This story of family, tradition and strength, written and photographed by Dee Ann Burkes (Littlefield), profiles the Crockett family legacy and includes photos of Cody Crockett at 4 years of age, whose life was tragically lost in the March 2017 Panhandle fires.
We hope you’ll take the time to read this story and take a second to send a prayer of peace and comfort for this Western Horseman family. This story was originally published in the November 2001 issue.
Crockett is a name synonymous with Texas history. Frontiersman Davy Crockett made a heroic stand at the Alamo fighting for something he believed in- Texas. Today his descendants carry on the Crockett name in strong ranching tradition. David Crockett and his son, Brock, own and operate a ranch in the southeast Texas Panhandle, just north of McLean.
A glance around the ranch headquarters demonstrates that they have been there for over 100 years. There are several authentic butcher knife (narrow-wheeled) wagons alongside the more practical, rubber-tired variety. Other antique cowboy artifacts abound, including harness, old spurs, and antique farming equipment.
One look at David, standing on bowed legs and crowned with a tattered, sweat-stained cowboy hat, would tell you he is a died-in-the-wool cowboy.
However, David, 59 years old, did not grow up here. In fact, he didn’t even grow up on a ranch. The second of four boys born to Emory and Marye Crockett, David was raised in the small town of McLean.
His father was an area distributor for Texaco and also owned a lumberyard in McLean at one time. When he was 8, David’s family moved just outside of town to a house with enough property for David to have a horse.
David remembers riding that horse everywhere. Bob Sherrod, a local rancher and accomplished rodeo cowboy, recognized David’s early desire for the cowboy way of life.
Getting Out of Town
“When I was 9 or 10, Bob took me to my first roundup,” David recalls. “It was on the J.S. Morse Ranch on the North Fork of the Red River just north of McLean). I ended up living there in the summers with J.S. ‘s grandsons, Johnny and Sammy Haynes.”
David credits Johnny and Sammy with keeping him in school when all he really wanted to do was cowboy. Billy Joe McFall, on the RO Ranch south of McLean, was also a big influence on David’s life. He taught him not just about being a cowboy, but also about being a cattleman.
David married Dixie Jo Burroughs in 1962, only a few days after she turned 18. When they started out, the Crockett “ranch” was just five acres. But David had a strong desire to acquire enough land to ranch on. As his neighbors got older, they let him lease or buy surrounding country until he was able to build his spread into an operating ranch.
David and Dixie Jo had three children – their son, Brock, and daughters Shawn and Juliana, all of whom live in McLean. Brock expressed an early interest in the ranch life. He’s been riding horses and driving teams of mules since he was old enough to handle them.
“I’ve just always wanted to be a cowboy,” the 36-year-old says. “It’s all I’ve ever known or been around.”
After high school, Brock attended the ranching and feedlot operation course at Clarendon College in Clarendon, Texas. After graduation, he worked on the Bell Ranch in New Mexico and the JA Ranch near Clarendon for some outside experience.
“It was important to me that he go out and see new things,” David says. “I wanted him to see how other outfits worked and get acquainted with other cowboys. I never got that chance.”
In 1990 Brock married Kristie Thompson, a ranch-raised girl. Kristie grew up in the heart of ranching country in Paducah, Texas. Her dad, Bob Thompson, was foreman on the Triangles (then part of the 6666 Ranch) and foreman on the nearby Bird ranch for many years. He was also foreman on Walter Merrick’s (owner of Easy Jet) ranch near McLean. Kristie taught school in McLean for a few years before deciding to stay home to raise the couple’s three children, Clay, Cody, and Callie. Their house is located at the ranch headquarters, about 100 yards from David and Dixie Jo’s house.
Combining Education and Heritage
After returning to McLean from his cowboying hiatus, Brock used the knowledge he’d learned from his dad and his real-life experiences to start his own cattle operation. He developed a starting yard near a local feedlot, where he feeds anywhere from 600-1,000 head of cattle, conditioning them for the feedlot. He also has several hundred acres of rye pasture where he takes cattle in. The ranch runs crossbred cows with Charolais and Hereford bulls. They also have a band of about 20 broodmares whose colts they break to ride and use on the ranch.
The ranch now consists of 17 sections of land they own or lease Buffalo and grama grass dominate the sandy terrain. They keep a good trace mineral supplement, usually in the form of a salt block, out for the cattle year-round. The Panhandle winters can be harsh, so the Crocketts supplement their cattle with a 39 percent protein feed in the form of cake pellets. They only feed hay in limited amounts.
“We don’t overstock so feed usually isn’t a problem,” Brock says.
“But if snow or ice are covering the ground and the cattle can’t get to the grass, then we’ll feed them hay.”
Harnessing Old Customs
Keeping up with old cowboy traditions is important to both Brock and David. One tradition they practice is using a team of horses or mules for as many purposes as possible. They use them to pull a feed wagon or haul supplies to a branding location. They’ve also used them to pull a chuck wagon during the spring and fall works.
When used for feeding, the cake bin behind the driver’s seat is filled with cake from a sack. As the horses walk through the feed ground, the driver works the lever on the bin to let the feed drain out for the cattle. Drivers usually tie a saddle horse to the back of the wagon so they can get out and ride in the pasture. The teams are trained to stand hobbled while riders prowl the cattle or occasionally have to rope and doctor a sick one.
“Using a team to do things most people do with a pickup may be a little slower,” David says, “but economically we save money doing it like that. And I just enjoy that way of life.”
“It does take longer to feed,” Brock agrees. “But it also means you are out in your cattle longer and you notice things you probably wouldn’t see from the cab of a pickup truck.
“But there are times when the heater in that pickup feels pretty good,” he adds with a smile.
David’s grandfather sparked his interest in pulling wagons with mules. He raised them to sell to the Army and used them for his farming operation. Following suit, David trained many of the mules they’ve used over the years. Although he’s used both mules and draft horses, David still prefers a team of mules.
“When you get to be my age,” he says, “mules are a lot easier to harness and unharness.”
Brock, on the other hand, likes to use draft horses. “I like the big horses,” he says. “They are more powerful and can go on and do whatever you’re needing to do.”
Although they have two teams of mules, they use a team of Percherons, Bert and Ernie, for most of their needs. They purchased the 9-year-old half-brothers from Arizona rancher Dean Cameron. He used them on his ranch to haul heavy molasses tubs to remote, wilderness locations of the ranch where vehicles weren’t permitted.
Brock and David agree that they are one of the best-handling teams they’ve ever had. Though the horses are huge and powerful, they can gracefully navigate the confines of a small corral to back up to a feed bunk. They are also gentle enough to stand still for several hours amidst the noise and action of a branding pen.
Weathering the Storms
As any rancher knows, the cattle business is not easy or the most profitable way of life. Ranchers know hardships and adversity are part of their livelihood and prepare for them as best as they can.
However, on June 8, 1995, the Crocketts endured a type of devastation few ranchers have ever had to face. A category F-5 tornado (the biggest and most rare) ripped through their ranch headquarters. The Crocketts sought shelter in their storm cellar, helplessly listening to the magnificent force of nature above them. Fortunately, all of their lives were spared and no one was hurt.
As they emerged from their cellar, the damage was clear: complete and total destruction. The twister had left a path of wreckage nearly a mile wide. All four of their homes had been blown away, leaving only the cement foundations. Their big wood barn and all the corrals were leveled. The many wagons that had been neatly parked along the fence only hours before were now nowhere to be seen.
Perhaps most devastating of all was the loss of livestock. Brock and David drove around the ranch for days shooting horses and cattle that were injured beyond help. More than 100 head of cattle were killed, as were all of their saddle horses, mules, and draft horses. The most heartfelt loss was Big Mama and Little Mama, a 14-year-old team of blonde, half-Percheron mules they’d had for 12 years.
Oddly enough, this was the third tornado to hit the same exact location. One came through in the ‘30s, although the Crocketts didn’t live there then. Another hit in 1970 when Brock was 5 years old.
“That was a bad one, too,” David says of the twister. “It totally blew our home and everything away. We
hadn’t lived here as long so we didn’t have as much stuff, but it still killed lots of cattle and crippled several horses.” They have since rebuilt twice in the same location.
Rebuilding To Last
“We don’t have anyplace else to go,” David explains. “This is our home and we love it here. As long as it doesn’t kill us, we’ll keep rebuilding if we have to.”
Many people might decide it wasn’t worth it- they’d find another location or even another profession, but not the Crocketts. Their dedication and desire for this lifestyle are evident in everything they do. They seem to rebuild stronger and more determined each time.
Although there are a few signs of the tornado damage, such as vacant cement foundations, they have worked hard to put everything back in order. Wagons are once again lined up along the front fence. Rye fields dotted with grazing horses and cattle surround the headquarters. Rolling sandhills with strategically placed windmills flank the fields. The two homes on the ranch face west, which ironically, is the direction the tornadoes have approached them in the past. But more than that, they provide an excellent view of the beautiful, early morning sunrises and colorful, lingering sunsets.
“For me, there’s nothing like getting up early and listening to the mockingbirds first start singing in the predawn hours,” Brock says. “I like the smell of the early morning and seeing all the animals in the first light, especially the baby calves in the spring time.”
It is this kind of love for the ranch life that keeps the Crocketts going, even in hard times. They are doing their best to preserve the cowboy way of life and pass it on to future generations. But realistically they know that isn’t going to be easy to do.
“I want my boys to know the old way of doing things and be around as many cowboys and roundups as they can,” Brock says. “I hope they get the chance to enjoy this lifestyle and continue some of these traditions with their kids.”
The traditional ranching practices aren’t just about history; they’re about longevity too. The Crocketts aren’t opposed to progress; they just don’t want it to interfere with what a cattle ranch should be.
“The other day I was going down the road and I saw a guy pulling a horse trailer,” Brock says. “I looked to see what kind of livestock he was hauling and it was a 4-wheeler. I hate to see ranching come to that.”
David nods his head in agreement. “You’ve got to take the old and the new to stay in business,” he states. “Then decide which ways work best for you.”
One thing both men fear is that the “little man” operations like theirs won’t be in business in the future.
“It seems like the big ranches are getting bigger and the little ones are getting out,” Brock says. “It’s getting harder and harder for a smaller operation to put country together.”
“The ranch land is going to the rich man,” David adds. “If the big ranches don’t get it, then the rich businessmen buy it to hunt on, and we can’t compete with the kind of prices they pay.
“I don’t know where it is going to stop,” he laments. “The little man is an endangered species. I’m sure there will always be ranching, but it’s nearly impossible for a young man right now to get started in the business. It’s hard to say what the future holds for us.”
David has been described by many as having been born 100 years too late. Though their closest neighbors are several miles away, he wishes their ranch was more remote.
“I wish there wasn’t too much modern about it and we could do it the old way as much as possible,” he says.
Whether he realizes it or not, David perpetuates cowboy history every day in his life. Although his home is equipped with electricity, he rarely uses it (his bill runs less than $20 a month). He makes coffee in a graniteware pot on the stove and dries his clothes on the line. He heats his home with a wood-burning potbellied stove and lights it with kerosene lamps. He does, however, have the modern conveniences of a refrigerator, freezer, and washing machine.
Though the tornado in ’95 took away his large collection of historical cowboy books, he has started filling his bookshelves once again. He has many books that are out of print and is especially fond of the book series by Will James. David also occasionally indulges in one of the good western movies he has on tape.
David and Brock are somewhat like Davy Crockett himself. They aren’t fighting at the Alamo, but they are fighting for something they believe in – cowboy traditions. They want the chance to leave this legacy to their children and grandchildren.
In Texas they say, “Remember the Alamo.” The Crocketts say, “remember the cowboy.”
This article was originally published in the November 2001 issue of Western Horseman.