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.”
To put 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
Not only 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 cattle.
“Judge 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
Of 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
And 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
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