For Love of Country

The mare pasture at the Seven L Ranch is horse heaven. Just half an hour from the Gulf of Mexico and close to the little burg of Devers, this field looks level from a short distance, though really the ground undulates with tiny hummocks of thick-growing bahia grass, salt grass, and Bermuda. Lines of bramble and short scrub trees grow along culverts and a live creek, delineating the pasture’s wide boundaries. The sky is very blue. At the approach of a truck, the horses turn and raise their heads in unison, and when the truck stops and its occupants climb out, the horses amble toward them with the deliberate, unhurried speed of old friends greeting one another. The mare band consists of mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, and cousins. They are slick-sided, big-barreled, and gleaming, the spires of their ears perked and their expressions soft and curious as they semicircle around their visitors. 

Texans have always yearned for land and fine creatures, and here, at the Seven L, it is easy to fall in love with this grassy abundance and these robust, personable mares arching their pretty necks. It is easy to want this beauty and bounty. Virtually nothing in ranching is genuinely easy, though, and whatever success and quality the Seven L can boast come from long decades of careful planning and management. “The ranch is one-hundred-ten years old this year,” says Paxton Ramsey, who owns the ranch along with his mother, Susan Ramsey, and his sister, Romney Velazquez. “It means everything to me. It’s what gets me up before my alarm clock, a responsibility that is one-hundred-ten years old.”

A Texan’s reverence for land ownership comes somewhat naturally. Ranching, while it has changed over time, remains one of the state’s great identifiers, and while folks in other places undoubtedly forge profound connections to their properties, Texas is different in that the core of the state’s history is inextricably bound to the keeping and parceling out of land. 

A brief, whirlwind history lesson: In the 1700’s, Spain began handing out land grants to those willing to endure the hardship of staking out lives on a sparsely populated and dangerous frontier. While the Spanish didn’t settle Texas in large numbers, they were responsible for the invaluable addition of horses, cattle, and sheep to these parts. (Interestingly, some of the original Spanish land laws, especially about community property, coastal ownership, and preventing forced sales of land, are still in use.) By 1821 Mexico had taken over, and to populate this vast territory, the new government courted foreign settlers with land allotments of 4,428 acres for grazing, plus another 177 acres for farming, along with tax incentives and Mexican naturalization. Mexican law also prevented seizure of a homestead should a settler fall into debt. The land wasn’t free—certain fees were charged—but the grants were darned cheap even for then, about 3 cents an acre, which was less expensive than land in the United States. 

As any Texas seventh-grade-history student knows, settlers did come, and lots of them. Empresarios like Stephen F. Austin contracted with the government to procure and establish single men and families in Texas, and by doing so, these empresarios themselves earned premium tracts of land. When the Texas Revolution rolled around, in 1836, soldiers were rewarded for the fight with the promise of acreage, and afterward, during the decade of the Texas Republic, the General Land Office oversaw the distribution of more than 40 million acres to veterans and settlers in “headright” certificates. African Americans and Native Americans, it should be noted, and those who fled military service, were deemed ineligible for those land grants. In 1844, when Congress was considering the annexation of Texas, land was again a primary concern: in the proposed treaty for statehood, the United States would take on the Republic’s $10 million of debt, along with 175 million acres of its public territory.

Except this didn’t happen. The Republic’s public domain wasn’t worth $10 million, according to Congress, and the treaty was rejected. Texas therefore came into the Union with both its debt and its unappropriated lands. This turned out to be important. While federal lands now checker the expanse of other Western states—like Nevada, which is 81 percent federally owned, or Utah, whose land is 66 percent federal—less than 2 percent of Texas is made up of federal land. The rest is privately owned or controlled by the state. Texas, in other words, is held by Texans. Texas is ours.

Our fierce desire for property, then, finds its roots in an old, dusty collective memory of a time when there was land available, tens of millions of acres of it—so long as you weren’t African American or Native American, that is. The state was born from land grabs. The Spanish claimed it, despite the presence of Native Americans who had been here for millennia, then the French, then the Spanish again, until Mexico took it from Spain and the Texicans wrenched it from Mexico. Land was everything, worth fighting and dying for. Worth keeping. Worth wanting.

There’s an obvious timelessness with land—the ever-present rocks and sky—that is at odds with the very human wish to put a stamp on a property, to forge a history and attach it to a place. Paxton Ramsey acknowledges that his tenancy is temporary, though the effort to shape, cull, and improve the Seven L, or any other ranch, is worth it. “My grandmother told me, ‘This land will never be yours; you’re just borrowing it from your children,’ ” he says. “Name one other business or lifestyle that has that mission statement or operates under those terms. Ranchers are focused on successors, and a key part of that is realizing that you’re part of something bigger than yourself—and that you’re leaving something better than you found it.”

Paxton talks while making dinner in his kitchen. Outside, his two youngest daughters play hide-and-seek in the dark. Erica, his wife, will be home soon; his dad, Cullen, peruses the paper. His mother, who inherited the ranch from her mother, listens quietly from her wheelchair. “When I’m out there fixing fence,” Paxton continues, “I know that for more than one hundred years before me, someone in my family was doing the same thing. Ranching is a pretty humbling experience. It lets you know how small you are. You’ve got the heartache of fires and storms. The people who came before me have gone through that too, and you’ll give your kids the opportunity to do the same.”

He glances at his mom. “It’s best to work with family,” he says. Susan’s face blazes with emotion. “Yes!” she agrees.

The Texanist

Q: My girlfriend and I live in an apartment in Austin that overlooks one of the many new barbecue restaurants here. She can’t stand the smoke or the smell that wafts into our place, and she has recently admitted to me that she doesn’t even like barbecue. She wants to move. The thing is, the smoke doesn’t bother me all that much, and I like the apartment and enjoy the proximity to the barbecue. How can I get her to live with the smoke? 
Tom A., Austin

Pastures of Plenty

From where I stood on the shoulder of Texas Highway 237, the dozen old buildings just beyond the barbed-wire fence looked like a movie set that had long ago seen its last take. The saloon and the blacksmith shop and the dance hall, though saved from rot and ruin, were empty inside. No cattle lazed by the man-made lake or lowed in the surrounding pastures. There wasn’t much for them to graze on anyway except thin patches of well-trod grass between dirt paths.

Biscuits

Culinarily speaking, the American South is having a bit of a moment, and any chef worth his or her White Lily flour has a biscuit on the menu somewhere among the sorghum and scuppernongs. Of course, this latest food fascination is nothing new to our part of the country, where the fluffy rounds of flour and fat, once a fixture of almost every meal, sustained our cowboys, nurtured generations of their descendants, and even influenced our politics (“Pass the biscuits, Pappy!”).

Formula 3

When the American National Bank building opened in Austin, in 1954, it boasted such marvels as the first escalator in town, au courant interior furnishings by legendary designer Florence Knoll, and a sophisticated parking system by which valets would retrieve cars by riding a chain-hoisted “elevator” to the desired floor. Once considered a candidate for demolition, the building recently underwent a loving rehabilitation and has been restored to its mid-century glory. 

What the Hay?

Have you heard the one about the pastry chef who walks into a feed store? “I’d like to buy a bale of hay,” he says. “What kind?” the clerk asks. Astonished to learn there are different kinds of hay, the pastry chef says, “I don’t know.” The clerk says, “Well, what are you feeding?” Realizing he probably should not announce that he intends to use the hay in cake and ice cream and feed it to human beings, the pastry chef says, “Er, horses?”

The Fight of His Life

Terry Daniels welcomes me to his home with a firm handshake, a startling reminder that once, long ago, his right jab was a fearsome entity. His voice, though, is faint. His 68-year-old body shakes like that of an older man. His close-cropped hair is snow-white.

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