Cattle Ranch country means being careful on the road.



The Empty Nesters left Caprock Canyon State Park on a big-sky Texas Sunday, headed back to Waco. Consistent with out newly hatched plan to visit all 254 Texas counties, we schemed a route home by another way. Cattle ranch country called to us, although we did not quite know it yet.

Texas is famous for many things. Of course, big cattle, big money and big dreams rank at the top of the list. Making the drive from Caprock Canyon to Anson, just north of Abilene, by way of Matador, Paducah, Hamlin and Aspermont, does not easily reveal the truth of that statement. For those willing to look a little deeper, the story unfolds.


We first stopped in Matador, seat of Motley County. The town takes its name from the “Matador Land and Cattle Company,” a Texas name if ever there was one. Except that Matador was a Scottish company that happened to own a huge chunk of the Texas Panhandle. Absentee cattle ranch owners were common and resented in Texas, circa 1875. Matador provides a great case study.

Texas was a young state after being an infant country; its only asset was land. Upstart cattle ranchers operating on a shoestring took advantage of the open plains by grazing their stock on public property. The key to the lifestyle was moving the stock to the next grassy plain. As huge foreign concerns like Matador snapped up cheap land, tensions rose. Things worsened for the free-range advocates in 1874, when the patent office awarded Joseph Glidden the patent for “twisted fence-wire.”

Two years later, John Warne Gates, a promoter with a flair for the unusual, fenced in San Antonio’s Military Plaza. There he loosed 40 longhorns chased by Mexican vaqueros with torches. The frightened animals could not break free through the fencing; publicity from the stunt made everyone aware of the possibilities. In short order, cattle ranches were no longer vague destinations; they became actual places with definite boundaries. Boundaries marked by miles and miles of Glidden’s invention and no way to move free cattle from plain to plain.

Barbed wire keyed the transition from free range ranching to static cattle ranches.
Photo by Johnny Mckane from Pexels

The Scots now held Matador as a company town. When the Scots ran fencing marking their territory, there was not much else anyone could do. As the voters all received Matador paychecks, Motley County might just as well have been a Scottish province. Appeals to the authorities proved futile. The only independent business in the county was the saloon, where the oppressed could drown the sorrows. In Scotch whiskey.


I left off “independent” from the list of things people associate with Texas. The Scots might have been similarly unaware in the 1800’s. They learned. The free rangers and those looking for independent commercial opportunities banded together to import relatives, friends, and anyone willing to front a fake business. The invitees held the charade through election day, when they pried political control from the Scottish cattle ranchers.

Ultimately, however, the independent towns people came to accept the fencing. The wire allowed ranchers to separate and protect their herds. With that protection, the economics improved. Most obviously, the ranchers lost fewer head. The cost of transporting stock to market plunged as railroads replaced trail drives. Most of all, cattle ranchers could now engineer better stock through bloodlines. When that next Texas steak melts in your mouth, say a little prayer to Joseph Glidden.


Cattle ranches remained the lifeblood of the area, but other commerce gave Matador vitality. Driving into town, at the intersection of State Highways 62 and 70, we found a great example. Bob Robertson worked as a gas station attendant in the early 1930s. Despite the depression, Bob scraped together enough to buy his own place, which put Matador on the map.

Bob decided to make his gas station and café a destination. A cage full of live rattlesnakes transformed into a miniature zoo with lions and monkeys. Bob slapped advertisements on the side of every friendly truck that stopped by. In today’s parlance, he achieved market penetration. For a cherry on his cake, Bob built an 84-foot oil derrick with huge lights. People planned their cross-country trips around stopping in Matador to see the show. Passing Buc-ee’s on I-45 or the Snake Farm on I-35, I know that they are just keeping up Bob’s tradition.

Bob's oil well and cafe is uniquely Texan.
Bob’s place today is preserved, but the zoo is gone. Photo by Steve Howen.

The other delight you can find in Matador is the Matador Hotel, now a charming Bed and Breakfast. When Matador was hopping, the 15-suite hotel and ice-cream parlor welcomed guests from all over. Bellhops and entertainment gave notice of the establishment’s first-class status. The Matador benefited from a fairly recent facelift; the rooms looked elegant. I bet I would feel like a free-range cattle rancher if I spent the night. Which I plan to when I return to Bob Wills’ Day.


Those free range cattle ranchers also received a tip of the hat at our next stop, Paducah, seat of Cottle County. In 1930, more than 9,000 people lived in Cottle County. Today, the population sits at less than 1,500. My guess is that those 1,500 people produce more beef and cotton than the 9,000 ever dreamed of. The downside of that sort of progress in an area where huge expanses of land form the core of the business is sparse population. Well, that is the downside for visitors; if you live there it might be the upside.

In any event, Paducah’s downtown is a little stunted. But we loved the fact that the marquee for the old Palace theater still advertises the Howard Hawkes 1948 classic Red River, starring John Wayne. The Duke was not a Texan by birth, but he was all Texas attitude. The film showcases Wayne driving cattle from Texas to Abilene, Kansas. John Wayne loved the film; he wore the belt buckle Hawkes gave him emblazoned with the fictional “Red River D” cattle ranch brand in many of his subsequent Westerns. From this point forward, I am going to say the Duke’s cattle ranch was in Paducah, Texas.

Red River stars John Wayne as the ultimate cattle rancher.
The Palace Theater in Paducah, Texas. Photo by Steve Howen.


Heading south, we were encouraged entering Guthrie, seat of King County. We first ran across a nifty and well-kept football stadium. Towns that pay attention to Friday Night Lights generally are great towns. Except that we quickly realized that Guthrie is not a town. Guthrie is a courthouse with a couple of houses attached. Actually, Guthrie is two courthouses, one old and one new(ish) with a couple of houses attached. To the traveler passing through, that is all their is.

A quick check of the Google confirmed it. King County is the second least populous county in Texas and the third least populous county in the United States. Just nothing to see. Unless, of course, you are a fan of cattle ranches and quarter horses. It turns out that King County is home to the 6666 Cattle Ranch, one of Texas’ premier brands.

The 6666 started when Samuel Burk Burnett bought 100 head bearing the brand. Burnett became a legendary rancher, making much of the Panhandle his own and home to thousands of Black Angus bearing the 6666. The division of Burnett’s cattle ranching operation holds much of his prize stock as well as world-renowned quarter horses bred and refined for 150 years. The 13,000 square foot ranch house hosted Teddy Roosevelt and Burnett’s close friend Quanah Parker, among scores of other luminaries.

The ranch stayed in the family for five generations. I was saddened when two days ago, this preeminent cattle ranch announced it was for sale. Bloodlines like this, both human and animal, will be hard to replicate. If you have about $200,000,000.00 free, you can try. I bet you get a box seat at that football stadium to go with it.


Aspermont, seat of Stonewall County came next. The census bureau guesses that less than a 1,000 people live in Aspermont. The small courthouse and deserted strip of stores speak to the accuracy of the estimate.

Cattle ranching and cotton growing dominate Stonewall County,, Texas.
Stonewall County courthouse. Photo by Steve Howen.

Stonewall County claims one notable fact. The Brazos River begins here. I love the Brazos because Baylor’s McClane Stadium perches on its shores in Waco. By that point, the river runs wide; it may not be the Mississippi, but it is impressive enough that when Waco built a bridge to cross it, the structure was the longest suspension bridge west of the Mississippi.

The real reason Texans should love the Brazos, however, is because John Graves wrote so well about it in Goodbye to a River. Graves grew up on the Brazos. When the government proposed to build 13 dams on the river in the 1950’s Graves took a canoe trip to connect again with his nature and his history. The book tells the story and is credited with influencing the decision to limit the construction to 3 dams. Whatever the political impact, Graves’ masterpiece is a remarkable piece of time travel and an essential read for any Texan.


By the time we reached Anson, seat of Jones County, we had about run out of time. The weekend had been spectacular. We set out to find Bob Wills and honor his biggest fan, Russell Bradford, who is M’Lissa’s dad. We did that and along the way started to learn why being a Texan resonated with both Bob and Russell.

Whether you are born here or fall in love here, there is something unique about the possibilities Texas offers. Quanah Parker, Bob Wills, Charles Goodnight, Bob Robertson, Samuel Burk Burnett and John Graves all felt it and left their mark. Walking where they walked, we found early-bird breakfast eaters in Vernon, vinters in Childress, Jody Nix playing the Turkey High School Gymnasium and mural artists in Quitaque who all feel the same way. Come drought or fire, cattle ranches still produce the beef and they always will. For an optimist and a nostalgist like me, Texas feels like home.

Anson has beautiful buildings, including an impressive opera house and courthouse. Another Palace Theater. It seemed like downtown struggles to fill those buildings, which tells the story of many smaller towns close to an interstate and part of a metropolitan area (Abilene in this instance.)

The real tragedy, however, is that of the town’s and the county’s namesake, Anson Jones, the fourth and final president of The Republic of Texas. Jones practiced medicine, business and politics alternatively, each with moderate success. He worked hard, across several administrations including his own, to see us annexed into the Union on favorable terms.

Jones, however, never achieved the reputation of his contemporaries. One of the world’s great cities bears the name of his predecessor; Anson the town has a hard time living up to that. Jones desperately wished to serve as a U.S. Senator; he felt his efforts on annexation made the appointment fitting. The legislature, however, ignored him. At age 59, Anson Jones killed himself, disappointed in his lfe.

Anson Jones may not have understood the magnitude of his accomplishment, but I am starting to glimpse it. We raised the convertible top, punched up Lyle Lovett and drove into the sunset, thankful for Bob, Russell and Anson.

10 down, 244 to go.

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