Back in the Saddle Again
It took 3 days to move 1,000 head of cattle 60 miles. But it was a welcome journey...It was a tradition.
As they came into view on the narrow farm road leading to town, the five men on horseback rode with pride and purpose--marshals in a parade from the past. Ceremony was far from their minds, however. The cowboys were working--the vanguard of a cattle drive that would transfer 1,000 head from the west end of Matagorda Peninsula to ranches in Bay City 60 miles away.
To look at them the day before, you might have thought you had fallen through a time warp to the 1800s. In weather-worn hats and chaps, toting six-shooters and sporting spurs on dusty boots, their appearance offered little to identify them with 1985.
Even without their handguns this day, they cut imposing figures, straight and tall on their horses in the early morning cool. They led the herd with the confidence veteran cowboys possess.
It's a ritual played out in Matagorda County for so long--most of this century--that even the cows know where to go, and when; about the second month of spring, they're ready. "If you don't take them off the peninsula about this time," one of the hands said, "they'll go by themselves."
Greg Meyer, foreman of the Huebner Ranch in Bay City where most of the cattle would end up, said the 650 cows "know exactly where they're going. If you turned them loose right now, by 6 a. m. tomorrow they'd be in Bay City."
Still, it's better to round up the herd--most Brahmans and crossbreeds thereof--and push the cattle along in organized fashion, not to mention that the cowboys wouldn't have it any other way.
Truth is, despite the aches and pains, the sunburn and the mosquitoes and snakes associated with this twice-yearly throwback to the past, the cowboys wouldn't trade a minute of it for all the beef in Texas. They are keenly aware that this hallowed ritual could go the way of other traditions and they intend to preserve it at all costs, even if only in memory.
For the full-timers--the real, working cowboys--the drive is part of what makes them tick, what gets them out of bed before sunrise, what makes them feel almost naked without their horses. To have a chance to drive cattle the way they did it in the Old West...well, they'll be there, pardner.
Even cowboys forced by economics to find other work turn up when there are cattle to be driven. "You can't give it up," said Ben Rambo, who took time off from his teaching job at Wharton High School to join Meyer's crew. Marcus and Hollis Frazier also took leave of their jobs at the nearby nuclear plant to be part of the drive.
There were also a few greenhorns on the trip, men who rode along for the simple thrill of being there--Mike McKaig of Houston, for one. "You could turn the clock back 100 years on the peninsula and not know the difference," he said.
Rich Harmon, a theatrical designer from Manhattan and a friend of the Huebner family, said he gladly endured a stiff back and saddle sores. "This is a city boy's dream--to be in a real cattle drive," he said.
Pay for the trip was $50 a day, but most didn't take any money home. Those who weren't along for fun were there because it's custom for ranchers in the area to help each other. Said W. E. "Tank" Frazier, a rancher in Bay City: "It's a kinfolks thing."
If the "beach trip"--as the cowboys call the drive--is an anachronism, it is also high adventure, even for the old hands, who pride themselves on being able to handle whatever comes up. A cowboy is nothing if not resourceful. Over the years, say the veterans, the cowpokes have had many chances to prove themselves.
The first thing is getting there, which the cowboys did on a Saturday morning in May, riding 30 miles to the west end of the peninsula with about a dozen "loose" horses that, besides providing fresh mounts for the cowhands, later would serve as leaders for the cattle.
The herd's dramatic and spectacular crossing of the Colorado River the following Monday, in fact, couldn't have been accomplished without the horses.
"Horses swim straight," said Johnie Glick, at 76 the oldest of the old-timers. "Without the horses, the cows would just swim around in a circle."
On the afternoon of the first day, they found the herd, about 1,100 head that had been wintering on the peninsula's salt grass since they were driven down last November. Many of the cows were nursing new calves. Others were about to give birth. Before the trip was over, six new calves would be born en route.
After cutting out about 100 cattle that would stay behind, the cowboys drove the herd to a "catchall," a barbed-wire pen that would keep them in one place for the night. Twenty cowboys then squeezed themselves into a bunk house made for 10. "We had 20 real good friends in there," said McKaig wryly.
The bunk house, it seems, is one of the cowboy's few concessions to modern convenience. At one time, the hands spent the night under the stars, fighting scorpions for room in their sleeping bags and drifting off to the lowing of the herd.
Once on the mainland, when its time to quit for the day, the crew members unsaddle their horses, load them on trailers and drive home--most live in the Bay City area--for the night.
There was more driving on Sunday as the cattle were pushed to another catchall near where the Colorado River meets the Gulf of Mexico. It is there that the river runs shallow in spots and the current is slowed to a virtual stop when gulf tides change.
Once occupied by Dutch settlers who built houses and a hotel--long since blown away by a hurricane--the peninsula is now a mostly barren refuge for seagulls, terns, sandcrabs, a few wolves and coyotes...and lots of snakes--hundreds of moccasins, rattlers and other varieties.
The men sometimes amuse themselves taking potshots at the snakes with their revolvers, killing about two dozen and saving the skins for hatbands and belts.
By Monday morning, the cows had been driven to the east end of the peninsula and were held in check by circling cowboys awaiting the river crossing. Of all the facets of the drive, the swim takes the most planning. Above all, the cowboys want to avoid a "wreck," their parlance for a major disaster.
Virgil Townley, a Port Lavaca rancher and owner of about 100 of the cattle in the herd, recalled one such event, about 10 years ago, during a swim. "We had gotten almost all of the herd across to the beach," he said, "and along came a pickup truck with no muffler. It scared the cows so bad they turned around and swam right back to the island. We had to do it all over again."
Glick said he remembers an occasion when the herd was held up at the river for 11 days because the Colorado was too deep and swift for crossing. "Oh, Lord, we got tired of looking at those same cows," Glick said.
On this day, the wait was short. While the herd grazed nearby, rancher John Huebner--owner of most of the cows--plied the river in a small boat, using a tree branch to test for shallow spots. Even in the old days, Glick said, the cowboys used boats to keep the herd in line during the swim. "They just used oars instead of outboard motors," he said.
It didn't take long for the 58-year-old Huebner to find the right spot and signal the start of the swim.
The horses went in first, crashing down the slope of a sand dune and into the river. Strong and determined, they made straight for the opposite shore, a beach about 50 yards away, swimming effortlessly in the bright late-morning sunshine. Behind them, the first of the cattle spilled into the river, making a terrific racket as mother cows and calves became separated and began bawling for each other.
It was over in about 30 minutes, with only minor problems. Glick was forced to chase one cow to shore using the boat, banging a tree branch on the leaky vessel to make sure the cow was frightened enough to keep moving. In another boat, Townley's daughter grabbed a stray calf by the ears and pulled it to shore, while on the opposite bank the cowboys roped half a dozen calves that refused to enter the water.
That was to be expected, Meyer said. What they wanted to avoid was a repeat of a past episode, when about 50 cows balked at entering the water and had to be ferried across in small groups in a stock trailer. "We didn't get through until 2:30 in the morning," he said.
On the mainland, the wet cows loped easily to a pasture for a couple of hours of grazing before they were sprayed with insecticide--some were literally layered with mosquitoes and flies.
Circling the herd in the heat of the afternoon sun, the 66-year-old Tank Frazier, easily the most droll character in the generally serious bunch, complained of the routine. "This is the most boring part of the drive," he said. "It's really the pits, but it's necessary."
Frazier later would point out that when the cowboys took a break for lunch, it wasn't them that needed the rest. "Our saddles got tired," said the jovial rancher. "I had to get down. My saddle was give out."
After staying overnight in another pen, the cattle hit the asphalt for the first time at sunup Tuesday, covering the two-lane road between the beach and the town of Matagorda as they moved slowly past small houses on stilts that lined the route.
To help keep the herd in line--particularly at the rear--Meyer brought in Belle and Blue, a pair of feisty Australian blue heelers, cattle dogs trained to chase stray cows back into the herd. They did the job with alacrity, yapping at the stragglers and nipping at their heels as they deftly dodged the angry cows' kicking hooves.
Later, when the calves were really tired and needed further prodding, Bay City rancher, Ralph Thompson brought in reinforcements--Joe, Sue, Rattler, Streak and Lou, East Texas black-mouthed curs which worked together to harass the lagging cows and calves.
It was easy to see why the dogs were needed. When cows and their newborn calves become separated, they begin bawling for each other. The calves stop frequently to turn and see if their mothers are in sight. On occasion, a cow or calf will turn and try to head back for the peninsula. "All that calf knows," said Huebner, "is that's where he had breakfast this morning."
Despite the obstacles of the cattle drive, residents of Matagorda--the first town the cows go through--treat it as routine. Standing beside the road as the herd approached, 11-year-old Chris Wilson shrugged and said the cattle drives are "pretty fun. They ruin your yard, though, and our school bus is always late when they have them."
There were no school busses when the "beach trips" first started in the early 1900s on land the Huebner family leased on the peninsula for grazing. The family bought 8,000 acres around 1920. As recently as the 1940s, before the farm road to Matagorda was put in, the cattle drive went across open country and took 10 days.
Only during World War II when the Army established a coastal defense base on the peninsula, did the cattle drives stop. Today, cattle graze by a 5,000 foot airstrip, all that remains of the airbase.
Through Matagorda and onto Highway 60 heading north, the herd made good time to its overnight resting spot in a pasture off the road just south of Wadsworth. By then, there were three new calves, two of which stumbled around on shaky legs as the cowboys tried to locate the mothers.
Part of a cowboy's job is to "mother up" the calves once the herd is at rest--reuniting the babies and their mothers. A cow will let only her own calf feed on her and a newborn will die if it's not fed right away. Huebner said the best way to reunite mothers and calves is to just stir them up. "You drive them around until they find each other," he said. "Also, after you drive them awhile you get to know them. It's amazing."
As raucous as a herd is when on the move, it is peaceful and quiet when mothers and calves are together. Rambo said the cows and their offspring recognize each other's mooing. "They bawl back and forth," he said, "and if you listen you can hear the bawls getting closer and closer."
Wednesday morning--next to last day of the drive--and the herd was back on Highway 60, fighting traffic as cars eased through the herd.
"A lot of people don't know it," said Meyer, "but Texas stock laws give cattle the right of way." Said Frazier, not entirely in jest, "We help the people get through, unless they get sassy, then we kind of push the cows in front of them."
Curiously, cows ignore men on horseback and in cars, but give wide berth to humans on foot. "They're not used to people walking around," said Gary Myers, one of the veteran free-lance cowboys.
This day things were going well, but there wasn't much said about that. "Cowboys are superstitious," said Rambo. "You never say, 'This is a good drive,' or 'I hope we don't have any screw-ups' before it's over."
Still, there had been very few glitches and the cows were making a steady, if somewhat slower, pace on a side road taken to avoid the midafternoon traffic on Highway 60 between Matagorda and Bay City.
Meyer was busy loading exhausted calves--so tired they simply plopped down on the ground--into a stock trailer that would haul them to the 60-acre pasture that was the final destination for most of them. Along the way, 100 head belonging to Townley had been cut out of the herd and left at one of the resting spots.
Near the end, when Meyer pulled the stock trailer abreast of the resting herd to give the cowboys a drink of water, three cows ran over in search of their calves. Sure enough, two cows found their babies in the trailer and when Meyer took off, the worried mothers followed in hot, dogged pursuit. They didn't stop until he did--about half a mile down the road--and they lurked around the trailer until Meyer shoved all the calves out onto the ground.
It rained lightly for about 30 minutes, a shower that seemed to refresh the herd as it picked up the pace. Perhaps instinct had told them the trip was almost over and they were anxious to get home. As one other cow made her way through an opening in the pasture fence, the hooves of her calf could be seen emerging from her body. Moments later, off by herself, she gave birth.
There were no celebrations at the end of the ride, nothing like you ever saw on TVs Rawhide. The cowboys simply went home for the night to rest up for the next day's work. For one thing, they had to split up the herd for four different owners, although by sunset that Wednesday the cattle had segregated themselves in the field. "They don't really associate with each other," said Meyer.
There were also vaccinations and other routine chores, but the biggest part of the drive was over and there was a hint of sadness in some of the men.
Glick, unsaddling his horse, reflected that in days gone by he would finish one beach trip and turn right around and head back for another. "Now I'm so sore and tired I'm glad it's over," he said. Somehow that didn't ring true for a man who's punched cattle and broken horses for more than 50 years.
If the veteran Glick--"Mr. Johnie" to many of the men--had a soulmate in the crowd, it was Meyer, still full of energy and the love of the work. "I'm tired," Meyer admitted, "but it's a good kind of tired. I'll get about a day's rest and I'll be ready to go back again."
As the 31-year-old Meyer thought about catching up on chores at the ranch that went undone during the drive, he also was dreaming about the next beach trip. He recognizes that one day the peninsula may be developed, squeezing out the grazing land for the cattle and putting an end to the cattle drives--one of the last vestiges of an art only the real cowboy masters.
Setting his jaw and turning to survey the herd as the cattle--content with their young--moved slowly across the pasture, Meyer said, "I'd hate to see the cattle drives stop. I hope I'm dead and gone when it happens."
THE AGELESS COWBOY
If Johnie Glick had been an inch or two taller back in 1931--or just a bit more convincing--Matagorda County might have missed out on one helluva cowboy.
"That was back during the Depression," said Glick, who still ropes, rides and breaks horses at the age of 76. "I needed a job and I wanted to join the Marines, but they said I was too short.
"I tried to tell them I was a big man in a small (5-foot-5) package, but they didn't want me. There were lots of guys trying to join up then, so they were kind of choicy."
Turning to full-time roping and riding, which he had done off and on before 1931, Glick has never looked back. He still ranches and drives cattle with the youngest of cowboys, recently breaking in a new horse for his grandchildren.
"I hope when I'm 76," said Greg Meyer, foreman of the Huebner Ranch in Bay City, "I can do as much as Johnie can. He knows what to do on just about anything."
Others recall the time that Matagorda's Leonard Patterson, now 61 and retired from cowboy work, told Glick: "Mr. Johnie, you were a cowboy when I was growing up. Now I'm old and crippled and you're still a cowboy."
The rugged Glick takes it in stride, recalling that in the cattle drives of the 1930s he and other cowhands had to pull their wagons across the Colorado River with ropes instead of ferrying them across with motorboats. Mules, not pickup trucks, pulled the cook's chuckwagon.
"Back in 1931, a cowboy got a buck and beans" for a day's work, said Glick, who lives in Cedar Lane near Bay City. On long drives, he added, sometimes a cowboy's only nourishment were the dewberries he picked for himself in the bushes.
Glick said that in one stretch of his career, he spent 16 years on Matagorda Peninsula "riding out" horses that had been broken improperly or spoiled by bad riders.
On the recent cattle drive from the peninsula to Bay City, Glick was there as usual. "I taught all these young fellows to drive cows," he said. "I've got no better sense than to stay with it. Really and truly, the cow business is about the sorriest business you could be in, but it gets in your blood and you like it anyway."
It takes more of an effort nowadays for Glick to mount up, but he's entertaining no notions of retirement just yet. "As long as I can get up and down on a horse," he said, "I've got to do something. If I sit down, I might rust up."
By Brent Manley, assistant city editor, The Magazine of the The Houston Post, June 16, 1985
By Rockette L. Woolridge
An observer might question why anyone would expose himself to rain, northers, ice and cold for the sake of a few cattle. The answer is that one of a cowboy’s greatest joys in life is braving the harshness of nature and emerging unscathed. Maybe that is the reason the drive has continued for almost 55 years.
The cattle drive began on December 31, 1919, when the Huebner family purchased land and buildings on Matagorda Peninsula from A. H. Wadsworth.
Although there were previous drives, the herd was never taken to the end of the peninsula.
At that time, the Matagorda Peninsula was long and narrow, and ran parallel to the mainland. The few people on the peninsula shared it with skunks, seabirds and wolves.
The original house, built by an earlier settler, survived the storm of 1875 while others around it were washed away. Later, it was used by cowboys tending the herd during winter.
Then, as today, the area was called the “Cherry,” after the last name of an early inhabitant.
In the early 1920s and 1930s, before the Colorado River channel formed a land bridge between Matagorda and the peninsula, the cattle were driven along the coast from Sargent.
On that drive, 10-12 men left between November 10-15 on the long and dangerous trip that took 10 days to two weeks, depending on the weather.
The cattle were gathered and herded to the Sargent community “catch-all” where they were penned for the night before being forced to cross Caney Creek near Sargent.
They forded Brown Cedar Cut, Three Mile Lake and numerous other inlets before they reached their destination at the far western end of the peninsula.
Cowboys in those days faced many uncertainties. Storms would cut channels through many of the inlets in the peninsula, creating new waterways for the cattle to cross.
Sometimes the two-week food supply ran out before the drive was completed. Because they couldn’t communicate with the mainland, the men went hungry until they reached a place to get supplies.
They relied heavily on the cook, Will Robinson, who knew how to ration the food and how far ahead he should go with his mule-drawn chuck wagon before setting up camp. If sudden rains came during the night, the men were forced to stand in their slickers until it stopped.
Their only bed was the hard ground, hardly the remedy for sore muscles. These discomforts did not matter, however, since they were being paid a dollar a day!
The hazards were equally great in the spring when the herd returned to Matagorda. The men faced unexpected Northers, gale force winds, bitter cold, and as an added bonus, pelting rain.
During the early depression years, the annual drives generated much excitement because of the jobs it created.
By this time, the dredging of the Colorado River channel helped create the land bridge between the mainland and the peninsula. With the bridge, a road could be built from Matagorda to the Matagorda Peninsula, enabling the herd to be brought directly through Matagorda.
This route would be shorter than the drive from Sargent and would lessen the hazards.
On July 30, 1941, the U. A. Army took over the peninsula through eminent domain to build a bombing and machine gun range.
The army returned the “Cherry” to the Huebners four years later. Today, the ruins of the runways and some barracks still remain.
After 1945, the cattle drive became safer and more modernized. The number of men needed for the trip was decreased because of smaller herds, a shorter route and better technology.
One of these cowboys was Ezel Edison, who rode in front of the herd on the lead horse the cattle followed.
Other cowboys were Arthur Green; “Big” Jack Cole of Sweeny; Enix Gatterson, nicknamed “Gat” and who still works for the Huebner family; Tom Hawkins; and Abe Woolridge.
Johnny Click lived on the peninsula with his wife while the herd was there. He took care of the herd and collected firewood.
A man planted watermelons on the Matagorda Peninsula to get the highway department to put in a farm to market road from Matagorda to the peninsula beach! Taking advantage of the situation, the Huebners herded their cattle down this road, thereby shortening their journey considerably.
The Huebners collected the herds of the various family members in the county and drove them down FM 2668 west of Wadsworth.
After an overnight stay at Zipprian’s Corner—at the intersection of Texas 60 and the old river road—the herd was driven through Matagorda and across the Intracoastal Waterway swing bridge and down a road to the mouth of the Colorado River, where they forded to the peninsula.
The lead cowboy would hurl a stick into the water to determine the strength of the current. If the stick remained still, the cattle could swim across safely.
First, the lead cowboy on his horse would cross behind a skiff. He was followed by the lead cow—for 20 years it was one named “Grandma.”
The boatman, Pete Banyansco, plied his skiff on either side of the swimming her to keep them headed for the opposite bank.
In 1951, Hurricane Carla caused millions of dollars in damage with its prolonged winds, high tides, and floods over the Texas coast.
Matagorda County was not spared. The Huebners’ cattle on the peninsula were returned to the ranch, but other ranchers’ cattle and horses that remained on the peninsula drowned.
For example, the Cullen Ranch lost 497 head of cattle and 13 horses.
Today, the cattle drive takes four days in the spring and three days in the fall. The cowboys handle 500-600 head of cattle.
The various brands belonging to the Huebner family are F-4, the Huebner brothers’ brand; 7-11, the brand of Dudley Huebner, and 7-H, the brand of Ada Hurst, daughter of one of the early Huebners.
The three herds are brought together in the autumn for the drive. Twelve miles down FM 2668, and they eat dinner and rest for two hours.
The cattle rested also, and sometimes right in the middle of the road!
Matagorda County allows cattle to be driven along the highway, an since the U. S. Postal Service and a funeral procession are the only priorities, an irate driver has no choice but to wait until the cowboys help them or the resting herd decides to move.
They drive the herd down back roads until they again come to the main road, Texas 60. Other ranchers who also drive their cattle to the peninsula sometimes join the Huebners. The herd stays overnight at Zipprians’s Corner.
The next day the herd goes down a back road in Matagorda to the bridge across the Intracoastal Waterway.
At that turn, the cattle must be held back, or they will run headlong across the bridge since they seem to know that they are going to the peninsula’s rich grazing land.
Hay is scattered on the bridge to keep the cattle from seeing the water below. After a rest on the other side, the herd is taken to the beach gate. The herd has walked 30 miles from its starting point. The cattle then swim across the mouth of the Colorado River.
The Matagorda Peninsula itself has changed greatly.
On the eastern end is where the Huebner herds are kept. It was once cut by a wide and swift bayou known as Greens Bayou, but now the channel is filled in.
The cattle are scattered over the peninsula, where they graze quietly on the rich grasses. The surf and the winds constantly reshape the shoreline.
The Huebner cattle drive forged a piece of history.
Copyright 2008 -
Present by The Houston Post
Apr. 12, 2008
May 19, 2011