Briscoe’s Bounty

Twenty-five years after he took office as governor, Dolph Briscoe still leads Texas in another way: as its largest individual landowner.

August 1998By Comments

DOLPH BRISCOE, JR., SURVEYS the vast ranch country of South Texas from the window of his private plane, pointing out landmarks below in the brasada, the mesquite brush country. After taking off from Uvalde, the headquarters of his far-flung ranching operations, Briscoe’s King Air turboprop had headed south and crossed the Nueces River, a winding ribbon of brilliant blue-green from several thousand feet above. “We’ve just entered the Nueces Strip,” he says, a sense of excitement creeping into his voice. Once the site of some of the bloodiest clashes in frontier history between Texans, Mexicans, and the Comanche — and the birthplace of Texas’ cattle business — the strip of land between the Nueces and the Rio Grande is where Briscoe’s heart lies these days. But it’s not the only piece of land dear to him.

At 75, Briscoe owns a large chunk of the state he governed from 1973 to 1979. He is Texas’ largest individual landowner and one of its last big land and cattle barons: He and his family have about 640,000 acres — about one thousand square miles — spread over ten counties, with scattered holdings stretching from the Rio Grande to the blue hills north of Uvalde to the mountains of West Texas. Of the great Texas ranching empires, only the King Ranch is bigger. Yet at a time when most large ranches have shrunk in size, Briscoe’s total acreage has doubled since the seventies.

“We’re over the Catarina Ranch now,” Briscoe says, peering down at the dusty land with its mottled shades of green and splashes of yellow from the retama, which is in full bloom this warm April day. He can name every stock pond; one is called the Rayburn Tank because Sam Rayburn, the late House Speaker, once caught a mess of huge bass there. The ponds are full, but the land is characteristically dry. “If it can get drier,” Briscoe says with the voice of experience, “it probably will.”

He had met me earlier that morning at his office at the First State Bank in Uvalde, where he’s the chairman (the bank is a subsidiary of the Briscoe Ranch Company). He keeps his ranch headquarters office there, a sort of personal museum filled with memorabilia from a life split between ranching and politics. Fresh from a board meeting, he looked dapper in a dark suit, a starched white shirt with gold cuff links, and a striped silk tie, but he has a rancher’s rugged physique, weather-beaten skin, and an affable manner. Before our trip he had changed into a monogrammed shirt, slacks, cowboy boots, and the rancher’s trademark: a sweat-stained beaver hat.

When we arrive at Catarina, a red Range Rover is parked at the landing strip, and Briscoe drives his wife, Janey Slaughter Briscoe, and me to a shady, grassy oasis rimmed with salt cedars. Lunch awaits us at the cookshack. Not many ranches have a cookshack anymore, and this is a fine one: It has brick walls, big open fireplaces with iron replicas of the Briscoes’ Open Six brand (a crudely drawn 6) hanging above them, an old cookstove, and rows of antlers from white-tailed deer shot at the ranch. We sit at long tables and benches and dine on a hearty lunch of flour tortillas, beef stewed with peppers, pinto beans, and fideo, a traditional South Texas spicy noodle dish. Briscoe ladles a few more spoonfuls of fiery salsa onto his beans as he explains why he employs so few ranch hands: These days most large ranches—including the 100,000-acre Catarina—use helicopters to round up cattle. “Years ago it used to take twelve or fifteen or even eighteen men to work cattle in the brushy pastures here in South Texas,” he says. “It might take two weeks or longer to work a pasture that we can now work in three or four hours. It’s not necessarily cheaper when you add up the helicopter bills, but we can do it a lot quicker.” And with only three to five men.

Briscoe’s father once ran sheep on the land; now it’s all cattle, mostly dark red Santa Gertrudis, the hardy breed developed by the King Ranch. Briscoe likes to work cattle and would prefer to do it on a horse if he had the time. But he leaves the operation of the Catarina and the family’s other cattle concerns in South Texas to his son, Dolph III, who’s called Chip. Unlike some Texas ranching dynasties, whose new generations aren’t interested in the day-to-day business of ranching, the Briscoe ranching legacy seems secure. Briscoe’s daughter Janey and her husband own a ranch in South Texas. Another daughter, Cele, is married to John Carpenter III of Dallas, whose family has cattle operations in North Texas and developed the Las Colinas complex on family ranchland. And Chip’s two sons like ranching. “We’re fortunate,” Briscoe says. “One thing I’ve hated to see is the big ranches broken up and subdivided.”

LAND HAS BEEN IN THE BRISCOES’ blood for generations. Their roots can be traced back to northern England, where they farmed and raised livestock. Their ancestral home for centuries, Crofton Hall, was a large manor in the English countryside. They were wealthy and influential enough that Thomas Gainsborough painted a portrait of a distant relative, Lady Jane Briscoe (a copy hangs at the First State Bank, where Dolph and Janey have their art collection on display). Another relative, physician John Briscoe, came to North America in 1633; his descendants later established Piedmont, a Federal-style family home, in the Shenandoah Valley of West Virginia (PBS newsman Jim Lehrer, a Texan, owns Piedmont today). Eventually, some of the Briscoes migrated farther west. One of them, Andrew Briscoe, for whom Briscoe County in the Panhandle is named, journeyed to what is now Texas in the 1820’s and later bought land from the Mexican government on the Brazos River in Fort Bend County. When the Mexican government attempted to collect custom duties on a sale, he refused to pay and was jailed. He later joined the fight for Texas independence, signed the Texas Declaration of Independence, and served under Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto. Houston appointed him the first judge of Harrisburg County (now Harris County).

Briscoe’s grandfather Judge Lee Adolphus Briscoe farmed in Fort Bend County and ran cattle in what is now western Houston. Under his tutelage, his son Dolph became an adept roper and cattle driver. He even delivered newspapers on horseback for the Houston Post. His father wanted him to study law, but he was more interested in horse-trading. After a stint at the Peacock Military Academy in San Antonio, Dolph stayed in South Texas, running mules and horses and ranching with various partners. He married a second cousin and moved to Uvalde in 1914, where Dolph Junior was born and graduated from high school. “My father said he wanted to find some good land where it didn’t rain too much,” Briscoe says, explaining that cattle often got bogged down in the wet Brazos River bottoms in Fort Bend County. “He found a dry area, all right, but it’s good ranching country.”

Dolph Senior went broke several times in his ranching career. His first real opportunity in the cattle business came in 1923, when he started ranching with Humble Oil founder Ross Sterling, who would serve as Texas’ governor from 1931 to 1933. Dolph Senior helped run Sterling’s Chupadera Ranch, which was along the border, until the Depression wiped them out. He managed to get back on his feet by running a ranch in the mountains in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila and grazing cattle at the original Catarina Ranch, where he had a lease on more than 100,000 acres. “That was back in the days when a grazing lease was five cents an acre and land was five dollars an acre,” Briscoe says. By 1939 Dolph Senior had recovered sufficiently to buy 35,000 acres of the Catarina. As his ranching business prospered, he added to his holdings until he had amassed his own vast ranch, which he named the Catarina (though it’s only a fraction of the original’s size).

Dolph Junior also loved ranching and planned to become a rancher in Mexico, but his father sent him to the University of Texas at Austin, where he majored in business administration (he sports the “UT” brand on his chest, seared into his flesh by fellow student and King Ranch heir Dick Kleberg with a branding iron when he was initiated into the Texas Cowboys service organization in 1941). When his father died in 1954, Dolph Junior inherited the Catarina—by then 100,000 acres—and 90,000 acres of other ranchland that his father had accumulated. “I was the fortunate recipient of what my father built,” he says. “That’s what got me off to such a fine start in the cattle business.” But good luck only goes so far. Briscoe has grown his family’s land holdings by continually reinvesting profits from his ranching, banking, and mineral interests in more and more land. “He’s a good businessman,” says Lawrence Clayton, the dean of the College of Arts at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene and the author of Historic Ranches of Texas (University of Texas Press). Clayton notes that because the return on investment in ranching can be low or nil at times, “you’ve just about got to have another source of income”—and Briscoe does: Oil discovered on some of his ranchland in Webb County has netted him a pretty penny.

One of the purchases Briscoe made in the sixties was as much a sentimental decision as a business decision: He bought the Chupadera, the ranch of his childhood. “That was a ranch that I loved as a kid and still do,” he says. “It’s different—sandy, with a lot of sandrock outcrop. To me, it’s a very special ranch. Mr. Sterling had hunting parties there. His friends would come down from Houston in private railroad cars, and he put my father in charge of the hunts. He brought in people like [Houston entrepreneur] Jesse Jones and [former governor] Dan Moody. He had an interest in politics.”

That interest rubbed off on Briscoe when he was a child. After Sterling was elected governor in 1931, he invited Dolph and his father to spend a weekend at the Governor’s Mansion. “He wanted me to sleep in Sam Houston’s bed,” Briscoe says. “From that day forward, my ambition was to go back. I liked the house, and I liked the bed.”

BESIDES THE CATARINA AND THE 40,000-ACRE CHUPADERA, the Briscoes own the Carla Ranch next to the Catarina, the Rio Frio north of Uvalde, farms in the Uvalde area, and ranches in La Salle, McMullen, and Culberson counties; they also lease about 100,000 acres at several ranches around Uvalde and in West Texas through a partnership with the grandsons of his longtime partner, the late R. J. “Red” Nunley. Four years ago Briscoe bought 33,000 acres in Marathon that were part of the historic Iron Mountain Ranch, which was started by Marathon’s founder, Albion Shepard, and he doesn’t rule out acquiring even more land, provided the right opportunity comes along and it makes business sense.

On the ranches they own, the Briscoes run 15,000 head of cattle, which is appropriate, considering Dolph Junior’s livestock legacy. “He’s probably done as much for the cattle industry as any single person,” says Don King, who was the general manager of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association for nearly thirty years. While a member of the Texas House from 1949 to 1957, Briscoe sponsored legislation to set up a statewide farm-to-market-road program so that farmers in rural areas had a paved network of roads to get their products to market. In 1960, while Briscoe was the president of the cattle raisers association, he led a state fight to eradicate the screwworm, a parasite that devastated herds in southern Texas and coastal states. When the Department of Agriculture balked at funding a plan to get rid of the screwworm, Briscoe called his friend U.S. senator Lyndon Johnson, who was then a candidate for vice president. Nearly forty years later, there’s been no recurrence of the infestation.

In addition to the cattle, the Briscoes own 14,000 Angora goats, all of which are on the Rio Frio Ranch. The goat business isn’t doing well in Texas because the market for mohair, once used in everything from car upholstery to movie theater seats, plummeted after the government ended a mohair subsidy program in 1996. “It’s sad to see that happen to an industry like Angora goats, which was very profitable for many years,” Briscoe says. “They took a lot more care, but we made a lot more money from goats than cattle.”

The Briscoes split their time between the Rio Frio (where they settled after they married in 1942 and raised their children), a house in Uvalde, a condominium in San Antonio, and the Catarina. The latter is their favorite retreat, partly because of its remarkable house. In 1980, after coveting it for years, Briscoe and his wife finally bought the three-story mansion, which had been built near the town of Catarina in 1902 by Charles Taft and equipped with oversized bathtubs to accommodate his oversized brother, President William Howard Taft. In a massive undertaking, the Briscoes had the house moved to their ranch and spent more than ten years restoring it. “It sat there for a long time and looked like a bag lady,” Janey Briscoe says. “But now I call it the Grand Lady.”

The big white house, with its cascading wood planks, columns, and balconies, is a startling contrast to the Catarina’s minimalist landscape, especially inside. The Briscoes have filled the house with English antique furniture, Texas memorabilia, and ornate gilt mirrors. A portrait of Sir John Briscoe (also by Gainsborough) that the Briscoes bought in England hangs in the hallway. They acquired many of the furnishings from the old home at Piedmont when it was sold to Lehrer and transplanted the family’s Eastern roots to the West once and for all. The mansion could be a stand-in for the big house at Reata, the ranch in Giant. In fact, Janey, with her jet-black hair and gracious but forthright manner, seems much like the beautiful and strong Leslie Benedict portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor in the movie. But while Leslie had to teach her husband some lessons in equality, the Briscoes have long worked as partners. They prize each other’s opinion and, even after fifty years of marriage, are touchingly tender. “Janey is my full partner in everything—in politics and in business,” Briscoe says.

Being the largest individual landowner in Texas, though, inevitably attracts attention—and scrutiny. After Briscoe took office in 1973, his family’s ranch holdings became the center of a school-tax dispute. A school superintendent mistakenly claimed that the valuations of land owned by Briscoe in Dimmit County were too low and hurt the local school district since Texas public schools are financed primarily with property taxes. Then there is the battle over water rights, which will likely be a big issue for a large landowner like Briscoe in the future. In 1996 Briscoe’s First State Bank put up $250,000 to fight a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club that sought to protect endangered species by restricting pumping from the Edwards Aquifer—the case is still pending. “Water is going to be one of the great issues before the Texas Legislature in the next session,” Briscoe acknowledges. “We need a policy concerning water in Texas, and we don’t have one.”

IN THE AFTERNOON, WE GET BACK ON BRISCOE’S plane and fly south, toward Mexico and over his beloved Chupadera. There’s nothing down below but sandy brush country swelling to the horizon. The Rio Grande glints in the sun as the plane turns west and flies along the border. Janey points out a spot on the river with a high bluff where the family sometimes picnics with the grandchildren. “They call it the ‘Edge of Texas,’” she says. It’s the edge of an empire that once pushed boundaries and still does today.

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