The Bradley 3 Ranch, founded in 1955, covers more than 11,000 acres of Childress County. There’s a slight rise in the middle of the ranch where you can stand at night and see the lights of Childress 11 miles to the south, Memphis 19 miles west, Wellington 30 miles north and Hollis, Oklahoma, 30 miles east. You can stand in the exact same spot during the day and see nothing but endless ranchland covered in short grass, mesquite, juniper, with a scattering of black Angus cows. It’s impossible to spot so much as a distant water tower on the horizon. The Texas Panhandle has often been referred to as a place where you can see farther and see less than any other place on earth.
The day I arrived for my visit, I passed through the ranch’s entry gate not knowing what to expect. I had grown up on a cotton farm about 15 miles away but had not been to this place in many years. Minnie Lou, a Lighthouse Cooperative member, was standing on the porch of the ranch headquarters dressed in jeans, a pressed khaki shirt with a monogram of her ranch brand, and work boots. She hugged me when I got out of my pickup, then turned to guide me inside. But first, she stopped and gazed out over the east pasture—the same horizon she has looked at every day for over half a century. “These old black cows have been good to me,” she said.
Minnie Lou has raised and worked registered Angus cattle on the Bradley 3 Ranch for over 50 years, and at any given time she runs about 400-500 heifers and 200 bulls, although this year’s numbers are down because of the drought.
This was early October, which is calving season, and several new calves were arriving daily. Young heifers having their first calves are routinely brought up to the pens by the barn so that Minnie Lou or one of her two full-time employees, Chic or Bob, (yes, only two for over 11,000 acres) can keep an eye on these first-time moms and help them if they get into trouble. When cows require human assistance with birth, the task is called “pulling calves.” That pretty much describes what happens—you reach in and pull the calf out.
Did I mention that Minnie Lou is 75 years old? During calving season somebody has to check on the new heifers in the pens every few hours day and night, meaning there are checks at 10 p.m., 2 a.m., then 6 a.m. to start the next day. Minnie Lou takes the 2 a.m. shift. Every night she gets in her pickup and slowly drives past all the pens, shining her floodlight across the pregnant black beauties, looking for any in distress. She told me that her daughter, Mary Lou, and son-in-law, James, recently made her sign a paper promising that if she discovered a heifer needing help in the wee hours, under no circumstances would she get out of her pickup and pull the calf. Instead, she would get help from Bob, who lives near the barn. Minnie Lou’s suggestion that she just take a cell phone into the pen was adamantly dismissed, so she signed the paper under protest.
Did I mention that Minnie Lou does all the cooking at the ranch? She personally makes breakfast, lunch and supper for herself, the employees, any family members who are around, and anybody else who wanders up with a hay truck or an equipment delivery. She uses beef out of her own locker for every meal—meat straight from the Bradley herd.
For nearly 50 years, Minnie Lou has taught ranching skills and principles to students from the ranch management program at Texas Christian University. She also hosts students from other universities, and she has received a lot of awards, including a recent Texas Parks and Wildlife Land Stewardship Award for the Rolling Plains of Texas.
Did I mention that Minnie Lou was the first woman to major in animal husbandry at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State)? She was also the first woman to win the International Livestock Judging contest in Chicago in the late 1940s. She was one of the first women to serve on the board of directors of the American Angus Association, the largest beef organization in the world with 36,000 members (mostly male) in 50 states. Minnie Lou became the association’s first and only female president in 2004.
If you ask Minnie Lou when she plans to retire, she looks at you like you’re crazy. “I’m just starting to learn something,” she says. She shrugs off being called a “pioneer for women.” She just says, “If I know what I’m doing, I’ll get the job done whether I’m a man or a woman. I’ve always said—just know your trade.”
On October 26, 2006, Minnie Lou Bradley was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, joining 180 other female trailblazers such as Dale Evans and Patsy Cline. At the awards ceremony, a short video about each inductee was shown. Footage of the other inductees included exciting barrel racing championships and horse showmanship. Minnie Lou’s video had a lot of old black cows just standing around grazing. And Minnie Lou standing around watching them. The other inductees wore fancy boots and hats, and glittery jackets and skirts, and a lot of turquoise jewelry. Minnie Lou wore a black skirt and a plain brown jacket, no hat, no jewelry. Her short-cropped gray hair was neatly combed.
When her name was announced, she stepped up to the microphone and looked out at the lively audience made up mostly of women who were as gussied-up as the other inductees. What must’ve crossed Minnie Lou’s mind at that moment were all those times she had stood up in front of thousands of cattlemen in numerous states and enlightened them with her knowledge of ringworm, dehorning, bad udders and good bull semen. What came out of her mouth was, “I’m not used to being in a room with this many women. It kinda scares me.”
Back at the Bradley 3 Ranch, not much scares Minnie Lou. She’s seen and experienced just about everything a rancher could know in a lifetime. Those old black cows have been good to her. And the land around her, all 11,000 acres, is a big part of her soul. “Most women don’t want to live out this far. You either love it or you hate it. I love this old country. It’s the best friend I’ve had for 50 years and it’s never let me down. It’s taken care of me, this old country. So I take care of it.”
Anne Rapp is an Austin-based screenwriter whose credits include “Cookie’s Fortune” and “Dr. T and the Women,” both directed by Robert Altman.