Building A Legacy: The King Ranch - American Cowboy | Western Lifestyle - Travel - People

Building A Legacy: The King Ranch

Texas's legendary King Ranch has been in operation 162 years.
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Credit: King Ranch The King Ranch main house.

Credit: King Ranch The King Ranch main house.

Enterprising first to gain the land and the cattle, and second to better each, the King Ranch establishes itself as a legendary operation in its 162 years.

Destined to become one of the largest ranches in the world, the King Ranch began as a 15,500-acre Spanish land grant on Santa Gertrudis Creek, in an otherwise-unprepossessing stretch of South Texas known as the Wild Horse Desert. 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 Rio Grande rivers—and his mind turned immediately to cattle raising. He purchased the parcel and acquired several adjacent grants. He and his partners began buying up longhorn cattle on both sides of the border and, on one occasion, moved an entire drought-stricken Mexican village to the burgeoning ranch. Their descendants work there to this day.

By the late 1860s, King Ranch had grown to 150,000 acres and thousands of head of cattle—all bearing the captain’s “Running W” brand, and all destined for Northern markets. By 1884, Texas drovers had pushed more than 100,000 head of King cattle up the North Trail to the wide-open railhead towns of Kansas and Missouri. 

That same year, Capt. King hired Robert Kleberg, a young attorney, to run the ranch’s business affairs. After King died the following year, his widow, Henrietta named Kleberg manager. Shortly thereafter, he married the Kings’ daughter, thereby starting a dynasty that still owns the legendary ranch. 

Kleberg was a brilliant choice. He not only streamlined and efficiently managed the ranch, he also experimented with cross-breeding, introducing Shorthorn and Hereford bulls into the mix, virtually ending the reign of the Longhorns as the definitive Western beef cattle. He initiated the drilling of artesian wells to successfully combat the killing droughts of the 1890s. In the early 1900s, Kleberg and his sons crossbred the Brahma bulls of India with the King Shorthorns, to create the Santa Gertrudis—a new breed that the USDA would later recognize as the very first American-bred beef cattle. By the time of Kleberg’s death in 1932, King Ranch was running nearly 100,000 head of cattle and 4,500 horses and mules, on more than one million acres. 

The ranch’s successes did not come without challenges, though. When Henrietta passed away seven years earlier, her death created a number of problems, not the least of which were high estate taxes and mountainous debts. With the Great Depression sending beef prices plummeting, the ranch was some $3 million in the red. To bring it back, Kleberg’s widow and sons diversified into petroleum, allowing Humble Oil—the future Exxon—to drill on ranch land. It was the beginning of a major enterprise, with King Ranch Oil and Gas ultimately seeking its own sources of energy, and putting the ranch comfortably back in the black.

Today, the King Ranch continues to run some 60,000 head on around 825,000 acres—an empire larger than the state of Rhode Island. It is also the largest citrus grower in the nation and manufactures commercial luggage and other leather goods in its world-famous saddle shop. Additionally, the ranch owns a chain of outdoor power equipment stores, raises blooded horses, markets commodities, sells $3 million worth of hunting leases annually, and has a major hand in the areas of energy and wildlife conservation. In fact, King Ranch’s nonagricultural enterprises account for more than half the company’s revenues. In the words of Stephen “Tio” Kleberg, fifth-generation descendant of Richard King, “We no longer see ourselves in the cattle business, as such. We are in the resource-management business. And … we have a lot of resources to manage.”