Cowboys Now and Then

By David Smith

long after the frontier closed in 1890, though distribution and concentration of cowboys has changed considerably.

Now well into the 21st century, the romance of the cowboy still rides high. How does this happen?

The Fat Stock Show and Rodeo in Houston is a bigger attraction than ever, held now in Reliant Stadium where over 2 million folks (specifically 2,262,834) came in 2011, exceeding the records set during Astrodome years. Night after night for three weeks, people will pull on their boots and Levis, put on their hats and pull out their wallets to go see the animals and celebrities. But most go to watch today’s cowboys perform both in and outside the rodeo arena.

What’s your opinion of rodeos? Which events do you enjoy most of all: calf roping? bull riding? steer wrestling? calf scramble? All require both strength and skill ─ calf roping requires the most skill, bull riding and steer wrestling take the most strength, as in brute strength, even gladiatorial strength.

In my El Paso days, I saw enough rodeos to last a lifetime, but I never participated, only watched. I value my health and respect my body. I’m neither a wimp nor a sissy. In candor I think most rodeo events tend more toward self-abuse than male chauvinism. Some of the boys that I grew up with were into rodeo’n (translation: trying to make a living from winnings generated on the rodeo circuit). The guys I remember are dead now, prematurely.

One neat event that includes skill, beauty, and precision is the women’s barrel races, though it probably started as a sop to women from that consummate expression of “male chauvinism” and/or “macho syndrome,” the rodeo. An event open to pre-teens only but providing the audience with lots of laughs is the calf scramble. Once at an amateur rodeo in the Hill Country, we let our boys enter the contest when they were kids. Fortunately they didn’t bring home a calf, because it would have been a problem to take care of, even with Live Oak Ranch.

For years Dad Smith was an active member of the venerable Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, which has a strong working relationship with the Texas Rangers. Once when no one was at Live Oak Ranch, a thief broke into our saddle barn and stole six saddles, together with bridles, blankets and halters. When Dad discovered the break-in, he was heartsick, especially since a couple of the saddles had been given him by his two greatest mentors, Mr. Flory and Mr. J. W. Espy.

Well, Dad called the sheriff of Comal County, who leisurely drove out to the ranch, offered sympathy and a few laconic comments. Since one tip of Live Oak Ranch juts into Kendall County, Dad decided to call the sheriff in Boerne, too. Results were about the same, nothing but sympathy.

Next morning Dad had a great idea. Remembering the Texas Cattlemen’s special relationship with the Texas Rangers, he called Austin and reported the theft, neither of cattle nor horses, but the next closest thing to them, saddles. In less than two hours a Ranger was at Live Oak Ranch, notebook in hand, as wide awake as a third baseman and full of questions.

Back in San Antonio the following week, Dad got a call from a Ranger. “Mr. Smith, this is Ranger (such-and-such), and I’m calling from a pawn shop here on South Zarzamora Street. Could you please come down here to confirm that these are your saddles and bridles?”

Justice had prevailed!
Texas Rangers to the rescue!

The thief was apprehended, tried, convicted, and sentenced to a few months in Huntsville. It turned out he was a neighbor turned thief, which was perverse, disgusting, and disappointing.

This rodeo season I’ve worn my cowboy boots three days and my top-of-the-line Stetson hat once. My boots are custom made and well shined, a gift from years ago from nephews expressing thanks for Espy Deer Hunts through the years. My Stetson dates from our days in chemical trucking when we gave the hats as a premium for driving carefully with no tickets, accidents, and/or no driving on flat tires.

Back to the subject of cowboy mystique, “Where,” you might ask, “are the authentic cowboys in this 21st century, the ones making their living punching cattle?” Good question!

Are they an endangered species? Should we be organizing a group to preserve authentic cowboys the way Greenies organize in order to preserve snail darters or endangered species of horned toads?

Search me!

There are surely some authentic cowboys out there, but they grow fewer each year.
In my days in El Paso there was a clear distinction between “drugstore cowboys” and the real thing, that is, those making their living in the cattle business usually with working ranches. In the 20th century, if you or I wore boots, hats, and Levis, we’d have been referred to with the pejorative “drugstore cowboy” ─ translation: “pretend cowboy.” “Cowpuncher” was the authentic term of fraternity membership among authentic cowboys.

Back then there was a character from an authentic ranching family near El Paso who was considered by many folks to be a lazy cowboy. It was said that he punched more cattle in the lobby of the Paso del Norte Hotel, talking incessantly mostly to tourists, than he ever had on his family ranch.
Most county seat towns in Texas used to have cattle auction barns that were a center of action weekdays. As time went by the cattle barns dropped down to opening only a couple of days a week, then finally in most towns they closed permanently. Last count of 254 Texas’ counties, only 24 had viable cattle auction barns.
On sale days city slickers and owners of small ranches would gather to buy or sell a few head at the auction barn, each considering himself a superior judge of cattle when he would raise his hand to the auctioneer and shout his higher bid, “twenty-seven” to which the auctioneer might shout back “twenty-seven, twenty-seven, gobba, gobba, getta, gobba, who’ll give me twenty-eight? Twenty-eight, who’ll give twenty-eight?” “Twenty-nine?”
And so this jibber jabber would persist until “Sold!” was shouted with the fall of a wooden mallet. The buyer was usually a man in Levis, boots, and a Stetson, but more recently that “cowboy” just might have been a dentist from Houston. Whoever he was, he probably had a lot of tall explaining to do to his wife at dinner if he didn’t have a place to run his cattle, now that he had “started his own herd.”
When I was a boy growing up in West Texas, the farm-ranch component of our GNP was probably 30 percent; today it’s scarcely one percent and dropping.
In the ’50s, Texas suffered a drought on par with the disaster of the Great Flood of 1927 nationally. But an important difference between the flood of ’27 and our Texas drought of the ’50s is that the drought lasted a long time, like five years! The effect on ranchers was tragic: having to buy feed at inflated prices or, as an alternate, selling your cattle at the auction barn at prices depressed by so many other authentic ranchers who were experiencing the same problems. For many ranchers it was heroic if they could just pay their taxes in order to hold onto their ranches a little longer. Many couldn’t, and lost their places kept for generations in one family that went to the tax collector or the highest bidder. Sad.
To this day I remember the ranchers’ prayers for rain during the Bloys Camp Meeting held near Fort Davis. Their fervor would have rivaled that of the prophet Elijah praying for rain. Mr. J. W. Espy, Dad’s mentor and best customer at State National Bank, used to encourage fellow ranchers by saying, “The cattle business is gonna’ come back. It’ll come back. But we have to help make it come back!” Mr. Espy believed in both adrenalin and prayer, an excellent paradox to embrace, ranchers and theologians as well.
Let me amplify on him, for his was a lifestyle worth emulating, especially these days when even our year-to-date rain total in Houston (as of September 2011) is still a single digit. Mr. Espy was the epitome of a West Texas rancher type: winsome, honest to the core, hard-working and possessing a good sense of humor. He moved to Fort Davis at the turn of the 20th century, with small capital and less than a high school education, and spent his life building up seven ranches with herds of cattle to match. More than just a cowboy, he was an authentic cowpuncher, and even more, a full-time, bona-fide cattleman. He was one of the founding members of the Bloys Camp Meeting Association and a staunch supporter of the Southwestern Children’s Home. He was also like a daddy to my daddy, Dad Smith.
Looking back at Dad buying Live Oak Ranch and my own three misadventures in ranching, I’ve decided that the cowboy mystique must be inherited through the male genes of our species. Do you suppose?
Let me tell you about cattle economics.
• It was basically uneconomical when Dad ran Here-fords and played at ranching the last third of his life. But more important, what a great place Live Oak Ranch is for his extended family, except those be-lieving in non-verbal communications that boycott it.
• During the years that I leased Powell Ranch near Fort Davis, I lost money on the ranching side of the operation but it was more than worth it for the extraordinary fun we had sponsoring the traditional annual Espy Deer Hunts (mule deer, not white tails) the week after Thanksgiving each year.
• Let me mention another episode about losing money ranching. Though the CXI Ranch’s coal investment near Longview proved uneconomical in the 1970s, I somehow thought we could make incremental revenue raising cattle. WRONG! I should say wrong again, even a third time! (Things like this convince me I’m a slow learner.)

It took a Dutch Uncle approach by Bob Kautzman, Les Moor, and my financial officer Les Jeko to convince me that you must have several factors in place to make even a modest living ranching. I list them for the benefit of others who might be infatuated with the cowboy mystique and who fantasize that because it’s so wonderful they might be able to make two and two equal seven or more.
Well, here’s to trying. To make even a marginal living ranching or otherwise putting feed through bovines to make beef (except feedlots), you must do all these things:
1. Own your ranch and operate it free of any debt.
2. Run at least 400 units (cows only, not counting the cows with calves).
3. Work at least 55 hours a week, yourself.
4. Be able personally to make all mechanical repairs; i.e., vehicles, motors, wells, cutters, et al. (Apologies: I’m a mechanical moron. Deal me out.)
5. Limit veterinary bills to say $2000 a year.
6. Don’t have more than one ranchhand / swamper / roustabout / migrant worker / wetback, who must also be infatuated with the cowboy mystique lifestyle and will work hard (grunt work) for a bunk, meals of mostly beans, bread and coffee, plus a salary of maybe $225 per week.
If you can get all six of these squirrels up one tree at one time consistently for five years, one of which will be negative cash flow, you might, emphasis might, average $25,000/year net to the bottom line. Please understand that this is your bottom, bottom line ─ that is, there is no “salary” on top of it, no “bonus,” and no dollops.
A far better alternate is to first save $250 cash for annual “rodeo’n.” Then go down to one of the western wear stores around Houston, Galena Park, or any other of the five major cities in Texas, and let them “do you” or even “do you in.” Then head to the Fat Stock Show and Rodeo in your outfitted hat, boots, bright shirt, Levis, with a package of Bull Durham hanging out of your shirt pocket (display purposes only).
It’s okay to go to a rodeo once at least once a year, whether you’re feeling well or not.
Footnote: It happens that I have a lifetime friend with the unique name of Weston Ware who I hope will join me in setting up a partnership business at Galena Park named “Weston Ware Western Wear.”

See us in Galena Park for all your Cowboy Western Wear