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Cool Water and Cold Steel

Renderbrook Spade Ranch traces beginnings to water and barbed wire

The phrase “Cool Water and Cold Steel”—the title of the opening chapter in Steve Kelton’s book Renderbrook: A Century Under the Spade Brand—aptly describes the origin of Renderbrook Spade Ranch. First there was water. Then there was barbed wire.

In Kelton’s definitive account of Renderbrook’s history, he tells of the freshwater spring that attracted first Native Americans, and later frontiersmen, to the site that would become the ranch. Ultimately, he explains, Renderbrook’s legacy became entwined with the history of the barbed-wire fence.

In 1872, a column of soldiers from San Angelo’s Fort Concho, led by Capt. Joseph Rendlebrock, reportedly encountered a party of Comanches near a “very large spring” feeding into the Colorado River watershed. A skirmish ensued, but no human casualties occurred on either side. In the official report, filed later at Fort Concho, the name “Rendlebrock” became Renderbrook. Further, that name came to be applied to the freshwater spring.

The spring still runs today, but not at the remarkable flow rates of old. Kelton, the son of the late Western writer Elmer Kelton, wrote that in the early 1930s and earlier, the spring gushed 50 gallons a minute. Today, the flow is nowhere near that volume, but it remains steady.

The spring flows from the side of a hill, and it is on that hill that the ranch headquarters have always stood. The hill is known, too, for its flint—which doubtless was another attractant for early Native Americans, who used it to make arrowheads and tools.

The first cowman known to set up camp at the spring was J. Taylor Barr, about whom little is known. He arrived in the mid-to-late 1870s, and lived in a dugout at the site of the spring. Barr either sold or turned over the site to the Snyder brothers, Dudley and John, in the early 1880s. They registered a brand there and began acquiring deeds to the land.

By 1889, Isaac Ellwood was selling barbed wire in Colorado City, a major cattle-shipping center on the Texas Pacific Railway. He and Joseph Glidden—who received the first U.S. patent for barbed wire that achieved significant commercial success—eventually were partners in the venture, called the Barb Fence Company, which they had formed in DeKalb, Illinois, some 15 years earlier.

As described by John Welch, the present-day CEO and president of Spade Ranches, “Colorado City was where all the ranchers went to get their supplies. While Ellwood was there, he found out that this place was for sale, and he came down and bought it. It has been in the family ever since.”

The Snyders had already begun fencing work on the property, and the Ellwoods completed that project.

Meanwhile, Ellwood’s Barb Fence Company would go through various mergers and incarnations before it morphed into the colossal United States Steel Corporation—controlled (eventually) by the steel magnate J.P. Morgan.

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Jesse Mullins, who lives in Abilene, was the founding editor of American Cowboy magazine and served as its editor-in-chief from 1994-2009. He blogs at www.jessemullins.com.