SURE AS THE WEST TEXAS WIND
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
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.
* * *
J. Zane Walley is a writer from Lincoln, N.M.