DOLPH BRISCOE, JR., SURVEYS the vast ranch country of South Texas from the window of his private plane, pointing out landmarks below in the brasada, the mesquite brush country. After taking off from Uvalde, the headquarters of his far-flung ranching operations, Briscoe’s King Air turboprop had headed south and crossed the Nueces River, a winding ribbon of brilliant blue-green from several thousand feet above. “We’ve just entered the Nueces Strip,” he says, a sense of excitement creeping into his voice. Once the site of some of the bloodiest clashes in frontier history between Texans, Mexicans, and the Comanche — and the birthplace of Texas’ cattle business — the strip of land between the Nueces and the Rio Grande is where Briscoe’s heart lies these days. But it’s not the only piece of land dear to him.
At 75, Briscoe owns a large chunk of the state he governed from 1973 to 1979. He is Texas’ largest individual landowner and one of its last big land and cattle barons: He and his family have about 640,000 acres — about one thousand square miles — spread over ten counties, with scattered holdings stretching from the Rio Grande to the blue hills north of Uvalde to the mountains of West Texas. Of the great Texas ranching empires, only the King Ranch is bigger. Yet at a time when most large ranches have shrunk in size, Briscoe’s total acreage has doubled since the seventies.
“We’re over the Catarina Ranch now,” Briscoe says, peering down at the dusty land with its mottled shades of green and splashes of yellow from the retama, which is in full bloom this warm April day. He can name every stock pond; one is called the Rayburn Tank because Sam Rayburn, the late House Speaker, once caught a mess of huge bass there. The ponds are full, but the land is characteristically dry. “If it can get drier,” Briscoe says with the voice of experience, “it probably will.”
He had met me earlier that morning at his office at the First State Bank in Uvalde, where he’s the chairman (the bank is a subsidiary of the Briscoe Ranch Company). He keeps his ranch headquarters office there, a sort of personal museum filled with memorabilia from a life split between ranching and politics. Fresh from a board meeting, he looked dapper in a dark suit, a starched white shirt with gold cuff links, and a striped silk tie, but he has a rancher’s rugged physique, weather-beaten skin, and an affable manner. Before our trip he had changed into a monogrammed shirt, slacks, cowboy boots, and the rancher’s trademark: a sweat-stained beaver hat.
When we arrive at Catarina, a red Range Rover is parked at the landing strip, and Briscoe drives his wife, Janey Slaughter Briscoe, and me to a shady, grassy oasis rimmed with salt cedars. Lunch awaits us at the cookshack. Not many ranches have a cookshack anymore, and this is a fine one: It has brick walls, big open fireplaces with iron replicas of the Briscoes’ Open Six brand (a crudely drawn 6) hanging above them, an old cookstove, and rows of antlers from white-tailed deer shot at the ranch. We sit at long tables and benches and dine on a hearty lunch of flour tortillas, beef stewed with peppers, pinto beans, and fideo, a traditional South Texas spicy noodle dish. Briscoe ladles a few more spoonfuls of fiery salsa onto his beans as he explains why he employs so few ranch hands: These days most large ranches—including the 100,000-acre Catarina—use helicopters to round up cattle. “Years ago it used to take twelve or fifteen or even eighteen men to work cattle in the brushy pastures here in South Texas,” he says. “It might take two weeks or longer to work a pasture that we can now work in three or four hours. It’s not necessarily cheaper when you add up the helicopter bills, but we can do it a lot quicker.” And with only three to five men.
Briscoe’s father once ran sheep on the land; now it’s all cattle, mostly dark red Santa Gertrudis, the hardy breed developed by the King Ranch. Briscoe likes to work cattle and would prefer to do it on a horse if he had the time. But he leaves the operation of the Catarina and the family’s other cattle concerns in South Texas to his son, Dolph III, who’s called Chip. Unlike some Texas ranching dynasties, whose new generations aren’t interested in the day-to-day business of ranching, the Briscoe ranching legacy seems secure. Briscoe’s daughter Janey and her husband own a ranch in South Texas. Another daughter, Cele, is married to John Carpenter III of Dallas, whose family has cattle operations in North Texas and developed the Las Colinas complex on family ranchland. And Chip’s two sons like ranching. “We’re fortunate,” Briscoe says. “One thing I’ve hated to see is the big ranches broken up and subdivided.”
LAND HAS BEEN IN THE BRISCOES’ blood for generations. Their roots can be traced back to northern England, where they farmed and raised livestock. Their ancestral home for centuries, Crofton Hall, was a large manor in the English countryside. They were wealthy and influential enough that Thomas Gainsborough painted a portrait of a distant relative, Lady Jane Briscoe (a copy hangs at the First State Bank, where Dolph and Janey have their art collection on display). Another relative, physician John Briscoe, came to North America in 1633; his descendants later established Piedmont, a Federal-style family home, in the Shenandoah Valley of West Virginia ( PBS newsman Jim Lehrer, a Texan, owns Piedmont today). Eventually, some of the Briscoes migrated farther west. One of them, Andrew Briscoe, for whom Briscoe County in the Panhandle is named, journeyed to what is now Texas in the 1820’s and later bought land from the Mexican government on the Brazos River in Fort Bend County. When the Mexican government attempted to collect custom duties on a sale, he refused to pay