By Lewis Nordyke
A book review by Sheilagh S. Jameson
Cattle Empire, the fabulous story of the 3-million acre XIT ranch of Texas, provides proof of that old maxim that “truth is stranger than fiction.”
It records the history of the biggest ranch in the United States of America, of the building of the largest State Capitol at the time and, surely, of the greatest “sight unseen” land deal ever made. And it is all true.
As the writer aptly expressed it, he went “into two tons of yellow paper and came out with a book weighing about a pound.” The two tons of yellow paper are comprised of more than sixty thousand letters and documents pertaining to the XIT and now at the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum of West Texas State College at Canyon.
Mr. Nordyke has shown himself to be a master at the task of piecing together the story, of sifting the chaff and retaining the kernels.
The history of the XIT Ranch really began in 1875 when the State of Texas decided to have a magnificent capital. Money was rather scarce in Texas at that time and land was plentiful, so it was decided to exchange some of the vast Panhandle territory, then deemed worthless, for the new Capital.
It was not until 1882 that the trade was finally consummated. Four Chicago politicians and business men became owners of the Capitol Reservation, as it was called, a track of land nearly 200 miles long, averaging 27 miles wide, lying on the eastern part of Texas. In return, they were going to build the Capitol, as big and as beautiful as the specifications required. It would cost, they figured, one and a half million dollars. Actually, it cost them 3 and one quarter million but that was in the future.
“What a strange assortment of men to be considering a slice of the Texas Panhandle,” the author exclaims. And as he pictures them, the reader wholeheartedly agrees.
Three were the Farwell Brothers, who financed the enterprise. Charles B. was a politician, at that time a member of Congress, and later a Senator. John V. was Chicago’s biggest wholesale dry goods merchant and a religious zealot. He promoted the revivalist, Dwight I. Moody, and later, the noted Billy Sunday.
Abner Taylor, a well-known contractor, was also very interested in politics and eventually was elected to Congress. The responsibility of building the Capitol was in his hands.
The fourth owner was Amos Babcock, who was not as successful as the others, and who later dropped out of the company. He, however, was the first to see the broad acres of the XIT.
The writer says that these four men had a common denominator — they each felt the call and promise of the West and not one of them knew a thing about a cow.
The chapters in which Mr. Nordyke tells of Amos Babcock’s excursion into Texas and his trip down the 200-mile length of the newly-acquired territory are interesting and amusing. Babcock arrived in Tascasa, the only town within 100 miles of XIT territory, in a mule-drawn U.S. army ambulance, complete with chairs, stove and like impediments. He was followed by another wagon loaded with as great a variety of supplies as ever was seen on the Panhandle. Altogether, it was a layout that created quite a sensation in Tascasa.
The allure of the rolling rangeland of Texas moved Yankee Babcock, even as it later moved each of the other XIT overlords, when he saw it. In view of Babcock’s glowing reports it was decided to go ranching on a mammoth scale.
In fact, the plans became too mammoth for the Chicago associates. John V. Farwell hurried off to England, where he managed to set up a syndicate called the Capitol Freehold Land and Investment Co. Ltd. This syndicate was to raise the money necessary for building the Capitol and operating the ranch. In return, profits were expected to pour in from the cattle business. For security, the syndicate was to hold a mortgage on the land and livestock.
One continuous headache was the attitude of suspicion with which the XIT cowboys, who at one time numbered more than 150, and Texans in general, viewed the company. It wasn’t local. In fact, it was practically foreign, with its offices in Chicago, and even in London. Also, neighboring outfits and settlers resented their big neighbor’s high-handed ways so as the author expressed it, “The XIT was the Goliath of the Cow Country and the little Davids were swarming with their sling-shots.”
There was the recurring menace of cattle rustlers. Worse still, it became more than a question of straightforward rustling, for clouds of suspicion and webs of intrigue evolved around the ranch managers, absentee owners and rustlers, both mythical and in the flesh.
Another great worry was the water shortage. Taylor and the other “boses” in their northern cities were inclined to discount the urgency of this pressing need but to Barbecue Campbell, the first ranch manager, upon whom the responsibility for watering many thousand head of cattle rested, it was very real.
Barbecue Campbell, so called from his brand Bar BQ, found it rather confusing to have several bosses all sending different instructions. This remote control also resulted in the reams and reams of letters.
Then wolves descended on the ranch. The old Texas longhorns had been little bothered by wolves, but the crafty killers soon found that the squat Herefords and Aberdeen Angus cattle were easy meat. So the cowboys waged war on wolves and “Wolfer” became a new word in Cow Country.
At times blizzards swept across the prairies leaving cattle carcasses in their wake. Still more often and more disastrously came fires. These left carcasses and nothing else. The winter’s pasture would go in a few hours. One fire, refered as the Big Burn, was the worst disaster that ever hit the XIT.
These are just some of the troubles that this big ranch weathered. And so the story goes. Through it certain pictures stand out with clarity: the birth of the XIT brand; the last great Texas round-up, before the “bob” wire of the XIT wrought its change in range land customs; the Big Burn; the stampede of thirsty cattle; John V. Farwell preaching a sermon to cowboys at Buffalo Springs; a stream of rain pouring through the roof of the grand Capitol during the dedication, and many others.
Cattle Empire is well named. Before the XIT was through, its dominion extended beyond the 200-mile Texas holdings, over the twelve-hundred mile Montana Trail and across two million acres of leased Montana land between the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers.
Published by William Morrow and Co. in New York and simultaneously in Canada by William Collins, Sons and Co., Canada.