“The two men seem to be floating quietly on a sea of cattle. They ride through the herd slowly, without rippling its surface. The rust-colored Santa Gertrudis cattle make room for them, then close back in from every side, jamming the riders’ legs against the flanks of their horses. Their hands are folded across their saddle horns; only their cowboy hats move, almost imperceptibly, as they study the cattle.” Those are the opening sentences of Texas Monthly’s first cover story on the King Ranch, which was published in October 1980. The sprawling 25,000-word piece was written by William Broyles Jr., and it focused on the collision between the traditional methods of ranching and the economic pressures of a sophisticated twentieth-century marketplace. The cover line summed it up neatly: “The Last Frontier Empire Confronts the Modern World.”
This issue marks the fifth time the King Ranch has appeared on the cover. Each of the previous covers posed a variation on Broyles’s theme of how the old ways were threatened by the new and how the ranch had adapted (with helicopters helping to herd cattle and talk of cowboys on horseback with laptops in their saddlebags). But we approached this month’s story in a different way. For the first time, Texas Monthly was invited to the ranch’s iconic Main House to photograph the inside of the splendid 37,000-square-foot mansion that the family still considers its private residence. Photographer Jeff Wilson and executive editor Skip Hollandsworth were able to examine firsthand the rooms typically seen by only the descendants of Richard and Henrietta King and to imagine how life must have been for the most powerful ranching family in the world—to admire the architecture, to leaf through family albums, to study the epic paintings, to roam through the Grand Salon, and to take in artifacts like the Triple Crown trophy won by the thoroughbred Assault. The photo essay suggests an improbable lack of change over the decades, a lasting monument to what the Kings built. Without a doubt, the outside pressures remain, but the story confirms that the King Ranch, so legendary in our history and culture, has a firm, unwavering hold on the modern world.