“Somebody and Sons.”
Stories from south Texas — Part XII As Told To Katharyn Rodemann
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That’s the blueprint name you see for a whole slew of businesses—the implication being, of course, that it falls to the men to ensure survival of a family’s trade. But, as you well know, that’s hardly been the case at the Thomas Ranch. Given the lasting imprint of its women through several generations, you might say this family business has had more than its share of feminine influences.
It’s now been a year since I started writing in the pages of this magazine, and for this, my last installment, I’ve been reflecting not only on the character of the ranch but also on its future. And I’m struck—particularly as a female rancher—by just how integral the women who live here have been to both. This goes back to my great-grandmother Isabel Yturria, who was the one, if you remember, who took back control of her land inheritance from her brother in the early 1900’s. She then passed on part of that ranch to my grandmother María García, who eventually passed on her land to my father and his sisters. My father in turn worked hand in hand with my mother to make our cattle operation what it is today, and now, under their auspices, I co-run the ranch with my brother, Mitch. Our family has never drawn lines that limit either gender—even when it comes to physical labor. This can be hard when you’re in the pens trying not to ruin a fresh pedicure! But as a woman, it would never occur to me to think this isn’t my place. I have a stake in everything that happens here.
It was María who, together with her husband, Harl Thomas, pioneered Charolais cattle in South Texas and introduced the name Thomas Ranch to the area. She loved the “great white breed,” as she called it, and personally went to France, along with Harl, to select the cattle. In many ways, she set the tone for the women who would follow her. A fiery lady, she was in no way typical of her time: She had no idea how to cook (or at least that was my understanding) and often spent her hours painting instead. But Mom, as we all called her, ruled the ranch with, shall we say, graceful domination. She had clear ideas about how things should be done. Even after my grandfather had passed away, and even after my parents had purchased the cattle operation, my father went, without fail, to Mom’s house for coffee every morning. I don’t know exactly what they talked about, but I do know that every ranch decision had her stamp on it. Even in his sixties, my father was still consulting with her over breakfast on ranch matters.
My mother likes to joke that, given her mother-in-law’s indomitable presence, it took years before she was known as Mrs. Thomas. (Though it’s also true that she has enjoyed being known singularly as Claudette.) But this downplays her own influence. When she came to live on the ranch, she and my dad had seen each other all of three times: They met at a steer roping in San Angelo, went on two dates, and then tied the knot. Definitely love at first sight—and if that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about her decisive nature, I don’t know what does! Having grown up on a ranch herself—a Hereford operation in Brownwood—my mother understood the ins and outs of registered breeds, genetics, breeding programs, cattle showing, and entrepreneurship. It was with her help that the Thomas Ranch came into the modern era. Sure, my father knew all there was to know about ranching, but his wife would help him further it as a business. Together they traveled the globe purchasing more cattle, promoting the Thomas Ranch, and teaching their children—who still remember shopping expeditions to countries as far away as Brazil—a love for the industry.
Though my parents now delegate much of the ranch work to Mitch and me, you’d think my mother in particular still runs the entire operation; there’s not an issue—feed, pastures, bull sales, or even child rearing—she doesn’t freely (or, rather, forcefully) opine on. But what’s interesting about my mom is how well she understands the value of many parts playing into a whole. There’s a sense of teamwork today at the ranch—male or female, child or in-law—that I give credit to her and my dad for, because they modeled a strong partnership. For the first time in this ranch’s history, two nuclear families, Mitch’s and mine, are working together to shape one future. Everyone is depended on to pitch in, whether it’s picking up the kids, fixing a water leak, or branding calves. This sense of community, set in motion, I think, by active female involvement in the ranch, is only bound to continue—especially since there is one grandson growing up here, Royse, but four granddaughters: Morgan, Lauren, Logan, and Claudette.
Now that Mom is gone, Mitch and I meet up daily at my mother’s (I should probably mention my dad lives there too). It’s funny—I’d never really thought about it, but I guess coffee at your mom’s is where the important decisions get made. In any case, I know it bolsters our solidarity, and it’s where we talk about the things that matter. Because, beautiful Charolais aside, ranching is much more than a romantic life on the range. As I hope to have conveyed in these pages, it’s work, tough economics, and gritty commitment (and, sure, fun too). You juggle parenthood, family dynamics, animal husbandry, and perpetual change. To survive, you have to embrace and understand change—like, say, the most recent effects of the push for alternative energies like ethanol and wind—but it’s not always easy. So a supportive clan who’s there with you is crucial. Only they truly understand that keeping a ranch means doing whatever it takes.
So as you drive down a country road this summer and see a white bull in a pasture, look for the Flying U on his left hip and remember that there’s a family behind him whose story you know: a family committed to the land, to the cattle, to the future, and to one another—and for whom ranching is also women’s work. My desire over the past year is to have given you a glimpse into modern Texas ranch work; perhaps these stories will become part of my own legacy on the Thomas Ranch. I just hope no one tries to join me for coffee and guidance in the mornings any time soon.