that one expects to find in those. And there is more than a slight element of polite culture in many of these. I recall being asked by a representative of a major news network who was planning a trip to Abilene to film a story if Abilene had an airport and motels. I was quick to reply that we had not only those ingredients of modern life, but three small universities, two local dramatic groups and a symphony.

Texas has, in addition, enormous amounts of farming, particularly on the High Plains, fertile East Texas and the Coastal Plains and is blessed with the lush, warm lower Rio Grande Valley, which produces delicacies for tables in a wide area year around because of the almost tropical climate found there. In addition, although oil is not what it once was to the Texas economy, the state still produces a major portion of the petroleum produced in the United States. This brief synopsis of Texas life does not include all elements of Texas life for Texas also has significant heavy and high tech manufacturing. In addition to this modern kind of life, however, ranching is still a major part of Texas life. It remains one of the last bastions of traditional family life to be found in the state.

It might be helpful to define what is meant by the term "ranch" for the purposes of this discussion I think it appropriate to define the ranch as a piece of property upon which livestock is raised--be it cattle, horses, sheep or goats. That operation constitutes at least a major portion of the work activity and is a principal source of income for the individuals involved in the operation. I am reluctant to set a minimum number of acres, although the small tract upon which an individual or couple might live in retirement even if they have a horse or two and a few head of livestock would not qualify for this definition. …

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