Sheep Ranching in Pecos County

Although the cowboy remains a constant icon of the west, for several decades Pecos County and much of West Texas had more sheep than cattle.

Although the cowboy remains a constant icon of the west, for several decades Pecos County and much of West Texas had more sheep than cattle.

 
 

The western movies love to……

portray cowboys working large herds of cattle as emblematic of west Texas, yet at one time the largest livestock operations in Pecos County were sheep ranches. The Harrals, Woodwards, Pucketts, Leas, Rachals and Daggetts ran huge sheep operations, while hundreds of smaller ranchers also ran sheep.

By 1880 there were 39,000 head of sheep in the Trans-Pecos, more than double the number of cattle there. By 1900 the numbers had swelled to 142,764 sheep in Pecos County alone.

One of Pecos County’s earliest, and most influential, sheepmen was Arthur Anderson, who brought the Rambouillet breed to west Texas on his vast Hat A Ranch. Anderson brought the Rambouillet breed to Texas via a rather cicuitous drive from California that took him through Salt Lake City, Utah, then down the Arkansas River Valley into Colorado, and down the Rio Grande to El Paso. From there he went to Pine Springs in the Guadalupe Mountains, where he struck out for the Pecos River and on into Mitchell County, the site of his first ranch.

Anderson traveled ahead of the sheep in a two-wheeled cart, commonly called a “hack” to look for water and grass.

At one time Anderson held nearly 240 sections in Mitchell and Pecos County. After being rebuffed in his efforts to buy more property in Mitchell County, he came to Pecos County to acquire more land, where he built his Hat A Ranch, at one time one of the largest in Texas.

In the late 1880s, Philip Thompson was moving a herd of 6,000 sheep from Mitchell County to Anderson’s Hat A Ranch in Pecos County. After bedding the sheep across the Pecos River at Horsehead Crossing, they had the herd spread out over a mile the next morning on a greasewood flat. It was school land leased to a cattleman. They had pointed the herd in the direction of Fort Stockton when five cowboys on horseback with Winchesters set upon them.

“Whose sheep are these?”

Thompson said, “They belong to Arthur Anderson.” 

“Well get them out of here.”

Thompson, who was several years younger than the spokesman for the cowboys, tried to reason with them, saying that the sheep were grazing, but the cowboys fired their Winchesters in the air. Predictably, the sheep bunched up. Then the riders galloped their horses into the sheep, trying to stampede the creatures. Their efforts only drew the sheep into a knot. After what seemed like an hour to Thompson, the riders rode off, leaving the sheep to the herders. (From Texas Woolybacks, by Paul H. Carlson)

After his Hat A Ranch was established in Pecos County, Anderson went back to California and shipped a large herd of Rambouillet sheep to the new railroad stop at Alpine. Unfortunately cattlemen in Brewster County had passed a law prohibiting sheep from the area. Anderson was told he had to pay a fine for each head of sheep, but he refused. With no jail yet constructed, the cattlemen placed him down in a cistern, demanding payment. After three days they finally gave up and released Anderson, who then rounded up what was left of his herd and moved them up to Pecos County.

A majority of the sheep ranchers in Pecos County got started because there were thousands of acres available for homesteading from the State of Texas. This was what was referred to as “school lands” or public lands that Texas retained when it entered the Union. (Texas is the only western state that retained its public lands upon statehood. That is why you won’t find any BLM land here.) Up until the early 1900s, you could homestead four sections (four square miles) of land if you built a house on it and remained there for four years. Most of these early sheep ranchers constructed a dugout in the side of a hill, or mesa, and claimed the land after the four years passed. Others built small, wooden houses on skids and used mules to drag it to another four sections every four years.

Other pioneering sheep ranchers included:

  • Joseph Mills Montgomery: Came to Pecos County in 1905. and owned 90 sections by 1924. Joe was the second rancher to run sheep in Pecos County. At one time he shipped 7,000 muttons to Kansas City via Southern Pacific from Marathon direct to Fort Worth.

  • John Stephen Oates: Homesteaded in 1912. Owned 22 sections and leased another 28 sections. Ran cattle until 1938 when he added sheep. In the mid 1950s he began stocking only sheep. Built the Old Methodist church, the Santa Fe Railroad Depot, the old Fort Stockton High School (1932). John’s daughter Ruth attended the old Hovey School from 1918-1919

  • Leo R. Richardson: Came to Pecos County in 1931 in the old Yates Headquarters. By 1938 he was raising registered Rambouillet sheep and shipping to foreign countries. His sheep won 138 ribbons and awards and he served as a president of the American Rambouillet Sheep Association. Was described by Elmer Kelton as “one of the tallest figures in the Texas sheep industry”.

  • Hood Mendel: Came to Pecos Co. in 1908. Owned 95 sections in Coyanosa and Hackberry Draw areas of Pecos County and leased the Packingham ranch. In 1919 with W.W. Moser, Hood operated 10,000 sheep on 65 sections in Terrell co.

Many of the sheep ranches in Pecos County shipped their flocks off to market from the shipping pens in Girvin. At one time, more livestock cars were ordered to Girvin than any other point on the Santa Fe Railroad tracks (from Presidio to Kansas), and had a holding pen (commonly called a “trap”) that covered a section and a half.

Fort Stockton had a huge warehouse, called Ranchers Wool and Mohair, that stood near what is now the Chamber of Commerce office, and stored wool for shipment on the trains that ran nearby.

Eventually drought predators and tariffs caused the demise of the sheep ranching industry. Today very few head can be found in Pecos County and most of the larger outfits, such as the Harral and the Woodwards, have shifted to cattle.

But from the 1880s until the 1970s, Pecos County was definitely sheep country, and no one was complaining.

If you have any photos or history of sheep ranching in Pecos County, please send them to our webmaster, kirby@bigbendquarterly.com

 
 
Arthur Anderson, the pioneering sheep rancher who built the Hat A Ranch into a Pecos County empire.

Arthur Anderson, the pioneering sheep rancher who built the Hat A Ranch into a Pecos County empire.

Feeding sotol to goats during the drought of the 1930s.

Feeding sotol to goats during the drought of the 1930s.