The Next Frontier

The state’s (and maybe the world’s) most famous 825,000 acres would seem to be on a collision course with the twenty-first century, when giant spreads are routinely chopped up, there’s no money to be made in cattle, and the younger generation frequently bolts the family business. But the heirs of Captain Richard King are smarter than that. They have skillfully avoided ruin and preserved their history by embracing the future.
King Ranch cowboy Andy Avelar roping a cow in a coastal pasture.
Photograph by Kurt Markus

It is a fine, sunny mid-april morning in South Texas. The weather has been unusually cool and rainy, and the spacious, pool-table-flat wedge of land between the Nueces River and the Mexican border—which the Spanish once called El Desierto de los Muertos—today looks as green as Ireland. I am in a pickup, bouncing through a pasture on the 237,348-acre Norias division of the King Ranch, one of four massive chunks of land that make up the 825,000- acre (1,300-square-mile) spread. The truck belongs to Dave DeLaney, a rangy 51-year-old who runs the ranch’s cattle operation. With roughly 43,500 head, it is the nation’s largest. DeLaney is giving me the grand tour, which will ultimately take the better part of two days.

As a reporter, my presence here is highly unusual, to say the least. The King Ranch has always been a deeply private place, instinctively hostile to outsiders, a group that has included, over the decades, Comanches, border raiders, horse and cattle thieves, Union soldiers, government road builders, and nosy journalists. The fact that I am getting a multiday tour from a full-bird vice president like DeLaney is unheard of in recent times. As far as I can tell only a handful of reporters have ever been allowed full access to the ranch. Harper’s Magazine sent writers in 1892 and 1907; Fortune sent one in 1933; Time in 1947; and Texas Monthly in 1980 (in the fifties, artist and historian Tom Lea was invited to write the ranch’s only authorized history). By the grace of some inscrutable collective sentiment on the part of Captain Richard King’s heirs, I am the most recent member of this small, select company, here to try and make sense of a 154-year-old family business that has somehow managed to haul itself into the twenty-first century without being busted up, sold off, or sacrificed to commercial development. I am not sure why they have agreed to let me in, but the fact is, they have, and I am not arguing about it. I am keeping my eyes open.

What is most striking about the place, not surprisingly, is its tremendous scale—nearly unimaginable for those of us who live in places where real estate is calibrated in fractions of city blocks. The pasture we are in, for example, encompasses 30,000 acres—or 47 square miles. The live oak grove (or motte, as they call it here) we just drove through comprises 60,000 acres. And the land is not only vast. It is also beautiful. Though beauty is not a quality generally associated with South Texas, Norias is one of the loveliest pieces of coastal real estate I’ve ever seen, a place of swaying bluestem grasses; lush, wide-open coastal plain; rolling bone-white sand dunes; and rain-detonated explosions of daisies, coreopsis, and dayflowers. Animals are everywhere we look: scores of wild turkeys, some of them in mating dances; white-tailed deer and bobwhite quail in almost every meadow; ducks; javelinas; feral hogs; brilliantly colored scissor-tailed flycatchers; and red-winged blackbirds.

Beyond the size and beauty of the physical environment, there is the weight of history. The King Ranch was the first ranch in Texas, the cornerstone of the cattle business in the West, one of the originators of the great cattle drives to the Kansas railheads and later of the fenced pastures that killed the drives off. At the time of his death, in 1885, founder Richard King owned half a million acres and was the wealthiest man in Texas. His grandson Robert J. Kleberg Jr. built the business into a 15-million-acre global empire, with ranches spread from Argentina to Australia. Kleberg invented the Santa Gertrudis, the first American cattle breed and the first new breed anywhere in one hundred years; he bred the first registered American quarter horse and the Thoroughbred stallion Assault, which won the Triple Crown in 1946. If that wasn’t enough, Kleberg also invented the root plow and the cattle prod, eradicated Texas tick fever, and arranged the largest oil lease ever on private land.

All this history lives on, pervasive as the mesquite and huisache trees. I can feel it in the vast muscular land and see it in the glorious Main House, with its battlements, multichromatic terra-cotta tiles, Tiffany-designed furniture and art glass, Italian marble stairs, and teak floors. Drifting along the ranch’s two thousand miles of asphalt, caliche, and dirt roads, I can’t help feeling a certain sense of timelessness, as though nothing on this splendid Rhode Island—size ranch has really changed since the days when Captain King’s vaqueros rounded up tens of thousands of cattle for the northern trail drives.

But those are appearances only, mirages of the South Texas heat. The truth is that the King Ranch is not at all what it once was. As a business, it is profoundly and irreversibly changed from the time when Kleberg would receive potentates and movie stars on the Main House porch and sit like a Middle Eastern pasha in his reviewing stand, gazing at million-dollar horses. Fifty-six years of enlightened despotism had left the ranch singularly dependent on him, and when he died, in 1974, the machinery of empire immediately began to creak and then to fail. Battles of succession led to wars of secession. Family members forced the ranch to buy them out, causing it to incur massive debt; lawsuits followed, then the remaining heirs grabbed most of the oil royalties that had been floating the operation for forty years. Drained of most of its oil money, the business staggered forward under the burden of its archaic, nearly feudal cradle-to-grave welfare system for the hundreds of workers and their families who resided on the King Ranch. Had things gone only slightly differently, these forces might have easily led to the breakup of the King Ranch, as they have for thousands of other family-owned outfits.

But this did not happen. Instead came sweeping change, driven by an entirely new concept of the ranch. What Captain King founded was a simple cattle operation. Then it became a cattle and oil business.

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