Watt Matthews: Dean of Texas Cattlemen

Don’t be fooled by the East Coast college diploma—Watt Matthews was a true Westerner.
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Don’t be fooled by the East Coast college diploma—Watt Matthews was a true Westerner.
Photo: Watt Casey, Jr.

A man of big ideas and small stature, Watt Matthews was a legendary rancher from a bygone era—one of the last Texas cattle barons who carved a way of life by raising cattle in a tough, unsettled area of North Central Texas. A rancher until his death in 1997 at the age of 98, Matthews devoted his life to carrying on the legacy of the 53,000-acre Lambshead Ranch, which his father founded in the 1870s and 1880s on the valley of the Clear Fork Brazos River.

Born in 1899—the youngest of Sallie Reynolds and John A. Matthews’ nine children—Watt was already part of a rich Western heritage. One of his ancestors, W.D. Reynolds, helped Charlie Goodnight return Oliver Loving’s body to Parker County, Texas, from Fort Sumner, N.M., after Loving was attacked and killed by Comanches.

At the urging of his mother, Matthews attended Princeton University, where he earned a degree in economics and politics. An article from the Abilene Reporter News quoted him as saying, “Momma wanted me to go to college. She said we have plenty of cow people in this family.”

Fellow rancher Rob Brown of Throckmorton, Texas, said, “He wore his hat and boots to Princeton every day.” As soon as Matthews graduated, he returned to Texas to join his father in the cattle business.

Considered by many as the Dean of Texas Cattlemen, Matthews was one of the last men who knew about ranching on the open range. According to “A Final Tribute to Watkins Reynolds Matthews,” a booklet published by his friends after his death, he was also a pioneer of many ranching practices. He was one of the first in Texas to utilize brush control, cross fencing, water development, and deferred grazing. He built more than 40 ranch ponds to assist in erosion control and grazing distribution across his ranch. He was instrumental in screwworm eradication. And he was the first American to export cattle to Hungary.

Billy Green, a fellow rancher, said part of Matthews’ legacy was restoring many of the structures on the ranch where his family settled. “Watt was devoted to the heritage and history of the area,” he said.

Perhaps what stands out in the mind of those who knew him best, though, was his hospitality.

“The best story I ever heard that defined Watt took place when he was eating lunch in the cook shack with the cowboys,” Green said. “The phone rang, and Watt talked to the individual on the other line for about 20 minutes. When he hung up, someone asked, ‘Who was that, Watt?’ He replied, ‘Well, it was the wrong number, but they’re coming for supper.’”

“He was very polite and loved by everybody,” Brown says. “I never knew a finer gentleman than Watt Matthews.”