Lee Pitts: Riding With The Big Boys
One of the best perks about being a cow writer has been that it served as a gateway to visit many of the biggest and best ranches in America. The highlight came when I got to sleep in the legendary Big House at the King Ranch and dine at a table whose centerpiece was a big silver bowl awarded in 1943 to the seventh Triple Crown winner in history, the King Ranch’s own Assault.
During a time when many cowboys are without cows and anyone with a good sized flower garden calls itself a “ranch”, I got to visit ranches in West Texas that were measured in sections, not acres, and anything less than 40 sections was considered a hobby farm. I climbed all over Arizona’s big spreads like the ORO’s, Pruett and Wray and John Wayne’s 26 Bar. I’ve written about many of California’s old land grant ranches and find it sad that I can think of only one that’s still in the same family it was granted to. I got to ride out with the cowboys for a branding on the Bell Ranch in New Mexico. At night we slept in our bedrolls and they told me to cover by boots with my cowboy hat so snakes or scorpions wouldn’t climb in them and surprise me the next morning.
Every year I got to go to Nebraska’s Haythorn Ranch for a video sale and in Oregon I got to visit and write stories about Oregon’s MC and part of Peter French’s former empire. As part of Western Video Market I also got to take part in selling the cattle off many of the biggest spreads in the west like the 1,000 head lot of ZX calves we auctioned off in a grand total of 31 seconds.
I’ve always been awed by the great cattle barons in history like Henry Miller of Miller and Lux who, it was said, could ride in his buggy from southern California into British Colombia and sleep on his own land every night. It was also said of the notorious tightwad that not once along the way would he eat his own beef because the beef he ate always wore a neighbor’s brand.
I rode over ground once known as Swan Land and Cattle that was owned by a bunch of Scotsmen that covered 3,250,000 acres and had so many brands they had their own brand book. And I live within a couple hours drive from the epicenter of what was once known as the Kern County Land Company that operated in multiple states and was the largest ranch in the world at its height with 3,750,000 acres under its control. Folks around here just called it “the Land Company” and everyone knew who you were talking about.
When we lived in New Mexico I often found myself on ground once owned by Maxwell Cattle Company that had 1,750,000 acres in New Mexico and Colorado and was so large the Atchison and Topeka Railroad had six stations on the ranch. The Chiricahua Cattle Company was on the San Carlos Apache Reservation and ran 45,000 head of cattle at one time! They were known simply as “the Cherries”. I always wondered how they could possibly run on so many acres or look after so many cows. I was always of the belief that you should never run more cows than your wife could take care of.
Another famous Texas ranch I enjoyed writing about was the 101 Ranch that had its own wild west show. Few people knew it was so named because it consisted of 101,000 acres.
Whenever I visited one of these monster ranches I always felt intimidated and felt I had to somehow justify my little 100 head cow/calf operation and somehow try to compete with them. I remember horseback riding on a huge Arizona border spread with the owner who told me, “I’ve got so many cattle there are thousands here that have never felt a rope around their neck.”
“Yeah,” I commiserated, “that’s the quality of ropers I get at my place too.”
And I remember being on another huge Texas ranch in the Permian basin whose owner told me, “My place is so big it takes three days to ride around it.”
Not to be outdone, I said, “Yeah, I had a pickup like that once too.”