When We Were Kings

Once upon a time, their ranch was the grandest, not only in Texas but also in the world, captained by visionaries and bound by blood. Those days are over.
Move ’em out: Despite 60,000 head of cattle, the corporation’s profits these days depend on ventures far removed from ranching.
Photograph by David Stoeklein

It was already sweltering in early May on the King Ranch, the South Texas humidity so fierce that by midmorning your shirt was pasted to your back. There was talk of a long, dry summer to come, but for the moment, the managers of the ranch’s cattle division could not contain their euphoria. The roundup for the fall calf crop was just beginning; more than nine thousand calves had to be weaned in a mere three weeks, and they were the heaviest on record, many weighing seven hundred pounds. A sense of urgency filled the air. There was a chance, a good chance if they got some rain, that the cattle division would have one of its most profitable years in a decade.

Maybe that was the reason, some of the cattle managers guessed, that their boss, Stephen J. “Tio” Kleberg, had called a Friday-morning staff meeting at the ranch headquarters, just outside Kingsville. Tio knew how to give his troops one hell of an inspirational speech about the King Ranch. For the 52-year-old Kleberg—the great-great-grandson of Richard King, who had bought this land in 1853—the 825,000-acre ranch was like a religion. It was what gave meaning to his life. He knew the location of all one hundred pastures and 320 windmills on that harsh scrubland, and he knew the exact number of cattle (usually a figure more than 60,000) grazing in the ranch’s four divisions. He could recite every fact and figure about the place, some of which Texas schoolchildren were once required to memorize in their history classes—that the King Ranch is the size of Rhode Island, that there is a month’s difference in the seasons between the northern and the southern ends of the ranch, that the fences on the ranch, if put in a straight line, would extend from New York City to Fargo, North Dakota.

Today there are other ranches in the world that take up more territory and produce more beef, but there is no ranch more famous than the King Ranch. For a century and a half, it has remained an almost mythic symbol of wealth and power, its great white 27-room Big House at the ranch headquarters looming over the surrounding pastures like some feudal castle. The ranch has long been known as the Walled Kingdom, and indeed it looks like an invulnerable fortress, impervious to change. Scattered nearby are tidy white frame homes that house the Kineños, the “King people,” the Mexican American workers and cowboys and their families who have spent their lives at the ranch, and only three miles away lies the town of Kingsville, which was created at the turn of the twentieth century just to serve the ranch.

For six generations, the King Ranch has remained in the hands of one family: the descendants of Richard King. Since his death in 1885, there has always been a family member in charge of the “home ranches,” the four massive divisions of land in South Texas. When Tio Kleberg became head of the ranches in 1977 at the age of 31, he quickly proved himself to be a driven and ambitious cattleman, determined to bring the most modern innovations to the cattle and farming operations. Small and wiry, with sharp blue eyes and an Old West gunfighter’s mustache that drooped over the sides of his mouth and curled up at the ends, he carried an unlit Henry Clay cigar in one hand and didn’t hesitate to use his other hand to slap a cowboy on the back and encourage him to work harder. Tio believed, says Leroy G. Denman, Jr., who was the ranch attorney for almost fifty years, that “anybody who works for King Ranch ought to work like he does, which is from four a.m. until midnight, seven days a week, and that if you don’t have that kind of dedication, you don’t have any business here.”

In fact, considering how much work there was to be done that Friday, Tio’s 21-member staff was perplexed that he would call a meeting. He seemed unusually serious when he and his wife, Janell, arrived outside the stables, where he had asked everyone to gather. He thanked them for coming, then he pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and said he had a short statement to read. “For the past twenty-eight years, I have been very fortunate to fulfill a childhood passion to contribute to the lives of people who are dedicated to King Ranch.” He paused, his eyes fixed on the paper. “Effective June 1, 1998, I have been asked by the King Ranch Board to resign…Janell and I love each one of you and are truly grateful for the time we have spent with you and your families.”

A couple hundred miles away, at the King Ranch corporate offices on the twenty-third floor of a downtown Houston skyscraper, a press release was being issued that said Tio and Janell “have decided it is in the best interest of King Ranch to leave day-to-day operations.” The press release reported that Tio would continue to serve the ranch as a new member of the board of directors.

But around the ranch headquarters and in Kingsville, the real story was spreading like a prairie fire. An elderly plumber happened to be on the ranch that morning, driving by the stables just as Tio finished reading his statement. He raced back to town and reported that he had seen secretaries weeping and grown men hugging Tio and Janell. “Our Tio, he’s been fired,” the plumber cried. Soon, phones were ringing around the state: The last of the legendary Kleberg patrones had been ousted by the chief executive officer of King Ranch, Inc., Jack Hunt, an astute business executive who had been brought in three years earlier from California to oversee the entire multimillion-dollar King Ranch operation and its varied business ventures, from a citrus grove in Florida to platform oil and gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico. Hunt, who spent most of his time in

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