Long known for its world-class stock horses and beef cattle, this historic American ranch has extended its iconic brand far beyond the fence line of the Lone Star State’s largest outfit.
IN A CHICAGO HIGH-RISE, A DELIVERYMAN PUSHES A BRAND-NEW CHESTERFIELD LOVESEAT into place in front of a spacious, floor-to-ceiling window overlooking Lake Michigan. On a windswept Florida fairway, a groundskeeper meticulously inspects a load of turf grass about to be installed on a putting green designed by one of golf’s greatest names. In the stop-and-go chaos of noonday Dallas traffic, a pickup accelerates around a slow-moving semi. In the Vermont woods, a wing shot shoulders a shotgun, blasting a sporting clay to smithereens.
History has proven that Captain Richard King was a man gifted with an eye for opportunity and blessed with a level of risk tolerance that would make most of today’s day-traders squeamish. But the fact that each of the four events described above are all tied to the South Texas cattle kingdom he founded more than 150 years ago might prove to be more than even the captain could entertain.
DURING THE MID-19TH CENTURY, King made countless trips across the rugged stretch of South Texas between Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande River, a barren, lawless land that locals referred to as the Wild Horse Desert. Unlike many of his contemporaries, King saw more than snakes, sand and catclaw. He recognized the essentials of a great ranch, and beginning in 1853, he’d spend the last three decades of his life establishing his domain, buying more than 60 separate tracts, many old Spanish land grants, and eventually amassing more than 500,000 acres before his death.
Halfway through his quest, an auspicious event-the end of the American Civil War-propelled the market for live cattle to historic highs. The captain’s enormous ranch, infested with thousands of wild cattle, was uniquely positioned to supply America’s burgeoning cities and stoke the young country’s frenzied westward expansion.
King sent more than 100,000 head of longhorn cattle to railheads in Kansas and beyond. Those epic cattle drives are now legendary (think Lonesome Dove), and hindsight has proven that the American ranching industry can trace a sizeable portion of its heritage to King and his ranch in the Wild Horse Desert.
King’s descendants not only maintained his legacy, but in many ways enhanced it. After his death, the ranch continued to grow. At 825,000 acres, it’s not only the largest ranch in Texas today, but it also eclipses any of the state’s public land holdings. The captain’s insistence on quality horseflesh eventually led to King Ranch’s development of the nation’s first registered Quarter Horse, Wimpy, and the 1946 Thoroughbred Triple Crown winner, Assault. King Ranch also produced the Santa Gertrudis, the first cattle breed developed in the United States and recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
MANY OF THE MONEY-MAKING ventures that eventually emerged on King Ranch-growing feed for cattle and marketing some of the best quail hunting in the world-were natural extensions of the operation King initiated more than 150 years ago. But over the last few decades, the family-owned business has branched out in new directions. These more-recent endeavors-turf, citrus, pecans, strategic licensing agreements, and a mail-order business-aren’t the typical brand extensions one would expect from a sophisticated agribusiness, even one as prominent as King Ranch.
What would Captain King say about all this?
“The captain would ask the same question that Uncle Bob [Kleberg] would ask, or that my father would ask: Are we making the most of those 800,000 acres down in South Texas?” says James H. “Jamey” Clement Jr., one of King’s great-great-grandsons and chairman of the board of King Ranch, Inc. “I can tell you this: King Ranch has the best people in the right positions on the ranch, on the farm and in our other operations. That’s what has enabled us to branch out into other areas. Ultimately, it’s your brand that allows you to build on your legacy, which is why we watch ours so closely.”
Clement also explains the synergies that led the 150-year-old Texas ranch to partner with Ford Motor Company, which manufactures the King Ranch Ford F-Series trucks. Ford and King Ranch teamed up in 2000 to produce an upscale ranch truck and have extended the King Ranch model into the Expedition line. Clement volunteers that he owns a King Ranch Ford pickup, but admits he hasn’t seen it for a while.
“Last time I saw it, my son was driving it,” he says.
The ranch created a similar partnership with Beretta, a 500-year-old Italian firearms maker, to produce the limited-edition King Ranch Heritage Series of shotguns.
Aside from the two licensing programs, King Ranch also brands its own leather-goods line with the Running W. From duffle bags, rifle scabbards and sofas to barn jackets-the list of items available from the King Ranch Saddle Shop seem endless. It’s certainly endlessly marketed. Each year, nearly 4 million catalogs are mailed to prospective clients and loyal customers.
Rose Morales, the saddle shop’s general manager, is involved in selecting the products branded with the Running W. Just like the Kineños of old, “the King’s men,” vaqueros who spent their lives first apprenticing and then perfecting their skills on King Ranch, Morales began her career working as the assistant to the general manager of the King Ranch saddle shop in the historic Ragland Mercantile Building. Now, more than 15 years later, she still finds herself closing her office door and heading downstairs to help her staff handle the holiday rush or customers’ special requests.
“The saddle shop started out of necessity, a much-needed facility to produce quality saddles and harnesses for horses ridden by the Kineños of King Ranch,” she says. “Today, the shop has shifted focus beyond the bounds of the Wild Horse Desert. Its clientele is more likely to call on us for fine leather furniture, leather luggage and apparel. However, King Ranch saddles are still very much in demand, and the saddle shop employs a full-time saddlemaker and an apprentice.”
I’ve wandered into the saddle shop a time or two myself. On no occasion did I emerge empty-handed. My leather briefcase set me back almost $500, and that was more than a decade ago. When I bought it, the sales clerk informed me it would be the last one I owned. So far, she’s been proven correct. A shaving kit, cowboy coffee, a copy of George Durham’s classic book Taming the Nueces Strip, a leather duffel bag. As I absorb the long list of my purchases, it’s apparent the King Ranch Saddle Shop is to this Texan what Eddie Bauer might be to someone from Seattle, or L.L. Bean to a Bostonian: a true regional identifier.
Morales admits that expanding the saddle shop’s market beyond the bounds of its loyal Texas clientele has been an important focus, as has sourcing.
“One of the biggest challenges we face in extending the King Ranch brand on consumer products is trying to find unique, quality goods made in the USA,” she says. “Many of our competitors are going overseas. And with some products, I’ll admit, we have to, as well. But we diligently try to source our goods in the States. Almost all our leather goods and home furniture are made domestically.”
SINCE CAPTAIN KING founded his ranch, many of the largest and most famous cattle operations have come and gone. The 2,000,000-acre XIT in the Texas Panhandle is a historical anecdote, and portions of Lucien Maxwell’s immense Colorado land grant are now 35-acre ranchettes. King Ranch is not only intact, but is actually expanding.
Through a subsidiary, King Ranch has become the nation’s largest citrus producer. The ranch also produces and markets turf grass through another subsidiary. Jack Hunt, who has overseen the company’s day-to-day activities as chief executive officer since 1995, joined the management team after having served in a similar capacity on the 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch, situated 60 miles north of Los Angeles.
“King Ranch shareholders know land,” he says from King Ranch’s corporate headquarters in Houston. “They know agriculture. That’s why it makes sense for us to explore growth opportunities in citrus, turf grass or pecans. And being a privately owned company, we take a much different perspective on our investments. We’re not driven by Wall Street’s reaction to quarterly reports. Our shareholders are patient. They’re not in it for the short haul.”
There is one question, however, that neither Clement, Hunt nor Morales will answer: What new products will next bear King Ranch’s brand? No one at the company is yet willing to share such privileged information. But here’s a hint.
“Our challenge is to build on our name,” Clement says, “and there’s only one way to do that: by putting out a quality product.”
Eric O’Keefe is a Texas-based writer and the editor of The Land Report. For more information on King Ranch merchandise, visit krsaddleshop.com. Contact [email protected] for information on King Ranch horses. Send comments on this story to [email protected].