In Search of the Modern Cowboy
On today’s ranches, some cowboys still survive—if they don’t get tired of roping cattle.
Ride your pickup truck
Lord it seems you’re outa luck
No roundups left to ride.
Saddle up your horse
Ride the highways with the cars
No spaces left outside.
Choked by the city
God, isn’t it a pity
In the broken heart of Texas
There’s no pastures anymore.
— “Texas Cowboy” by Mary Ann Duwe
Caca de toro, Mary Ann. There are pastures aplenty.
Texas is bigger cow country than it ever was. More beef, better grassland, more boys and horses than Shanghai Pierce and Charles Goodnight ever saw on the great cattle drives following the Civil War. During that cavalier era, which lasted 25 years, some 40,000 men and 300,000 saddle horses went up the trails to market behind ten million cows. Today, Texans alone tend more than twelve million head a year, which means we’ve got more cows than people. We’re still the leading cattle state. Eighty per cent of Texas beef is raised by small operators who never have more than twenty head at a time, which means, Mary Ann, that there are at least 480,000 dudes out there who every weekend step in a little cow doo. That’s one in every twenty Texans. No doubt about it. We are kickers. One in every forty of us has a horse and one in ten a pickup truck, so lighten your lament a little!
And come a-ki-yi-yippee-ay as we explore the myth and reality of the cowboy, all the way from Dallas to the Mexican border and out to West Texas. We look at three ranches: the Santa Berta in South Texas because it represents the Mexican heritage of the cowboy; the Waggoner in Northwest Texas because it is a traditional Anglo institution; and the Circle K outside Dallas because it is a modern, experimental ranch. We talk about cowboys and Indians, the buffalo and the Longhorn—the whole shootin’ match.
In between, we will cover a lot of ground and find more space than ever once we leave the city. More space because there are fewer people living on the land than at any time since 1890. We Texans, 80 per cent of our eleven million, have moved into the cities. Of course you and your pony cannot ride free and unfettered out there as in the days of the open range. Now there are highways and roads and fences—and fences mean private property: Keep Out!
Most of the owners, however, live in the city. This is the story of the modern West. There are throwbacks, of course, but the great majority of our ranchers are urban businessmen. They take up ranching partly out of the old machismo which still lingers in many Texas males, and partly to make money. Either way they are assured of a tax write-off. The big spreads here and there and the commercial feedlots on the High Plains require capital that only the rich can afford. With millions at stake, the hand-crafted, horse-driven West has had to give way to the realities of efficient mass production and distribution. Computers are more important than cowboys. So, in their turn, were railroads and barbed wire and refrigeration and trucks. It was always economics, then and now. The one is romantic because it was a way of life that can never be again. Not only has the cow changed. So has the boy.
There’s not many of the genuine article around anymore—the cowpokes who rode for a dollar a day and considered the bunkhouse fine accommodations. They and their chuck-wagons and commissaries are gone with the cattle drives and all the other commotion that went with free land and open range when the West was being won. The handful that hang on are either anachronisms or artifacts.
A distant ranch here and there will still use them on their own classic terms, which means working with pony and lariat. This is particularly true of the Mexican-style outfits, where the chaparral hides cows only a horseman could reach. But the great majority of ranchers aren’t impressed by roping and riding. That’s for the rodeo arena. It’s grandstanding, not work anymore, and has been so ever since barbed wire, railroads, cattle transports, and pickup trucks made the big roundups and storied cattle drives archaic. They were brutal on the men and stock, and often an economic disaster.
Bob Meeks, who would be 88 now, told me once that down in Frio County the life of a cowboy was more drudgery than excitement. The only fun in it, he reckoned, was giving the women hell on Saturday night—if you could find one. No, the old pastimes like bronc busting and calf roping have been out of favor on the serious ranches for years. The large remudas are gone and the horses are expensive and indulged more as pets and symbolic hobbies than as work animals. Joe Boy Ellis, the big general manager at the Circle K in Kaufman County, says there are three things he will fire a hand for, and roping is one of them. “We’ve got from two hundred to a thousand dollars in each head,” he said, “and we don’t want their hides skinned.”
Everyone who works on a ranch isn’t called a cowboy. The rancher himself, even if he lives and works on the place, may not like the handle. There is a subtle connotation in the term that is both appreciative and pejorative. A cowboy can be admired for his skill in the old ways, but they aren’t of much use unless he’s Larry Mahan and has good public relations costuming. If he isn’t willing to stay put and mend fence, bale hay, and drive a tractor, he isn’t worth hiring. You find ranchers correcting you: “I’m a cow man, not a cowboy.” The former implies manful responsibility and no nonsense, a manager, a businessman in boots and gabardine; the latter suggests immaturity and a romantic nature. The hand who insists he is a pure cowboy and will not touch anything but leather and hemp and animals is often a drifter, a kind of bad actor who is playing a role rather than working at a trade. This is the cowboy portrayed in our music, who has captured the new popular imagination. Our last rustic of the road, riding into the sunset away from the corruption of city slickers and science. The old movie-and-TV popular imagination saw the cowboy as a killer with a six-shooter, a gun for hire. The new musical romanticism has him a gentle knight, repulsed by arms and armor and aggression and refinery air, returning to a pastoral West. Neither, of course, was ever a reality.
It is a curious hallucination. Cosmic cowboys around counterfeit campfires, breathing burning grass and drinking longnecks, listening to the lowing of Darrell Royal’s Longhorns. Certainly the right setting for the crossbreeding of country and city strains, at long last consummated in music. It isn’t bad, really, the rhinestone imitation. I do it myself, affecting tight jeans, Charlie Dunn boots, a macho moustache, and three mares. It flatters the past and those men we want for our models. If our imitation is sentimental and inaccurate, it is because something has been lost in the translation. We are what we were, but not quite.
There are some, however, who are closer to what we were than the rest of us.
The oldest old-timer I ever met was Pluck Smith, who in 1961 was 90 years old and still going strong in the Huffman woods. Pluck had been a wrangler, a breaker of horses, and he would set you straight if you called him a cowboy. To him a cowboy was a puncher, a shepherd on horseback with a prod in his hand. Pluck didn’t care for cows and their care and you could tell he had always held himself above it. East Texas was an oasis for Pluck after years in the saddle. Besides he was black and liked to keep himself limber chopping cotton—two acres in eight hours. At dusk he would sit and tell stories. Every one of them was always at the cowboys’ expense. My favorite was this one, in Pluck’s own words:
“Somethin’ funny would happen to perk us at times. Like when one of Aaron Simms’ young Longhorns got loose and hid out in the thicket at Gum Cove. They tried time after time but couldn’t flush that critter out. It bugged old Aaron.
“He brought in the best punchers from three counties, but nobody could catch it. Well, Aaron chased that rascal around and around in the thicket until it was nineteen years old. It had such a set of horns by then it could hardly hold its head up.
“Well, one hot day Aaron was chasin’ him and the old critter stumbled and fell. I guess he was just tired of runnin’. Aaron put a bullet in his skull and butchered him on the spot. The meat was black as blueberries and tough as a wagon tongue. But Aaron said it was tasty.”
I asked Pluck how a man who had broken horses most of his life managed to live so long, and he said it was because he had never been perplexed. “I never ask questions because I don’t know enough to ask,” he said. “I never seen the inside of a schoolroom. Can’t read or write. I’ve just worked hard and kept my mouth shut.”
Now that Pluck is gone, Graves Peeler could well be the oldest buckaroo. The Atascosa County patriarch is 89 years old. He was the Walt Garrison of his generation, playing football at Texas A&M and then becoming one of the West’s most notable lawmen. He hunted rustlers and bank robbers, roped in rodeos, and saved the Longhorn from extinction. It was Graves and J. Frank Dobie who put together the herd in Fort Griffin State Park near Albany, and Graves is the founding father of the Texas Longhorn Breeders’ Association, which is headquartered at the Menger Hotel in San Antonio. It appears the Longhorn is coming back. Graves, however, looked like he was on his last legs when I found him this summer laid up in a rest home at Pleasanton. “My stomach’s all out of whack,” he whispered. “Come back this weekend and we’ll talk.” He clutched a red bandana. I came back on the weekend, but damned if he wasn’t gone—not to his last roundup but out to his niece’s ranch to boss the boys in some branding.
That is the old.
The new is Louis Vasquez, at 23 a foreman at the Circle K. Strictly a cowboy, not a mechanic or a fence builder, Louis has the flare of his forefathers—but he also has a college-educated eye for animal husbandry.
But surely the man who is closest to the cow of today—closer than even the bull—is Ralph Shaw.
Shaw is 60 years old. He wears overalls and has never been seen on a horse. He is known in the cattle business as an AI technician and pregnancy checkman. In other words, an artificial inseminator. And Shaw is in great demand because, in the words of Joe Boy Ellis, “He is the best in the business, an artist.”
Ralph is a religious man. At the Circle K he was about to sock it to some cows—literally—when he looked up at Joe Ellis and asked, “Do you mind if I pray on this semen?”
“Ralph,” Ellis replied, “You can spit on it like fish bait if you want to.”
Ralph prayed, put on his rubber gloves, and taking advantage and aim with a little handy technology he sent the frozen seed home.
“We had a 95 per cent conception rate,” Ellis was happy to report. “Fantastic!”
Oh Mary Ann, oh Mary Ann. Write your lament for the bulls.
Even in the glare of day the car is insignificant, a dusty rattle making its tedious way through the country, of no account in the blaze of sky and the sweep of plain. The land is a paradox, sunlit but brooding, open but impassive, above all impersonal. I and my machine, we are nothing in the primordial play of hawk and cloud and coyote and burrow. The brush, the butte, the ragged arroyo are as they were the day before, and the day before that, on back through the passing of the latest ranch Cadillac and the first conquistador.
The world has turned upside down in the years since I was a summer hand in Kenedy County. But that all happened in a foreign country, the rest of the world. Even in South Texas there had been rumblings. The priests in San Antonio, usually the most passive of men, rebelled and got rid of their stern old archbishop. Mexican school children demonstrated in the dust for their rights, and the Texas Rangers pinned a badge on a man named Rodriguez. But here on these ranches the sun came up and the sun went down. A rain was still an event.
That first time out, 24 years ago, I was fifteen miles south of Kingsville on U.S. 77 when my car overheated. The gas station attendant at Riviera said it was a hundred in the shade. “Where you headed?”
“Raymondville, or almost.”
“Better put more than water in this buggy. There’s not another gas stop for 60 miles.”
“What’s between here and there?”
He laughed. “I’d say nuthin’ but lonesome country, a lotta rattlesnakes, and a few thirsty Mexicans.”
Few was right. The population density was two persons every square mile, but even that was misleading. You could ride for miles and not see a house. Most of the county’s 700 residents were huddled about the headquarters of the big ranches, where there was work and a few comforts.
It was funny how such a simple thing as a tree tall enough to shade you became precious. The chaparral was a tangle of treachery. Jesús La Feria told me so and I believed him. We had shared the umbrella of a roadside oak that July a quarter century ago—I lost and letting my car radiator cool, he trying to revive with drinking water the wilting funeral flowers that covered a casket in the back of his hearse. On the door panels of the death wagon, carved in gilded wood, was the legend:
Jesús & Jesús
Mirando City, Texas
An old woman from one of the ranches of his boyhood had died, and Jesús had taken her to his establishment 70 miles to the west to embalm the body. Now he was returning her for burial that afternoon. I had been hired by an uncle, a superintendent for an oil company, to nightwatch a drilling rig going up on the Armstrong Ranch and, eighteen and a stranger to the border country, had lost my way on one of the back roads.
Jesús La Feria gave me excellent directions. He was a large man, his heavy body entombed in a black suit, all canopied by a big, black hat. He sank to his haunches beneath the tree, removing his sombrero, and poured the water on his steaming scalp. His neck was black as a bois d’arc root. Suddenly he reached out and swatted me, or rather a large red ant that had been crawling up my pant leg.
It startled me and he laughed. “Better me hit you than the hormiga” he said. “Stand still out here and you’re in trouble, my friend. Think of all the things that can get you.” In spite of his warning, we sat for a while, and I listened as he described with a kind of pagan pride the predatory nature of his homeland. He was an eloquent and convincing man, and when we parted I prayed nightfall would not find me stranded.
I coaxed my boiling Buick through the badlands, mindful that humankind was miles to go. “Think of all the things that can get you.” I could think of nothing else! Rattlers, scorpions, tarantulas, the wild dogs, the snorting bulls that thundered through the brush. Even the frogs grew horns. Everything flora or fauna either pricked or pounced. It was only later, in the comfort of the drilling company bunkhouse, that I could see the strange beauty of Jesús’ vision.
“My people have a saying,” he had said. “It is that the only thing soft and white in this country is the underbelly of lizards and women.”
The only resident Anglo I met that summer was Bill McCampbell, a squinty-eyed man with a pistol on his hip and a badge on his breast. He and his wife were the sole survivors of a place called Armstrong, after the ranching family. All there was left was a rickety house with a post office sign tacked to the porch and some cattle-loading pens alongside the railroad track. McCampbell said he was the deputy sheriff, his wife the postmistress.
“Yep,” McCampbell agreed. “This is peculiar country. The county runs ’bout fifty miles long and forty miles wide, and you can’t find a grocery store, fillin’ station, beer joint, or bank in it. And if you’re hungry, forget it. No cafe either.”
Until ten years before, there had been no public highway. The 80-mile-long expanse of beach, a few miles to the east where the Gulf quieted into a long lagoon, was inaccessible for everyone but the ranchers.
“In fact,” said McCampbell, “they ain’t really any towns. Sarita—you passed it but probably didn’t notice because it’s off the highway a piece—is the county seat, and it’s nuthin’ but a courthouse and headquarters for La Parra Ranch.
“Yessir, this is strictly range country, and there ain’t many ranches, ’bout a dozen I’d say. But they cover a lotta ground.”
My days were free and I roamed the length of the coastal plain, visiting the ranches and steeping myself in the lore of the region. The original inhabitants were of course Indians—the inland hunters called Coahuiltecans and the coastal foragers known as Karankawas. The castaway Spaniard Cabeza de Vaca had described the Coahuiltecans as having the keenest eyes and ears in the world, but it was the Karankawas who enslaved him that still capture our imagination.
I found ways to the island. I used to lie on the beach at Padre and pretend I was a shipwrecked European, looking up to see the Karankawas bearing down on me in one of their great canoes carved from a tree trunk. What a fearsome sight they were! Each warrior had half his face painted red and half in black. Naked but for breechclouts, they were tall and muscular with pieces of cane pierced through their lips and the nipples of their breasts. For thousands of years they had endured on the coast, surviving the extremes of weather and, in Jesús La Feria’s words, “all the things that can get you.” And yet less than 400 years after the European intrusion they were gone, decimated by the diseases brought by the white man.
The Spaniards were medieval men. They sought conquest and treasure in the name of God and civilization, and the Stone Age Indians of Texas were no match for them. The violent union of the two peoples brought forth the Mexican—the soul of South Texas and the muscle and sinew of ranch life.
The Spaniard brought the horse and cow, but the Mexican ranched and rodeoed and created the cowboy character. His brand is indelible, even today when most of the great haciendas belong to the Anglo. The gringo may have title, but he is often absent and outnumbered by his Mexican hands. The legendary King Ranch is as famous for its loyal and expert kiñenos as it is for its size and the strength of its fences. Those two old steamboat captains, Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy, were fabulous feudal empire builders, but most of the men who moved their horses and cattle and built their fences bore names like Ramon Alvarado and Luis Robles and Julian Cantu.
Eighteen generations later and a few miles removed from where the Indians watched the first Spaniards land, a descendant of those intermingled peoples climbed up on a corral gate and shouted instructions to his vaqueros. José Alejandro García spoke in Spanish with the easy authority that comes with aristocracy, but in his dark, hawk-like face there was the unmistakable mark of the Indian. He was a small man of 70, stiffened by bone disease, and yet he gestured and moved with an almost fierce grace, as if to scorn that which afflicted him. He came down off the corral in a cloud of dust. “We are mothering the calves,” he said in English. “Come, let’s go to the house where it’s cool. Maybe Bertha will pour us a beer.”
The house sat five miles off the highway, a relief in the malevolence and monotony of cactus and mesquite. It was small and without distinction, well kept and comfortable but obviously used as a retreat. The swimming pool, however, was in the grand manner, as was the cabaña that sheltered guests.
Cool and composed in a light summer dress, Bertha García was a handsome matron, as fair as her husband was dark. She led us to the cabaña den. It was a large room full of children in wet bathing suits, waiting to kiss their grandfather goodbye. Don José received them like a benign lord. Señora García introduced her daughters, two pretty, stylish women who had married Anglos and made their homes in Brownsville. “Make yourselves comfortable,” Mrs. García said, “and I’ll bring you a cold beer.”
“Bertha and I try to spend two or three days a week here on the ranch,” Don José was saying. “It’s very pleasant, especially when all sixteen grandchildren are down for the summer. They like the pool.”
He had been born to the good life, you could imagine him saying, and damned if he was going to let a little crippling nuisance spoil his enjoyment of it. He had the coraje, the courage. Don José grabbed his cane, swung his way to the Lincoln, and drove about the 7200-acre ranch pointing out the sights.
The Santa Berta was bounded on the west by the King Ranch, on the south by the Doughtery Ranch, on the east by the ranch of García’s sister Maria, on the catty-corner by the ranch of his older brother, Miguel, and on the north by the other brother, Martin. It was not a large ranch for this part of the country, but the Santa Berta had been in the family for five generations and had served as a sentimental retreat as well as a commercially profitable venture. Don José and Bertha lived in Brownsville, where he was a director of a bank and a savings and loan association. They owned land in four other counties, had a few oil wells, and once had half interest in a 100,000-acre ranch in northern Mexico before the agrarian reformers had taken it. Don José had served eight years on the Brownsville City Commission, and now that that was over, he found himself spending more time at the Santa Berta.
He didn’t try to run the place singlehandedly. His youngest son, José, Jr., helped, and of course there were the vaqueros. They ran about 1000 head of Beefmaster, Charbray, and Limousin cattle, and they bred quarter horses. The whole operation didn’t take many vaqueros. Right now, there were three who lived on the place with their families. Two of them, Antonio and Herminio Salinas, were brothers who were born there like their late father, Espedio. Espedio’s father, the first Antonio, had found refuge on the ranch after killing a man in San Marcos around the turn of the century. He had remained, working as a papalotero (a windmillman) until he died.
“I was just a boy then,” Don José said, “but I remember that my mother Isabel and my grandfather Don Pancho thought highly of the first Antonio. They said he had killed only in self-defense. Anyway, he was a loyal friend to the family. When he approached for instructions, he always removed his sombrero and held it over his breast until he was dismissed. A soldier salutes his superior. It was the patron system, and the son, Espedio, carried it on.
“But Espedio’s boys now, they are respectful, but they don’t carry it that far. I’d feel kind of silly if they did.
“I want you to meet them,” Don José said. “There’s a good story behind Herminio’s birth. He was born on Thanksgiving Day, 1934, and my wife helped deliver him. The godparents took him to Raymondville to be christened by the padre. But when they got there they couldn’t remember what he was to be called. So they named him after Herminio Yturria, one of my step-cousins. When they got back to the ranch they found out that the name was to have been Espedio. They couldn’t change what the padre had sprinkled with holy water, and he remained Herminio. He has five niños now himself. The same thing happened with one of Antonio’s boys. He was supposed to have been christened Juan Antonio, but they got confused and called him San Juan. It’s on his birth certificate. Saint John!”
Don José drove up in front of a couple of crude but comfortable brick houses with large, ranch-style porches. It was too hot out in the sun, and the porches were packed with children at play. The brothers came to the car. Each wore jeans and a khaki shirt with a pack of roll-your-own Bugler in the breast pocket. Antonio was the taller, and he took the lead in chatting with Don José. I remembered the old man had said earlier that there was a little friction between the brothers, a sibling rivalry. As long as Antonio was giving the orders—as was his right as the foreman—Herminio wasn’t much interested in the task at hand. But when Tony was off or sick, Herminio became a very good worker. They returned to the house.
“There’s not much to do right now, so they’re taking it easy,” Don José explained. “They quit at five now. Go to work at eight; go in at twelve and don’t come out until two or three; have a big siesta; take it easy unless I’m here to bug them. Dependable, but lazier than in the old days, when you worked from sunup to sundown. Now they got television, washing machines, even butane for cooking and heating. But when they work, nobody can keep up with them. I have to give them credit. A vaquero nowadays has to be more than a rider of horses and a roper of steers, and Antonio and Herminio can do it all. They can weld, lay brick, pour cement. They are carpenters, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, any doggone thing you want them to be. Antonio is as good a papalotero as his grandfather was.”
“Is that important?”
“A ranch in this country without one is in a hell of a shape. Without water we’d wither. And there isn’t much rain. A good windmillman is worth a dozen vaqueros.”
As he powered the Lincoln through the tangle of mesquite and huisache, Don Jose talked of his grandfather Don Pancho Yturria, the patriarch who made the good life possible for his many descendants.
“Don Pancho was born in 1824 in Mexico, the son of an army captain,” he said. “He was an educated man—he spoke French, for example—but he was also shrewd in matters of money, and soon became a banker and merchant on both sides of the border. He established the first bank south of San Antonio. That was in Brownsville sometime around 1853. He also had a bank in Matamoros.
“Don Pancho was an imperialist, and Maximilian, the Emperor of Mexico, knighted him and made him the chief of customs for northern Mexico. Grandfather’s wealth was beyond measure. He had accounts in banks in Lisbon, London, Hamburg, Liverpool, and New York City. He was a large-scale rancher—plenty to divide among us all—an importer of fine wines and whiskey, and had lumber interests in Morgan City, Louisiana.
“Don Pancho was one of the incorporators of the Saint Louis, Brownsville, and Mexico Railway. I remember he used to stop at the ranch in his own private railroad car. He was a short, stocky man with a white beard and a fine sense of humor. Why not? He had made much of life. He married Felicitas Treviño, whose family had land in Hidalgo, Cameron, and Starr counties. They never had any children, so they adopted a son, Daniel, and a daughter, Isabel, my mother.
“Daniel had two sons and three daughters. One of his sons, Fausto, has a ranch across the highway. It was Fausto’s son, Junior, who married Sandra Longoria in that big wedding years ago at Brownsville. You probably read about it. There were 1200 guests—we went as part of the family—and it was reported in the papers that Shelby Longoria spent $250,000 on his daughter’s wedding. Well, he can afford it.
“My mother, Isabel, married Miguel García Decker, a descendant of the founders of San Antonio, and they had five children too, same as Daniel. Each of us got 7200 acres in ranchland. When we got down to the household items, my wife thought I would choose Maximilian’s bed, a legacy from Don Pancho, because we had slept on it as newlyweds. But I took the painting of Don Pancho and it hangs over the fireplace in the guesthouse. My brother Martin got the bed.”
Who would get the ranch when he and Bertha were gone?
“Oh, the children,” he said. “They already have it really. The deed is in their names, not ours.”
What would happen to Antonio and Herminio and their families?
“Why, they’ll work here until they die. At least I hope so. Vaqueros are hard to come by. It’s getting to be an extinct occupation.”
What Don José said is true. The American cowboy evolved into the modern rancher or the rodeo performer, but his Mexican counterpart had no place to go but into town and another occupation. There was no upward mobility on the estancia for a lowly vaquero. Security yes, but no opportunity. As soon as the vaqueros were able, they fled the ranches for the cities. The few that remain, such as the Salinas brothers, are throwbacks. I noticed that Antonio and Herminio wore work clothes—worn jeans and boots and Texas-style cowboy hats—and that they went about their work without the slightest swagger. No machismo. They were cholos, sober workmen, not reformers. How different they were from the charro, the upper-class gentleman who competes in the charrada on weekends. Today in most of the major cities of Texas you will find charro clubs composed of doctors and lawyers and businessmen of Mexican extraction. They don tight-fitting trousers, short jackets, custom boots to match, ornate wide-brimmed sombreros, and go forth to rodeo on purebred horses. Many have developed high skills in the art of jaripeo (roping and riding). And a few of them could probably show Antonio and Herminio a trick or two.
Somewhere between the peon and the patron, you have the origination of the vaquero, the man on horseback who won the West. It is amazing how quickly the few cows and horses Cortes brought with him multiplied. Within twenty years after the conquest, the first great cattle ranches were taking over the land of New Spain. By the end of the sixteenth century, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain wrote that he was astounded by the “great level plains, stretching endlessly and everywhere covered with an infinite number of cattle.” As early as 1554, the Indian inhabitants of Cholula were complaining to the crown that “the many cattle estancias are ruining us and putting poor macehuales [native farmers] to flight.” The Viceroy’s most pressing problem was to keep the ranches away from villages and to keep cattle out of the Indians’ corn.
Cattle raising became the economic lifeblood of the colony. Meat consumption increased; even the Indians began to eat beef. But most of the cattle were slaughtered for their hides. The leather from the New World outfitted the great Spanish armies. The great ranches extended from the torrid zone to the remote northern reaches. The first cowboy was called an estanciero, a slightly derogatory term for white men at the bottom of the social scale or sometimes mestizos, Negroes, or mulattoes. These hombres a caballo worked for fixed wages or for a partido of the profits. Independent, restless, they moved from one lonely outpost to another and came to be called vaqueros.
To kill the cattle, they used a crescent-shaped blade mounted on a long pole, a desjarretadera. They would gallop up to the steer and cut its hamstring without dismounting. In 1607, a new Galicia government inspector wrote of the vaqueros: “They are called saddletree lads because their sole possessions are a wretched old saddle, a lightly stepping mare, usually stolen, and their lance. They, however, insist on being called vaqueros. They strike terror in the hearts of the population. They ride about in bands and no one dares withstand them.”
Not every vaquero was a vagabond. As the country grew more civilized the owners themselves began to take up residence on the estancias. They hired steadier, less rowdy vaqueros, many of whom now were Indians. This was the beginning of haciendas, where farming was combined with ranching around a great plantation house where the patron held sway. On these great estates the peons and their families lived like vassals in a feudal existence. The vaqueros were a little freer. Here they refined the roping and riding skills that the early Texans would come to emulate. The cowboy not only copied the vaquero and his ways—his horse and cow, the rodeo, saddle, stirrups, spurs and lariat, and his language—but he also took on many of his character traits. They both were low-class but independent as hell.
To his vaqueros, Don José has been a patron without apology. In his view all this was rightfully his through the continuity of blood—despite his mother’s adoption—and breeding, to make what he could with his inheritance. It had not been easy. Command never is. That it had been profitable was both providence and proof. The family motto was not Cum Deo Et Honore for nothing.
“As for the vaqueros,” he said, “they feel and we feel they are part of the family. It is the old way. They feel this is their place. They live here all the time and they know the place better than I do. Their dead, from the first Antonio on, are buried out there in the mesquite.
“But everything is changing. Go down in the valley. Most political jobs are held by the Latin. I don’t consider myself exactly a Latin. By Mexican custom I happen to have a Latin last name—my mother’s—but remember: my father was German, a Decker. I’m a lot of things, including Spanish, but what I am finally is simply an American. La Raza, bah! If they want to be Mexican, let them go to Mexico. Forget the race and be Americans. I don’t know, maybe we’re getting lazy, letting the minorities take over. Oh, it’ll all even out some day. Maybe there might be a revolution.”
I asked him if he worried about the loyalty of his vaqueros.
“You never know,” he said philosophically. “A smooth-talking labor organizer might come along and talk Antonio into something. Maybe because he hasn’t realized what a good deal he’s got here. When I first took over, all they got was $18 a month and rations. They’re making $250 a month now, and we still butcher the animals for them. Every morning before the school bus comes, Herminio and his wife and children milk my cows. They drink a little of the milk and make cheese out of the rest. Then they take the cheese into town and sell it. It shows industry on their part, so I never interfere. They keep what they make. Everything else is free—their houses, water, lights, the trucks they drive, and even the gas for their own personal cars. They each own two cars apiece.
“I don’t know now what they get in stamps from the government, but I think it comes close to another $200 a month. Hell, they got a better hat than I do. They ride my horses, and you know what? I can’t sell them without their permission!”
The bison were America’s only wild cattle, the only bovine animal native to these shores. They roamed the prairies in herds numbering millions. The plains are still worn deep where century after century they followed the same migration routes from place to place. Tom Perini can stand on his ranch at Buffalo Gap in Taylor County and show you breaks in the mountains—the Callahan Divide—where those great beasts came through regularly like furry freight trains. Their trail was so well defined that the early ranchers followed them as they herded their Longhorns to market and railhead. The Dodge (or Western) Trail traced the trek of the buffalo.
The Indian, with his Stone Age weapons and sense of conservation, killed the bison judiciously, when he needed meat and clothing. Little harm was done to the herds until the white tide swept westward. Trains of emigrants lived on buffalo meat as they toiled along to the promised land. Then came the building of railways and an intensive campaign of slaughter. In part the object was food and leather and profit, in part it was sport, and in part it was to eliminate the Indian’s food supply. With the exception of fur-bearing seals—and perhaps now the whale—no other mammals of bulk have ever been slaughtered in such appalling numbers as the American bison.
The bison disappeared almost as completely as the passenger pigeon was later to do. A few, however, remained in private hands, and this saved them from extinction. The Indians had kept a few calves as pets. They passed them on to gentle white missionaries and gentlemen farmers they knew would care for them. One of the first large-scale plantations where the bison was given refuge was Mount Vernon, Virginia, where a man who was destined to become the father of his country experimented in breeding the bison to domesticated cattle. George Washington was taking a cue from Huguenots near Richmond, who had domesticated buffalo as early as 1701. These early attempts at hybridization failed, but certain cowmen continued to toy with the possibilities.
A hundred years after Washington had befriended the buffalo, Colonel Charles Goodnight began breeding bison bulls to polled Angus cows on the JA Ranch in the Palo Duro Canyon of the Texas Panhandle. The issue of that cross always turned out to be heifer calves, which Goodnight later bred back to buffalo or domestic bulls. He called his hybrids cattalo, and he was high on them. In the American Breeders’ Association Annual Report of 1907, Goodnight listed the “points of advantage” which the cattalo had over common cattle. They were, he said, immune to ticks and most diseases. They could do without water much longer than other cattle. They were docile, easily broken, and they never fought. They could forage on very little and never drifted in storms but stood and faced blizzards. When they were down they rose on their forefeet instead of their hind feet, which enabled them to rise when weak. They put on flesh faster than any cattle, lived longer, and produced a steak that was lean and tender and richer than beef.
But the cattalo never caught on. Cattlemen are among the most conservative businessmen in the world, and in spite of Goodnight’s stature as a rancher and breeder, they looked on his experiments as fancy and frivolous, a bizarre fascination. Besides, John Warne “Beta-Million” Gates in late 1879 had introduced barbed wire to Texas. This was really something to hold your horses about. On the Military Plaza in San Antonio, Gates, a Chicago wire salesman, had thrown up a corral of barbed wire—the first in Texas—and had challenged stockmen to pit their steers against it. Bets were laid. The critters were penned and the crowd fell back to watch. The steers slashed themselves into bloody beef, but they couldn’t get out. Gates collected on the wagers and won the West.
Texas was fenced in. The kind of cow that was ideal for the open range and the long drive north was no longer necessary. So the cattalo was nipped in the bud. And the Longhorn, that lean old faithful forager, faded away as cattlemen turned toward exotic fatter stock, like Angus, Charolais, Brahma, Hereford, and other foreign breeds. The Longhorn and his aboriginal predecessor the buffalo seemed surely to be going the way of the dinosaur. The few left were treasured like gold.
Well, gold they are—genetic gold for a new generation of cattlemen.
Eleven years ago, some of the ranchers who still had a Longhorn or two got together to figure out a way to save the breed. At the time the head count was down to about 1500, and they were scattered around the country. Today, thanks to the Texas Longhorn Breeders’ Association, there are 9800 head of true Longhorns, registered and regulated by 500 breeders in the United States, Canada, and even a few foreign countries. The breed is growing and is promoted and ballyhooed at shows and sales. Even the Aggies have gotten in on the act. In the April issue of The Ranchman, Dr. Stewart H. Fowler, resident director of research at the Texas A&M Research and Extension Center in Uvalde, wrote that “Seven years of closely observing and studying Texas Longhorns have convinced me that these cattle are a genetic gold mine.” The lode the Longhorn offers, Dr. Fowler went on to say, includes genes for high fertility, easy calving, resistance to certain diseases and parasites, hardiness, longevity, and the ability to graze on marginal rangelands.
It is a shock to dig out J. Frank Dobie’s classic, The Longhorns, and compare the pictures of the old animal with the new. The modern Longhorn is massive and muscular, resembling his bony ancestor only in the spread of his horns. The difference is not blood but skilled breeding and scientific selection. Add to that the pampering of a breed thought to be the last of its kind, from manger to lot and range, and you have an animal of enormous strength and power. Yet there is something bothersome about this. The original Longhorn was not bred and pampered and cared for by man. Man ran his ass off. The critter survived anyway because nature’s natural selection had toughened him. Can modern science really preserve all of the genetic qualities that made the Longhorn perfect for the Southwest? Manuel Gustamente, Jr., the executive secretary of the breeders, assured me that the old hardiness is still there, along with a lot more meat for the pasture.
One senses a turn in the cattle industry, away from grain feeding on commercial feedlots and back to grass and grazing. Man wants his productive lands to yield food for his belly and not his cows. In this country we have been feeding the grain to the cattle and then eating our hearts out over the cost of beef. Try pricing a hundred pounds of grain and you understand the pinch on the cattleman. In a land of plenty, most of his stock and standards were geared to grain. Now he has to shift, and during the transition he must put stock to pasture that will do him the most good in the shortest possible time. The housewife may boycott now and then, but we are and probably will remain the world’s foremost meat eaters.
The new breeders sense all this, and none have their noses closer to the ground swell against grain than the savvy young operators out of Dallas who have decided to give the industry a dose of history and heritage along with a splendid animal that thrives on native grass.
SUPER CATTLE! they claim, and a sign recites their slogan:
The First American Exotic
American Bred . . . Grass Fed
Shades of George Washington and Charles Goodnight, they’ve brought the buffalo back to Texas. Or rather 3/8s of him and hoping to breed down to 3/16s. The rest of the cross is Charolais and Hereford, and so far the performance figures merit the adjectives.
This is all being played out on some of the greenest grass and gentlest hills in Texas: the 6100-acre Circle K Ranch in Kaufman County an hour’s drive east of Dallas. The ranch itself has been in operation since the turn of the century, give or take an owner here and an addition there. The man behind all the excitement, however, is new to Texas and ranching, a 28-year-old entrepreneur from Peoria named Randall Kreiling. Randy may be a transplant, but he has taken to Texas and the play for high stakes as if he were born to it. He did the next best thing. While at Southern Methodist University Randy won the hand of H. L. Hunt’s prettiest daughter Helen. Then, as if to prove his Hunthood, Randy took a $10,000 stake from his father and made more than a million dollars trading pork bellies on the commodities market. The amazing thing is that he did it during the same two years that he earned a law degree from SMU. Since then, Kreiling has seasoned himself with one venture after, another. He is a flamboyant, dashing speculator who wouldn’t ignore a man who touted beefalo in a bearish cattle market.
That was just about the situation Randy was in May a year ago. He had bought the Circle K the year before and then the bottom dropped out. Every cowman in America was crying. Everyone but D. C. Basolo, Jr., of Tracy, California. For fifteen years Basolo had been breeding buffalo with cattle, looking for the perfect combination of hump and rump. Now he had 5000 head of the hybrid he liked, and he was selling semen and some of the animals to anyone with gumption. One of his agents approached Kreiling. Randy talked it over with Dale Pugh, a banker buddy who had a head for cows. Dale liked the idea. He had heard about beefalo before. Dale did some homework. Randy called his brother Tilmon, who was out at Stanford University winding up a PhD in agricultural economics and computer science. Tilmon drove to Tracy and looked at Basolo’s herd. He came back with a grin on his face and a “go” report.
The first thing Randy had to do was break the news to Joe Ellis, big Joe Boy, general manager at the Circle K. Joe is a tried-and-true cowman, a sturdy veteran who puts a boot firmly down on the ground before he takes another step. He has been on the ranch 37 years, since he was fifteen years old and tagging behind his father, who was then the general manager for the original owner, Angus Wynne, Sr. During the Depression old man Wynne had assembled the spread from a collection of worn-out farms. Joe’s father was a fine farmer, and he and Wynne restored the grasses and ran Angus cattle, fine cattle that won top prizes and brought top prices. Joe Senior liked cattle, but his great love was crops, especially cotton, and Mr. Wynne indulged him in that. But in 1949 they lost money on the cotton and the next year, when it came time to plant, Mr. Wynne said no. No more cotton. Convert it to grass. Well, that was too much for Joe Ellis. He quit and bought himself a farm. They made his boy the general manager.
Now here it was 25 years later and Joe Boy Ellis was the compleat cow-calf man, in the way that his father was a cotton man. Joe Boy loved the land and what it could grow, but he was a cattleman first. Here he was, 52 years old, listening to the new owner tell him that they had to sell the Charolais and the Brangus, that he was bringing in buffalo, or some damned freak cross called beefalo. It is not hard to imagine what he thought.
The rumor went around that Joe Boy was going to quit, as his father had quit. Ellis says it wasn’t true. “Oh,” he says, “a man sometimes pops off and says things he doesn’t mean.” He looks away and you know it’s time to drop the subject. “I’m not leaving this place unless I’m dead or fired,” he adds.
By last September Dale Pugh had left the bank and joined Randy as manager of the Circle K Beefalo Management Company. Joe Ellis was still the general manager in charge of ranch operations, and Pugh officed in Dallas preparing to promote the new breed. Tilmon Kreiling was business planner and economist. Chip Langston, a certified public accountant, joined the team. A computer system was installed to keep track of the stock and their breeding, feeding, and performance.
Joe Ellis was skeptical as hell. He had to wait and see. Everyone decided to keep cool until the beefalo got there and proved out, one way or the other. In October they heard that Basolo had sold a beefalo bull (3/8s buffalo) to a Canadian for $2.5 million, the highest price ever paid for a sire. Joe Ellis still wasn’t convinced. People do damn crazy things out in California.
On Thanksgiving Day, the beefalo arrived from Basolo. They came 1900 miles in three days by truck without food or water. Sixty heifers just weaned, and five 3/16s bulls. The price tag was $72,500. Everybody on the ranch gathered round, even Gibbie Brown the mechanic. The tailgate came down and the heifers trotted out.
No hump. No scroungy, molding pelt. Joe had cautioned his cowboys, “You boys be careful or they’ll kick your britches off.” But they came down like a bunch of little Jersey heifers. Joe ran his fingers down a flank. It was pelt all right, not hair, but it was close and pretty. They had sweat glands like a Brahma, a natural air-conditioning system. Each weighed about 150 pounds, more than other heifers that age. He looked them over with an experienced eye, and said, “Well, we’ll have to wait and see.” But he felt better. They put them in pens for two days and watered and hayed them. Then they offered them grain. The beefalo wouldn’t take it, so they put them out to pasture. A bad drought was on the land, but the animals browsed anyway, eating briar patches and tree limbs. They were weighed every fifteen days, and the gain averaged a pound a day more than any cattle Joe had seen.
They were six months old. At eleven months the Circle K called in Ralph Shaw and he inseminated them with 3/8s beefalo semen. Ninety-four per cent took. They will calve next April.
A big sign is up on State Highway 243 at the entrance to the ranch. “Beefalo,” it reads, “American Bred . . . Grass Fed.” Randy has put $1 million into the beefalo. He and Dale organized the Bison Hybrid International Association, and Dale as president travels around the country promoting the breed. The pitch to the cowman is that beefalo are cheaper to produce. The pitch to the housewife is that the meat is better than plain beef, more tender with twice the protein. Norman Fischer, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, summed it up when he wrote, “It’s a glamour meat, rich with history as well as flavor.”
“We’ll have to see,” Joe Ellis says.
Decatur sits on seven hills, just east of the Trinity River’s west fork and just north of where the West begins, right on the divide which separates the Grand Prairie from the Western Cross Timbers. No matter from what direction you approach, the same three landmarks catch your eye: the 80-year-old Wise County Courthouse; the 84-year-old Decatur Baptist College building, and the 92-year-old Waggoner mansion. Each is a splendid edifice to Victorian pomposity, Texas turn-of-the-century style. They are so unnecessarily massive and out of character with yesterday’s horse and cowboy that you wonder about what the architects had in mind.
Well, what they had in mind were some rather lofty notions about man and his place in the universe. Man was at the center of the cosmos, answerable only to himself and God. Over at the Baptist college, Brother J. Lawrence Ward taught that life was a grave moral responsibility, a stern judgment which only the pious and the elect survived unto Kingdom Come. Out on the Waggoner ranches the test of life was just as strenuous a quest for earthly rewards. By this time the age of technology was in full steam, even in Texas, and men with motors and gas lights and the telegraph felt themselves in full conquest of their hours on earth. Certainly Dan Waggoner was, and all he had was a slave boy and the spit on his hands. He fought off Indians and hard times—or rather they tried to fight him off. At any rate Waggoner won the day, turning a scraggly herd of Longhorns into 60,000 head that ranged over seven counties and a half million acres. He made himself a baron and built a baronial mansion to match his deeds.
Of all the fabulous cattle empires in Texas, only three ever surpassed the Waggoner in sheer size: the three-million-acre XIT Ranch in the Panhandle, the 1.8-million-acre Matador Land and Cattle Company just below the Panhandle, and the one-million-acre King Ranch on the southern coast. The Chicago corporation which owned the XIT disbanded it in 1912, and the Scottish syndicate which ran the Matador had sold it off in parcels by 1951. In 1954, ranch historian J. W. Williams wrote that “if the great ranches are to be weighed according to value, the vast oil wealth of the owners of the Waggoner Estate might tip the scales in their favor.”
The oil, however, came years after Dan Waggoner’s death in 1904. True, they had discovered it in 1903 while drilling water wells but they considered it a damn nuisance. Dan’s only son, W. T., is said to have abandoned the wells in disgust, plugging them with fence posts. “Dammit,” he bellowed, “cattle can’t drink that stuff.” Tom, as they called him, had better things to think about. He was once heard to say, “A man who doesn’t admire a good steer, a good horse, and a pretty woman—well, something is wrong with that man’s head.”
Tom was a chip off the old block, not one of those sons who is repelled by his father’s epic appetites. At the age of eighteen, he had herded up the Chisholm Trail with the old man. Their bond was so close that he and the widowed Dan married sisters. The mansion in Decatur was imposing but not removed from the workaday ranch life. It was headquarters and hotel for the hands as well as residence for the Waggoners. Eventually their operation outgrew the environs.
They bought a half million acres near Vernon. When the old man died he left Tom an estate valued at $7 million. Thirty years later when Tom died he left his two sons and wife an empire worth $7 million multiplied a hundred times over. It included cattle, oil, banks, buildings in cities, and a famous race track and horse breeding farm called Arlington Downs—now the site of Six Flags Over Texas and the Texas Ranger baseball stadium.
Today there are no direct male descendants to continue the estate in the Waggoner name. Electra Waggoner II, the great-granddaughter of Dan, survives in Vernon as Mrs. Johnny Biggs. Her husband managed the estate and the ranch until his death in August. The heritage, if not the inheritance, has been taken up again in Decatur by an unlikely candidate—a young man who until a year ago was a stockbroker, first in New York and then in Dallas.
John Waggoner is the first male Waggoner in 65 years to live in Wise County. The local folk, still steeped in the Waggoner saga, assume he is back with old money to burn. John, however, is quick to point out that he is “one of the poorer relations.” He likes to recall that his great-granduncle Dan came to Wise County with 242 head of cattle, six horses, and a slave. “What do I have?” he’ll ask rhetorically. “Sixty steers, my wife, Betsy, and my boy and girl. None of them are inclined to kowtow to me.”
John also has a promising business—the Ford Tractor dealership—which he bought ten months ago. But that is not why he came to Decatur. Rather that was the how, the practical opportunity he needed to carry out a dream that came to him five years ago when he had just about had it with the city.
“I’ll admit what I’m doing,” he says. “I’m playing play-like. Play like I’m a cowboy. But I’m dead earnest about it.
I want to have the best herd of white-face Herefords you’ve ever laid eyes on. I want to stand in the middle of my land and not see the end of it. Maybe I won’t make anything big like that. The time of the full enchilada is probably passed, but I can raise my family on the land and ranch and farm and feel like a man instead of a mouse in a rat race. Hell, after all, I’m a Waggoner, and that counts in this country. Maybe that has something to do with it. I know it’s the reason I’m here instead of some place else.”
The road to John Waggoner’s house curves in front of the Dan Waggoner mansion. Every day he passes that way. You know he can’t help but play like about it too. Certainly moviegoers have, ever since its replica was center stage in Giant. Another family lives there now, so John can only daydream. “You know,” he laughs, “I had at least three girls back home in Wichita Falls tell me they would marry me if we could live in that house.”
His grandfather Jeff Waggoner had the stone hauled in wagons from Fort Worth to build the mansion. Jeff was eighteen at the time, a cowhand for Dan and Tom. Jeff’s father, John Thomas, was Dan’s brother and had married a sister of Dan’s first wife. So Jeff was a double first cousin to Tom. When Jeff married in 1888, five years after the mansion was completed, he and his bride spent their honeymoon night in one of the bedrooms. It was a good start. They had seven children, and Jeff didn’t do badly for a poor relation. He and his brother John bought a section of land from Dan Waggoner and established themselves as ranchers in their own right. When Jeff died in 1943, he left his heirs several thousand acres—some with oil wells on them. His second son, T. J., Jr., our John’s father, became the executor of the estate, settling in Wichita Falls to look after the family oil interests.
John had been a three-year-old bouncing on his grandfather’s knee when the old man was seized with a stroke that proved fatal. That became important to John as he grew, made him feel closer to the departed old cowboy than he otherwise might have. His Uncle Merle, his father’s older brother, was the rancher in the family now and John loved to listen to Merle tell stories about Grandfather and the cowboy days. It seemed to him, a kid growing up on a tame tree-shaded street in the better part of town, that life in the old West was infinitely richer. Funny, daring, dangerous, all the things boy swashbucklers play at.
Take Grandfather’s name. He had been christened James Monroe, after the fifth president, but then his father changed his mind and renamed him Jefferson Davis, after the Confederate president. That was fine until his father came home from the Civil War complaining that “every nigger and mule on the road” was named Jefferson Davis. So the boy became Thomas Jefferson—T. J., or simply Jeff.
Jeff Waggoner had made the last great roundup, “The Centennial Hunt,” in the spring of 1881. The next spring, he had ridden the last big trail drive the Waggoners would make from Texas to Kansas, just a few months before the Fort Worth and Denver City Railroad reached Wichita Falls. He had ridden with Indian scouts; he had roped with Gus Pickett, who in 1902 bested Will Rogers for the world champion steer roping title; he had shared a bunk one night with Jesse James; he had even, years later, had a Cadillac stolen by Bonnie and Clyde.
All these stories John took to heart, could hear them over and over again. But the most stirring vision he cherished of his grandfather was a rather quiet one. He could see the old cowboy camped on a great plain, darkness surrounding him, with nothing but a small campfire to illuminate his circumstances.
But that was long ago. The campfires were out now. The cowboys had come into town to put their sons through college. John’s father had gone to Southern Methodist University. John himself was encouraged to do the same and take up a suitable profession. And he did that with varying degrees of success and failure. As a broker in New York he made some big deals and had some bad luck. He came back to Texas to try to put together something in Dallas. It fizzled. He joined first this firm, then that one. John could not stay put. Something kept pulling at him.
One Sunday afternoon five years ago, John and Betsy and the kids passed through Decatur on the way to Dallas from Wichita Falls. Suddenly he said to Betsy, “Let’s go see Crystelle!” Crystelle Waggoner was a cousin of John’s father. She had never married. She lived alone on the Ditto Nine, a ranch she had inherited from her father John, the brother who had gone in with Jeff Waggoner. The ranch ran for several miles behind the old Waggoner mansion. Jeff had sold out to his brother, and in 1936 John had built a rambling headquarters house on the place. He had died in the house. As a kid, the current John Waggoner had spent weekends there, running up and down the creeks with his brothers playing cowboys and Indians. When he and Betsy and the children stopped at Crystelle’s place, down the road a piece from the headquarters house, it was the first time in years that John had seen his second cousin. She had never met Betsy and the brood.
The visit was brief but enriching. John’s children took to Crystelle and the outdoors as he had when he had been a boy. Crystelle wasn’t doing much with the ranch. Once she had raised race horses but now she was taking it easy. She had rented out the headquarters house. John and Betsy were enchanted by it. It sat at the end of the road, like a fine old boat tied to the end of a long pier, and all around as far as the eye could see was an ocean of rolling prairie.
Crystelle was amused by their enthusiasm. She had never liked the place. It was too big for one woman, and she was tired of fooling with it and tenants. A week later, John was sitting in his office in Dallas when he got a letter from Crystelle Waggoner.
“John,” it began, “I’m making you a gift of the house in Decatur.”
She went on to explain that she was doing it because she liked them and their yearning for the country, and because it was partial payment for all the kindness and consideration John’s father had shown her over the years. That was the turning point in John Waggoner’s life. At last, at age 30, he knew what he really wanted to do.
Every weekend, he and the family lit out for Decatur, which is 50 miles northwest of Dallas. “It didn’t make a damn if it was New Year’s Eve and party time or if our best friends were in town,” John recalls. “We couldn’t wait to get out here.” For five years he saved his money and waited for a business opportunity to open so they could make it in the small town. It finally came in October 1974, when Roy Eaton, a Dallas television personality, tipped off John that the Ford Tractor dealership was up for grabs in Decatur.
His old stockbroker buddies wouldn’t know John Waggoner now. He goes to work in a straw hat with dung on his boots. It is crap but it is pungent with promise. John’s steers and calves have won prizes at shows in Fort Worth. They graze on land owned by Cousin Crystelle. And John is already a landowner with interest in a little 1600-acre spread across the border in Oklahoma.
The other day John fell and broke an arm while swinging on a grapevine with his kids out on the Oklahoma place. He went into Sherman to have the bone set.
“You’re not one of the Waggoners, are you?” the doctor asked.
“Yep,” John replied. Then, thinking that the sawbones might gouge him good in the pocketbook, John quickly added, “But I’m not with the Vernon side of the family. We’re the poorer relations down south a few counties.”