Shrinking Giant

Once upon a time, the Matador Ranch was a cattle empire of more than a million acres. Today its herds graze a mere 128,000. That transformation is a tale of modern Texas.

FOR SEVENTY YEARS THE MATADOR RANCH, WITH MORE than a million acres of grazing land, was one of Texas’ mythic, mammoth cattle empires, along with the King Ranch in South Texas and the XIT and the JA in the Panhandle. In the early part of this century the Matador’s holdings were scattered from West Texas to Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, and Canada. What’s left of the Matador today—128,000 acres spread over Floyd, Motley, Cottle, and Dickens counties northeast of Lubbock—is a fraction of the original ranch. “The days of sun, sweat, and saddle leather of the past have gone,” says William Pearce, who lives in Lubbock and is the author of a definitive early history of the ranch, The Matador Land and Cattle Company, published in 1964 by the University of Oklahoma Press.

The story of the Matador parallels the big changes in Texas ranching—dwindling acreage as large ranches downsized or were broken up, a trend toward corporate ownership, fewer employees, less big-sky romance, and more bottom-line reality. But the Matador also anticipated some of the changes, surviving and even prospering because for more than one hundred years it has been run like a business. Since 1953, under the ownership of the wealthy Koch family of Koch Industries, based in Wichita, Kansas, the Matador has remade itself as a ranch that can do more with less, rewriting the Texas myth espoused in books and movies like Giant. “You’ve got to really cut out the fat and do things differently sometimes, and that’s hard in the ranching business,” says Bob Kilmer, who started out as a ranch hand at the Matador in 1976 and is now its manager. “It’s a very traditional business, and it’s hard to get some people to change.” But his bosses aren’t afraid to break with tradition and neither is he. “It has always been understood that things weren’t going to stand still around here,” Kilmer says. “We’re expected to continue to improve and be innovative and entrepreneurial. That’s what it takes to survive.”

In late May Kilmer, dressed in the rancher’s uniform of jeans, long-sleeved cotton shirt, cowboy hat, and boots, showed me around the ranch in his white pickup. It’s colorful, rough country—green mesquite brush, tawny native grasses, red canyons carved by winding creeks, far blue ridges. This land on the edge of the Llano Estacado, the high plateau stretching across the Panhandle into eastern New Mexico, is considered some of the best cattle country in North America. The Matador’s founder, Henry Harrison Campbell, picked the site because it was “cattle heaven,” with many types of native grasses and ample water from creeks and springs. In the late 1870’s Campbell, who had moved to Texas in 1854 with his parents and had later become a cowman while recovering from a Civil War injury, put together a herd of cattle and took it to Chicago, selling the animals for a tidy profit. There he met a banker named Colonel Alfred Markham Britton, who agreed to back him in setting up a ranch. In 1879 Campbell, Britton, and three other entrepreneurs established the Matador Cattle Company on 320 acres, starting with 1,300 head of cattle bought in South Texas. The animals had a wavy V brand that the Matador acquired along with the cattle and adopted as its own.

The early years were profitable, since there was plenty of free grass and water, expenses were few, and beef prices were strong. The prospect of big cattle profits in the West attracted foreign investors, especially Britons and Scots, who were familiar with raising livestock. In 1882 a Scottish syndicate based in Dundee, Scotland, bought the Matador for $1.25 million and established the Matador Land and Cattle Company. The Scots, who made annual visits to the ranch, were “hard-nosed in business, demanding that their ranch be a profitable, progressive operation,” wrote the late John Lincoln, who was the president of Koch’s Matador division in the early eighties, in his book about the ranch, Rich Grass and Sweet Water, published by Texas A&M University Press in 1989. “They would not be distracted from fundamental bookkeeping discipline even though this policy conßicted with a cowboy’s idea of ‘rugged individualism.’” The new owners hired the independent-minded Campbell as ranch superintendent, but they clashed more than a few times, and he resigned in 1891. Murdo Mackenzie, a Scotsman who became one of the West’s leading cattlemen, succeeded Campbell and moved the ranch headquarters from Dundee to Trinidad, Colorado, where he lived. Mackenzie embarked on a long-term program to upgrade the Matador’s herd and leased northern ranges in South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Canada, since the ranges in Texas were being carved up by farms. In 1902 the company also bought 210,000 acres of the famed XIT Ranch to use as a holding pasture for cattle on the way to the northern ranges. The changes paid off—Matador cattle fetched better prices and won blue ribbons at major livestock shows, earning the ranch a reputation for producing top-quality beef.

The Matador dominated life in Motley County. It held dances on holidays that went on for days. Campbell had laid out the site for a town in 1891, and Matador, the county seat, grew up about a mile north of the ranch headquarters. The town had a bar—the Dew Drop Saloon—a bank, a hotel, a livery stable, a post office, a courthouse, and a general store. By 1940 Matador boasted some sixty businesses and 1,300 residents, but the population has since dwindled to about 750. “Most everybody in Motley County had family that worked on the Matador at some time,” says Matador’s mayor, Gary Lancaster, who worked as a day laborer on the ranch and whose father and grandfather were Matadors, as the ranch hands have been called for generations. One of the ranch’s full-time employees, J. D. Russell, is a fifth-generation Matador.

The Scots needed a place to live during their visits, so in 1917 they built a seven-thousand-square-foot house on a hill overlooking the barns and corrals. The

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