A ranching photo essay.
For all its choices and opportunities, life in the city also brings a certain loss of autonomy. You answer to a clock-watching boss. You are bound by traffic patterns. You worry about what the neighbors think. But drive out beyond the city limits, to where the paved highways give way to caliche roads, and this changes. Out here, amid pastures and spreads divided by barbed wire, you can own acres of land. Out here, you make every decision and there is no gridlock. The only thing you’ll really contend with is Mother Nature and her attendant challenges—the rain, the wildfires, the creek running dry.
The ranch owners on the following pages understand this. They represent ten spreads all over the state, from a working cattle ranch in West Texas and an artist-friendly enclave in the Hill Country to a sprawling weekend getaway down south and a historic farming operation on the coastal prairie. For some, the land has been in their families for more than a century; for others, owning property is a new thing. A few think of ranching as work; some find it to be more of an escape. But these folks all share in the same knowledge: whether it has stock tanks or an infinity pool, whether it features a trailer or a mansion, whether it is a family business or a diversion, a ranch is both a kingdom and a legacy.
Maldonado Ranch / 5 Acres / Atascosa County / 2003
“Before we owned these five acres, we would come out from La Vernia to hunt, and my husband, Mike, would say it was his dream to own land and build a cabin. He called it his Little House on the Prairie cabin. Well, business has been good—we own an oil-services company—so we were able to buy. We cleared the brush and cactus by hand and built the cabin. We’ve spent almost five nights a week out here ever since.” —Lenora Briseño
101 Ranch / 22,000 Acres / Presidio & Brewster Counties / 1967
“This ranch has been in my family for almost fifty years. My husband, John, and I raise some of the heaviest steers in Texas. We value raising cattle, but we also value being caretakers. We take our responsibility to protect this grassland and its wildlife very seriously. Our three children and five grandchildren try to come out often; our ranches are the center of our lives as a family. We’ve taught them about the beauty and the wonder of wild Texas, and we hope it will inspire them to value and protect it for the next generation.” —Bonnie Korbell
Pierce Ranch / 32,000 Acres / Wharton County / 1886
“I didn’t grow up thinking I’d run the ranch, but what happens is, you fall in love with it. The property has seen a lot of drama over six generations—managers who tried to embezzle, a partition between two sisters, a guardianship—but it has mostly stayed together. We still run Brahman cattle, in honor of our great-great-grandfather Shanghai Pierce. We also farm row crops and oversee a crawfish operation, an irrigation company, and a commercial hunting operation. You can’t just sit on a piece of land, because you never know what the future holds.” —Laurance Armour
Laurance Armour (far right) with his siblings and co-owners, Steven Armour and Brooks Armour Diesel.
Bravo Ranch / 76,000 Acres / Hartley & Oldham Counties / 1915
“My great-great-grandfather John M. Shelton bought the land when the XIT Ranch split up, and since then it has been run by family—his son Jim, my grandfather Jack, my uncle Malcolm, and now me. There is no oil or gas, so our cattle operation sustains the ranch. The things we get to see and do on a daily basis, most people never experience in a lifetime. The land, open country that rolls down to the Canadian River, is what I love most—the beauty of the terrain and the beauty of the grass.” —Neil Shelton
Neil Shelton, who runs the Bravo Ranch, on his horse Blue.
Neil and Jack Shelton.
Rancho La Minita / 5,500 Acres / La Salle County / 1910
“My great-grandfather Raymond Martin assembled a 124,000-acre ranch roughly between Artesia Wells and Encinal. Upon his death, each of his ten heirs inherited a parcel; La Minita was the northernmost one. When my parents passed away, in 2000, I inherited it. Now my husband, Will, and I travel from Houston at least once a month in the summer and every two weeks the rest of the year. There is nothing better than the feel of South Texas air, and I love my Longhorns and burros—they are our pets.” —Minnie Baird
5M Ranch / 450 Acres / Bosque County / 2011
“My husband, Glynne, and I dreamed of owning a ranch for thirty years, and we were finally able to buy after finding success in the Marcellus Shale. The property was very rough, with no electricity or water and covered in cedars, but we could see the beauty underneath. Now we live here four days a week and in Dallas three days a week. We have chickens, guineas, mini donkeys, horses, Longhorns, and other cows. Our first hay-cutting was amazing, and I have become a chicken whisperer. Who’d have thought a 57-year-old woman would give up Neiman Marcus for Tractor Supply?” —Dianne Mildren
Overbeck Ranch / 20 Acres / Lee County / 2006
“My parents ran the Nau’s drug stores, in Austin, and from the age of ten until I left for college, I raised horses with my dad west of town. With school and marriage and children, my love for horses took a back seat. When I retired, though, my husband, Gary, and I were lucky to find these twenty acres. We built a barn and purchased a tractor. Then came the big house, followed by the ponies—my true loves.” —Nannette Nau Overbeck
Morgan Ranch / 9,280 Acres / Howard County / 1924
“My grandfather Hardy Morgan first came to West Texas in 1883, to work as a cowboy, and eventually bought this land. In 1998 we were one of the first commercial wind-turbine developments in Texas; we have three wind parks on the property. My sisters and I run the ranch now, and I love the fact that my children and nieces and nephews work on the same fences that their great-grandfather did. All of the pastures have the same names they’ve always had, and we follow many of the same old two-track trails.” —Mark Morgan
Mark Morgan and his sisters, Marsha McBee, Susan Horton, and Nancy Faye Morgan.
Madroño Ranch / 1,500 Acres / Bandera County / 1994
“I’m a native of San Francisco and had never set foot in Texas until my early twenties, when I followed my college sweetheart and late wife, Heather, to San Antonio. I confess I had no idea of the wild beauty to be found in the Hill Country or that I’d someday own a bison herd. Heather and I wanted to share this land with others, so about six years ago we came up with a residency program. We’ve hosted painters, writers, poets, journalists, musicians, photographers, forest historians, paleontologists, you name it. It’s the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done.” —Martin Kohout
Grote Homestead / 1,275 Acres / Blanco County / 1870
“Our children are the fifth generation of Grotes to live in this home. There are many benefits to being raised in the country: it helps kids feel connected to something larger than themselves; they know the satisfaction and pride that come from being good stewards of the land; they learn to work hard to reach a goal by raising livestock. We’ve always exposed our kids to the many positive things about city life, but when I ask them where they plan to live in the future, they say the ranch.”
Willow, Grey, Scott, and Melissa Grote.