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Where the Santa Gertrudis Roam

A tour of the King Ranch brings the scope of South Texas history and wildlife in close range
Written by Aaron Nelsen. Photographs by Will van Overbeek.

(Photo by Will van Overbeek)

How does one convey the breadth of King Ranch in the annals of Texas history?

 

The enormity of the land, its outsized characters and veneer of impenetrability, the iconic Running W brand—taken as a whole it can be a tad overwhelming. Perhaps it’s best to let the experience wash over you in a warm embrace.

At least that’s what I told my daughters, ages three and six, who made no attempt to mask their indifference as we prepared to embark on a tour of the legendary South Texas ranch.

The night before, our guide had advised wearing long pants and closed-toe shoes, preferably boots. It was rattlesnake season and the staff had recently caught an especially large rattler, which, she joked, had tasted like chicken.

My eldest daughter, Ana Josefa, overheard her mother and me debating comfortable clothes versus the likelihood of crossing paths with a venomous snake.

“There’ll be snakes?” Ana Josefa interjected.

I offered a bit of sage advice my father had once given me. “Yes, there will be snakes, but remember, you don’t have to be faster than the snake, only faster than the slowest person in the group,” I assured her.

And so, as the four of us piled into the car for the 110-mile trip north from our home in McAllen, I hoped I hadn’t pushed the girls too far.

King Ranch is divided into four divisions: Santa Gertrudis, Laureles, Norias, and Encino. Toni Mason, our guide, was waiting for us at the visitor center on Santa Gertrudis, wearing boots with her jeans tucked inside. King Ranch offers one-and-a-half-hour guided bus tours on a daily basis, but we had signed up for one of the ranch’s “special interest tours,” which last from four to eight hours and are catered to the visitor’s interests, from cattle-ranching to bird-watching.

Our tour began with a 20-minute film in the visitor center that covered the evolution of the ranch, from a single Spanish land grant to an expansive multi-generational empire, and finally, a modern corporate enterprise.

The story begins in 1853, when Richard King, a steamboat captain on the Rio Grande, purchased the 15,500-acre Rincon de Santa Gertrudis land grant. He acquired other tracts over the years and recruited cowboys from Mexico, who came to be known as Kineños, or King’s men, to work his burgeoning empire.

In 1885, dying of cancer, King urged his family to never sell a foot of the land. At its zenith, the ranch comprised 1.25 million acres, but it would not last. Partition of the estate among heirs, and the emergence of the city of Kingsville, trimmed the ranch to an area comparable to Rhode Island. And though its 825,000 acres still make King Ranch one of the largest in the country, those classic, craggy-faced-Marlboro-esque cowboys riding aside a wave of Santa Gertrudis cattle represent only part of the operation.

Today the ranch generates earnings from a variety of sources, including the cattle business, hunting, minerals, turfgrass, farming, farm equipment, King Ranch Saddle Shop, Kingsville Publishing Company, and ecotourism. In 1961, the ranch expanded beyond Texas with the acquisition of farming land in Florida, and nowadays the company is one of the largest citrus growers in the Sunshine State. The next time you drink Tropicana orange juice, think King Ranch.

At the conclusion of the video, we browsed the gift shop for souvenirs, settling for a pair of translucent candies, each with an entombed scorpion, and a box of cow-shaped chocolate cookies. In the parking lot, beyond a group of winter Texans aboard a bus tour, Toni was waiting to begin our private tour in a Chevy Suburban.

We had just departed the visitor center and rounded the first bend when the girls burst with excitement at the sight of a pair of Longhorns in the shade of a mesquite tree. A small Longhorn herd will always have a home on King Ranch out of admiration for the iconic breed, but it is the famed Santa Gertrudis—a cross between Shorthorns and Brahmas—for which the ranch is best known.

King Ranch developed the Santa Gertrudis breed for hot and humid climates.  (Photo by Will van Overbeek)

We then traversed the old Corpus Christi-to-Matamoros road that cuts across the ranch. During the Civil War, King used the road to clandestinely transport cotton to the Rio Grande and onto ships in the Gulf of Mexico bound for markets in Europe, avoiding the Union blockade. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to travel through this expansive, semi-arid patchwork of dense mesquite brush and pasture atop sandy loam. Though the region is still in the midst of a drought, we were fortunate to witness the parched landscape transformed from dun-colored to a lush green after a spot of rain. 

Throughout the tour, the girls kept watch for wildlife listed on checklists that Toni had given them at the visitor center. It would take a week to check every animal off the list, but we made a respectable dent that day. With Toni’s help, Ana Josefa spotted a red-eared slider turtle (sitting calmly in 
the middle of the road), a northern cardinal, a pair of wild turkeys, and a scissor-tailed flycatcher. My wife pointed out dozens of pipevine swallowtail butterflies and a snowy egret. Even our youngest daughter, Matilda, added to the growing collection, extending her chubby finger in the direction of 
a crested caracara.

As we weaved our way through the pastureland and brush, the girls’ eyes peeled for snakes, I was hoping for bigger game—alligators. Just then we saw three sets of eyes break the surface of Borregos Lake, which had been replenished the week before by the rain. Toni informed us that these were the progeny of specimens gifted to the ranch years ago—and the reason that swimming is no longer a favorite pastime.

As our guide scanned her GPS for directions—it is a very big ranch, after all—Ana Josefa commented that the ground appeared to be moving beneath us. Fat red ants crawled over the caliche road. “They’re a favorite of the horned toad,” Toni explained.

At our next stop, we stepped out of the Suburban to visit the old horse track, lined by salt cedars, and pay our respects at the grave of the thoroughbred Assault, the only Texas horse to win the vaunted Triple Crown of horse-racing.

We sidled up to a beautiful Quarter Horse nearby, its sorrel coat shimmering in the sunlight. Ana Josefa grabbed a fistful of hay and fearlessly allowed the horse to lip it out of her hand. She wondered aloud if these were the same horses we had seen in the film several hours earlier. I was impressed—she had actually paid attention. Matilda, on the other hand, had no use for the animal towering over her.

I managed to pull our budding horse whisperer away from the corral and continue our tour past the ranch-style homes where some descendants of the Kineños still live. On certain days, visitors can listen to retired cowboy Lolo Trevino tell about the generations-old tradition of weaving saddle blankets, but alas, our group had no such luck. Next we slowly approached the sprawling 17-bedroom Mediterranean-style main house, completed in 1915, where Henrietta King—Richard’s widow—once lived. Peacocks still roam beneath  the property’s shady live oaks.

After nearly four hours, our tour of the ranch had ended. We said goodbye to Toni and headed into Kingsville to visit the King Ranch Saddle Shop at the corner of 6th Street and Kleberg Avenue, Kingsville’s historic main drag. Inside the shop, the intoxicating tang of new leather hung in the air, daring us to resist rows of beaded leather belts and intricately engraved leather boots.

In the corner of the shop, amid piles of raw leather and saddles, Robert Salas dunked his hand in a tin of water stained brown, dampened a small piece of leather, and with a 10-pound mallet, stamped the Running W brand into its side. Since the early 1970s, Salas has been shaping leather, working his way up from chaps and belts to accessories, and finally, saddles, a job he inherited from his father-in-law.

Orders pour in for Salas’ custom saddles, which cost up to $6,500 with all the trimmings. He’s had requests from Japan to Brazil, rodeo pros and football stars. Once, President George W. Bush requested saddlebags as a gift for a foreign dignitary. The 62-year-old Salas has taken on apprentices over the years, including his three sons, but all subsequently moved on “to greener pastures.”

Across the store, Ana Josefa and Matilda were riding stick horses, their hair flowing beneath oversized cowboy hats. I bid Salas farewell and spurred the family on to the King Ranch Museum, a short walk from the saddle shop.

The museum is housed in an old ice and electric plant, and it makes for a terrific refuge from the blistering South Texas heat. A captivating black-and-white photo essay of life on the ranch in the early 1940s decorates the walls, mainly featuring images of rough-and-tumble Kineños with names like Herculano, Onesimo, and Pepino.

Also on display, a Cuban bronc saddle and a ladies’ side saddle, a “golden age” Kentucky rifle, a late-19th-Century Remington-Hepburn rifle, and several antique carriages and vintage cars, such as “El Kineño,” a customized canary yellow Buick Eight hunting car that General Motors built in 1949. The vehicle is equipped with a winch and cable rated for a six-ton pull, a radiotelephone, a wrangler seat near the passenger side headlight, and a refreshment bar complete with tumblers. However, Matilda’s attention could not be diverted from the full-body mount of an 11-foot, 455-pound alligator, pulled a few years back from the Santa Gertrudis division.

Kingsville had more to offer—including the 1904 Train Depot Museum, and Texas A&M University-Kingsville’s John E. Conner Museum and Tio and Janell Kleberg Wildlife Research Park—but it had been a long day, and hunger pangs sapped at the girls’ youthful exuberance.

We stopped for mesquite-grilled fajitas at Big House BBQ Steaks & Grill, a country-themed local haunt on East King Avenue with corrugated metal walls and outside benches cut from the back end of old pickup trucks. The girls have a tendency to reject anything new, but they didn’t resist the smoke-imbued fajita strips and pork-flavored charro beans.

As we prepared to leave Kingsville behind, I buckled Ana Josefa into her car seat, her hunger now satiated and her thoughts drifting toward soothing visions of a sorrel Quarter Horse eating from the palm of her hand.

“Daddy,” she said. “I had a great time.”

And within a matter of minutes, my little Kineñas had fallen asleep. 

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