Nowhere else in the West are the cowboy and ranching cultures as fully embraced as they are in the Lone Star State. From the Rio Grande to the Red River, the beef industry saw its blossoming in the cattle drives that began with Texas punchers gathering wild longhorns. Over time, the sprawling tracts of land amassed by early pioneer families—and aided by a little black gold—have remained intact for generations. In fact, there are four ranches of more than a half-million acres in the state that are still owned by heirs of the founders. Many of the cowboys who worked those ranges 150 years ago helped define what the cowboy was, and those following in their footsteps still shape the culture. While their gear is often sparse but tough, never underestimate a Texan’s cowboy pride in his horse, his skills, and his trappings.
Few ranches in America represent the past and present like the 275,000-acre holdings headquartered by the 6666 in Guthrie. After nearly 150 years, 17 to 18 full-time hands still do every bit of work that can be done horseback. Sixes cowboys still saddle up and wait on daylight to corral, gather, brand, and sort cattle and herd horses.
Dolph Briscoe, Jr., inherited 190,000 acres in south Texas when his father died in 1954. Since then, the ranch holdings tripled in size, making his family the 13th largest landowners in America, according to The Land Report, and second-largest in Texas to the King Ranch. Briscoe, Jr., a two-term governor of Texas in the 1970s, passed away in 2010.
[Read more: Great Ranches of the Southwest]
Charlie Goodnight partnered with Irish aristocrat John Adair to form this 1.3 million-acre ranch in the Palo Duro Canyon of the Texas Panhandle in 1876. Eleven years later, Adair’s widow bought Goodnight’s interest in the ranch out and in the subsequent years has reduced to around 200,000 acres. However, descendants of John Adair’s family still own and actively manage the ranch.
Kokernot o6 Ranch
David Kokernot migrated from Amsterdam, Holland, to Texas and fought in the Texas Revolution. Later, his sons John W. and Lee M. turned toward ranching in Gonzales county and David joined them. In 1883, the Kokernots moved to the Davis Mountains of Texas and began their ranch at the current site of Alpine. The grandchildren currently being raised on the ranch are the eighth generation of the Kokernot line in Texas.
In 1853, while on a trip to Corpus Christi, steamboat captain and businessman Richard King explored the location—a fertile strip between the Nueces and the Rio Grande rivers—and his mind turned immediately to cattle raising. Today, the King Ranch, at 825,000 acres, is one of the largest in the world—an empire larger than the state of Rhode Island. Though the ranch runs some 60,000 head of cattle, its services are diverse, including citrus growing, leather goods manufacturing, a horse program, markets commodities, selling hunting leases, and conservation.
In 1882, the Matador Ranch was incorporated by Scottish investors. In 1951, the company liquidated and began subdividing. Fred Koch, the founder of what would become Koch Industries, bought the ranch, which, along with holdings in Montana and Kansas, reaches upwards of 270,000 acres. Today, Koch’s sons run the family businesses.
Van Horn, Texas
In the early 1880s, John Z. Means trailed a herd of cattle west from central Texas. At the Pecos River, a band of Comanche offered him a simple choice: your cattle or your life. He turned back and left the cattle. Within a couple of years, he tried again, and this time he made it. Now, John Z. Means’ great-grandson, Jon Means, runs the ranch.
[Read more: 5 Best Breeds of Beef Cattle]
O’Connor Family Ranches
Thomas O’Connor arrived in Texas from Ireland at the age of 14, fought in the Battle of San Jacinto, helped develop the King Ranch’s famous cattle breed, the Santa Gertrudis, and was an incorporator of the Texas and Pacific Railroad Company. Now at roughly a half-million acres, the O’Connor heirs are listed as the 15th largest landowners in America.
Mississippi business partners E.F. Williams and D.B. Gardner left their families’ plantations after the Civil War for Texas. In 1883, the Pitchfork Land and Cattle Company was incorporated with 52,500 acres in central West Texas and a foundation herd of 9,750 cattle. Today, it is known as much for its good ranch horses as its cattle and its 180,000 acres are still owned by Williams’ descendants.
In 1874, Illinoisan Colonel Isaac Ellwood became one of the original patent holders of barbed wire and the Ellwood family quickly became wealthy. Ellwood and his son, W.L., traveled to West Texas and purchased 800 head of cows from J.F. “Spade” Evans—each branded with the distinctive spade shovel. Along with the cows, he bought the brand, and his ranch took on the name. The Spade Ranch still owns the original spread, and leases several others, bringing their total ranching operations to around 275,000 acres. Today, they run around 4,500 head of cattle and maintain a remuda of Peptoboonsmal and High Brow Cat progeny.