The cattle kingdom at its peak, that rough, idyllic enterprise of men on horseback pushing vast herds of wild beasts across an unfenced continent, prevailed for only about twenty years—roughly 1866 to 1886—before commencing a slow fade. Ever since, the ranching business has been defined in large part by the sense that it is ending and thus has shown a knack for attracting preservationists: artists, folklorists, reenactors, novelists, Hollywood directors, cowboy poets, historians, etc. A notable example was the photographer Erwin E. Smith, who took vivid pictures of ranch life in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona during the early twentieth century. Raised in Bonham, Smith was acutely aware of the fleeting nature of his subject. “I don’t believe I would have resorted to art as a profession,” he once noted, “if it had not been for the disappearance of Western life, which awakened in me a desire to dedicate my observations, as it is a last resort to recall those stirring scenes.”
Among his many photographs is a 1908 shot of himself titled “Erwin E. Smith and His Mount Overlooking the Country From a High Point on the JA Ranch, Texas.” Knowing Smith’s motivations, it is hard not to read into the image a melancholy strain, as if he were contemplating the decline of one world and the ascent of another, less appealing one. On the other hand, he might have just been enjoying the view.
This month, for senior editor S. C. Gwynne’s epic cover story about the twilight of the cattle ranch (“ Git Along, Lonesome Ranchers ”), we returned to the same location, Mitchell Peak on the JA Ranch, near Amarillo, and shot one of the outfit’s cowboys in a similar pose. He’s enjoying the view for sure. But more than one hundred years after Smith occupied the peak, our cowboy also has that much more to feel melancholy about—the lingering effects of the worst drought in recorded state history; the liquidation of countless Texas ranches; the sunset of the very economic model that supports the family ranch.
Related concerns are taken up by two other pieces in the issue—an essay by the historian T. R. Fehrenbach, whom we are delighted to welcome back to our pages for the first time since 1975, and an interview with Larry McMurtry . The former suggests that having long since come through the era of Texas history in which land (preferably dotted with cattle) was the highest good, it is time we entered a new era in which ideas hold as vaunted a place. The latter makes clear that the romance associated with that earlier era will be with us forever. We could well be seeing the final stage of the ranching business as we’ve known it, but for better or for worse, its mythology will never die.