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The solid heritage of the Pitchfork Ranch.
© 1998 By J. Zane Walley

Photo ©Bob Moorhouse

Pitchfork cowboy rides point, leading several hundred cattle in for branding. There could be 12 to 20 men behind him.
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A dry wind roves the immense plains of Northwest Texas. It whips across the rolling expanse, stirring plumed leaves of mesquite, spinning a twister of red dust as it crosses the dirt roads of the Pitchfork Ranch. Even from the province of the wind, this land seems vast.
   Generations of cowboys have lived on the boundless horizons of the giant Pitchfork Ranch. There are some folks who say that they are among the best working cowboys in the world for they still cowboy the old way. The Pitchfork isn't a mere job to them. Being a good horseman, a good roper, a steady hand, doing their job and living up to it, is a pride, a way of life. During spring roundup, the 'possum-bellied chuckwagon and remuda still travel to the huge pastures. The hands work hard all day, rounding up on horseback, roping and dragging calves to the mesquite fire where a red-hot branding iron is applied to their hides. The cowboys sleep on the ground and eat at the wagon; and they like it.
   Billy George Drennan retired from the Pitchfork after 31 years as wagon boss and 40 years on the ranch. He recalls the old days.
   "I was in with some old-timers," he says. "We did all our traveling by horseback and would be gone from our quarters for days at a time. You had the wagon. You ate out there. You slept out there. A lot of folks think it was a glamorous life; I just felt it was a job I liked. I never wanted to do anything else. If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn't change a thing.''
   Elmer Petty rode for the Pitchfork in 1912. In those early years, the cowboys just about lived on the range. "We'd start out in one pasture and stay there two or three days, then move to another place and brand those calves. We'd start out in April and wind up about July. That chuckwagon was home. Us cowboys sure liked it."
   With 115 years of history behind it, tradition runs deep at the ranch, and ranch manager Bob Moorhouse keeps the tradition alive in many forms.
   "Cowboying in the right way," he calls it. "When I say that, somebody will say you're backwards, you've got to change with the times. You can't do it like you did 50 years ago. But certain things you can. And the chuckwagon is one of them. Our country is kind of big," he explains, "and the rougher pastures are particularly taxing on man and horse when they make a gather. We take the chuckwagon out there and camp for several days; long enough to make the cowboys happy, but not get the wives mad. It saves driving back and forth, and you've got your men down there in the morning. It just works."
   The solid heritage of Pitchfork financial management is undoubtedly the reason for the ranch's longevity and success. After the cattle boom, when other colossal Texas operations failed and were divided into smaller ranches, the Pitchfork hung on and indeed enlarged herds and land holdings.
   In the 1800s, the owners were located in St. Louis, Mo. as they still are today. Their expertise in the handling of monies enabled the Pitchfork to build reserves, invest in the good years and float the operation in years of low beef prices and droughts.
   The ranch management however goes far beyond mere money; rather it is a conviction that Moorhouse brands, "love of the Pitchfork." The ranch has primarily remained under the control of the same family that was involved in its 1883 founding. Eugene Williams, a childhood friend of Pitchfork founder Dan Gardener, and vice president of the Hamilton & Brown Shoe Company, ventured the seed money for purchasing a longhorn herd, wagons and camp equipment. He got out of the shoe business and became so involved in the ranch that folks in Fort Worth nicknamed him "Pitchfork Williams." Generations of the Williams family have spent childhood summers riding, working, and playing on the spread, and they, too, grew to love the Pitchfork. Its current president, Eugene F. Williams Jr., is a grandson of the founder.
   Today, as they did in the 1800s, the owners back their ranch manager and cowboys. As former manager D. Burns observed in a letter to the owners, "During all the years with your company, I have had the greatest of cooperation from all of the officers and directors...and have never had to ask for any increases in wages or bonuses. Always you folks were ahead of me. No one could ask for better people to be associated with." Moorhouse notes, "The owners are friends; they like to know everyone on the ranch. They love it and want it to stay together."
   There are other Pitchfork customs that haven't changed. The ranch headquarters is a neat village situated along the South Wichita River. It is almost lost in the boundless space of the plains. Nestled among huge elm trees is the ranch manager's home, an old colonial, a portion of which dates back to the 1800s. A light cloud of drifting red dust powders the trees and sifts against the windows of the cowboys' homes and chuckhouse.
   Well before daylight, the clangor of an aged chuckhouse bell lets the hands know breakfast will be served in 15 minutes. They file in silently with sweat-marked hats, old boots with patches covering more patches and gather around the heater to drink strong coffee. No one is seated at the table until the cook steps outside and rings the second bell. Hardly a word is spoken around the table heavy with hot breakfast, but much is eaten as calloused hands feed hungry mouths. The hands still eat at the same long table as the ranch's cowboys did a century before. The old chuckhouse remains virtually unchanged from the day it was constructed in the early 1900s. Breakfast is over quickly; the hands thank the cook and disappear into the darkness to begin the day's work.
   "Been the same for a lot of years," Moorhouse declares. "Eat, then get with it."
   Moorhouse sits in his office surrounded by decades of Pitchfork memorabilia. He's comfortable in a chair that has been filled by only six other managers since 1883. Gentlemen managers on the ranch are as much a part of the tradition as the chuckhouse and wagon. When he was assistant manager, Moorhouse was trained by Jim Humphreys, Humphreys by Burns and so on, back to when the original manager and founder of the Pitchfork, Dan Gardener, established a dyed-in-the-wool management style that is still deep-seated in Bob Moorhouse.
   David J. Murrah's book, "The Pitchfork Land and Cattle Company, The First Century" included, "Dan was an easy man to work for. He hired men of sterling character whom he could trust. He hired mature cowboys and, as an observer noted, they 'did not come to town as often as other ranch boys.'"
   Gardener established traditions that are an important part of Pitchfork life today. He loved animals, especially horses, and he ensured the ranch's cowboys always rode good ones. He loved and appreciated wildlife. Turkeys flourished on the ranch and became his pets. He also protected quail and disliked their being killed. Gardener's hospitality became a trademark. Due to the isolation of the ranch, visitors were always welcome. Not one to shirk work, he lived on the range during roundup and often worked side by side with his men.
   Gardener remained ranch manager until his death in 1928. His position was temporarily occupied by ranch foreman "Red Mud" Lambert until a fire-breathing, go-getter, Virgil Parr, filled the job. Parr was unhappy with the ranch's overall operation but was impressed by the Pitchfork cowboys. In 1929 he wrote, "Yesterday was the first time I saw our cowboys in action. I have no apologies to make for them in general. We have as good among our cowboys as to be found on anybody's ranch."
   His improvement to the ranch's cattle, horse herds and rangeland caught the attention of the prestigious Cattleman magazine. A 1939 article noted, "If the old saying 'A cowman's paradise is the place and time when all his cattle, grass and water are all in one pasture,' then the owners of the Pitchfork have almost achieved this utopia."
   Rudolph Swenson replaced Parr for a short season but was killed by a southbound Santa Fe train at a crossing in Benjamin, Texas. D. Burns, a Texan who had cattleman roots back to his grandfather, Chisholm Trail veteran Crockett Cardwell, became manager in 1942.
   Burns was a real worker. Former cowhand Babe Oliver remembers Burns telling him, "Son, I was hired to work, and I'm going to work. When I get to where I can't make a hand, I'll leave."
   He worked his men six days a week and sometimes seven, but consistently set a hard schedule for himself. In 1959 while planning a holiday business trip to Wyoming he wrote, "Christmas is for women and children, not for folks that have something to do."
   His working terms did not affect his aptness for keeping good hands. Burns took good care of the Pitchfork cowboys. He carried out Dan Gardener's tradition "to take good care of our men give them good wages and good food."
   Pitchfork cowboys have always ridden good horses. The signature "Pitchfork Gray" began in 1946 when Burns bought a quarterhorse stud named Joe Bailey's King. Gray, with a black mane and tail, the stallion sired many foals with that signature coloring.
   In the '50s, noted livestock reporter Frank Reeves visited the ranch and recorded "one of the most impressive sights this writer has ever witnessed on a cow ranch, 22 Pitchfork cowboys mounted on white horses. Twenty of these were half brothers, sired by the same stallion, Joe Bailey's King." In fact, a gray horse with a black mane and tail has now become almost as synonymous with the ranch as the brand itself.
   In spite of its reputation for horses, the Pitchfork hasn't forgotten the real reason it's in business. As Burns asserted, "We have no use for a horse that cannot take cowboys to the back side of a pasture and return doing whatever cow work is necessary coming and going." Over 50 years later, Moorhouse echoes the same opinion. "The horse on the Pitchfork is a tool to get the cattle worked. Our horse program is there because of the cattle."
   In 1948, Burns employed Jim Humphreys as his assistant. After 17 years of tutorage, Humphreys became ranch manager in 1965 when Burns retired. Humphreys spoke of ushering the Pitchfork into the modern era. "Instead of a cowboy requiring several horses during a roundup, today he simply selects one horse for the day's work, loads him in a trailer and transports him to the work site. There are some days that those horses ride more than they are ridden." In 1973 Humphreys hired a fresh out of college ranch kid, Bob Moorhouse.
   Moorhouse was born and reared on a ranch between the nearby giant 6666 Ranch and the Pitchfork. He grew up working hard on his family's ranch, and with the self-supporting work ethic of conservative West Texas ranchers. "We take no government subsidies. If a ranch can't make it on its own, it shouldn't be in business."
   Moorhouse, like past managers, is a hands-on boss; he works livestock on horseback and drives and rides hundreds of miles each week. Bumping over endless back roads to check out range conditions he says, "Can't run the ranch from the office. Gotta keep checking cattle, horses and the hands."
   He doesn't miss a thing on this 270-square-mile ranch during his rounds. Checking a water tank, he examines the ground for tracks to determine who and what has been around it recently. Visiting with the hands as they go about their work, he jokes and leaves them with a smile on their faces. Pulling onto a high knoll on the north end of the ranch he notices a column of smoke about 30 miles south and gets on the ranch radio to determine if the fire is on the Pitchfork. From before dawn to quitting time, he is on the move constantly from saddle to desk to four-wheel drive. It's pretty plain that Moorhouse doesn't do his job for wages. He loves this ranch, this lifestyle. "Love of the Pitchfork," he calls it. He thoughtfully relates, "I like to see ranchers keep traditions, values and be good stewards of the land. Tradition is about all we have; we'll never be rich."
   Helicopters and computers are now as common as ropes and saddles. The Pitchfork has changed with the times, but it has never forgotten its history, the traditions and decency that allowed it to endure while other ranches were ruined. Holding steadfast to customs in a world that's quickly changing may very well be the strength cattlemen need to succeed. On the Pitchfork, tradition is as sure as the West Texas wind.

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     J. Zane Walley is a writer from Lincoln, N.M.


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