The Last Empire
A rootless steamboat captain carved the King Ranch out of the frontier more than a century ago. Today Captain King’s descendants, rooted in the land he conquered, struggle to hold his legacy together.
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The two men seem to be floating quietly on a sea of cattle. They ride through the herd slowly, without rippling its surface. The rust-colored Santa Gertrudis cattle make room for them, then close back in from every side, jamming the riders’ legs against the flanks of their horses. Their hands are folded across their saddle horns; only their cowboy hats move, almost imperceptibly, as they study the cattle. The vaqueros surrounding the herd sit motionless, slumped into their saddles, silhouetted against the early morning sun. As the herd mills about, a cow or calf occasionally escapes, but the vaqueros chase it back, then resume their posts. When the two men in the middle of the herd decide which cows they will cut out of it, this pastoral scene will explode.
It is late July, roundup time on the King Ranch in South Texas. By nine in the morning the temperature is approaching 100 degrees. The deep azure sky is unmarked by clouds. The herd sends up a cloud of dust that mutes the harsh sunlight so that the cattle and the vaqueros are bathed in a subtle haze. The sound is deafening. Horses neigh and sputter. The cattle are in full voice, up and down the register from high tenor to deep bass. Upwind, where a few Longhorns form the nucleus of a second herd, other cattle add their voices with the antiphony of a fugue.
Only the men are quiet. If a calf escapes they may wave their cowboy hats and whoop at it as they gallop in pursuit. But to communicate with each other is considered unnecessary and in bad form. Every now and then one of them will point out a cow to be cut, briefly lifting one knobby finger over the saddle horn. But mostly they move with the precision of a silent drill team. They have all done this work many times before. Both men and horses know their roles. Almost all the vaqueros were born on the ranch. Some are fourth- and fifth-generation Kineños, or King’s men, as they have been known ever since a steamboat captain named Richard King persuaded an entire Mexican village to cross the Rio Grande and work at his cow camp on the prairie almost 130 years ago.
The roundup is the last remaining tradition of the open range. At the King Ranch’s Norias Division — 238,000 acres that stretch westward from the Gulf of Mexico — the ritual hasn’t changed in more than a century. The technology is ancient but effective: spurs, chaps, ropes, brands, horses. The cattle trucks are discreetly hidden behind a mesquite thicket, as if in apology for their intrusion on this frontier tableau. At the ranch’s three other nearby divisions, as in most of the American West, cattle are worked in pens and sometimes even gathered by helicopter. But at Norias, where the sandy pastures are choked by mesquite, huisache, ebony, shin oak, and granjeno, cattle are still worked on horseback, in the open. To gather this herd took the Kineños a week of hot and dusty labor in thickets so deep and thorny that another vaquero fifteen feet away was invisible.
One of the two men bobbing in the middle of the herd of a thousand or so cattle is Stephen Kleberg, known to everyone as Tio, which is Spanish for “uncle.” His great-grandfather married the youngest daughter of Richard King, the founder of the King Ranch. Since 1886, the year after King died, a Kleberg has run the ranch. In 1974 there were four male Klebergs who outranked Tio on the ranch, but so many changes have come to the ranch since then that for the past year Tio has been the senior Kleberg. He is 34 years old, with bright blue eyes, fair skin, and a blond handlebar moustache that spills down the lower half of his face. He is not tall — about five foot seven or so — but wiry and erect, like a boxer. On horseback he is a study in shades of russet and tan. His narrow shotgun chaps are a weathered rawhide, his hat is beige, and around his neck is a red bandanna. His horse is the same deep red as the cattle.
The man with him is Lavoyger Durham, the boss of the Norias Division. Two years older than Tio and his opposite in looks, Lavoyger is tall, with dark skin and hair and a strong, jutting jaw. Like Peter McBride of the Encino Division next door. Lavoyger is a third-generation foreman. He is related to Tio and to the vaqueros, a man from both of the great family traditions of the ranch. His grandfather was a Texas Ranger who married Richard King’s niece and went to work on the ranch in 1878; his father, Ed Durham, ran Norias before him and married the daughter of one of the head Kineños.
Watching them closely is Joe Stiles. Joe is 33, tall, bowlegged, and squinty-eyed. His father is the foreman of the Santa Gertrudis Division outside Kingsville, sixty miles north of Norias. Joe manages the ranch’s quarter horse program, which accounts for his close attention to Tio’s riding. The horse Tio is using to cut cattle on this rough pasture is Mr. San Peppy, the ranch’s prize stallion and a $4 million quarter horse. But like everything on the ranch, Peppy has no value unless he can work. “I’d rather he died cutting cattle,” Joe says, “than in a show barn.”
Three experienced in-laws in their sixties direct the ranch’s larger corporate fortunes, but the ranch itself and its 130 years of tradition are in the hands of these young men and others like them, a new generation in its twenties and thirties with its own ideas about how to do things. The ranch, for example, now contains one of the largest farms in South Texas; it has its own feed mill and feedlot and a completely reorganized quarter horse program. It has cut back its huge Australian operations, disbursed most of its oil royalties to the family, and bought out its two major stockholders. It is a very different place than it was just six years ago.
The Most Famous Ranch In America
The four divisions of the King Ranch cover 825,000 acres, an area considerably larger than Rhode Island. Its 60,000 head of cattle could provide every male American with a quarter-pound hamburger. Keeping those cattle in their pastures is 2000 miles of fence, enough to stretch from the ranch’s headquarters in Kingsville to Boston. There are 2730 oil and gas wells on the ranch, more than have been drilled in Saudi Arabia. Its 350 windmills keep twenty men busy full time. The ranch originated cattle prods, dipping vats, elaborate pens for working cattle, hunting cars, wire-mesh fences instead of barbed wire, and, most dramatic, the first American breed of cattle and virtually a new breed of horses. As if that weren’t enough, in the fifties the ranch leaped over oceans to establish itself on eight million acres around the world, a ranching empire the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.
Richard King bought his ranch with money he had earned piloting steamboats on the Rio Grande, and to this day the ranch draws on some of the best qualities of the two cultures on either side of that river. The business standards — the computers, the sophisticated management, the insistence on state-of-the-art technology — are resolutely American. The sense of family, the deference and loyalty, the dedication to the land, and the methods of working cattle are distinctly Mexican. English is the language of the office, Spanish that of the range.
The ranch is in many ways an anachronism, an aristocracy in an age when tradition and authority and class systems seem irrelevant. In quiet defiance of that age, the ranch continues to function on the basis of inheritance, of both property and position. One generation succeeds the next in every job, from cowboy to foreman to owner. This continuity is by no means assured. The ranch’s paternalistic traditions tend to excite the attention and outrage of government agencies. And estate and inheritance taxes work inexorably against the preservation of such an extensive family enterprise. The family itself, grown large and diverse, no longer finds its complete fulfillment in a more or less unremarkable piece of prairie, no matter how vast or historic.
But some things remain constant, no matter how much the world changes. Far from his desk and all its complexities, Tio Kleberg has such immutable matters on his mind as he rides into the herd. His immediate task is to separate the cows without calves from the tight, moving mass of the herd. Picking them out is a decision based on subjective observation (“They just look different,” Tio says), and only Tio and Lavoyger do it. A mistake could mean losing future calves or allowing a nonproductive cow to continue to consume the ranch’s grass.
The economics of the cattle business are deceptively simple. Grass is the feedstock, cows and bulls the capital, meat and hides the product. In a drouth or a hard winter, for example, the rancher soon runs short of grass. He can supplement it with feed, but if feed is too expensive and beef too cheap, buying feed won’t pay. In that case he may sell off not only his yearling crop but a good many mother cows and young calves as well. As a result the market will be flooded with beef, and the price will drop still further until the shortage of mother cows produces a smaller calf crop and drives prices back up. As big as the King Ranch is, it can’t influence this cycle any more than the smallest rancher can. Cattlemen accept it as simply another affliction of their business, like drouth and disease, range fires and brush.
Tio and Lavoyger are in no hurry. They move slowly with the flow of the cattle. Then one points briefly to a cow, the other nods and they begin threading that cow through the hundreds around it to the edge of the herd. Once the cow is out where the herd is not so tightly packed, Tio begins to transfer authority to horse. Mr. San Peppy positions himself sideways to the cow, fixing it out of the corner of his eye. When the cow’s ears stand up, the horse knows he has its attention. Tio loosens the reins and grasps the saddle horn, letting Peppy take over. The next few seconds are like a dance before a mirror. If the cow heads left, Peppy is there. If it swerves to the right, Peppy pivots off his hind legs to meet it.
Crouched so low that his belly seems to be touching the ground, his mane swirling, the horse drives the cow backward, away from the security of the herd, out into the territory controlled by the vaqueros. The instant the cow is turned away from the herd, one of the vaqueros runs it across the pasture to the new herd. Santa Gertrudis cattle are surprisingly agile and fast, so this process often demands wild rides at full gallop across rugged ground and through mesquite thickets.
After the barren cows are cut, Tio and Lavoyger take a break to talk briefly to their children while Joe Stiles and Tio’s cousin Martín Clement begin cutting out the yearling calves for sale. Since it is summer, children — the Klebergs’, the foremen’s, and the vaqueros’ — are everywhere. The roundup is an important part of their education. The teenage sons of the vaqueros are helping with the round-up, and the cow boss, known as the caporal, watches them closely. The roundup is like a tryout for future jobs as vaqueros, and the young Kineños are eager to show off their skills. The older vaqueros feel responsible for how well the younger ones work. They do not hesitate to take a father aside and speak to him about his son’s mistakes, offering him criticism and encouragement. They fully expect that the father will do his duty and that the son will listen and obey his father. That is how it was done for them, and for their fathers before them. It is the King Ranch way.
The Klebergs live by the same ethic. They give each other gentle and not so gentle suggestions on child rearing, they criticize errant behavior, they teach vital skills and underscore moral points. The stability of the ranch has allowed the development of the sort of extended family that is rare in America. It is a family that through five generations has had the same purpose — to sustain its ownership of this great tract of earth. On one level the task at hand in this Norias pasture has to do with cattle. On quite another level it has to do with the future of the ranch.
Tio finishes a brief talk with his older son about the way he was handling his horse and then rides back to the herd to watch his wife, Janell, and his younger brother, Scott, cut out the yearling calves. Scott is 22 and is studying range management at Texas A&M; everyone in the family expects great things from him when he comes home to work at the ranch. Precisely because of that, Tio watches him closely. To Tio’s mind Scott is following the yearlings he is cutting about two or three feet farther out of the herd than necessary. “Park him! Park him!” Tio yells. Scott concentrates and on the next calf has already turned back into the herd when the vaquero picks the calf up. Tio smiles, satisfied.
Janell and Martín take a turn next. When they finish they ride over to the lorse trailer. Martín complains about how lard it is to buy cowboy hats for the ranch’s commissaries. ‘‘The folks in discos just keep cornering the market,” he says. Janell’s face is streaked with sweat and dust. Beneath her cowboy hat her blonde hair is a dirty gray.
Janell met Tio at Texas Tech. When she came back to Kingsville with him nine years ago, she felt she was entering a completely different world. No one told her to learn to cut cattle. She did it on her own, to be part of the work of the ranch. She pats her horse and looks out at her children bouncing around on their horses. “What you have to understand if you work for this family,” she says, “is that none of this is yours — not the land, not the houses, not the horses that you grow to love. That’s hard to remember. And it’s hard to teach your children. Like us, they tend to think it’s theirs. It’s not. Everything belongs to the ranch, and the ranch belongs to the family. Keeping the family and the ranch together is more important than any of us.”
The ranch and the family, however, are not always one and the same. The ranch’s story is straightforward enough: it is the progress of a piece of earth from primitive wilderness to productive pastures, an account of will and technology pitted against nature. The family, however, has not enjoyed an easy journey to its current preeminence. To sustain anything through five generations, much less a ranch in a harsh, unyielding country, is to overcome suffering, hardship, and conflicting ambitions — and it is, at times, to overcome success.
There is blood and power in the King Ranch’s history, but there is surprisingly little duplicity, rapaciousness, or greed. The land itself was acquired legally, purchased from presumably willing sellers. Compared to the great fortunes built by devious and ruthless robber barons like the Rockefellers, the Morgans, and the Mellons, the King Ranch is a monument to probity, neighborliness, and hard work.
Part of the story of the King Ranch is how one family conquered and sustained a great ranch, and part is how that family conquered and sustained itself. The past six years of the ranch’s history have been tumultuous, even by its own standards. Both of the men who had run the ranch since 1918 died. And the two most obvious successors left the ranch and filed suit against it. To carry on, the family has had to rejuvenate itself once again. A frontier character named Richard King overcame great challenges to found this empire. The men and women who run it today have perhaps an even harder task. They must hold it together — against all the pressures, from inside and outside the family, to tear it apart.
The Call West
The man who began the King Ranch and one of America’s most durable families had no family ties himself. In 1833, at the age of nine, he was apprenticed to a jeweler in New York City. He never saw his family again and never divulged anything about them, except that they were Irish. The young boy could not abide the close, tedious work of the jeweler’s shop or the rigid medieval bonds of apprenticeship. Even at that age he was drawn toward open spaces. At eleven he stowed away on a sailing ship bound for Mobile, and for the next ten years he worked on steamboats in the rivers and coastal waters of the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The steamboaters were his parents and the frontier was his schoolroom. The boy learned its tough and demanding lessons well, and he grew into a young man with a quick mind and quicker fists.
During the Seminole wars of 1841 he served on an Army steamboat and in Florida met a man who would be his friend and partner for the rest of his life. Mifflin Kenedy was seven years older than King and seemed to have little in common with him. Kenedy was a devout Quaker and a studious, reflective man. His great strength — he could throw a massive anchor overboard by himself, a task that normally required three men — allowed him to remain aloof from the brutish steamboating world where a man could get his eyes gouged out if he forgot to offer his neighbor a drink. Kenedy saw something special in King and took him under his wing.
After Kenedy went to Texas in 1846 he wrote King that the Mexican War had created a boom for steamboaters on the Rio Grande. For Richard King, who had no family, no money, and no roots, that news was enough. He went to Texas. The Rio Grande was in rugged, uncharted country torn by war. Opportunity was there for the taking. The extent of that opportunity, however, could hardly have been apparent to the 22-year-old steamboater as he trudged across the sand at the mouth of the Rio Grande toward the few shanties and hovels — made of sticks and covered with mud and seashells — that had sprung up around the stacks of cargo waiting to be moved inland.
King spent the rest of the war piloting steamboats up and down the Rio Grande for the U.S. Army. When the Mexican War ended in 1848 King bought a surplus steamboat and went into business hauling freight and passengers. A year later he and Kenedy joined a border entrepreneur named Charles Stillman in a shipping company they called M. Kenedy & Company. King provided the muscle and designed new boats for the twisting, shallow, windswept river; Stillman put up the capital; Kenedy contributed the diplomacy and the management. By 1852 they had run their competitors off the Rio Grande. There was a good deal of legitimate freight in their business, but their primary trade was smuggling. A burdensome tariff system imposed by Mexico made smuggling the accepted way of doing things, as it had been in the American colonies before the Revolution.
The conflict between Americans and Mexicans on the border had culminated in more than a decade of war, from the massacres at the Alamo and Goliad in 1836 to the American atrocities during the invasion of Mexico in 1848. A great deal of blood had been shed on both sides. For thirty years after the Mexican War the border seethed with armed bandits, Mexican guerrillas, and raiders. One man’s hero was another man’s villain: the most vicious bandits were honored in Mexico, the most brutal Texas Rangers elevated to sainthood in Texas.
Politics along the Rio Grande were Byzantine — intrigue, revolution, and counterrevolution hung as heavy in the air as the heat. Betrayal was expected, allies untrustworthy, a loyal friend and partner extremely rare. Every decade brought new schemes to make part or all of Mexico a new republic, a protectorate, or even a stale in the United States. King and Kenedy were deeply involved in border intrigues, but it was not until they supported Porfirio Díaz, who would be dictator of Mexico for more than thirty years, that they ever backed a winner. The border was a difficult, complex place. Poised between two cultures, beyond the domination of either, Richard King was right at home.
A Rose Amid Thorns
Life on the border was primitive. Men and animals shared the same drinking water. Outbreaks of cholera and typhoid periodically swept through the river towns, turning them into charnel houses. Dysentery and other debilitating diseases were endemic. Treatment was primitive, anesthesia unknown, and opium the most common medicine. When it rained, the streets became quagmires. When the wind blew, the sand covered food and furniture, coated sweaty bodies in grime, and filled bedclothes with grit. The heat was everywhere, humid and inescapable. Richard King must have lain awake many nights, simmering in his own sweat, tormented by flies and mosquitoes, wondering why he hadn’t followed the forty-niners out to the easy pickings of the California gold fields.
But he stayed, laboring through the hottest part of the day, commanding the world from the wheel of his steamboat, ignoring the custom of taking a siesta, dripping sweat onto his ledgers, drinking the Rio Grande water that killed many of his contemporaries. Water wasn’t all he drank, of course. The most prevalent and important frontier institution was not the church or the school, but the bar. Bars were the setting for business deals, social meetings, the political schemings that permeated border life. In such a bar Richard King celebrated his 26th birthday. Spying a stranger, he walked over to offer him a drink. His greeting — first recorded in Tom Lea’s two-volume history of the King Ranch’s first century — summed up his world: “People who come to Texas these days,” King said, presumably with a smile, “are preachers or fugitives from justice or sons of bitches. Which one of those fits you?”
One sweltering day in 1850 Captain King had wrestled his war surplus steamboat up the river, past snags and mud bars, fighting the wind, and he was ready for a few drinks. But an old steamboat was docked in his customary berth. Fuming, King brought his boat in and began stamping and cussing around the waterfront. As he ranted about the effrontery of putting a rat-infested scow in his berth, a young lady of seventeen emerged from the boat and, with some indignation, put King in his place.
Her name was Henrietta Chamberlain, and her father was a widower, a Presbyterian missionary from New England who had answered the call to become the first Protestant minister on the Rio Grande, rich waters for the fishing of lost souls. Richard King, who had seldom seen the inside of a church, became an eager, if not wholly sincere, participant in the Reverend Mr. Chamberlain’s pioneer Presbyterian church. And if his attention strayed from the preacher’s Calvinist pronouncements to his comely daughter in the choir, who could blame him? Anglo women were scarce on the border. They were therefore highly prized, fought over, cherished, and treated with a formal gentility that was as much a part of the frontier as its spontaneous violence. For Captain King, the preacher’s sweet daughter was everything he himself was not. Against competition from every unmarried man on the border, he set out to win her. As the courtship progressed he also began exploring the land beyond the muddy river that was his home.
In the spring of 1852 Richard King took a trip. Henry Lawrence Kinney, the imaginative frontier smuggler and rogue who had founded Corpus Christi, had decided to boost the town’s fortunes with a world’s fair. King had been running his steamboats up and down the Rio Grande for five years and was eager to see Corpus and the country on the way. What he saw were miles of sand flats and then, north of what is now Raymondville, a vast and trackless sea of grass sprinkled with little copses of hackberry, oak, and occasionally, mesquite. This was the southern tip of the Great Plains in its virgin state, before it had been despoiled by fences, by towns and railroads, by the invasion of mesquite and huisache brush.
The plains were the natural habitat of wandering animals that fed upon its grasses. To the Indians, that meant buffalo. To the Mexicans and then the Americans, that meant cattle — tough, rawboned Spanish cattle called Longhorns that need almost no care. Because there was so little water the cattle roamed over great spaces. The men who tended them were therefore spread thin and, like the cattle, had to fend for themselves. They had to be mobile, tough, and willing to live out on the plains alone.
When King got to Corpus a friend of his, a Texas Ranger named Legs Lewis, proposed that they establish a partnership to operate a cow camp on the plains. King would supply the capital; Lewis would work the place and, above all, guard it. That was the theory, but King would quickly become more involved than would an absentee investor. They chose as their headquarters a little rise on the banks of Santa Gertrudis Creek, the site of an old Mexican rancho about 45 miles west Corpus Christi. King had camped there on his journey north.
While Lewis tended to the building of some jacales (rough huts made of sticks and adobe), King set out to buy the land from its Mexican owners, who after the Mexican War had found themselves in possession of a worthless desert in another country. His first purchase was a Spanish land grant called the Rincón de Santa Gertrudis, 15,500 acres where Santa Gertrudis Creek empties into Baffin Bay, where the town of Kingsville now stands. King purchased the land in 1853 for $300, or a little less than 2 cents an acre. The next year he bought a larger Spanish grant, 53,000 acres due west of his first one, running ten miles along Santa Gertrudis Creek. He paid $1800 for it, or a little over 3 cents an acre. At that time the Great Plains were still known as the Great American Desert. Many of King’s business associates told him that even at those prices he had been taken, that the land he had bought would never be worth anything. But King had other ideas.
Buying the land was one thing, holding it another. Their cow camp was in the strip of land between the Nueces and the Rio Grande, the most dangerous part of the frontier. Scarcely a dozen years before, the Texas General Land Office map had borne the notation “of this area, nothing is known.” A Texas Ranger who fought in the Nueces Strip described King’s first ranch: “The men who held the cow camp on the Santa Gertrudis were of no ordinary mold. They had come to stay. It was no easy matter to scare them. The Indians still made descents on the country . . . and they had the advantages of numbers and movement. But the brave men who held the ranch had determined to make a ranch on the Santa Gertrudis or leave their bones to tell of their failure.”
Winning the land, first from the Indians, then from the raiding armies of Mexican cattle bandits, would take Captain King more than two decades. The struggle to establish his ranch engaged not only his will and courage but also his greatest quality, a clear-eyed practicality that combined observations from different realms of his experience into something useful. King knew nothing about cattle. That was one of his greatest assets. He didn’t know the accepted way of raising livestock, so he invented his own.
Richard King was the first to grasp the Distinctions — in scale, in spirit, and in Setting — between ranching cattle and raising cattle as a sideline to farming. The Anglo settlers making their way west through the Southern forests often brought cattle, sometimes in large numbers. They rode horseback, after a fashion; they had roundups; they even drove their cattle to market as far away as New Orleans. They had, in short, all the elements of a ranch, but they didn’t have ranches. And most of them saw the Mexicans and their culture as a barrier to be pushed aside, nothing more. They learned no more from them than they did from the Indians.
King was different. He did not establish a Southern cattle farm, worked by slaves. His manner was American, but his model was Mexican. He did not look back east for his inspiration; he looked across the Rio Grande. His first cattle came from border ranches, and so did his first hands, Mexican vaqueros from a long tradition of Spanish cattle ranching that had little in common with Anglo-Saxon farming.
The Spanish relied on three institutions to shape their conquest in the New World: the presidio, or fort; the mission; and the hacienda. The Mexican hacienda and its smaller cousin, the rancho, were self-contained, subsistence operations, inextricably tied up in the system of servitude and patronage that underlay the stability of village life. Richard King saw the merit of the ranching equipment and techniques his vaqueros brought with them — their lassos, their saddles and chaps, their way with cattle — but subsistence was not what he had in mind.
In 1854 King took a momentous step: he journeyed into Mexico and, in a scene out of Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, persuaded the elders of a dusty village to come back to Texas with him, where he would be their patrón. With the elders came the whole village in an entrada — men, women, and children, donkeys, chickens, and carts loaded with possessions. That entrada was the beginning of a complex, almost feudal network of relationships that exists on the ranch to this day and that sets it apart from the other great ranches of America. Its roots go not only to Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims but also to Cortez and the conquistadores. On his struggling ranch on the edge of the frontier King forged — by trial and error, courage, determination, and hardheadedness — a synthesis of aristocratic Mexican husbandry and democratic American marketing and business. He was not alone, of course; other men were ranching in Texas, but none with the scale and permanence he envisioned. More than anyone else, the steamboat captain who knew nothing about ranching created the cattle kingdom.
Buy Land and Never Sell
Drouth in the 1850s had dried up the Rio Grande, so business on the river was slow. King spent more and more time on his rancho, stocking it with cattle and horses and supervising the construction of a dam that was the first major capital improvement between Corpus and Brownsville. King’s carefully kept ledger books reveal that in 1854 he spent more than $12,000 on his ranch — forty times what he had paid for the first 15,500 acres.
He also found time to continue his courtship of Henrietta. Doubtless this rough, unlettered riverboat captain was not the sort of man Preacher Chamberlain had had in mind for his daughter. Yet eventually King convinced both father and daughter that he possessed virtues not immediately obvious to civilized folk. In December 1854 King and Henrietta were married. For their honeymoon Captain King took his bride to the Santa Gertrudis, the heart of the frontier, where few Anglo women had been before. They rode in a stagecoach flanked by armed vaqueros, camping out at night under the stars, cooking over open fires. After four days they crossed the creek and Henrietta King saw what her friends in Brownsville called King’s Folly: a cluster of jacales, a stockade, a brass cannon, some mesquite corrals, and her new house — an adobe hut so tiny that she had to hang her pots and pans outside. She would make her home on the Santa Gertrudis for more than seventy years.
The frontier turned the men hard and brittle as caliche, but it had a different effect upon the women. As Walter Prescott Webb, the great historian of the West, wrote: “The Plains — mysterious, desolate, barren, grief-stricken – oppressed the women, drove them to the verge of insanity in many cases.” Henrietta Chamberlain, however, had been raised to overcome hardship with faith. If her husband’s mission was to win the West, hers was to civilize it.
Even in a mud hut Henrietta was a model of propriety, demanding at least the appearance of civilized behavior from the frontiersmen who crossed her threshold. She called her husband “Captain King” all their married life. The embodiment of the triumph of will over circumstance, she was stern and unforgiving of the weaknesses of the flesh. She wrapped herself in her sense of duty as tightly as in her corset, and her husband, whose flesh was so much weaker than hers, struggled mightily to live up to her standards. Even on the frontier they were perfect Victorian types, he the adventurer and she the preacher’s daughter, called on by fate to play their roles in a world whose every reality worked against the stable values she lived by. But if Henrietta King had not been so rigid, it is quite possible that Richard King, and certainly the generations that followed him, would never have won or held their great ranch.
In early 1855, only a few months after King and Henrietta were married, Legs Lewis, King’s partner, was killed by a jealous husband. Lewis’s death meant that King had to work the ranch on his own or lose it. The capital kept coming from the river, but King saw the ranch as his future. “Land and livestock have a way of increasing in value,” he told Mifflin Kenedy. “Cattle and horses, sheep and goats, will reproduce themselves into value. But boats — they have a way of wrecking, decaying, falling apart, decreasing in value and increasing in cost of operation.” To that credo King added a piece of advice from his friend Robert E. Lee, who was stationed in Texas until the Civil War. “Buy land,” Lee had told the young rancher, “and never sell.”
King did just that. He was always enlarging his holdings, and he kept lawyers busy perfecting his titles, making sure his purchases were absolutely legal. He found the best lawyers he could and gave them succinct instructions. “Young man,” he told one years later, “the only thing I want to hear from you is when I can move my fences.” In 1860, after Mexican raiders destroyed Mifflin Kenedy’s ranch near the Rio Grande, King and Kenedy became partners in the Santa Gertrudis. They continued M. Kenedy & Company as their steamboat operation; their new ranching business bore the name R. King & Company.
King tried everything to make the land yield a profit. He dug dams and impounded water. He experimented with sheep. He raised horses and mules for the Army and for distant cities. And he raised Cattle — tough, hefty, bad-tempered Longhorns that were sold to other ranchers as breeding stock or were slaughtered for their hides and tallow. The carcasses were either used to feed his pigs or dumped on the prairie or in the bay. He tried injecting salt into the meat so he could ship it to market and avoid such waste, but it didn’t work. For almost twenty years King spent nothing on fences, feed, or veterinary services. Ranching in those days was simply harvesting the plains. And King was willing to forgo immediate profits in the deep conviction that land, the more the better, would one day pay.
Heroes and Villains
The Civil War did three things for Richard King: it gave him the opportunity to amass a fortune, it put the final touches on his formidable character, and it led to the opening of the great Northern markets for beef that confirmed his faith in ranching and made his name known throughout America. King and Kenedy were staunch Confederates, in sentiment if not in service. The Santa Gertrudis became a major depot for the Southern cotton sent to Europe through the Confederacy’s back door at Matamoros. The two men also got rich selling supplies to the Confederacy, and they made sure they were paid in gold. For them the Civil War was as big a bonanza as the Mexican War.
Their fortunes were not made without risk. The Nueces Strip crawled with draft dodgers, bands of guerrillas, Mexican raiders, French agents from the emperor Maximilian in Mexico, and Comanches. The Union Army raided the Santa Gertrudis in 1863, aiming to put the rebel cotton depot out of action. King himself slipped away, but his faithful Mexican retainer, Francisco Alvarado, was shot dead at the feet of the pregnant Mrs. King as he opened the door.
Tom Lea valiantly defends King’s leaving his wife to the mercy of the Union raiders. Yet King’s decision to make money from the war rather than fight in it makes his character suspect, and allowing his servant to be slain in his place does not bring glory to the King name either. But to see him as simply a war profiteer running out on his family to save his own skin would be too harsh. To have stayed and fought would have been suicidal, and to have fled with his wife into the prairie could have endangered both her and the baby. There was no easy decision.
After the raid the Kings abandoned the ranch. Just two months later, Henrietta King gave birth to their second son, whom she named Robert Lee King. Her husband was not present for the birth. He had again gone underground, and he spent the rest of the war keeping Confederate supplies moving past the Union cavalry. Although he was scarcely forty, he became known as “the old captain,” a remorseless, driven frontier figure. After Appomattox, King crossed the river into Mexico with his gold and prepared to move all his operations south of the border. But he was pardoned by the Union and went back to rebuild his ranch.
It was no easy task. The Reconstruction Administration disbanded the Texas Rangers and all but ceded the Nueces Strip to the Mexican bandits, who renewed their raids on the hated gringos with brutal intensity. The next ten years were filled with both opportunity and danger. One of the great booms of American history was just beginning—the cattle drives. But the raids drove many of King’s neighbors out of business, and his whole empire was threatened. He lost thousands of cattle during these cattle wars. It seemed, in fact, as if the Mexicans were about to win back the land south of the Nueces that they had lost in the Mexican War.
The leading raider was a rogue named Cheno Cortina, an upper-class border character who had fought the Americans in the Mexican War and then lost his family’s land in and around Brownsville. Cortina, red-haired, green-eyed, charismatic, cruel, and thoroughly opportunistic, kept the border in upheaval for almost twenty years. He liked to say, “The sight of a gringo makes me think of eating little kids.” Cortina became King’s greatest nemesis. “The gringos are raising cattle for me,” he would boast. The raids got so bad, and King himself became such a prominent target, that he was ambushed on his way to meet with the American commission investigating the raids, and a young German riding with him was killed. In desperation, King went so far as to join the Republican party in the vain hope that he could get help from the Reconstruction Administration, which seemed quite happy to see the former Confederates suffer.
Finally, in 1875, at the end of Reconstruction, the Texas Rangers were reassembled. In one encounter a group of Rangers fought a pitched battle with a dozen cattle raiders who were driving a large herd of King Ranch cattle. The Rangers killed every raider and dumped the bodies in the square at Brownsville as a sign that times had changed. It set the tone for the bitter role the Rangers played on the border, but it worked. The raids slacked off, and when Porfirio Díaz seized power in Mexico in 1876 (with King’s help) he made sure that they ended. King’s empire was saved.
The Cattle Kingdom
In 1870, after a few years of amicable negotiations, Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy dissolved their partnership in R. King & Company. Kenedy bought the neighboring Laureles Ranch from Charles Stillman, who had retired to New York (where he founded, among other institutions, the National City Bank). The steamship business was winding down as the river silted up and competition from a border railroad started to eat away at profits. Both Kenedy and King began devoting most of their time to their own ranches.
Having assembled almost 200,000 acres in the area of the Santa Gertrudis, King turned his attention to buying up the huge San Juan de Carrecitos grant. The grant covered 350,000 acres sixty miles south of the Santa Gertrudis and contained an old water hole called El Sauz, where King had camped countless times on his journeys to and from Brownsville. This land was not as rich as the Santa Gertrudis, but its sandy soil still supported native grasses in addition to sacahuiste, which cattle could eat in a drouth. King gave his lawyers standing orders to buy up rights and titles to the San Juan de Carrecitos grant whenever they could.
After the Civil War the United States embarked on a period of furious industrial expansion. Railroads pushed across the continent. Huge empires of steel and oil were built. And to the cities of the North and East came millions of immigrants from Europe and rural America. These new city dwellers needed meat. That demand found its supply in the Nueces Strip, where hundreds of thousands of cattle, untended during the war, were available for as little as $5 a head. The trick was to get the $5 steer to the $40 market. For a few years the men who could do that reaped enormous profits. King sent more than 100,000 cattle north on the cattle trails during the 1870s. By the most conservative estimate, his profit over the decade was well over $1 million. One year, when he sent 30,000 head, he made close to $400,000.
So immense were these cattle drives that the spillover from them was enough to stock ranches from Oklahoma to Montana. Yet the very success of the cattle kingdom spelled its doom. More and more cattle were raised in the Midwest, making it less profitable to ship cattle there from South Texas. Hardiness on the trail became less important and demand for better cuts of meat grew; the Longhorn was on its way out.
To raise better cattle the rancher needed fences so he could control his stock. King and Kenedy were among the first to fence their holdings, using cypress and pine from Louisiana. By the late 1860s King had built a fence more than five hundred miles long completely around the Santa Gertrudis. To ride around it on horseback took ten days. The end of the open range meant that the rancher had to become an agricultural businessman, concerned less with winning the wilderness than with repairing his fences and keeping track of the breeding progress of his stock. Captain King brought in fine English Durhams in the early 1870s, beginning a breeding program that has continued for a century. Looking for better means of transport, King and Kenedy helped found a railroad from Corpus to Laredo that passed within twenty miles of the Santa Gertrudis headquarters. The railroad arrived in 1881. Four years inter the trail drives came to an end.
A Frontier Relic
Life on the ranch became steadily more civilized. There was a cook and a Virginia governess for the three girls. Mrs. King saw that the five children all went away to proper Presbyterian schools. King often visited them when he was in St. Louis disposing of his herds. He was a striking figure, with his limp from an old river injury, his beard stretching down to the second button on his shirt, his pants rumpled, his boots always scuffed. He chided his daughters for being ashamed of his rough appearance — and then gave them expensive gifts in the manner of a father who had spent more time on his empire than on his family. Once he even gave his wife a pair of diamond earrings, which she, totally in character, did not wear until a local jeweler had painted them with black enamel so they would not appear ostentatious. Of the two boys, Robert Lee was far more interested in the ranch. In 1883 Richard, Jr., married a Missouri girl and transformed La Puerta de Agua Dulce Ranch, north of the Santa Gertrudis, into a farming and cattle operation along Midwestern lines.
A few months before his brother’s marriage Robert Lee died of pneumonia at the age of nineteen. The death of the boy in whom Captain King had placed such hope destroyed his faith in the future. He looked around his great empire and could take no solace from it. He wrote his wife, “I am tired of this business, as I at all times have made a mess of everything I have undertaken . . . and now I want to quit the Rancho business and will do so.” Over the years his friend Kenedy had come to similar despair and had already sold the Laureles to a group of Scotsmen. King went so far as to show the Santa Gertrudis to some European buyers, but the sale never went through.
King was the great cattle baron of Texas, the master of the plains, owner now of 600,000 acres, 40,000 head of cattle, 6000 horses and twice that many sheep and pigs. But his heir was dead, and his very successes were changing the frontier world he loved. King eventually had to hire an Irishman to have fistfights with when he was in the mood, so quiet had Texas become. His benders with Rose Bud Whiskey became more extreme, his trips to Brownsville and other places more frequent. To inaugurate the railroad from Corpus Christi to Laredo, for example, he traveled west in a private car filled with dignitaries. Along the way he spiked the lemonade, and the whole party — the leading citizens of South Texas — ended up marching through Laredo behind a big bass drum, singing at the top of their lungs and challenging all comers to a fight.
King remained a rough frontiersman, a natural leader, violent, passionate, and unpredictable. A more sensitive, gentleman could not have driven out the Indians, dominated outlaws and bandits, inspired vaqueros and cowboys, and won the frontier without any of the supports of civilization. “I have to make ‘em think I’m a man-eater,” he used to say. “If I don’t they’ll kill me.”
The Pioneers Farewell
Even though he despaired over Robert Lee’s death, King managed r-o find a worthy successor, a man much different from himself. His only surviving son, Richard, Jr., was not by temperament a rancher. Two of his daughters had moved away, not always on the best of terms with their demanding mother. But the youngest daughter, Alice, had stayed home, helping her mother keep a God-fearing house. In 1881 King had met a young lawyer in Corpus Christi named Robert Justus Kleberg, who was on the opposite side in one of King’s many lawsuits. Kleberg had carried the day, and on the night of his victory he received a visit from the stern rancher whose hard eyes had followed him throughout the trial. Captain King had a proposition for Kleberg. He wanted him to take on some of the ranch’s voluminous legal business.
Kleberg accepted the offer and asked when he should start. “Right now,” King said, and the two left for the ranch on a buckboard in the middle of the night. There Alice served coffee and cakes and then went back to bed, after getting a quick look at the man who would become her husband, the father of her five children, and, with her, the next link in the lineage of the King Ranch.
It wasn’t just Robert Lee’s death and the end of the frontier that was destroying Richard King. Something else was, too — stomach cancer. Alice and her mother both tried to care for him, but by 1885 King’s rugged body could battle the disease no longer. His hair and beard had turned gray; his complexion was ashen. When he left the Santa Gertrudis to see his doctor in San Antonio, everyone knew he would not be back. The man who had conquered the West had to be helped to his stagecoach. His last instructions to his manager were ‘‘Don’t let a foot of the dear old Santa Gertrudis get away from us.” At the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, next door to the Alamo, he died at dusk on April l4. He was sixty years old.
Big Boots To Fill
Shortly after her husband’s death, Henrietta King, to whom he left everything he owned, gave her daughter’s fiancé a mission: to run the ranch. It was not the best of times for a young lawyer of 31 to become a rancher. Cattle prices had fallen disastrously, from $40 a head to $5. The trail drives and the profits they had brought were over. Drouth gripped the prairie and would not let loose for almost a decade. King’s relentless land buying had put the ranch deeply in debt. One of Robert Kleberg’s first tasks as manager of the Santa Gertrudis was to disobey Robert E. Lee’s advice: he sold land, about 20,000 acres of it. Those odd pieces here and there went to cancel several debts, one of which had even dragged the widow King into court with a collection suit.
Robert Kleberg was not of the pioneer stock that had moved into Texas from the South. His family had come directly from Germany in 1834 and had begun life in America as new to it as the first settlers in New England. His father was a lawyer and his mother was from a family of educated and distinguished Prussian aristocrats. They brought to Texas its first piano, as well as fine paintings, engravings, books, and music. Robert Kleberg received his law degree from the University of Virginia, then returned to Texas to practice. Possessed of a Prussian rationality and a stolid determination, Kleberg also had a bit of gemütlichkeit; he drank his share of beer and would even sing popular songs in public if called upon at weddings and other occasions. But what he brought most to the ranch was a strong sense of family, an unshakable belief in education, and a determination to plan for future generations.
It took a while for Kleberg to adapt to the ranching end of his new life. He was, after all, a lawyer and something of a scholar, a far cry from the larger-than-life character whose boots he had to fill. He spoke no Spanish at first, a distinct handicap in a kingdom whose subjects conversed in that tongue. He was only a passable horseman. He preferred to travel in a buckboard, dressed in his woolen suit and his tie like a proper city lawyer, ignoring by a supreme effort of will the stupefying South Texas heat. But if he felt doubts about his new role, his firm sense of duty kept him going. He threw himself into ranching as vigorously as he had into the study of law, and he soon put his own stamp on the greatest ranch in the West.
In the year after Richard King died, Robert Kleberg took another step that tied him to his new destiny forever. In a small and private wedding ceremony he married Alice King. The only guests from outside the family were Mifflin Kenedy and another of Captain King’s partners, Uriah Lott. One represented the young couple’s past, the other its future. Kenedy had been Richard King’s lifelong friend and partner. Lott, on the other hand, was a man of the new West. He was a railroad builder, a speculator on a grand scale, a man who recognized the benefits — and profits — that would come from opening up South Texas. Mifflin Kenedy had brought Richard King to the frontier; Uriah Lott would help his descendants bring the frontier to an end.
The new master of the King Ranch was eager to see Uriah Lott put to use. Like Lott, Kleberg saw the vast expanse of South Texas not as the open range but as the site of towns, farms, schools, and cities. He saw it civilized. The key to connecting South Texas to the rest of the world was a railroad from Corpus Christi to Brownsville, and the key to getting that railroad was finding water. Kleberg tried everything from prayers to dynamite. Finally he found a company in the Midwest with new drilling equipment that could penetrate far deeper than he had ever been able to drill. He ordered it at once and in 1899 set to work.
One rainy morning a vaquero appeared at the ranch house, breathless with his news. The new drill had struck water! Kleberg leaped into his buckboard and, whipping his horse, charged across the prairie. He stood at the well — water streaming down his face, his clothes soaked and muddy — and he cried. “The men,” he recalled, “wondered why I cried when we finally saw what we had all been praying for. But I knew that once a definite source of water was available I could induce railroad construction, which in turn could lead to the development of South Texas.”
With those wells Robert Kleberg got his railroad and his town. Uriah Lott lined up the investors and the real estate. The ranch donated land both to provide a right-of-way and to pay the railroad contractors. As the railroad was being laid out, Kleberg lost no time in developing his land. He and the widow King rode out from their ranch house, a lonely sentinel on the prairie 20 miles from the nearest railhead and 45 from Corpus Christi. They stopped at a spot where Richard King had spread his blanket for Henrietta on roundup picnics years before, where Comanches and the wild Longhorn had once held sway. In the distance some cattle grazed, and all around there was no sound except the wind rustling in the hackberry and huisache trees along the creek bottom. Kleberg dismounted first, then helped Mrs. King down. “Here,” he said, according to the family legends, “we will build our town.”
His vision was the same vision that had been transforming the wilderness of America into civilization for almost three hundred years. Before long there were streets, houses, businesses, banks, schools, churches, and people. These were city people — blacksmiths, teachers, salesmen, carpenters, the same sort of people who could be found throughout turn-of- the-century small-town America. Bringing civilization to the banks of the Santa Gertrudis — even in the form of a fairly primitive ranching and railroad town — was among Robert Kleberg’s greatest achievements. To Henrietta King it was the fulfillment of a dream a half-century old. She donated the land for churches and schools out of her own lots, since to have churches in what was once the frontier was the reward for all her hardships and the confirmation of her faith. The town was named Kingsville, after the region’s last real frontiersman, but with its founding the South Texas frontier was no more.
Kleberg didn’t stop with the town. He set aside land for demonstration farming of cotton, vegetables, and citrus. He planted countless species of fruit, from grapefruit to olives and date palms, and found that oranges and grapefruit grew well and bore prolifically. Kleberg’s early experiments created the South Texas citrus industry. He was, at heart, a businessman. He wanted to use the land more than a rancher did, and couldn’t abide just leaving it to be harvested by cattle and horses.
By the time of his death in 1932 the ranch had doubled in size, to more than one million acres. He bought big tracts and small, often during drouths and depressions when prices were low. He bought the Laureles Ranch from the Scots who had bought it from Mifflin Kenedy. He brought in South African grasses to improve his pastures. For years horses had been a major source of income for the ranch; as many as 12,000 a year were sold to the Army, and to cities, businesses, and individuals all over America. Kleberg bred Clydesdale and Percheron horses, and business remained brisk until the automobile made draft horses obsolete.
One of the difficulties facing ranchers at the turn of the century was mesquite, which as a result of large-scale horse operations had spread like a weed across valuable grassland. (Horses ate the mesquite beans, which were warmed to incubation in their digestive tracts and then nourished to rapid growth by their manure.) Kleberg worked out the first rudimentary way to plow up mesquite and clear choked pastures.
The two biggest problems with the ranch, however, were water and cattle. Kleberg alleviated the water problem with his artesian wells; windmills soon were constructed all around the ranch, each serving its own pasture and allowing even more selective breeding operations. Yet the English breeds that the ranch imported had an unfortunate habit of dying once they got to South Texas. They lost weight, gave birth to stillborn calves, and declined into stupor and death. Through perseverance and a lawyer’s patient accumulation of evidence, Robert Kleberg discovered that the cattle were suffering from a disease spread by ticks that came to be called Texas fever. For almost two decades he worked to develop techniques to eradicate it. He built the first cattle dipping vat and initiated other preventive programs, almost single-handedly bringing the disease under control.
The Price Of Inheritance
The widow King, though frail, survived her husband by forty years. When Robert Kleberg and Alice King were married in 1886 Henrietta King accompanied them on their honeymoon. This sharing of their postnuptial rite established a pattern that continued until her death in 1925. Mrs. King’s bedroom in the old frame ranch house was directly across the hall from theirs. When that house burned in 1912 the custom of close family living carried over to the grand hacienda, known as the Big House, that looms over the Santa Gertrudis to this day.
Mrs. King presided at the dinner table and was quite free with advice on how the young couple should raise their five children. They never had a life of their own until they themselves were near death; that was the price they paid for their inheritance. For decades the King Ranch was known as “the widow’s ranch,” and Mrs. King, dressed always in black, set the tone for it. Twice a year she toured the ranch in her heavy black Rockaway stagecoach, and she was, in fact if not always in practice, the boss of the place. She gave Robert Kleberg authority and respect, but she never stepped entirely aside. A woman of unflagging charity and Christian determination, she still expected to receive her due as pioneer, founder, and owner. At times she no doubt made the Klebergs’ lives utterly miserable.
But Mrs. King’s fussy presence was only a minor source of misery compared with the South Texas climate. It was no more fit for proper Victorians than the steamy plains of India were. The vaquero men and women wore light cottons. The Kleberg men suffered under wool trousers, high boots, stiff collars, suspenders, and wool coats. The women were gussied up in layers of chemises, petticoats, whalebone corsets, and heavy cloth from head to foot. Dressed like that, simply to survive a South Texas August was a triumph. Mrs. King would not allow the men to dine at her table in shirt-sleeves, no matter how hot the day. And so they would sit through dinner, sweating profusely. If the windows were opened the wind would cover the plates with dust. If it was a bit cooler the mosquitoes would descend in clouds. Even so, after dinner the family members would entertain each other, putting on skits, telling stories, reading aloud, and singing songs, always closing with Mrs. King’s favorite, “Rock of Ages.”
The new generation, the Klebergs’ two boys and three girls, grew up on the ranch in spirit even though they spent the school year in Corpus Christi. Their father delighted in sending a stagecoach drawn by magnificent white horses to meet them at the train stop. The horses whisked them away on what must have been a heady ride across twenty miles of prairie to the threshold of the ranch house. When the railroad finally came to Kingsville the railroad manager sent a special engine and caboose every Friday to take the children from Corpus Christi out to the ranch.
Alice King Kleberg, for her part, stayed in her mother’s shadow and deferred to her husband, a model of self-denial. But she harbored in her heart a warm spot for her father’s flamboyance. Her first son, Richard Mifflin Kleberg, was her favorite. He was dashing, talented, and athletic. He mastered languages, golf, the guitar, and the piano, all with ease. He was a natural diplomat with a flair for dramatic gestures and could deliver moving speeches in Spanish, German, and English. He would sit with his mother for hours, playing his guitar and singing songs.
But Robert Kleberg, while he admired his elder son’s talents, placed his faith in Robert Kleberg, Jr., his second son. Bob had to work harder for what he got. Shorter than Richard, he was also less athletic and graceful. He had a terrible ear for languages and music and a soft, squeaky voice unsuited to public speaking. He liked books but did not take to schools. He pulled his share of pranks, but in contrast to Richard he was a serious and earnest young man, just the sort to inspire confidence in his father and the widow King.
Richard Kleberg, as befitted his talents, became the ranch’s emissary to the world at large. He looked after its interests in Congress from 1932 to 1944 (and gave a young Texan named Lyndon Johnson his first job in Washington). He was something of a legend there. He often drove up to the Capitol in a stripped-down King Ranch hunting car like the one Buick made for him, trimmed in sterling silver, with compartments for guns, ammunition, and liquor.
Bob, however, was given the responsibility of the ranch. Captain King himself had skipped over the most obvious heir in favor of a man better suited to the task. That tradition, more than anything else, enabled the family to sustain itself when an aristocracy that gave everything to the firstborn would have failed. And no one proved that tradition’s worth more eloquently than Bob Kleberg.
In The Captain’S Image
One hundred years, almost to the day, after Richard King established his first cow camp on the Santa Gertrudis, Bob Kleberg stood on a rise in Queensland and gazed out on the vast red-din sweep of the Australian outback. The country was raw desert, worked desultorily by a few settlers and aborigines whose occasional travels sent whirlwinds of dust across the steppes. But Bob Kleberg saw in that Australian wilderness precisely what his grandfather had seen in the grassy, godforsaken Wild Horse Desert of South Texas: he saw the makings of an empire. By the time he finally satisfied that vision he had added 8 million acres of Australian land on long-term leases to the 825,000 or so his family owned in Texas.
He also left his mark on every aspect of the original ranch. He led it through the tumultuous decade following the death of Henrietta King in 1925. He survived bitter court battles with his cousins over the division of the ranch. He weathered the Depression and its catastrophic effect on ranch profits. He engineered a deal with Humble Oil for the ranch’s oil and gas rights that put it permanently on a sound financial footing. And he developed an entirely new breed of cattle that was to the cattle business what the Model A Ford was to the car business. He was, by any definition, a genius.
Like his brother and sisters, Bob Kleberg grew up on the ranch. He learned to ride at four, and to cut, rope, and shoot soon after. His mentors were his cousin Caesar Kleberg, ranch foreman Sam Ragland, and the Kineños. Caesar was the family eccentric. He ran the southern sector of the ranch from a weathered old ranch house at Norias that had neither electricity nor plumbing. The railroad tracks cut through the front yard. The bathtub was on the front porch, and cots did for beds. The place was so cluttered it was rumored that nothing that went in ever came out, except, occasionally, Caesar himself.
As a boy Bob lived with Sam Ragland in the foreman’s cottage next to the Big House. Ragland and Caesar, as well as Kineños like Augustín Quintanilla and Faustino Villa, who had been with Captain King on the river, made the younger Kleberg son their apprentice. He was a quick learner. With their help he trained his eyes, his ears, and his nose to pick up the subtle variations that told him, as if by instinct, which calves would breed best, which clouds carried rain, which plant stung and which one healed. Bob’s early ambition was to be an inventor, and later the stirrings of youthful independence caused him to announce that he was going to be an engineer. But the onset of his father’s palsy and World War I changed that. He came home to run the ranch in 1918 after only two years of college, and for all practical purposes he did not leave it for twenty years.
The Ranch Divided
In 1925, at the age of 92, the widow of the King Ranch died. At Henrietta King’s bier were bankers from the East, railroad executives, oilmen, politicians. There were also hundreds of Kineños, some of whom had ridden for two days from the ranch’s far divisions. Unbidden, they led the funeral procession into the town cemetery, a few miles from where her husband had first brought her to the uninhabited frontier more than seventy years before. Then they circled the open grave on horseback at a fast canter, their hats held at their sides.
Mrs. King’s death threw the ranch into crisis. The estate taxes, and the depression that soon followed, dragged the ranch more than $3 million into debt, to the edge of financial ruin. And more ominously, the huge empire built by the riverboat captain had to be divided among his heirs for the first time. That complex and, in some cases, bitter process consumed an entire decade. It was Bob Kleberg’s first great test.
Mrs. King’s will called for her daughter Alice to receive the northern tier of the ranch, the Santa Gertrudis and Laureles divisions. The southern sector was divided among her other heirs, with the children of Richard King, Jr., receiving the Santa Fe Ranch to the west. The Atwoods, heirs of Mrs. King’s eldest daughter, Nettie (from whom she had long been estranged, never having approved of her marriage to an Army officer), received El Sauz on the south. The Klebergs got the northeastern portion known as the Norias Division, to which they added the shares of two other heirs who sold out to them. In the early twenties, knowing his family was going to lose most of the sandy pasture in the southern sector. Bob Kleberg had bought a sandy ranch south of Falfurrias, to create another division, the Encino, just north of the Santa Fe Ranch. Of the ranch’s 1.2 million acres, the Klebergs ended up with more than 800,000.
Throughout the ten years between Mrs. King’s death in 1925 and the final partition in 1935 Bob Kleberg, the youngest trustee, ran the ranch for the heirs. He ran it without hesitation and with a zeal that angered the Atwoods. They fought the will bitterly, challenged his trusteeship, raged over his imperial manner, and fumed that he charged his freewheeling escapades to the estate. Led on by their Chicago lawyer, the Atwoods refused to take El Sauz and sued the ranch for nearly twenty years, all the while living in comparative poverty on a modest allowance Mrs. King had given them in her will. Estranged, lonely, and resentful, one of them bequeathed her estate to a Chicago policeman who had treated her kindly. The lawyer ended up with well over half of El Sauz in return for masterminding what was, by the time it was finally settled in the fifties, the longest suit in Texas history.
To manage their holdings, in 1934 the Klebergs incorporated the King Ranch (which meant that the descendants of Richard King, Jr., would no longer be a part of the ranch that bore their name). Each of the five children of Alice King and Robert Kleberg, Sr., got one fifth of the stock, which they pooled in a trust set up to last until 1954, when they or their heirs would control the stock individually. The intent was clear: after suffering through the tense decade following Mrs. King’s death, Bob Kleberg, his brother, Richard, and their three sisters were pledging to keep the King Ranch together.
The incorporation of the ranch was the beginning of its modern history. It was no longer one man’s empire. Now it belonged to a growing family whose members would have to agree on its destiny. In 1934 there were only five stockholders; in two generations there would be more than sixty. Corporate politics, meaning family politics, would decide the ranch’s future, even if the will, charisma, and above al, the longevity of Bob Kleberg would obscure that fact for four decades. Back in the early thirties, however, Bob worried less about how his heirs would run the ranch than about making sure they would have something to run. Neither the Atwoods, the land, nor the future was the biggest thorn in his side — money was.
Playing The Oil Card
Ranchers have traditionally been landpoor: long on acres, short on cash. Ever since the brief halcyon years of the cattle boom following the Civil War, the King Ranch had seldom earned more than $100,000 or 5200,000 a year in profit from all its ranching operations. Some years it lost money. In the thirties, however, drouth so parched the ranch’s pastures that its cattle were starving. Yet there was no point in buying feed for them — fat steers were selling for a pitiful three and a half cents a pound. The King Ranch unloaded thousands of head and earned in return barely enough to pay for shipping them to market.
It was a grim period. Bob’s cousin Richard King (who was still with the ranch then) spent all his time on trains, trying to stay ahead of the ranch’s creditors by floating new loans to pay off the old ones coming due. Throughout the crisis the elder Kleberg, the old German lawyer who had bested a riverboat captain in court, still got in his car every afternoon and had himself driven around the ranch, his blue eyes staring out at the barren plains, his once fertile mind now made helpless by a stroke.
The pressure on Bob to sell off big chunks of the ranch, to throw into the fire the only asset it had left — its land — became overwhelming. No one saw any other way out. But Bob, obstinately and unreasonably, refused to sell land. “Selling is easy,” he would say. “Collecting is hard.” He looked instead to something else the ranch possessed-beneath its surface. He looked to oil.
In 1933 Bob Kleberg tried to persuade several oil companies to take a lease on the ranch. Gulf, Shell, and Texaco turned him down. Humble Oil did not: in return for a loan that would assume all of the ranch’s $3 million debt, then held by numerous investors in the form of King Ranch notes, and in return for a royalty interest and enough bonus payments to meet the interest on the loan, Bob granted Humble the right to search for oil and gas on the more than one million acres the family controlled before the partition. When the deal was closed, Humble had possession of what was then the largest oil and gas lease in the world. And the ranch — provided, as many oilmen doubted, that there was oil under its pastures — was on a sound financial footing at last.
Using the primitive geological survey methods of the time. Humble spent the next six years trying to discover just where to drill its first well. “It was like firing a rocket into space not knowing where the planets were and expecting to hit something,” a veteran of the early exploration recalled. In 1939 Humble began drilling in the sections adjacent to proven fields outside the ranch. It was not until 1945, twelve years after the lease was signed, that they went after new fields with their first wildcat well. It hit. Two years later the ranch had raked in $3.25 million in royalties from fields that the Oil and Gas Journal estimated would be second to East Texas in oil and second to Amarillo in natural gas. By 1953 there were 650 producing wells on the ranch.
The relationship between the King Ranch and Humble was based on a simple understanding: the King Ranch might be an oil field to Humble, but it was still a ranch to Bob Kleberg. For example, when the first oil well was no longer a producer, it was converted to a water well and used to fill stock tanks. Oil has been a considerate guest. Pumps, rigs, gas lines, and equipment are kept up to the standard of appearance of the ranch, which, not so incidentally, got with its royalties a free system of roads and free natural gas.
The free gas eventually became something of a headache for Humble. On one memorable occasion, the top executives of Standard Oil, Humble, and other oil companies were house guests of Henrietta Larkin Armstrong, Bob’s sister. Henrietta was an enthusiastic gardener. That night a blue norther sent the temperature in South Texas into the twenties, so Henrietta set out dozens of gas stoves to keep her plants from freezing. Sometime after midnight the stoves stopped working. With undeniable logic, she rousted all the oil company presidents and board chairmen out of their beds with the command “You all know everything about gas — get up and fix my stoves!” They did, and not long after that gave up supplying the ranch with free gas from their wells and installed propane tanks instead.
An Artist Of Genetics
Bob Kleberg not only saved the ranch, he also transformed it. Like Henry Ford, with whom he had a great deal in common, he loved to tinker. Were the mesquite thickets getting worse? He invented a root plow driven by a massive bulldozer that could clear four acres an hour. Were the native grasses thin and unnourishing? He developed his own grasses, some of which are now used around the world. Was the grass deficient in nutrients? He devised a phosphorus supplement that made cattle healthier. Was it difficult to move cattle into pens? He invented the cattle prod, based on the design for a fly electrocutor he was experimenting with. The list goes on and on. But his most inventive work was in breeding.
By World War I the Longhorn, like the buffalo, had vanished from the frontier. But the English breeds that replaced it suffered mightily in the South Texas heat. Most of the year they ran a fever just from standing in the sun. Their skin was too tight to allow much evaporation and too thin to resist screwworms, ticks, and other insects. They gained weight poorly when fed just grass, yet grass was what the King Ranch had in abundance. With the help of his brother, Richard, Bob Kleberg set out to invent his own cow. He brought in Brahmans and crossed them with his English Shorthorns, patiently working down through generations of cattle, until one day a bull calf was born that seemed different. He was so good-natured and playful that they called him Monkey.
Monkey was what Bob Kleberg had been looking for, and from Monkey he engineered a whole new race of cattle. To breed out undesirable characteristics, he repeatedly mated Monkey to a hand-picked selection of other crossbreeds, then to the best offspring from those matings and to their offspring. He would look at young bulls and heifers and announce that they would “nick well together” — would produce calves that would continue the progress toward his goal: an animal that would thrive on heat and grass and would repel insects, an animal that had the hardiness of the Brahman and the temperament and marketable beef of the fat and docile English cattle.
His invention was the world’s first new breed of beef cattle in more than a century, and in 1940 (thanks largely to Richard Kleberg’s skilled lobbying in Washington) it was officially named the first American breed. Bob Kleberg called the new breed the Santa Gertrudis, after the little creek that marked the spot of King’s first rancho. The breed reflects Bob’s practical genius, but it also confirms his artistic sense. It is an animal of beauty-deep russet in color, long and well proportioned. Like great art, the Santa Gertrudis appears simple but could only be recreated from scratch with incredible difficulty and a great deal of luck. Technically, it is three-eighths Brahman and five-eighths Shorthorn, but as one geneticist puts it, “You could cross Shorthorns and Brahmans all your life and not come up with a Santa Gertrudis.”
Bob Kleberg’s artistry in genetics wasn’t limited to beef cattle. His father had crossed quarter horses with thoroughbreds and standard breeds, but their descendants were too clumsy for ranch work. Bob set about to create a ranch horse that would be, in his words, “a joy to ride.” The quarter horse he developed, known as the Old Sorrel (from the stallion that was the equine counterpart of Monkey), is a deep red like the Santa Gertrudis. Ringling Bros. bought King Ranch quarter horses for their circus acts, and when the American Quarter Horse Association was founded, a King Ranch stallion, Wimpy, was given the first number in the stud book. In the late thirties Bob devoted the same interest to thoroughbreds, breeding racehorses that won the Kentucky Derby twice and, with Assault, the Triple Crown. In each case he pushed out into the forefront of the geneticist’s art and science.
Outside the Fences
Bob Kleberg was the first leader of the King Ranch born and bred to ranching. He did not share his father’s interest in development and growth; if anything, the town of Kingsville — his father’s personal creation — was an irritant to him. Still, he did not warn to let Kingsville leave the ranch’s paternal control. The family was proud of the land and money it donated for schools, churches, and social work, not to mention the leadership of generations of ranch women in charitable causes throughout South Texas. Bob Kleberg was squarely in that tradition. He saw himself as a patrón; in that role he donated buildings and money for schools but fought any effort to let the school board tax the ranch to pay for the same improvements.
The arrival of a naval air station, Humble, and then the Celanese Chemical Company, combined with the social upheavals that began in earnest after World War II, changed forever the ranch’s relationship to Robert Kleberg’s town. Like a son who had grown to manhood, Kingsville wanted independence from its parents. First Richard Kleberg was defeated for Congress. Then, in the late forties, Kingsville voted in an anti-ranch school board. But today the town and the ranch coexist comfortably. The ranch pays about $336,000 in taxes, less than either Celanese or Humble. The streets bear the names of the family, and the ranch still owns the newspaper, the largest bank, a lumberyard and a boot and saddle shop. But Kingsville and its 29,000 people have grown beyond the ranch, just as the ranch, in its worldwide activities, has grown beyond Kingsville.
The family, of course, did not drop out of politics. After Richard broke with the New Deal, the Klebergs gradually became strong Republicans. In 1962 John Armstrong, now the ranch’s executive vice president, modernized the Kleberg County Republican party organization and personally helped canvass the whole county. Both Bob Kleberg and his nephews Belton Kleberg “B” Johnson and Dick Kleberg strongly supported Richard Nixon. Dick contributed $100,000 to Nixon’s 1972 campaign. And when Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974, a stunned and very distressed Bob Kleberg — only two months away from death — called one of his relatives to talk for hours about the fate of leaders, about how no man can hold power forever. But in local politics the ranch takes a lower profile. For a number of Chicano activists the ranch is too potent a symbol of how Anglo ranchers one controlled the county’s destiny. Some individual family members still get involve in city and school elections, and the family-owned newspaper is fairly outspoken on local affairs, but no one in either the town or the family believes the ranch calls the shots in Kingsville anymore.
Taxes weren’t the only trappings of civilization that Bob resisted. The boom in the Valley and South Texas, brought on in part by the success of his father’s farming experiments, was attracting too many people, crowding out cattle, eating away at perfectly good ranchland. He ruthlessly set out to stop this encroachment, once calling one of the elder Kleberg’s farming proposals “a damfool idea” to his face. For almost ten years he and Johnny Kenedy, Mifflin Kenedy’s grandson, blocked the completion of Highway 77, the main artery between Corpus Christi and Brownsville, because it would pass through their ranches. His opposition to progress earned the ranch its fame as “the walled kingdom.”
Miles To Go Before He Slept
When Bob Kleberg went to Australia in 1952 he was 56. The ranch he had run since 1918, when he was 22 years old, was doing well. Now, at a time when many men would have looked back on their accomplishments, he was ready for new challenges. He was irascible, magnetic, imperious, opinionated, able to mix with vaqueros and Rockefellers, and quite often absolutely impossible. “I’ve been out with him when he didn’t put head to pillow all night,” recalls John Armstrong. “Then he’d saddle up his horse and work cattle until the sun went down the next day, and never slow down. I never knew when he slept, but I started to notice that he would sleep at the dinner table — sometimes over coffee, sometimes through the main course. And then he’d look up with a start and be ready to go again. When you were with him you were always drinking, laughing, and shooting rabbits. I went with him to South America, and when I came home I had to see my doctor. I was almost twenty-five years younger, but he’d worn me out.”
When he went to the East, to the best boxes at Saratoga, to the suite at the Pierre, to “21,” he arrived as the conquering provincial. During the horse-racing season he customarily dressed in a silk hat and a serape and, thus outfitted, went calling on the Whitneys and the Vanderbilts. There was always something fabulous about him, almost as if he had just ridden up to the Pierre Hotel surrounded by mounted and armed Kineños.
What Bob saw, he saw clearly; what Bob wanted done, he got done. He was not plagued by self-doubts or hampered by lack of confidence. He did as he pleased all his life. He knew his own mind, and he knew who he was. Faced with a world in which paperwork, bureaucrats, and “experts” assumed more importance every day, he became less and less patient with dissent, incompetence, and routine. A lifelong friend casually refers to him as “the old dictator.” He wanted things done his way. “When he said ‘frog,’ “ one crusty South Texas rancher and oilman recalls, “everybody jumped.”
Instinct was as important to Bob Kleberg as organization. The management tools used in sedentary pursuits like insurance and steel manufacturing were to be tolerated but certainly not encouraged. When he went to Venezuela to look into buying a ranch with his partner there, he was presented with a wealth of statistics, charts, and cost-benefit analyses. He brushed them all aside, looked around at the land, opened a bottle, and made the deal. After all, his partner in Venezuela was a man he trusted, a rancher. That bond of respect was worth more than any economic analysis.
The partner, Gustavo de los Reyes, had owned a ranch in Cuba neighboring Bob Kleberg’s first foreign venture. After Castro came to power in 1959, de los Reyes was imprisoned and the King Ranch’s property and cattle were expropriated. (For years afterward there were reports of Santa Gertrudis herds in Russia, the older cattle still bearing the ranch’s Running W brand.) Kleberg had promised de los Reyes he would set him up anywhere in the world when he got out of prison, and he kept the promise.
In 1966 Bob was visiting the Venezuela ranch. Terrorists had been attacking ranches nearby, and the Venezuelan government seemed powerless to stop them. As de los Reyes recounted the story to Charles Murphy, a Fortune writer, he turned to Kleberg and told him he wouldn’t blame him if he wanted to pull out of Venezuela in order to avoid a repeat of the Cuban affair.
Kleberg thought about that. “You ever run away from anything?” he asked.
“Nothing that I can remember,” the Cuban answered.
“Neither have I,” said Captain King’s grandson. Bob Kleberg then stood up, took off his King Ranch cowboy hat, and hung it on a hook in the ranch office, where it remained until his death. “I’ll need this,” he said, “when I come back.”
That was how Bob Kleberg worked, in ranching, in oil, in everything. He had an actor’s instinct for the dramatic gesture, particularly the one that would make him seem larger than life. But if he postured, as he did with his hat in Venezuela, he was also willing to back that posturing up. He might, for example, trot out some obscure fact about the Irish rebellion of 1797 to make a point, but if he was challenged, the chances were very good that he really knew what he was talking about. He did a great deal for effect, but he hardly ever did anything simply for show.
A sophisticated businessman, he was a determined foe of what passed for sophisticated business. After he made a deal he had his lawyers and accountants come in and make sure it was right, but until then they made themselves scarce. He had a healthy respect for such Professionals — his father and brother were both lawyers, and the ranch’s main attorneys, Leroy Denman, Sr., and Leroy Denman, Jr., were two of his closest friends and advisers. But he knew also that a rancher was not a lawyer, and that to be a rancher you had to know when not to return your lawyer’s urgent phone calls.
A Woman’s Touch
For the last two decades of his life Bob Kleberg spent most of his time on his foreign empire. His nephew Dick Kleberg stayed in Texas and ran the original ranch. When Bob was at the ranch his days almost always followed the same pattern: he was awakened with a steaming cup of black coffee at five or six, talked to all his foremen by phone, and then drove out onto the ranch in one of the special hunting cars he had designed. He never left without his pistols and his Mannlicher rifles. There was always the possibility that some hapless coyote — or, during hunting season, quail, turkey, or deer — might cross his path. Throughout the day he would work on horseback with the Kineños. At lunch they would break for barbecue, frijoles, and camp bread cooked in Dutch ovens over an open fire and smeared with molasses. It was a rugged, hardy, outdoor life; it kept Bob Kleberg in touch with his roots and with the frontier traditions of ranching; and it had almost nothing to do with how the ranch really made its money.
When he returned from his sojourns in Australia or South America, Bob made it a point to tour the ranch. His tours were legendary. Often he would take his nephew B Johnson along. “We’d leave at dawn and drive all day long,” B remembers. “We’d do two and sometimes three divisions in a day. He’d get to a pasture, take one look, and say, ‘I told you three years ago to do so and so. You didn’t do it. See what happened?’ He would work with the Kineños, straight through until we finished — no breaks for coffee, lunch, bad weather, anything. He did everything the hard way — he rode the hard way, with his stirrups fully extended; he roped the hard way, just using his shoulders; he studied the hard way, always poring over scientific journals. He hated the office. His life was outside.”
Bob and his brother and their few close friends entertained themselves much as Captain King had. They hunted, of course — alone, with each other, and on a grand social scale at Christmastime. Both Bob and Richard were superb shots with rifle, pistol, or shotgun. Once Bob and a family friend shot out the streetlights of the nation’s capital with wild abandon and great accuracy. Bob and Richard often bet on horses and sneaked away from the respectable life of the family compound to the more plebeian pleasures of cockfighting.
Their mother, Alice, the last link with the old ranch of Captain King, viewed their excesses with the same blinders her mother had worn. When someone mentioned that her son Richard was spending a good deal of time with fighting cocks, she replied, “How nice. He’s the first member of the family to be interested in poultry.” But at home the brothers made the same concessions to respectability their grandfather had. They would, for example, hide liquor in the bathroom and answer a truly prodigious number of calls of nature during parties or in the long evenings they spent at home. Outside the house they were their own men; inside, they played by women’s rules.
But Alice King Kleberg was the last woman of the family to embody the struggle of gentility against reality. The next generation of women was different, as likely to sip bourbon as the men, as eager to go out on roundups, as proficient at riding and shooting. The key woman of that generation was Bob’s wife, Helen, the model for Leslie Benedict in Giant. If oil opened the world up to the ranch, it was Helen who pushed and prodded her reluctant husband out into it.
The daughter of a congressman from Kansas, she met Bob Kleberg at a party in 1926. Only seventeen days later, they were married. Helen threw herself into the romantic and varied wonders of the ranch but always — always — tried to awaken her provincial husband to what lay beyond its fences. She encouraged him to enter the world of thoroughbred racing, which led them into friendships with the old families of the East. She bought her cowboy husband pinstripe suits, which he wore with good humor, even if they never quite seemed to fit. She carried her Episcopalian faith into the Presbyterian stronghold. And, determined that her daughter, Helenita, and other promising young Klebergs would be exposed to a wider world, she saw that they went east to prep school. She labored to keep up a sense of standards within the fairly rough-edged family she had joined; she even included the Queen of England on the family’s wedding-invitation list, a reminder to everyone of exactly where she pegged the Klebergs’ social position.
Every January at roundup time, Bob and Helen Kleberg worked cattle together. Everyone pitched in, for a veritable orgy of work and a hell of a good time. It was as if twice a year John D. Rockefeller went down to the oil field and drilled for oil. Few people of the Klebergs’ station remained so in touch with the work on which their fortunes were built, and few people of their station could perform the roughest and most challenging tasks as well as their best workers.
Holding the Family Together
The stock of the King Ranch corporation was distributed to the family in 1954. For the first time the five children of Alice King and Robert Kleberg were free to dispose of their shares as they wished. It was like the partition after Henrietta’s death on a smaller scale, though this time four of the five branches chose to stay in. But Bob’s sister Alice Kleberg East, even more of a fundamentalist rancher than her brother, decided to exchange her shares for part of the ranch. To her and her children, the King Ranch had become too civilized under Bob Kleberg; as they put it, there were “too many flowerpots to water.” They had little patience with the thoroughbred program and with Bob’s foreign ventures. The Easts wanted to run their own affairs.
But Bob Kleberg had not taken over Captain King’s ranch to preside over its dissolution. He was adamant. He would not give up part of the ranch. Luckily his cousin Richard King and his family were ready to stop ranching and devote their attention to banking and other urban interests. So Bob engineered a trade that gave Richard King’s Santa Fe property to the King Ranch in return for 10 per cent of the entire ranch’s oil royalties. Bob then traded the Santa Fe to Alice for her stock. Once again he had used oil to hold the ranch together.
In 1958, with the original lease running out, the ranch and Humble negotiated an agreement that would change the course of the ranch’s history and, in the seventies, become a bitter bone of contention. The new agreement extended the Humble lease and granted Humble the right to build on the ranch (only eight miles west of the Santa Gertrudis headquarters) what was then the world’s largest natural gas processing plant. In return Humble agreed to pay the ranch a one-sixth royalty on all gas and oil, instead of the customary one-eighth. By 1969 the ranch was producing. Fortune magazine estimated, $120 million a year in oil and gas, making its one-sixth share worth $20 million, or about fifteen times the profits from the entire ranching operation.
Wealth in those proportions could have turned the Klebergs into stereotypical Texas oilmen, the Jett Rinks whose roots were swept away in the flood of oil. They could have become mad eccentrics or idle rich who frittered away their birthright Instead, Bob Kleberg took the oil money and sank it into what the family knew best — more ranching. Millions of dollars went into Australia, Africa, South America. He was consumed with the idea of claiming as productive ranchland the deserts and jungles of the tropics, and claiming them using his own invention, Santa Gertrudis cattle. Bob Kleberg was convinced that with proper management the Santa Gertrudis could feed the poor people of the tropics.
In the space of twenty years, with an intense expenditure of energy, will, ingenuity, and money, he added eight million acres to the ranch, mostly under long-term leases. He never stopped acquiring new pastures. In his late seventies he was absorbed with Spain and Morocco, and when he died he was obsessed with winning for ranching the world’s biggest wilderness — the Amazon. It was one of the most impressive bursts of creative energy in the history of American enterprise, and it made him a world figure, the confidant of presidents and kings.
Bob Kleberg took over the ranch during World War I and gave it up as the last troops left Viet Nam; he came in with the Model T and went out after the final Apollo mission to the moon. “It’s not hard to see why he might have seemed intolerant of suggestions from the younger members of the family,” his daughter Helenita, says. “After all, even if they were fifty years old, he had been running the ranch since before they were born.”
In the last years of his life he took his grandchildren on tours of the foreign ranches. They rode horseback all day and spent a good many evenings around the campfire. Bob Kleberg wanted more than anything to give his grandchildren a sense of who they were, wanted them to see the vastness of what their family had wrought. And he had decided to charge them with a weighty responsibility, just as Captain King, on his deathbed, had made his family swear never to sell a foot of the old Santa Gertrudis. One night, as the campfire nickered, he gave them their mission: “Do what you can with the ranch,” he said, “but, above all, keep the family together.” In 1974, scarcely a month after he had been working cattle on horseback, he died.
The Hard Worker
Though Bob Kleberg transformed the ranch, he did not have the same effect on the family. As Bob grew beyond the ranch, many members of the family found him increasingly remote. The man who most influenced the family was not Bob but his nephew Dick, Richard’s son. Dick was not the brilliant rancher Bob was. He did not seek new empires or command the center stage or extend the frontiers of ranching. He dedicated himself instead to husbanding what his forebears had built. Some members of the family were most inspired by Bob’s vision and dominating presence; others believed in Dick’s loyalty and sense of teamwork. Dick’s proteges, and not Bob’s, would end up running the ranch.
Dick was born out on the Laureles Division in 1916. Even before his father died in 1955, he had become his uncle’s right-hand man. Dick was the first person Bob thought he could trust with the ranch, and he laid the weight of its responsibility on Dick’s shoulders while he embarked on the worldwide expansion that occupied the last twenty years of his life.
There was never any doubt that Bob Kleberg was the boss, but it was Dick who kept the ranch going. He worked long hours every day, sweating, sunburned, choking with allergies. He chain-smoked and drank rivers of coffee and, like many of the men in the family, too much whiskey. He worked the ranch’s 825,000 acres as if he were the only hand on a family farm — no detail escaped him, no job was too small to take him out to the ranch. He never took a vacation with his family. Like Richard Kleberg, Sr., Dick subordinated himself to Bob.
Richard had been content to let his younger brother. Bob, have the attention, the acclaim, and the power. And he did that because he knew Bob was better at running the ranch than he was. That pride in putting personal ambition and fame aside for the best interests of the family sustained Dick also and won him the hearts of his own family and of the vaqueros, who loved him, perhaps more than any other Kleberg before or since. They loved him in the vigor of his youth for his humor and his cowboy skills; and they loved him later, when he lay helpless with emphysema, with instinctive empathy for his suffering.
For in the end Dick Kleberg’s body was not up to the burden he placed upon it. Living and working at the pace set by Bob Kleberg could not have helped his health. And South Texas is one of the most hostile climates known to man. Its heat is .more enervating than Death Valley’s. The air is heavy with humidity, laden with dust, filled with pollen. Almost all of the Klebergs are fair. with delicate skin that burns easily and is prone to cancer. They are plagued with allergies and asthma. They cough, wheeze, and sneeze, and they broil in the inescapable sun.
For Dick Kleberg the dust, the pollen, and the cigarettes were too much. He developed emphysema and his lungs began to fill with fluid. At first he was only a step or two slower than in his prime. But then there came hours at a time when he could not even go outside. A man who hated to be indoors, he was confined to his room, battling the disease that was smothering him. And then the hours became days, and the walls of his room became his world.
When Bob Kleberg died, Dick should at last have been able to turn the daily grind of the ranch over to one of his cousins or sons and enjoy the status on which Bob had thrived. But his body would not let him. Several times he went into the intensive care unit at Spohn Hospital in Corpus Christi, and his family was told he was dying. But he rallied, returned home, and tried to work, only to become an invalid again. In the late spring of 1979 his favorite horse died, a mare named Anita Chica. “It was like an omen,” a member of the family recalled. A few weeks later Dick Kleberg, 62 years old, was dead.
The Burial Of the Dead
It rained most of the morning, a rancher’s dream. In Santa Gertrudis Creek the narrow channel, scarcely a trickle, swelled slowly out toward the muddy banks. Along the wire-mesh fences lantanas, horsemint, and ebony were beginning to bloom. The ranch’s 563 employees — foremen, vaqueros, cooks, blacksmiths, farmers, secretaries, heavy-equipment men, veterinarians, accountants, maids, stableboys, pilots — had gathered on the banks of the Santa Gertrudis. A festive tent had been erected for a family wedding scheduled the next day, but the crowds now converging on the King Ranch headquarters were there for a more solemn purpose. They were there to bury Dick Kleberg. The accidental conjunction of wedding and funeral seemed appropriate for such a cohesive family: one generation was passing, another was beginning. As the rain was bringing new life to the dry prairie, so the wedding would also bring new life to the ranch.
The memorial service convened in the courtyard of Dick’s house, a rambling contemporary-style building laid out like one of the ranch’s cow camp shelters. It nestles in a live oak grove next to the Big House. The gentle, steady rain had turned the grass green and rich. Across Santa Gertrudis Creek cattle grazed; inside the courtyard mariachis played the music of the border. The children perched on folding chairs, the girls in Easter dresses, the boys in neatly pressed suits. In the crowd were ranchers, Houston lawyers, South American diplomats. New York bankers; on the outskirts stood the ranch executives and foremen. Beyond them, hats in hand, the Kineños stood awkwardly but proudly in their Sunday best.
From behind the house emerged a procession of fourteen Kineños, each in khaki, each mounted on a rusty red King Ranch quarter horse. They lined up behind the swimming pool, their hats held over their hearts. In the center of this honor guard pranced a restless quarter horse without a rider, a yellow poncho draped over its saddle. The saddle was Dick’s, made in the King Ranch saddle shop. Tied over it on either side were his boots. The sunlight flickering through the clouds reflected off the mother-of-pearl inlays in the handmade spurs.
A plaintive trumpet solo signaled the beginning of the service. The rain had stopped, but the wind blew drops of water from the mesquite and live oak trees down onto the crowd. A young Episcopal priest spoke of how Dick had “loved the land, had felt the promise of it, had worked it and suffered on it.” Then the Kineños’ priest gave a eulogy in Spanish. He talked about how the ranch people were workers and the Klebergs were patrones but in death ail were equal. The ranch workers, he added, addressing the family, had shared the family’s joys and laughter and today shared their sorrow and their tears.
The mariachis played a polka, and the mounted Kineños turned their horses and filed away, holding their hats to their sides in respect. The mourners began breaking up into smaller groups to tell stories far into the night about Dick, about the ranch, and about the other members of its family, like a Greek chorus telling tales of the deaths of kings. The family had been given much by the chance of birth-fame, riches, a vast ranch. But the funeral of Dick Kleberg was, above all, a reminder that they had also been given a ration of suffering.
In the five years between the deaths of Bob and Dick Kleberg the family endured more tumult, change, and confrontation than it had seen since the ranch partition in the thirties, if then. With Dick ill, the two most obvious heirs to the ranch were Dick’s cousins B Johnson and Robert Shelton. They were the sons of Bob Kleberg’s star-crossed younger sister, Sarah. Sarah was one of the new breed of ranch women who were not content to stay primly indoors. She was most at home on the ranch, and when she married in 1928 she chose a young cowboy named Henry Belton Johnson. Before their first child, B, was two, his father was dead of a brain tumor. Sarah remarried the next year, this time to a Kingsville physician named Joseph Shelton. They had one son, Robert Richard, who was six years younger than his half-brother. In 1939 Dr. Shelton died, and in 1942 Sarah herself was killed in an automobile accident. Her two orphaned sons went to live with their grandmother Alice King Kleberg on the ranch. When she died in 1944 at the age of 82, they moved in with their uncle Bob.
Bob and Helen Kleberg raised B and Bobby like the sons they never had. Their daughter, Helenita, grew up with the two boys in that odd combination of wealth and simplicity typical of the ranch. They each had their own Kineño servant, their own horses, their own cowboy suits, their own guns; they knew the significance of who they were. Yet they worked the roundups with the young Kineños, played with them, rode with them.
“Most ranch kids of our generation lived in town,” Helenita recalls. “We three grew up on the ranch. We spent our youth playing with Kineños. This was all pre-oil. The porch was screened then — there wasn’t any air conditioning. We didn’t have a pool, and I can remember my father’s spraying us with the hose in the summers while we jumped up and down and squealed. We didn’t have cars or radios or television the way kids do today. We had to entertain ourselves. The ranch was our playground. The old Kineños always had time to talk, and they would show us things. We’d walk down a path and they’d know a use for every bush — this one would heal a wound, that one cure a toothache, this one over here would make tea, another one would make soap. My father was always telling us to become close observers, to notice details and to draw conclusions from what we saw.”
B and Bobby grew up to be opposites, both in appearance and in personality. Bobby is short and scrappy, an endearing good old boy. After dabbling in college at A&M and UT, he went to work at the ranch in 1958. He helped with the breeding programs in South America, ran the Laureles Division, then became executive vice president of the ranch after Bob’s death and oversaw all of the domestic ranching operations. He is brash, opinionated, loyal, uncomplicated. “I love the ranch,” he said back in 1969. “I like to play cowboy and I don’t mind working.” A man of tremendous energies and a natural salesman, he would boast that he “could sell anybody anything.” He owned a Buick dealership in Kingsville, and when things got slow on the ranch he would go down and sell a few cars, just to keep in shape.
B is tall and graceful, with the rosy complexion of an English beefeater. He was a young man of inner strength and drive, serious about his ambitions, willing to challenge his uncle on his own ground. After prep school he studied agricultural economics at Cornell. He entered the army at the end of the Korean War, then returned to attend the Stanford business school.
Bob Kleberg wanted nothing so much as for B to come back to the ranch and work with him. He took B along, for example, on his initial trip to Australia. When the ranch’s first board of directors was formed in 1954, B, at 25, was by far the youngest member, just as Bob had been the youngest trustee following Mrs. King’s death thirty years before. Bob put B in charge of the Santa Gertrudis Division, the showplace of the ranch. But to B, being in charge meant being in charge. When Bob and Dick traveled around the Santa Gertrudis and gave orders to the foremen and the Kineños as was their custom, B considered they had broken the chain of command. He had learned from the Army how a successful organization worked, and he never forgot his military lessons. If you gave a man responsibility, you had to give him authority. How could he run the ranch unless Bob or Dick went through him?
But Bob Kleberg was not about to give up the absolute power he had always wielded. So in 1956, convinced that he could not continue to work in his uncle’s shadow, B Johnson, then 27, took his financial statement to the bank and borrowed enough money to buy the 70,000-acre Chaparrosa Ranch southwest of Uvalde. No one since Captain King had ever done such a thing on his own. Bob saw this independence two ways: first, as a commendable sign of strength, confidence, and character, and second, as a direct challenge to his authority as head of the ranch and surrogate father. B remained an active member of the ranch’s board, but he devoted the lion’s share of his time to his own affairs.
More than any other member of the family, B was the logical person to take over Bob’s role after Dick became ill. He was the oldest male in the bloodline; he had studied at his uncle’s knee and knew everything about ranching and the ranch; he was educated, diplomatic, polished. He even inherited the old man’s boots, which he wears just as Bob did, with the trouser legs of the ubiquitous King Ranch tan twills tucked inside. Yet when it came time to pick a successor to Bob Kleberg, the family did not call on B Johnson to fill his boots. Nor did they call on Bobby Shelton. Instead, they turned, as Captain King had almost a hundred years before, to an outsider.
In 1943, during the dark days of World War II, a tall and elegant young Army captain from Pennsylvania named James Clement married Ida Larkin, the daughter of Bob Kleberg’s sister Henrietta. The young man, a Princeton graduate, was from a prominent Eastern family; his father was the chairman of the Pennsyivania Railroad. Not long after the marriage James Clement went back to war and was badly wounded in Normandy. After the war the couple settled in New York. Clement’s wounds were complicated by diabetes, and his physical weakness made him less than enthusiastic about the bitter labor battles that plagued the coal and railroad industries in the late forties. With Bob’s encouragement, he and Ida (who is known as Illa) moved to Kingsville in 1947.
Jim Clement of Princeton and Philadelphia’s Main Line went to work in the King Ranch office as the assistant office manager. His main duty was managing the inventories at the ranch’s dry goods store and lumberyard. He was happy as could be, although Illa missed New York. They moved into the Big House and became occupied with the world of Kingsville and the ranch.
Clement did not immediately make the transition to the relaxed style of the South Texas ranching aristocracy. One family member recalls that his somewhat stiff urbanity, so appropriate for New York City clubs and boardrooms, seemed “a little out of place in the mesquite brush.” The young Clement started out to bring a bit of Eastern professionalism to the frontier informality of the ranch’s operations. “You couldn’t see anybody without an appointment for the first few days,” remembers a former ranch employee, “but that didn’t last long.” Soon Jim Clement was having coffee every morning at Harrell’s drugstore with the locals, soaking up gossip, being a part of things.
But though he adapted to the rough, masculine casualness of the ranch, Jim Clement has never pretended to be what he is not. He is not at home in the saddle, and he can’t look at a bull calf and pick out its breed type or use cowman’s jargon to describe its beef conformation. He is more likely to wear topsiders and a porkpie hat than boots and a cowboy hat.
He is a businessman rather than a rancher. And by being so different, he carved out a place for himself at the ranch that no one else in the family wanted. “We can leave that up to Jim,” they said as they saddled up to go out and work cattle. “Jim understands all that,” they said as they loaded up to go hunting. “Ask Jim about the figures,” they said as they went off to pick out breeding calves. In other words, Jim Clement became indispensable.
Bob Kleberg had kept the ranch running as a ranch. By sheer force of personality he had given the impression that it could be run from the saddle, that running it was an art, an insight, a way of life. But during Bob’s lifetime the ranch became an increasingly complex business stretching all over the world. When Bob Kleberg would not return the lawyers’ and accountants’ phone calls, they talked to Jim Clement. And so did the family members who had moved away and had questions or needed help. Unlike his more robust relatives, to whom the indoors was almost a prison, Jim Clement was always in the office. It was not calculated. It was just that business was what Jim Clement did best.
Who Runs the Ranch?
The beginning of the ranch’s recent history dates from the board meeting in 1974 to pick Bob Kleberg’s successor. Dick Kleberg should have taken over, but even then his failing health would not let him. The board of directors was composed of two members from each branch of the family — the descendants of Bob and Richard Kleberg and their sisters Henrietta and Sarah. They were Bob’s daughter, Helenita, and her daughter Helencita; Richard’s son Dick and Dick’s son Tio; Henrietta’s sons-in-law, Jim Clement and John Armstrong; and Sarah’s sons, B Johnson and Bobby Shelton.
On the day of the board meeting in 1974 Bobby and B each made a strong case that he should be named to head the ranch. Bobby based his claim on his determination to seek out better marketing approaches for the Santa Gertrudis breed, his plans for expanded oil and gas exploration, and his ability to come up with a reorganization of the ranch that would help the family’s estate planning. B based his case upon his proven record and his commitment to maintaining the ranch’s traditions. He was, he said, experienced and qualified — the logical choice.
The magnitude of the decision was not lost on the board members. Not one of them had been alive the last time the family had picked a man to head the ranch, and now they would be deciding its future. The initial choice was basically either B or not B. Some of the directors resented the time and energy B had devoted to his own projects and the distance he had kept between himself and the ranch for the past few years. But the crucial factor was that he was a chip off the old block. If they picked B, they would be continuing the ranch as it was. They would be turning it over to a vigorous, confident man in the prime of his life, a man who was certain to give them, in his own words, “exactly what they had with Uncle Bob, and more of it.” The directors weren’t at all sure that was what they wanted. As great a man as Bob Kleberg was, the longevity of his rule had stunted the growth of many members of the family. Perhaps, they thought, it would be better to have someone more like Dick, someone self-effacing and not so dominating.
After a night of painful soul-searching, the question became if not B, then who? Bobby had some support, but there was one man whom everybody trusted, a man who had not sought the leadership of the ranch and did not expect to get it. His integrity was unquestioned, and as everyone knew, he did not have any personal ambition. He was a man who could be counted on to serve the ranch selflessly for as long as necessary and then to step aside, a man who, although he was not of the family, exemplified the seriousness and sobriety of Henrietta King and Robert Kleberg, Sr., without the flamboyance or charisma of Richard King or Bob Kleberg.
When the nominations were taken, John Armstrong immediately nominated Jim Clement. And then, to everyone’s surprise, Dick Kleberg himself, who had kept his own counsel, seconded the nomination. Dick was the chairman of the board of the King Ranch, and, with Bob gone, the titular head of the family. If he wanted Jim Clement, then Jim Clement it would be. There were no other nominations. Jim Clement was elected unanimously. To everyone’s recollection he had not said a single word throughout the two days. He simply accepted what had been given to him and went back to his office.
“There was a feeling,” one family member says, “that perhaps B would stay and mellow a little, or that Bobby would come along, and that one of them would take over from Jim.” B Johnson knew, however, that it was one thing to be part of a ranch run by a brilliant, world-renowned rancher like Bob Kleberg and another thing entirely to be part of a ranch run by a laconic businessman like Jim Clement. B decided to sell out and go his own way, as the Easts had done two decades before.
The irony, of course, is that B Johnson could have done well as head of the ranch. All his life had been spent preparing for it. But if his ability to run the ranch was not questioned, his willingness to allow the rest of the family to get their hands on it certainly was. That the rest of the family thought him too much like Bob Kleberg is understandable — he was a good deal like him. But Bob Kleberg at 22 got the chance to run the big ranch, and once he got hold of it he didn’t let go for 56 years. B Johnson never had the same chance.
Paying the Piper
B Johnson’s departure was the first important test for the new regime. As is the case with matters at this lofty financial level, the U.S. tax code defined the limits of choice. A cash settlement would have an unfortunate impact on the estate taxes of several key family members, since it would establish a high cash value for their holdings. But it would also wipe out a great deal of the ranch’s accumulated earnings and thus help reduce the family’s taxes when the oil royalties were distributed. Still, that was easier to contemplate than giving up the ranch’s status as a private corporation or, worse, disturbing the ghosts of Richard King and Bob Kleberg by giving up part of the ranch. In a tense strategy session, Bobby Shelton, Leroy Denman, Jr., and John Armstrong decided to offer B a cash deal. Not since Henrietta King died in 1925 had a price tag been put on the whole ranch-oil, cattle, and all. There was one thing the ranch’s negotiators did not want to do: haggle. They went with their best offer – $70 million (which meant that the whole ranch was then worth about $600 million). B caucused with his advisers for five minutes, then came back in. “I’ll take it,” he said.
To get the money the ranch went to Texas Commerce Bank in Houston. Instead of borrowing only enough to buy B’s stock, the ranch made the amount a round $100 million, with the extra money going to finance new drilling ventures with Shell, Chevron, and other oil companies. The debt was transferred into long-term loans with two insurance companies. Those loans had as collateral a portion of the ranch’s oil royalties and also the ranch itself. For the first time since 1933 the 825,000 acres of the ranch — its windmills, stock pens, swimming pools, Kineños’ cottages, and even the Big House — were mortgaged.
While all these negotiations were going on, the price of natural gas — and oil — was skyrocketing. In 1972 a thousand cubic feet of natural gas had brought 30 cents; in 1976 the price was over $2. The ranch’s great reserves of oil and gas, however, were running out — petroleum experts predicted that the flow would slow to a trickle in the 1990s. But before the ranch’s fields dried up, they entered a period of great production called a “blowdown.” This surge, coupled with the high prices, meant that suddenly the ranch was swimming in money. Royalties shot up from $20 million in 1970 to $100 million or so in 1979.
In theory, the ranch could have followed Bob Kleberg’s gospel and plowed the oil money back into ranching. Not everyone was for that approach. For years some family members had fought a futile battle to get Bob Kleberg to pay out more of the ranch’s royalties in dividends. Hej always refused, saying, “You’ve got too much already.” One veteran of those skirmishes recalls, “He wanted us to stay tough and hardy, like our cattle. He didn’t want us to have it easy and become soft. I think he was more afraid, deep down, of what the oil money could do to us than he was of drouth.”
But not even Bob Kleberg could have easily diverted so much wealth into cattle. And after his death the foreign operations no longer had a strong champion. There was no one looking for new empires. Then, too, the gusher of money created serious tax problems. The wealth of the family was locked up in the ranch. On paper they were well-off, but actually if one of them died his heirs would be hard pressed to pay the estate taxes. So in 1977 the ranch decided to distribute 75 per cent of its oil and gas royalties to the individual family members, thus allowing each to invest his own share, while the money lasted, without having to account to anyone.
At the same time, without the responsibility of having to manage so much royalty income, the ranch’s leadership could concentrate on what it did best — ranching. No longer would the oil money cover up any mistakes, so the pressure to make ranching pay would be intense. As a far-flung business, the King Ranch is no longer the simple agricultural operation Captain King handled with his own ledger books. It needs a man like Jim Clement, with his legions of lawyers, accountants, and management consultants. More and more the real work of the ranch is not done on horseback. It’s done where Jim Clement works — behind a desk.
Clement is the ranch’s president and runs the larger corporate affairs of the ranch. Next in command, with primary responsibility for the foreign operations and for the ranch’s larger public role, is John B. Armstrong. Armstrong and Clement married sisters, the daughters of Bob Kleberg’s sister Henrietta. Armstrong, a vigorous sixty, is still a world-class polo player. He comes from a neighboring ranching family whose roots run as deep in South Texas as the Klebergs’. His grandfather was first sergeant with the small band of McNelly’s Rangers that won the cattle wars and saved Captain King’s cattle empire. A few years later his grandfather captured John Wesley Hardin and invested the reward in a ranch wedged between the Norias and Encino divisions of the King Ranch. John Armstrong’s brother Tobin (who is married to former ambassador Anne Armstrong) runs the Armstrong Ranch.
As chairman of the Texas Animal Health Commission, Armstrong recently won acceptance from both government and cattlemen of the most controversial program in modern ranching history, the campaign to rid the state of a cattle disease called brucellosis, a campaign as far-reaching — and as unpopular to cattlemen — as was Robert Kleberg’s drive to wipe out Texas fever.
The oil operations are handled by W. B. Yarborough, the husband of Dick’s sister Katherine. He and Tio Kleberg are the ranch’s two vice presidents. Tio oversees the four Texas divisions, the original ranch. Other family members have their own duties and serve on the management committee that monitors ranch policy, but these four men are in charge. Almost a three-decade span in ages separates Clement, Armstrong, and Yarborough from Tio’s generation, palpable evidence of the gap in leadership left when Dick died and B and Bobby departed.
The Younger Brother
Unlike B, Bobby stayed with the ranch awhile, helping to negotiate the ranch’s financing and its new drilling projects. But it soon became apparent that Bobby, who was a fountain of ideas, wasn’t selling his family on very many of them. He wanted to set up the ranch as a limited partnership, with himself as the leader of a small group of general partners. He opposed the royalty distribution. He pushed for Santa Gertrudis “dealerships” near the major population centers to market cattle like cars. To Bobby the family was maddeningly difficult to push to a decision. And it appeared that Jim Clement, far from being an interregnum “Pope John,” as he refers to himself, would be in charge indefinitely.
And so in June 1977 Bobby decided to leave the ranch. It could not have been an easy decision. He had spent years building a sprawling house for himself and his growing family on a rise opposite the Big House, right next to Highway 141. It was a symbol, clear and unmistakable, that he was at the ranch to stay. Today that house stands empty, a monument to the frailty of human ambition. When he left, Bobby moved his own ranching empire to a ranch near Kerrville that he bought as his headquarters. He’s building another house there. “He’s the biggest thing to come through Kerrville since the Guadalupe,” one local rancher says.
His departure, however, was on somewhat different terms than that of his half-brother. Instead of getting cash, Bobby got land and other assets in Texas and Florida. When that deal was settled, it appeared that the ranch had concluded a fairly difficult passage, the equivalent of the partitioning of 1935 and the Easts’ departure in 1958. But when B learned what Bobby had gotten, something didn’t seem quite right. There was in Bobby’s deal a reference to an “Exxon claim.” There had been no mention of that during his negotiations. When he realized what was at stake Johnson was thunderstruck. It appeared to him that the ranch — his family —had concealed the possibility that Exxon underpaid the ranch by as much as $300 million between 1973 and 1976, a period when gas prices sextupled. If Exxon really did owe the ranch that money, B believed he had been denied his fair share of the income from it, as much as $35 million.
After some negotiating with the ranch, B filed suit in federal court in San Antonio in June 1979. He charged that the ranch had told him nothing of the Exxon claim, which he says it was investigating at the same time it was negotiating a settlement with him. He also charged that once the ranch realized how much money might be involved, it changed its negotiating strategy and offered to buy him out for cash, depriving him of any portion of a future settlement from Exxon.
With the exception of a tersely worded response to B’s allegations that denied virtually every charge, the ranch’s testimony has been sealed by the court. The case is still pending; Jim Clement gave his deposition in April. As far as anyone can tell, the ranch’s position is that B was much too closely involved in the ranch not to know about the Exxon claim. In any case, the ranch believes that B forfeited his claim on any future income from the ranch when he sold his stock. That B’s deal did not include a future interest in the Exxon claim while Bobby’s did only showed how different the two deals were. Bobby got assets, B got cash. A deal was a deal. Dick’s sister Alice Meyer, who sold out for cash a year after B did, isn’t suing the ranch over the Exxon claim. Why should B?
In late October 1979, when the statute of limitations on the Exxon claim was about to expire, Bobby Shelton, who still owns 11.2 per cent of the ranch’s royalty income, stepped in and sued the ranch and Exxon. But while B’s suit alleges deception, Bobby’s accuses the ranch of mismanagement. He claims that the ranch has botched the Exxon claim and therefore has failed to fulfill its responsibilities to the royalty owners, who since 1977 have been the family members. His patience with what was, to his mind, the plodding, indecisive, and timid style of the new management was exhausted. If the ranch wasn’t going to get after the Exxon claim, then by God he would!
Through all this heat and smoke the ranch continued to negotiate quietly with Exxon. It rejected a $33 million settlement and proposed instead that Exxon increase the ranch’s royalties on future gas sales from a sixth to a fifth. The ranch basically believes that such matters are nothing that gentlemen can’t solve. After all, Bob Kleberg always insisted on treating the Humble executives with the same trust, deference, and neighborly spirit that the ranch showed its fellow ranchers — and to sue a neighbor would be unthinkable. When Bobby left he agreed that the ranch would handle the Humble lease — and the ranch contends that it is doing so, at its own speed. In fact, this summer the ranch and Exxon compromised on a higher royalty payment, a large step toward settling the Exxon claim. But the value of that settlement is considerably less than B and Bobby contend it should be and will likely not end their suits. Not since the Atwood suits has the ranch had so many legal entanglements.
The Crown Prince In Exile
B Johnson’s Chaparrosa Ranch lies near Uvalde, 160 miles northwest of the King Ranch. It is a rugged, functional, but now drouth-ridden place. Everything B learned from Bob he has put into practice there. Since he left the King Ranch B has devoted his considerable talents and energies to his own affairs. He is on the boards of numerous companies, including AT&T, U.S. Trust, Tenneco, and First City Bancorporation. He is developing the landmark Hyatt Regency Hotel a block away from the Alamo in San Antonio, a stone’s throw from where his grandfather died a century ago.
He is also probably the single most talented breeder of Santa Gertrudis show cattle in the world. Starting from scratch, he has built a string of animals that sweep many major shows. (He has won grand champion at Houston, for example, five years in a row.) In fact, many people believe that B’s cattle would give the King Ranch’s foundation herd a good run for its money if the ranch were to drop its policy of not competing (it feels there are better standards by which to judge good cattle). His Santa Gertrudis auction now rivals the King Ranch’s.
B still has a strong sense of belonging to the King Ranch family. In 964 he and his wife, Patsy, began an annual summer camp, a tradition that, more than any single thing, could keep that family together. “The thirteen of us in my generation were all close,” he recalls, “but the next generation just didn’t know each other. Bob’s wife, Helen, had done more than anyone to sustain the family. When she died in 1963 there was a vacuum. So we started a summer camp to bring the next generation together and make the traditions of the ranch real. Tio’s generation, the ones taking over the ranch now, were our first campers, and today they’re running the camp themselves. If you ask them where they first learned how strong their family really is, they’ll tell you it was at summer camp.”
The ranch is still in his blood. B has acquired — through his purchase of La Puerta de Agua Dulce Ranch from the King family — Captain King’s original brand, the HK, for Henrietta King. His loyalty to the ranch and his family is unwavering. In spite of the separation and the lawsuit that followed it, he will not make a single negative statement about any of them. “They are my family,” he says. “They mean a great deal to me, no matter what happens.”
Something about B, however, is slightly out of scale. In spite of the magnitude and complexity of his projects, he seems somehow to be playing on too small a stage. Perhaps the family did make a mistake, for both his and their sake, when they did not choose him to succeed Bob Kleberg. Yet on his own, away from the family, B is free of the constant compromising and diplomacy that would have been necessary if he’d run the ranch. Most of the time he believes he’s better off.
But one day last winter, flying high over his ranch in one of his airplanes, B Johnson, an immensely successful businessman in his own right, a man of intelligence, personality, and charisma, had the King Ranch on his mind. He unfolded a letter that Will Rogers had written to him when his father died, back when B was only one year old, and read it aloud to a friend. The letter reflects on what the ranch meant, who his parents were, and who B is. When he finished the letter, there were tears in his eyes.
Meanwhile, Back At the Ranch
Despite the squabbles, the oil wealth, and the lawsuits, the family survives, and so does the reality of 825,000 acres of South Texas. From the southernmost fences at Norias, which run right into the Laguna Madre just north of Port Mansfield, to the upper limits of the Laureles, on the outskirts of Corpus Christi 93 miles north, the King Ranch is still a ranch. In dollars, the ranching operations may be dwarfed by the oil income; in acres, the Texas land may be lost in the vastness of the foreign holdings. But here, on land so flat and undistinguished that one can feel instantly disoriented and lost, here is where the heart of the family still lies.
The nuts and bolts of the four home ranching divisions — Santa Gertrudis, Norias, Laureles, and Encino — are now Tio Kleberg’s responsibility as a vice president of the ranch. Tio has worked full time at the ranch since 1971, when he and Janell moved back to Kingsville from El Paso, where Tio had been an Army lieutenant at Fort Bliss. “I went to see Uncle Bob about a job,” Tio recalls, “and he told me I would be working for my dad. All my dad did was look at me and say, ‘Go to work.’ I got four hundred dollars a month and a Chevrolet Bel Air. I threw my saddle in the trunk and headed out to work cattle. We were in a tick quarantine, so we were moving herds all day, every day. We hadn’t even moved into our house, and all our things were still in boxes. I spent my summers on the ranch growing up, so I had a good idea what to do. But it was hard at first, knowing that men who knew a lot more than I did would be watching me. But I couldn’t have been happier. I’ve wanted to be a rancher since I was a kid. I’ve never wanted to do anything else.”
What he wanted to become, he is. Today he drives a Chevrolet Suburban filled with ranching and hunting paraphernalia. He lives and breathes cattle and horses. Even at night and on weekends he is prepared for one of the ranch employees to show up on his doorstep with a problem. If anything goes wrong at the ranch, from a leaky pipe to a sick relative to a hurricane, Tio is off to fix it. Given the complexity and size of the business, much of his time is spent in the office. But like Bob and Dick Kleberg before him, Tio Kleberg is most at home outdoors. He is a determined, magnetic leader who works as hard himself as he expects the ranch’s employees to work. He has developed, of necessity, a good sense of diplomacy. To run the ranching operations of the King Ranch requires different political skills than Bob Kleberg exercised. Bob owned 25 per cent of the ranch. Tio has less than 2 per cent of the stock, so he can’t ride over the family like Bob did. He has to keep them happy.
Tio also has courage. “The traditions of the ranch are great,” Joe Stiles says, “but they’ll kill this place if you let them. Tio’s got the vision and the guts to get rid of the ones that don’t work.” One such tradition was the quarter horse program, which had become the fiefdom of the division foreman, with each foreman controlling his own breeding program. The only problem was that the horses weren’t good enough. When Tio set out to improve the ranch’s horses, he centralized the whole breeding operation and gambled $125,000 to buy Mr. San Peppy and add his blood to the line. There were protests, difficult scenes, and mutterings of discontent, but the management problem was only the half of it. To change a breeding program is a serious risk, since the investment is great and it takes years to see results. The results are coming in now, and Tio has been vindicated: as they were forty years ago, the King Ranch quarter horses are today the envy of the business.
An Uncertain Future
The changes since the death of Bob Kleberg are subtle but significant. The current management’s objective is an agricultural operation designed to be self-sufficient and to produce a profit (which it did last year), as if the oil money did not exist. The ranch raises cotton and milo on 37,400 acres of the Santa Gertrudis and the Laureles, tended by an array of machinery that would rival the Russian tank corps. The milo is processed at the ranch’s own feed mill over on the Santa Gertrudis and used in its huge feedlot. The farms were put in a year or so before Bob’s death. “We’d just cross our fingers and hope that he wouldn’t see them,” Tio recalls. “I’ve got a hunch he knew what we were doing but had just decided not to say anything, to give us a shot at it, even though he knew we knew he hated farming.”
The largest piece of Bob’s Australian empire, the almost-four-million-acre leasehold at Brunette Downs, was recently sold to an Australian syndicate. As a result, the ranch now runs about 4.3 million acres overseas, compared to 8.6 million in 1978. The rest of the foreign operations are barely to moderately profitable, but the family decided that the tremendous effort required to complete Bob Kleberg’s plans for the Australian outback was simply not worth the candle. Very quietly, the new management of the ranch has announced the beginning of an era of limits, of pulling the fences back to what they can manage and afford. It is a vision far less expensive than Bob’s, but it is one they believe they can handle.
It is too soon to tell whether they are right. They have already crossed some major hurdles: buying out B and Bobby, distributing the oil and gas royalties, selling off the largest foreign operation, reinstituting farming. On the surface, the ranch appears to be headed for greener pastures. But the future may bring some thorny problems. One family member sill with the ranch put it this way: “Sure, we’re better off individually now that the oil money is coming out to us, but what about the ranch? What happens if we have a truly severe drouth, or if the bottom falls out of the cattle market? The oil money was the ranch’s cushion, and it also gave it the capital to experiment and be innovative. That’s how we’ve kept it going. Without the oil money I’m not at all sure we’ll be so successful.”
And although the family now seems unified, time may work against them. Jim Clement is not in the best of health, and no one knows how the ranch will be run when he and John Armstrong lay down the reins. Every twenty years since the thirties — first with the Atwoods, then the Easts, and recently B and Bobby — the family has had to confront itself and its individual and collective ambitions before moving on. A decade from now, that confrontation will likely occur again. Everyone in the family seems very happy with Tio as the boss of the Texas ranches, but they also have grown too fond of their own roles to want anyone, at least for the present, to run the ranch single-handedly, the way Bob Kleberg did. And so a new era has begun, one of collective leadership, not as responsive, decisive, or visionary as one man could be, but more representative of the family.
The people most prominent in that collective leadership are bullish on the ranch, but they are not without their doubts. “It’s not at all a foregone conclusion that we’ll make it,” Tio Kleberg mused. “There’s a lot working against a place like this.” And there is. The modern world heads the list. It is hardly hospitable to a frontier institution with a paternalistic system, an aristocracy joined by tradition to loyal vaqueros who spring from the same piece of earth. The modern world lures those vaqueros off the land and into the cities; it also tempts the family, seduces them away from the ranch with the endless possibilities for the use of their inheritance. “If the next generation is content to live off their income,” John Armstrong says, “then we’ve lost it.”
On the other hand, there’s also a lot working for a place like this. The ranch has been through hard times before; ranchers expect that. The younger generation, although largely untested, could produce the visionaries and leaders the ranch’s destiny will require. The family itself is the ranch’s greatest resource: one of the children perched precariously on his first horse could be the next Bob Kleberg. History also is an ally. The ranch may survive into the next century because it survived into this one. No generation of the family wants to be the one that stood by and let the King Ranch fail. And at the core of that history is one simple, constant, endlessly repeated fact-on this day, as on every day, there is work to be done.
The Cattle Are Waiting
It is almost two o’clock at Norias, and the day’s roundup is half over. Tio and Lavoyger make one last ride through the herd, checking to see if any barren cows or yearling calves have been missed. Then the whole crew breaks for lunch. In a grove of mesquite and ebony trees some canvas has been stretched over rough wooden tables. A side of beef, slaughtered that morning, hangs over a limb. The other half gives off the pungent smell of barbecue as it cooks over an open fire. The tables are suddenly laden with plates of ribs and sausage and sliced tenderloin, bowls of rice and beans, and platters of thin camp bread to be washed down with sweet tea.
After lunch the vaqueros bring the remainder of the herd out of the shade of the mesquite. The ground crew has dug a trench and built a fire of mesquite scraps in it. Branding irons have been stuck into the fire, and their ends are already white-hot. The family members loosen up their ropes and head into the herd to begin gathering the calves. Ed Durham, now 72 years old, ropes the first calf with a motion so simple as to escape the eye, and then drags it over to the fire.
In the next instant, Tio, Lavoyger, Scott, and Martín all have calves on their ropes and are dragging them to the fire. The calves jump around on the ends of the ropes like five-hundred-pound trout. The accuracy of the ropers on horseback is astonishing. They chase a loose calf at full speed through mesquite, twirling their ropes, then throw them deftly around the animal’s hind foot or its head. Everyone is shouting in Spanish.
Some of the ground crew run wildly around the calves, twirling their ropes over their heads and then looping them toward the flailing hind legs of a roped calf. When they succeed they are dragged along the ground, trailing plumes of dust from the heels of their boots, until the calf, now roped both head and foot, can be thrown on its side and secured. The rest of the ground crew then run from calf to calf, applying three different brands — one for the pasture, one for the year, one the Running W of the ranch. Another man notches the ear, another gives a shot, and another paints the ear and the brands with white disinfectant, each in turn leaping over the calf he has just finished and heading for another one. Ropes attached to jumping calves sing through the air, sending the ground crew diving for the earth. The din is deafening. With each brand a puff of smoke sizzles off the calf’s hide. In the air is the smell of burning flesh, the same smell that seemed so appetizing at lunch.
By seven o’clock the calves are branded, and the most dangerous work begins. Very carefully, the men start roping the big bulls whose horns are starting to curl into their skulls and eyes. Then a vaquero with a hacksaw cuts off the horns. Halfway through, the saw turns red with blood. Finally, without warning or fanfare, there are no more cattle to be roped. The vaqueros prepare the herd for spraying with insecticide, and the Klebergs begin dismounting and loading the horses on trailers. Their faces look like those of Welsh coal miners, blackened with dust. Their chaps are damp with sweat. The horses glisten.
The riders walk with the tentative gait of people who have been on horseback for twelve hours, as if walking was an acquired and somewhat unfamiliar accomplishment. Off their horses they look diminished; only when mounted do they assume their full personality and stature. The horses seem to relax too; they let out their urine in steaming streams. The paraphernalia of a cowboy’s work — the spurs, the chaps, the bandannas, the saddles, bridles, and blankets — are stowed away. Like props in a play, they no longer seem real.
Tio takes Mr. San Peppy back to his corral. Today this horse that brings a $3000 stud fee has worked like any cow pony. Tio brings him some hay, and the stallion rolls in the dust of his pen, cleaning himself.
“That was a good day’s work,” Tio says matter-of-factly.
At dinner in the Norias headquarters the talk is dominated by good-natured kidding, particularly at the expense of Tio’s younger brother, Scott. His horse, Show Boy, had spooked and, bucking and kicking, had carried Scott into the mesquite bushes.
“Where’d you get that horse, anyway?” Scott asks Joe Stiles, after he has endured as much teasing as he can.
“Aw, we just keep him around headquarters for the little girls to ride,” Joe says.
“Hey, Scott,” says Martín Clement, getting serious, “why didn’t you help me bring the horses down?”
“I couldn’t,” Scott says. “I had to come down the night before.”
“Well, heck,” Martín says, “I brought the horses down this morning, and I was still out to the herd before you were.”
Scott looks at his plate. This is exactly the sort of open criticism the family is constantly directing at each other. It wasn’t a serious offense, coming to Norias early. But Martín wasn’t going to let it pass. Then Lavoyger, who came late to dinner, has his turn. He looks at Martín and says, “You left.”
“You left. We hadn’t finished spraying the cattle, and you left.”
Now Martín is on the defensive. “I just left when the boss did,” he replies, gesturing at Tio.
“Yeah, I know. The boss left early, too.”
Lavoyger has made his point. And as a group they have made another point: any and all of them are fair game if they relax their standards, even for a minute. These young men are in their twenties or thirties. They are sitting around a table that was dominated, until a year or two ago, by men in their fifties, sixties, and seventies. There are ghosts everywhere: the almost mythic presence of Captain King and Henrietta, the sober determination of Robert Kleberg, the commanding brilliance of Bob Kleberg, and the still-poignant memories of Dick Kleberg. All of those people who came before on this piece of earth shaped the destiny of the young men who now stand in their place. This new generation is the ranch now, they know it, and they are determined to be worthy. There isn’t any drinking, and everyone is in bed well before midnight. In the morning a new herd will be waiting.