King Ranch

November 15, 2009 by  

If the Old West survives anywhere, it’s here, on the sprawling King Ranch in south Texas.

At 825,000 acres, it is bigger than the state of Rhode Island. Everything about it is huge, storied, and mythic.

This is the ranch that launched the legendary cattle drives celebrated in movies like “Red River” . . . the family that inspired the long-running TV soap opera “Dallas” . . . the place where Texas legend and lore were born.

“The two big icons in Texas history, and there are only two. The Alamo. King Ranch. And that’s it,” said Texas Monthly magazine reporter Sam Gwynne. He’s written extensively of the King Ranch, and its bigger-than-life founder, Richard King:

“He was a man who would settle things with his fists,” Gwynne said. “If you see pictures of him, he’s got a bull neck, enormous shoulders, enormous arms. He was a man who could settle things on his own.”

Richard King was a runaway orphan who first made his fortune running American soldiers up the Rio Grande River during the Mexican War. During the Civil War, he put Mexican flags on his river boats to run Confederate cotton past Union naval blockades.

It was his best friend, Robert E. Lee, who told King to keep buying up barren south Texas land:

“‘The desert of the dead’ was one thing that the Mexicans called it, desert in the sense there was nothing there,” Gwynne said.

King brought not only cattle up from Mexico, but an entire village of Mexican cowboys who would become his fiercely loyal kinenos, the king’s men: “When he was out riding with his kinenos, with their carbines on horseback, it’s a man who’s a law unto himself, in a place that he owns and runs – and then not only that, that he carved out of a harsh world.”
Today there’s a guard house on the main road into the ranch, and down that road, housing for today’s kinenos, and a public school to educate the ranch children.

(Left: The Running W brand of the King Ranch in south Texas.)

And then there’s the historic King Family compound, strutting peacocks and all. And all part of the legend:

What’s also legendary is the family’s deeply-held desire for privacy. The main house for example, with its teak floors and tiffany furniture is off-limits to tourists and journalists, reserved instead for family and invited guests.

“CBS Sunday Morning” was allowed to show the King Ranch’s images of the understated, comfortable elegance of the main house that replaced the original destroyed by fire in 1912 – a rare look inside permitted, in part, because there are certain things the King Ranch wants you to know . . .

The real story of King Ranch is that of a family business that has found a way to survive, a survival celebrated each fall, when thousands of visitors come for the ranch hands’ breakfast. A time for a few to stroll by the grave sites of the racehorses that also made King Ranch famous.

Triple Crown winner Assault is buried here.

James “Jamey” Clement Jr. is a sixth-generation descendant of Capt. King, and now chairman of the board of King Ranch, said he didn’t realize the specialness of the place where he grew up until he left:

“Well, having grown up here, it was like not knowing anything different. I went away to school at an early age. And so I started to appreciate that. And everybody always knew of King Ranch at the time.

“I made a mistake when we had our 150th anniversary. Somebody quoted me as saying the ranch [was] never for sale in my lifetime. And one of my cousins called me and said, ‘You’re mistaken: it’s never for sale.”

One big reason the ranch has prospered is because of what was discovered beneath the old desert of the dead. Water for one thing. And then, more importantly, oil:

“Well, the King Ranch wasn’t just about ranching. It was one of the big oil fields in Texas,” said Gwynne. “They eventually drilled 3,700 wells. The oil revenues to Exxon in the ’80s, when the price went up, were $600 million, of which the King Ranch got $100 million of that.”

And it was Bob Kleberg, Richard King’s grandson, a big-living, bigger-than-life character himself who turned the oil deal:

“It’s really hard to know where to begin with him,” Gwynne said. “He negotiated the largest private oil lease in history. He would hold court sometimes at the main ranchhouse where he would have, you know, potentates from the Middle East, Bing Crosby and Will Rogers. And this was the life.”

The story is on display in the nearby company town named – what else – Kingsville, where archivists at the King Ranch Museum carefully preserve reminders of the past . . . how Bob Kleberg – Mr. Bob – made it on the cover of Time Magazine in 1947 . . . how he expanded the enterprise worldwide to 15 million acres, with holdings in Argentina, Australia and Brazil.

. . . and how the family enjoyed the good life. On display is a hunting car specially designed for Kleberg’s brother, Richard, a seven-term Congressman, with gun mounts on the sides and a bar in the back seat.

“The best way to hold a family company together is to make money,” laughed Jack Hunt, who runs the family business these days. He’s an outsider brought in to manage the empire from corporate headquarters in Houston.

“Is the key to survival diversity?” asked Jerry Bowen.

“Yes, I think so.I mean, in the old days, they had cattle and sheep and horses and lots of different things. And then, as we moved into the current era, you know, we’ve become much more diverse, even beyond that.”

The King Ranch Corporation unloaded its foreign holdings and diversified. Now it is the largest citrus grower in Florida . . . one of the largest pecan producers in New Mexico. It grows sugar cane, cotton, and miles of sod for America’s lawns.

Back on the original ranch, manager Dave Delaney juggles a huge variety of assets:

“My success as a ranch manager is not only judged by how much money I make, but, more importantly, the shape of the resource ten, 15, 20 years from now, stewarding the land, the water, the cattle the wildlife.”

“Were you overwhelmed when you took on this job?” Bowen asked.

“I wouldn’t say overwhelmed, but it was kind of like drinking from a firehose!” Delaney laughed.

Corporations rent 20,000 acre parcels of the ranch with year-round lodges to entertain clients. Guided trophy hunting for deer starts at $5,000 per person.

Unless you’re a King Ranch employee . . . then it’s free.

Leroy Montalvo is a sixth-generation kineno, in the saddle since he was a little boy, trailing his father, uncles and grandfather.

“I was about, maybe, six, I would imagine, five,” he said. “And I would be out there with my chaps on top, looking at them run around in the brush, and roping these big old animals. So, ever since then, I always wanted to, you know, follow in their footsteps.”

But some things do change. Now there are only 45 working cowboys, compared to 400 in the old days:

The King Ranch is changing in other ways. It’s lost its battle to head off a wind farm on an adjacent ranch, a project it fears will threaten migrating water fowl . . . and land values.

But the King Ranch brand, the running W, is strong and on everything . . . from cattle to clothes sold at the ranch store, on saddles, furniture and a special Ford F-150 pickup truck.

While the origin of the running W brand is debated, what is sure is that it is a family symbol of endurance that started with Captain King.

Jamey Clement explained Bowen the cannons out front: “We were still having raiders’ parties from Mexico coming in, as late as the early teens. We were always confronted with external forces.”

These cannons were actually used to fend off cattle rustlers, and are proof of the ranch’s toughness.

“Do you have concerns about the survivability of King Ranch?” Bowen asked.

“No,” Clement said. “We’ll power through this just like we have before.”

Power through it, like Richard King . . . the King of Texas . . . did 155 years ago.

“I don’t know why he isn’t kind of a household name in America,” Gwynne said. “I don’t know why all American children don’t know the name Richard King the way they know Davy Crockett. I don’t know why. They should. He’s that big.”

Really big. Especially deep in the heart of Texas

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