With the dawn but an hour away, the night is damp and bracing. Overhead, the Milky Way—yes, it’s visible here!—spreads its filmy, barely-there swath.
In the taillights of his four-horse trailer, John Welch, CEO and president of Spade Ranches, tugs at the cinch on his horse. Another mount, saddled, also awaits loading.
Sounds carry on the night air: the ticking rumble of the idling diesel pickup; the thudding stamp of a hoof; the ching-ching of spurs; the nicker of a don’t-let-me-be-lonely gelding, left penned for action another day.
This is cattle country. This ground south of Colorado City has known the tread of Texas cow horses and Texas cowboys for 122 years. It’s the dirt of Renderbrook Spade Ranch, the oldest, largest and most celebrated spread in the Spade Ranches operation. And its influence runs deep across the history of West Texas ranching. As described in Steve Kelton’s book Renderbrook: A Century Under the Spade Brand (Texas Christian University Press, 1989), Renderbrook traces the evolution of ranching from an open-range, longhorn-dominated industry to state-of-the-art operations that specialize in genetics, nutrition, marketing and range science.
Barbed-wire fences, of course, have been built on plenty of other ranches, but this place is, literally, the ranch that barbed wire built. Founding owner Isaac Ellwood of Illinois, one of the nation’s first barbed-wire patent holders, dipped into his burgeoning fencing fortune to fund the purchase of the ranch in 1889 when it was hardly more than a frontier cow camp.
These days, it’s a sophisticated, spread-out operation. Welch, 60, normally works out of the company’s Lubbock headquarters more than 100 miles to the northwest. But on a brisk October morning, he’s made a special trip to Renderbrook. With passengers—equine and otherwise—loaded, he slides behind the pickup’s steering wheel and eases the rig out, bound for the far side of the ranch, a long haul away. Like, 15 miles away. A 45-minute drive on caliche ranch roads.
Of the six ranches under the Spade Ranches brand, Renderbrook, by far the largest unit, employs only about five people most of the time. “We have longtime employees and young men, too,” Welch said, in the glow of the dashboard. “Kind of a mix. We have two in their early 20s.”
The soft-spoken Welch has remarked on more than one occasion that the West Texas ranching occupation calls for “the kind of person who has some character and bottom to them.” “Bottom” is a cowboy’s term for staying power. For tenacity. For gumption.
So the question is, are those kind still “out there”?
“I think we are producing them, in the kids that grow up on these ranches,” he said.
Renderbrook Manager Steve White believes there are kids today with that character, just waiting for the opportunity. “Yes, and there are a lot of good young cowboys out there right now,” he said. “Like anything else, it runs in cycles. But it’s back in vogue, and there are a lot of young people who want to get back to nature, or [get back to what’s] ‘green,’ or just to be outside and [on] horseback.”
Here, there’s nature in abundance. At 190 square miles (roughly 122,000 acres), Renderbrook Spade consumes a sizable chunk of Mitchell County and spills into Sterling and Coke counties as well.
The pickup comes to a halt, and Welch and a companion are soon horseback themselves, picking their way among the mesquite and junipers along a ridge above the Colorado River. The yipping of coyotes rises from a nearby draw.
Welch sits a horse with a natural ease, as might be expected of one whose uncle is renowned horseman and rancher Buster Welch. Buster, dubbed the “Father of the Cutting Horse,” is the only five-time winner of the National Cutting Horse Association’s World Championship Futurity.
In places on the ranch, the mesquite and cedars and prickly pear have closed ranks. “The biggest challenge is the encroachment of brush,” John Welch said. “You can clear it, but it comes back strong. One mesquite stump will sprout a bunch of shoots where only one trunk had been before.”
Records indicate that the ranch, which runs more than 3,000 head of cattle, stocked roughly twice as many cattle a century ago before brush encroachment affected the ranch’s carrying, or grass grazing, capacity.
The proliferation of mesquite has affected something else as well.
With the countryside becoming brushier, and more difficult to navigate, “real cowboying” remains an indispensible skill. Maybe more so than ever—here and on ranches across Texas.
“What we have found—what generation after generation [here] has found—is really that some of the traditional methods are still the most efficient,” Welch said. “This country is too rough and too brushy to gather any other way but horseback.”
And that’s what keeps the real-deal cowboys at their posts. The Renderbrook hands have it tough. Injuries happen—bovines being generally “disapprovin’ ” when they’re not downright ornery. The hours can be long. The summers are scorching. In winter, bitter cold and tree-bending winds can make a guy wish for a town job, a windbreak, anything.
But here, things are still done the “right” way, the cowboy way—and that makes everything worthwhile.
White ticks off the names of three hands who ride full time for this brand: “Marty Daniel, Kaleb Jackson, Wichita Falcon.”
Yes, Wichita Falcon. Was there any way he could have avoided a cowboy career, with a handle like that? White laughs. “Poor Wichita—he never had a chance.”
Falcon, though, is fine with it. “I’m doing what I love,” he said.
At 20, Falcon is already a family man, with a wife and young daughter who share an on-premises home with him.
In his working life, his biggest satisfaction is “being left alone so you can do your job.”
The hardest part, he said, is rounding up every head—“getting everything” when riders sweep a pasture. And the riskiest part of the work comes when one is trying to do a job “on a green horse.”
The work is risky enough as it is. The green—that is, still-in-training—horses only make it riskier. But that just comes with the territory.
Jackson, who has been employed at Renderbrook only slightly longer than Falcon, is on the Spade Ranches’ ranch rodeo team (in fall 2010, the team advanced to the World Championship Ranch Rodeo in Amarillo). Rodeo riding is rough. And on a recent workday at the ranch, Jackson went about his work with some stiffness from the beating he took from a bronc the week before.
Daniel, the third regular on ranch manager White’s everyday lineup, has worked on ranches since he was 16. Now 48, Daniel has a résumé that includes stints at other well-known ranches such as the Pitchfork, the Beggs, the Tongue River and the Waggoner, just to name a few.
So why the Renderbrook? Daniel said he likes the people here. And, believe it or not, he also likes the brush.
“It’s the challenge of this country—it’s different than a big, clear flat,” he said.
Like all cowboys, he relishes his time in the saddle. In January, early one frigid morning, Daniel, in a hurry to gather the horses, saddled a mount that was “a little too fresh.” Being in a hurry, he ignored his better instincts and climbed aboard—whereupon the horse, as the saying goes, “took him to a bronc ride.”
As White described it, the horse “just blowed up” and bucked Daniel off. The cowboy came down on a knee and broke his femur. It took surgery, including the insertion of a rod and a couple of screws, to patch things up. The wreck, cowboy lingo for something going terribly wrong while riding or working with a horse, occurred on a Wednesday. By the weekend, Daniel was back to chores, albeit hobbled. In three more weeks, he was fully recovered.
That accident happened with Daniel aboard a well-broke horse. And there’s an even riskier situation: trying to get something done, as Daniel and Falcon put it, “on a horse that doesn’t know anything.”
And, yes, it happens.
In summer 2010, Daniel was on such a horse and was trying to maneuver a bull through a gate. He loped his horse around the bull, opened the gate and then was trying to get back around the bull to drive him through the gate.
“I don’t know exactly what happened with the horse,” Daniel said, “but he went down. He fell with me and rolled on me.”
Daniel’s neck was broken. His collarbone, too. He was all alone in a big place.
“My first words, soon as I got up, were, ‘Jesus, you’re going to have to help me.’ And he did.”
Daniel was “two or three miles” from help. He’s not sure how he managed to cover the distance. But he did.
And for all of that, he is delighted to be recovered and back in the saddle, doing the same work as before. Bottom, they call it.
Cowboy poet Paul Zarzyski once said that 19th century cowboys “were made out of whang leather and grit.” Well, they’re still making them that way.
There have been some new twists, of course. Even Renderbrook has implemented new technologies. As White remarked, “When it comes to the marketing of our calves, to get into the overseas market, we are age- and source-verifying our calves and putting electronic ear tags in them—that kind of stuff.”
Still, for sheer satisfaction, the “real cowboy” dimension seems to be what’s most gratifying about Renderbrook Spade.
As for carrying on the old ways, “We are not doing this to honor tradition or just for sentimental reasons,” Welch said. “But it is nice that it is a traditional way of doing it.”
White agreed. And he finds something else in it, too, such as when he sees young cowpokes helping with Renderbrook roundups.
“I dunno—you can get to thinking that the world is going to hell, but then you can visit with some of these younger kids, and they are very respectful, very mannerly, and they will look you in the eye,” he said. “And it kinda gives you hope for this world. It’s like they say, there are still good cowboys out there—you just can’t see them from the highway.”
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.