The Undercurrent: A ranching elegy — this is where the cowboy rides away

My husband, Dan, and I live on a piece of land off State Highway 144 next to the W.K. Gordon Ranch about eight miles south of Glen Rose. Being adjacent to a large ranch of several thousand acres has its advantages – lots of deer and other wildlife, peace and quiet, little chance of a subdivision moving in next door.

Kathryn Jones

Kathryn Jones

We never met the owner, Mrs. W.K. Gordon, but have been friends with the ranch foreman, Ted “Bear” Whitt, his wife, Tracy, and their children ever since we moved here. They have been good neighbors, always looking out for folks in the area. When our miniature donkeys escaped to the other ranch next door, Ted arrived on horseback, lasso in hand, to help us get them back. He was a true cowboy.

Every year at Easter, the Gordon Ranch allowed the Methodist church in Walnut Springs to hold a sunrise service there. A rustic wooden cross and benches were set up on a high hill looking to the east. We would arrive at the ranch before dawn, climb onto a flatbed trailer loaded with square bales for seats, and Ted would pull the trailer to the hill for the service.

This Easter, though, things may be different.

Our sense of security, comfort and friendship was shattered by Ted’s sudden death in January and the passing earlier this month of Mrs. Gordon. Two of the people who cared about a piece of land and its history are now gone.

Driving by the ranch and looking at the hills that Ted loved – and the brush piles that remain from the cleared cedar – the place feels lonely now. We often would spot Ted in his pickup truck working on the ranch. Or we would hear him rounding up cattle next door by honking his horn. When we saw him he always had a big smile and a bear hug to offer.

It’s sad to see big family ranches where homes now stand empty and the people who loved the land and its lifestyle pass into the past.

My mother is from Kingsville, home of the famous King Ranch, one of the world’s largest spreads. One of my fondest childhood memories was visiting my grandmother’s house a mile from the ranch. Sometimes on Sundays we would drive the mile or so down the road and watch the cowboys rope.

When we would go into town to the drugstore to get a drink at the old-fashioned soda foundation, the cowboys would come in from the King Ranch wearing their boots and spurs and drink coffee. They were fixtures in a town where the streets were named after members of the King and Kleberg families.

I loved to hear my mother’s stories about the parties she attended at the “big house” on the ranch. I remember it as a lively place bustling with people and brimming with history.

The last time I visited the King Ranch with my mother, we were escorted into a van for a tour. One of the old vaqueros – Kinenos, as they were called — drove us around, his riding days long behind him. I was shocked at how few people I saw.

The ranch was always run by a family member, the last one being Tio Kleberg, a fifth-generation descendant of founder Richard King.  In 1998, though, he was kicked out and replaced by corporate officials to oversee ranch operations. The man who ousted Kleberg was Jack Hunt, the now-retired president of Houston-based King Ranch Inc. Hunt was brought in as a professional manager with an M.B.A. from Harvard University. Tio Kleberg was the end of the long line of Texans with ranching in their blood.

Many other large, family-owned ranches in Texas are in flux. Family members die, ranch operations pass into someone else’s hands, ranches are sold and some are even split into parcels.

We are witnessing the fading of an era with the transitions at so many Texas ranches. A way of life is disappearing before our eyes. This is, to borrow a line from a country-Western song played at Ted Whitt’s funeral, where the cowboy rides away.

I count myself lucky to have known some of them before they rode off into the sunset.

Kathryn Jones is the editor of the Glen Rose Current.

4 Responses to The Undercurrent: A ranching elegy — this is where the cowboy rides away

  1. TJ Garrett Reply

    May 23, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    Kathryn,

    I was raised on that ranch. My Mom and Dad, Carol and Tommy Jackson were long time Managers. I used to know every nook and crevice of those hills and where you could catch the best fish in those ponds. My Dad is long gone and my Mom misses the days of the small town life. Thanks for writing your articles. I share them with Mom when I can.
    tj garrett

    • Kathryn Reply

      May 26, 2014 at 9:38 am

      TJ, thanks so much for the nice note! The Jacksons were the managers when we moved next door. We think of them often and all the good times we had at the Gordon Ranch — barbecues, Easter sunrise services, riding around in the back of a pickup truck, herds of deer. It’s a special place. Where are you living now?
      Thanks again for reading!
      Best,
      Kathryn

  2. Pat Gordon Reply

    February 20, 2014 at 11:34 am

    Beautifully written. The cowboy way is as much a philosophy as a lifestyle. Most people will never know or understand a way of life filled with assorted hardships that dim in comparison to all the satisfaction gained.

    • Kathryn Reply

      February 20, 2014 at 3:19 pm

      Thanks so much, Pat. Hope you and Bob are well. Let’s get together soon! We keep talking about it, and spring break is coming up!

      Take care and thanks for reading and writing,
      Kathryn

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