Our November issue featured a column by legendary historian T. R. Fehrenbach (his first contribution to these pages since 1975) in which he made the case that throughout Texas history, “ideas have never dominated society at any level.” Yet the time has now come, Fehrenbach wrote, for a “great and mature” society to “stop talking about prices, crops, politics, or oil and start debating concepts and meaning.” In an online response, writer-at-large Michael Ennis declared the column a “signal moment in Texas’s cultural history,” though he disputed its premise, saying, “We Texans have been thinking rather well—at times exceptionally so—all along.” Their exchange continues this month, this time on the topic of Medicaid. Ennis begins the conversation here.
I enjoy your outstanding publication every month. This month, I particularly enjoyed the article by S. C. Gwynne about ranches that families have been able to keep for multiple generations [ “Git Along, Lonesome Ranchers”]. I married into such a family in north-central Texas almost 35 years ago and have observed their struggles to keep it intact. They are now in their seventh generation. The greatest menace to keeping the ranch intact, as I have observed, are inheritance taxes, which Mr. Gwynne touched on very lightly.
I have observed the process through the passing of four owners in two of the generations and have seen [their descendants] have to “buy back” the ranch from the government each time a death occurred. Without some other source of income—i.e., massive life insurance policies, oil and gas royalties, even debt in one case—inheritance taxes are totally unmanageable. The ranching lifestyle is part of America that’s worth saving. However, if something is not done about inheritance taxes, then the ranching lifestyle may go the way of the cattle drives of the 1880’s.
I really enjoyed this article, probably because of my Texas pride and the fact that my ancestors have some ties to the early days of ranching. I just wish the article would have included info about Joseph Glidden and Isaac Ellwood, from Illinois, who obtained the first patent for barbed wire, which, as the article notes, closed in the open range. Around 1880 Ellwood and his son W.L. took a trip to West Texas, decided they liked it, and bought the Spade and Renderbrook ranches. I remember attending their hundredth-anniversary party at the ranch (just outside Colorado City, not far from Snyder), in 1989. I still have a couple of the table decorations from that party that were made out of barbed wire and fashioned in the Spade brand. My granddad W. F. Eisenberg began working for that outfit when he was eighteen, and he was still on the payroll as office manager in Lubbock when he passed, at the age of eighty. Now, that’s loyalty!
The death of cattle ranching has been predicted and lamented since 1887 by scores of historians, authors, and photographers. We can now add the names of Silverstein, Gwynne, and McMurtry to that list. The problem is, ranchers and cowboys just keep refusing to ride off into the sunset.
of Lubbock and Fowler, Colorado
In Texas, the ag/wildlife/timber valuation is not a property tax “exemption.” In reality, it is a special valuation, constitutionally afforded to the owners of open space, regardless of whether they farm or manage livestock, wildlife, or timber.
Furthermore, all of us citizens using this tax valuation pay exactly the same taxes on our homes, garages, barns, and other improvements as do the citizens who don’t have rural acreage. It’s only the wide-open spaces that receive the special valuation.
These open spaces receive this valuation because they require no services. Those cows don’t go to school and the cotton crops and songbirds don’t require medevac or the Jaws of Life after Saturday night traffic accidents or barroom shootouts.
Moreover, lands receiving such valuations provide the societal benefits of open space, more plentiful and cleaner aquifer infiltration, oxygen, wildlife habitat, cleaner runoff into our creeks/streams/rivers, food, fiber, shelter, carbon sequestration, stream-bank stabilization, springs protection, scenic views, aesthetics, and recreation—in addition to not requiring any services. Farmers, ranchers, and other rural Texans who receive this special valuation are cost-efficient and certainly not exempt from taxes. As a matter of fact, as proved by the American Farmland Trust’s Cost of Community Services studies around the United States, it’s the people in the sprawling subdivisions who require more services than their tax dollars pay for.
David K. Langford
Retired CEO of the Texas Wildlife Association, Comfort
As one who leans so far to the right that I occasionally fall down, I find it difficult to support a cause usually championed by my brothers and sisters on the left. However, I must admit that it is my firm belief that more than a few innocent men and women have suffered at the hands of overzealous criminal prosecution in the state of Texas and elsewhere. A well-written and compelling story [ “The Innocent Man, Part One”]. I wait with great anticipation for part two.
Many thanks for revealing the nightmare that befell Michael Morton. But the larger question remains: How many other innocent people were falsely imprisoned up there in Williamson County?
Robert R. Klein
A Matter of Degree
In “Six Degrees of Will Johnson,” you needed six steps to get from Johnson to Paul McCartney. Here’s how to do it in four: (1) Johnson is in Monsters of Folk with My Morning Jacket singer Jim James. (2) James sang on the 2011 album