All the King’s Men
Executive editor S. C. Gwynne on going to the King Ranch.
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texasmonthly.com: Why do a story on the King Ranch now?
S. C. Gwynne: Since the death in 1974 of Bob Kleberg, the über-rancher of the twentieth century and driving force behind the King Ranch, the King/Kleberg heirs have completely reinvented the place. The family and its outside managers have taken what was once a fairly simple, though quite large and dispersed, cattle operation and built it into a one of a kind agribusiness. Many of the big changes have happened just since the year 2000, so it seemed like an excellent time to catch up with the biggest, oldest, richest, and most iconic of Texas ranches.
texasmonthly.com: The King Ranch has often refused to let members of the media access to the ranch in Kingsville. How did you get to tour the ranch?
SG: They are indeed a very private bunch of people and always have been. The King Ranch doesn’t have the nickname Walled Kingdom for nothing. Moreover, the King/Kleberg heirs have not always been thrilled with what Texas Monthly has written about them. The short answer is that I got to go inside the ranch and look around and interview the key people because they agreed to it. I am not sure why they did, though I think they have quite a good story to tell these days and that may be part of it.
texasmonthly.com: What was your first impression of the ranch?
SG: It is a beautiful place. I saw it during a rainy spring, and it was emerald green and covered with flowers. I have seen pictures of it in drought, and I know how burned out South Texas can look. But it always comes back, and what I saw was really lovely.
texasmonthly.com: While visiting the ranch, did anything surprise you?
SG: The size of the place—you know, bigger than Rhode Island—is an old Texas cliché. But you really have to experience it to understand how big it is. One day we drove from the headquarters on the Santa Gertrudis Division to the coast on the Norias Division, and it took us more than two hours.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this story?
SG: Several months. It took me about two weeks to actually write it—the rest was interviewing, researching, and traveling to South Texas (twice), Houston (twice), and Florida (once).
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult part of researching this piece?
SG: Getting the family history straight. It is extremely complicated and involves dozens of key players, all of whom seem to be named after one another.
texasmonthly.com: Were members of the family receptive to you?
SG: Yes. They are an extremely nice, gracious bunch; as a group they are also very smart and opinionated.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
SG: That is hard to say, because there is so much wonderful history. The Main House is a remarkable building, a cross between a Mexican hacienda and a San Jose—style mission, with an interior by Tiffany. Not a lot of outsiders get to see it, and I felt privileged.
texasmonthly.com: This story reads like a business story. Is this something you had in mind when you first began the piece?
SG: It really is a story about how a 154-year-old family business shook off the old ways and reinvented itself, and I guess I figured that out pretty fast. The whole idea of the reinvention was to prevent the family from losing its ranch—something that has happened to thousands of ranchers and farmers all across this country. The family owners did it in a way that had never been done before.
texasmonthly.com: Did you have much contact with Tio Kleberg? You mention in your piece that he was the last of the cowboys running the ranch. Do you think his leaving had a big impact on the direction the ranch is taking today?
SG: I had dinner with Tio and his wife, Janell, while I was visiting the ranch. They live in one of the main residential houses and probably know more about the ranch than anybody. We talked for four hours, and it was completely fascinating. In 1998 Texas Monthly wrote a story about how and why Tio was removed from his job running ranch and agricultural operations. He was the last of the family members in management, and at the time, we said it was the end of an era. It was. Tio was the last link with the days of Bob Kleberg. But Tio is now on the board and is enthusiastic about where the ranch is going, which, in fact, is very much in the direction he had been taking it. I think he continues to have a big impact, though not in the same way.
texasmonthly.com: Do you really think the future of the ranch will come full circle? That a strong family member like Captain Richard King or Bob Kleberg will take control?
SG: I put that question to several family members. Nobody is quite ready to say that, yes, we could see a family member rise to the top of the company. But nobody wants to rule it out, either. I do think it is possible that a member of the seventh or eighth generation could go to work for the company, and that would be a big change right there. As the company grows—and I think it will continue to grow and expand and diversify—there ought to be a lot more opportunity for family members to work in lower and middle management and for there to be clearly defined career paths. The family has to sort out the various issues around nepotism, however. The ground rules have to be clear.
texasmonthly.com: How do you think readers will respond to this story?
SG: Our older readers grew up knowing all about the King Ranch. As Texas Monthly writer-at-large Don Graham observed in his book Kings of Texas, for people of his generation, the two big historical icons were the Alamo and the King Ranch, in that order. I think there is a certain fascination among people fifty and older in whatever the ranch is doing. I am less sure about how the younger readers will react. Many young people in Texas no longer know about the King Ranch. We’ll just have to see.