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Changing Places: Ranch Gates of the Southwest

Changing Places: Ranch Gates of the Southwest

by Douglas Manger

“The West is everything we want it to be: it is our potential for love and success, it is possibility and imagination. And the fence that defines the boundaries contains us, keeps us from getting lost in all of that possibility, saves us from straying too far from ourselves. I drive through the open gate, into the landscape within.” 
The Secret Life of Cowboys


The Secret Life of Cowboys

In the dry expanse of the Arizona-Sonora desert east of Tucson ranch gates of any architectural note were rare. “Wire gap” gates--a short section of loose barbed wire fencing made to fit the gap between the stationary fencing--is what I best remember growing up, a good fit for the practical ranch owners about. 

Dude ranches were the exception, of course. Down the road the decorative ironwork overhead read “Tanque Verde Ranch.” Today this 100-year old “century ranch” still caters to city folk anxious for a taste of ranch life in the great Southwest. There was also the elaborate entrance gate of the El Dorado Guest Ranch closer to town. El Dorado (“The Golden One”) was rumored to be owned by the notorious mobster, Joe Bonanno, who at the time was living out his life in quiet seclusion in Tucson.

With brighter prospects our family moved to new housing on the grassy flatlands west of Houston. Formerly the R.E. Smith Ranch, still-working parcels of the ranch lay to our west. On a clear day I could see cattle strung along the horizon line grazing far beyond the wire fencing.

Ranch property in the West wasn’t always fenced and gated, of course. Open-range ranching was the norm from the early Spanish and Mexican occupations on through to the 1880s. After the Civil War, open-range ranching made possible the great Texas Longhorn cattle drives up the Chisholm Trail to Kansas. “The Trail” soon pushed farther and farther west taking on other names with many extensions. These trails soon became what the legendary Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie termed “rivers of Longhorns,” some 10 million in number between 1866 and 1890. 

This mass migration of livestock would establish the ranching industry throughout the American West and on into Canada. When the “great die-up” took place in the late 1880s, brouRanch Gates2ght on by a succession of summer droughts and severe winters, ranchers throughout the West began fencing their property. By 1895 the cattle trails out of Texas were no more, fenced across or plowed under. Born out of necessity, fencing gave ranchers more control over breeding practices and care of their livestock. 

In the American Southwest the practice of marking livestock began with the branding iron. Early sixteenth century Spanish conquistadors branded horses on their hips, cattle on their shoulders and in some cases, Indian slaves on their cheeks. Spanish brands tended to be flamboyant often based on the signature of the Spanish grandee or owner. Each successive generation (males only) would then add a bar or curlicue. Early Anglo settlers in Texas abandoned this tradition reverting back to more basic patterns. Texas enacted its first branding law in 1
848 requiring all stock owners to register their unique brands and earmarks with the local county clerk, a practice that continues to this day.


Texas State Highway 71 winds its way northwest out of Austin across the Edwards Plateau through the rolling Texas Hill Country. Rugged and rock strewn, the plateau is flush with growths of cedar, oak, mesquite and the ever present prickly pear. The soil, sparse over the top with a limestone base, yields a combination of grasses, weeds and tree foliage that supports cattle, goat and sheep raising. Here lies one of the nation’s leading Angora goat and mohair producing regions, and one of the leading sheep and wool areas.Ranch Gates4


Jack Ranch, Cypress Creek Ranch, Redtail Ranch,
Crown Ranch, Jackass Flats Ranch, Gray Wolf
Ranch, Slator Ranch, Lazy M Ranch, El Sueño Ranch, Moore Ranch, Sandstone Ranch, Boulder Ridge Ranch

The drive from Austin to Llano offers travelers a wealth of ranch gate architecture. A few of the gates along the route are home-fashioned with modest decorative touches. Many are high-enders built by custom fabricators with bent-iron silhouettes of cacti, Texas Longhorns, stars, wagon wheels and the ever popular family name or initial.


Ruth Fowler’s Texas drawl rests easy on the ears. At 90 years of age Fowler carries on a family ranching tradition in Llano County four generations deep. Her great-grandfather, originally from Tennessee, arrived in Llano County in the 1870s and started a cattle operation. Fowler’s grandfather and father would follow suit each taking on the family business. For her father that meant a 4 a.m. rise most mornings to ride horseback from the family home near town to the ranch property 15 miles to the southwest (the Fowler’s “lived in” close to town while the children were in school).

“If it rains--which it hasn’t in several years--you feel good if you can run one cow to 20 acres...20 to 30 acres. It’s not really good cow country. Well, it’s suited,” Fowler adds, “but you have to suite yourself to the circumstances. You don’t build big gates. You try to stay on good terms with the banker in town. It’s got to be a way of life that people want to pursue.” Ranch property in Texas is appraised on “production” value rather than “market” value, a difference in Llano County of $2000 per acre versus $30 to $40 per acre given the location of the property. In addition to raising livestock, many ranchers in the county lease hunting rights to bring in needed income. “I lease mine to an individual because I only want one person to answer to. I specify how many deer they can kill.” 

Tough economic times continue to plague ranchers in the region. Fowler’s brother recently sold off acreage from his property to a Dallas family with ties to the Coca-Cola fortune. The new owners have since built a sprawling home with an elaborate ranc
h gate out front. A smaller gate frames the entranceway of the ranch manager’shome place down the road. “The next property,” Fowler adds, “belonged to my brother, [now] belongs to my sister-in-law and a couple of nephews and you don’t notice any impressive gates…I just can’t relate very much gates to ranching. I mean the type of gates we’re talking about.” Fowler agrees that the design of the more fanciful gates might be ego driven. “Yes, in the past few years it has become that.” With a nod to Nailhead Spur Company, the local ranch gate fabricator in Llano, she adds, “I suspect he’s made lots of gates that enclose 10-15-20 acres. You could run maybe one or two cows on 20 acres.”


Is there a “traditional” ranch gate architecture in Texas? Charles Wendt thinks so, at the same time acknowledging that new ranch owners in the region--many who have made their money elsewhere--are introducing a far different aesthetic. Wendt, a welder and shop teacher in a former life, established his business in Llano ten years ago. Now a thriving custom metal fabrication shop with six employees, Wendt’s Nailhead Spur Company turns out an average of 100 gates per year at prices ranging from $5,000 to $7,000. (A noted craftsman, in 1997 and 1998 Wendt was recognized as one of the nation’s “Top 10 Spur Makers” by the Academy of Western Artists.)

“If you are dealing with the real, honest-to-God, making-the-living-off-the-ranch, they’re still used to using the wire gap. Granddaddy did that, daddy did that, and I can do that and my kids can do that.” But new arrivals from elsewhere in Texas bring a far different mindset. “The guy that’s living in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Ft. Worth--wherever the metroplex is--around Midland, and such, that has got accumulated, a tremendous amount of money through hook or crook. They come out here and they buy their ranch that they’ve always dreamed about. [Then] they’ve got to have an entrance that makes a statement and they spare no expenses. They’ll do whatever it takes to make a big nice fancy ranch entrance…we just did one, just finished it last month. Guy took down every entrance that was on the ranch. Bought a ranch that had three entrances. Took down every entrance on the ranch and built all new entrances and all new gates because he wanted it to be his. Oh yeah, bucks didn’t count.” 


During the planning stage Wendt takes particular care with certain customers. “I ask the wife exactly what she wants on the final art work because she’s going to be the one who is going to make or break you. So yeah, it’s very, very much a male-female program.” 

Many old-time ranchers, Wendt explains, want the public to know their ranch is a Texas Heritage Ranch with the date of origin prominently displayed on the gate (the state’s Family Land Heritage Program honors farms and ranches that have been in continuous operation by the same family for 100 years or more). “It they’re owning the ranch from a hunting perspective 
they like to have animals, deer, turkey, quail, whatever on their gate. If they bought that so they can run their dream herd of Longhorns, then we’ll put, actually use there a Longhorn picture. If they’ll send us a good one [we will] put their Longhorn bull, cow, steer, whatever they have. So the gates usually are indicative of what is behind the gate. There are the generic ones of the star, or something like that, that it’s hard to say what’s back there. But a lot of times you can drive by and look at a gate and I can tell you, this guy likes to hunt, or this guy likes to fish, or something like that.” 

Wendt believes the use of custom decorative ranch gates is a regional phenomenon. “If you drive from South Texas to North Texas, and East Texas to West Texas, you’ll find pockets of areas. And around here is a very predominant area with gates and entrances, and such, and decoration. As you go north of here it begins to stop. The other side of San Saba, you don’t see very much. And then when you get close to Weatherford, you start seeing it again…it’s kinda’ one of those deals. It [ranch gates] makes a statement a lot of times about who you are and what you are. Some of them are quite extravagant, quite elaborate, and some of them are just pretty mundane.”


As a body of work, the old-time ranch gates documented by photographer Dan Olsen in“Ranch Gates of the Southwest” offer up little information, in keeping with the private inclinations of many a ranch owner. The gate fronting the “Llano 1930 Ranch” on Texas State Highway 29 is a good example. The place name is spelled out on the archway overhead. Suspended below is the Llano 1930 brand centered between two small wagon wheels. 
Detailing on the gate reveals little of the rich history of the ranch. Formerly the 30,000 acre Stribling Ranch, 
the property was acquired by Hugh Asa Fitzsimons in 1932. Fitzsimons’ later purchase of the grand champion and reserve champion bulls at the American Royal Livestock Show in Kansas City would spell “paydirt” earning him a reputation through the years as a breeder of unparalleled success. From 1935 to 1960 the Fitzsimons Hereford ranch in Llano County bred more grand champions than any other breeder in the United States. Today the property remains in the family, with less acreage, a successful cow-calf and goat raising operation.

Move beyond the ranch gate and the work regimen becomes steady and unchanging, the well-being of the livestock resting solely on the shoulders of the owners (often a husband and wife team on the smaller outfits) day-in-day-out, sunrise to sunset.

“Daybreak, we feed the dogs (guard dogs for the Spanish goats) and then we kind of check the goats out. ‘Course we also check out all the water troughs to make sure stuff hasn’t broken or froze stuck, or some pipe broke and somethings running over. Then we get all that finished… the cattle are standing around outside the gate waiting to be fed.” “It’s amazing,” his wife adds, “if you have never lived with animals…you set a routine for them…they’re there at the exact same time every day...from time-to-time we do hire other people to come in and help. We’ve had to dwindle our herd size because of the weather conditions, so we don’t have as many animals today that we used to have, say, ten, fifteen years ago. I used to have 400 goats, and now, about 80.”


Decorative custom-made ranch gates have taken hold in many areas across the Southwest. Moving from nondescript “wire gap” gates, a far different aesthetic has emerged brought on by a steady flow of prosperous city folk intent on moving to the country to live the ranch life. Under severe financial strain brought on by the worst draught since the 1950s, many central Texas ranchers have been forced to sell. With their sweat equity gone to dust the old homesteads are now ripe for redevelopment into more affordable ranchette-sized properties.
Unlike the old-time ranchers in the Texas Hill Country who funneled what resources they had into their livestock
operations, from appearances, the new breed of owners rate the decorative ranch gate as a top priority, the most obvious means to communicate what the property now represents.
One could argue a workin' rancher in this territory, versus a novice rancher-to-be, is best determined by the look of their entry gate. But even with the spare graphic touches on old-time ranch gates, a subtle narrative is revealed: a date of origin, perhaps, a place name, a unique brand or symbols tied to the landscape. From this writer's perspective the "traditional" ranch gate vernacular, at least in the Texas Hill Country, is changing with a broader acceptance of decorative work that helps distill the rancher’s vision (or bolster a Texas-sized ego).


...frugalness, pragmatism, humility, a knack for handwork,
love for land and animals, alike, and good “horse sense”...

Yes, a simple ranch gate just makes good horse sense. But I wonder, is there an underlining meaning to be found in old-time ranch gate architecture? Looked at through a different lens might these gates, with their home-spun appeal, be offering up in simple graphic terms what it takes to make-or-break in lands that offer more drought than rain...more cold than warmth (or the reverse)...and, at times...more damnation than hope?


Photos by Douglas Manger


Clayton, Lawrence. Contemporary Ranches of Texas. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.
Dobie, J. Frank. The Longhorns. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1941.
Erikson, John R. The Modern Cowboy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.
Fitzhugh, H.A.. Building & Foundation for the San Antonio Livestock Show as told to Everette E. Frazier and Stephen Fitzhugh Harris. Self Published Essay (c. 1996): No Publisher/Date Noted.
Groneberg, Tom. The Secret Life of Cowboys. New York: Scribner, 2003.
Lashley, Rhonda Leah. Ranchwomen of the Texas Hill Country. Austin: University of Texas at Austin (Master’s Thesis), 1996.
Pattie, Jane. Cattle Brands. Albany (TX): Bright Sky Press, 2002. 
Ryan, Kathleen Jo. Deep in the Heart of Texas: Texas Ranchers in Their Own Words. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1999.