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How Did West Texas Ranches Get SO BIG?

(Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

By Diana Nguyen

In Texas, 95 percent of the land is privately owned, much of it by ranchers. And if you drive out West, the swaths of private land holdings get even bigger.

But how did these parcels of land get to be so huge? That’s what Alpine-listener Ned Allen asked for our "West Texas Wonders" series. 

But ranches originally weren't supposed to get this big. Homestead acts encouraged people to settle western lands - but there were different acts that applied to the country, and to the state of Texas. In both cases, the amount of land a person could claim was limited.

Despite the laws, land holdings in Texas grew over generations. But how? That's the question we're exploring for "West Texas Wonders."

If you want to learn more about the history of ranchers in the Marfa area, a good place to start is the cemetery.

"This is the Marfa Cemetery, and what I’ve always found interesting about this place is when you look at the tombstones, the names are the same as the ranches," says Wert "Chip" Love IV, as he passes by dusty graves.

He points out tombstones - Mitchell, Ballard, Bogel, Livingston — all old ranch names.

"All of us end up somewhere out here sooner or later," says Love, a bank manager, who moonlights as a rancher.

Raising cattle is in Love's blood. His family ranch  —The W.E. Love Ranch — has been in the family for four generations. "This is Leonard Love," Chip says, pointing to a tombstone. "He’s the first one that came out and so he was born in 1839 and died in 1901."

In the early 1900s, Leonard’s son, Wert Love, started to build up the ranch that’s now Chip’s. He accumulated land holdings by buying acres outright over several years. But when people were settling the Big Bend around the same time, they would have been subject to Texas’ Homestead Acts.

"Texas sort of had written these homestead acts to try and prevent large land holdings," says, the Center for Big Bend Studies' David Keller. "[This] made it very difficult for landowners in the Big Bend and in desert parts of Texas to build their ranches to a size that was viable.

Keller, who writes about early ranching in the region, says the state’s homestead acts evolved over time, and limited ranchers to somewhere between 2,500 to 5,100 acres.

"To be profitable, you have to have really large land holdings in this area."

You need to have enough grass for the cattle to graze, which out here, means a lot of land. You also need to have a certain number of cows in order to make any money. So the Texas homestead acts were a problem for early ranchers, especially in West Texas.

Soon, ranchers learned to take advantage of loopholes in the state's law. They would claim as many acres that they could with the state, and then have their family, friends, and employees do the same. They would eventually buy the land from them and other property owners.

"And that over time, piecemeal by piecemeal, parcel by parcel, allowed these ranches to be really big," explains Keller.

But how big is big? Well, don't think about asking a rancher. Big Bend historian Lonn Taylor says it’s not polite.

"You’re never supposed to ask a rancher how much land he has, or how many cattle he has, because that’s like asking somebody how much money they have in the bank. And the standard answer is, “enough!”

I ask Chip Love anyway.  

He tells me the ranch is 32,000 acres — about the size of College Station. If you think that’s big, it’s actually on the small side. The largest ranch in Presidio County is more than 12 times the size of the W.E. Love Ranch.

Love says the family property has gotten smaller over the years. At one point, it was twice the size it is today, but a relative sold their portion of the land. Although ranches often fail because of market forces and drought, Love says the cause is often family. 

"That’s the way it is," says Love. "It’s hard to keep everybody on the same page."

Back at the Marfa Cemetery,  you see the area’s ranching legacy etched across tombstones. Love points out another plot — his, next to his ancestors. He admits it’s not in the best shape. There are weeds and an ant bed on what will someday become his grave.

But there's also grama grass, which Love says is a good thing. It's what cows eat. 

"We call ourselves ranchers, but really we’re grass farmers," says Love.  "Our fortunes live and die with the grass. Believe me — it’s in your interest to take care of it."

Before we leave the cemetery, I tell him that little blade of grass seems like a good omen.

Diana Nguyen is a reporter for Marfa Public Radio.
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