By CLINT FOSTER
PALO PINTO COUNTY – Farming and ranching has left an indelible mark on the identity and history of the Lone Star State. Whether the Mexican vaqueros of the 1700s or the cowboys of the Chisholm Trail, the men and women of Texas have depended on ranchers for centuries to provide the very backbone, or at least a central part, of the Texas economy and way of life.
In many cases, farms and ranches have been passed down through generations of families, with a select few managing to stay under family operation all that time. The Warren, Ewton and Reed families of Palo Pinto County have done just that.
In November of last year, the three families were honored at the 38th Annual Family Land Heritage ceremony in the State Capitol along with the owners of 113 other farmers and ranchers – spanning 66 Texas counties – who have kept their properties up and running, exclusively by family hands, for at least 100 years.
The Warren's ranch (the McKinney-Warren Place) and the Metcalfe Ranch, belonging to the Ewtons and Reeds, received the state's highest honor from Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. Their ranches are two of only 11 Texas ranches that have thrived for 150 years.
"Life in agriculture is never easy or simple, yet it's truly a rewarding way of life," Staples said at the event. "We face droughts, fires, floods and pests, but here in Texas, we persevere.
"Today, the land these families have nurtured has turned the Texas agriculture industry into a powerhouse of productivity that generates $100 billion in economic impact for our state. That's an accomplishment that would not be possible without the hard work of our farming and ranching families.
"I congratulate our honorees for persevering their ancestors' dream and making Texas a leader in agriculture."
The McKinney-Warren Place sits just 7 miles northeast of the town of Palo Pinto, near the banks of the Brazos River, while the Metcalfe Ranch draws its lines just 7 miles northwest of Mineral Wells. Both ranches and families have shared a border and friendship for more than a century and a half and have been witnesses to history.
According to family accounts, the original owners of the two ranches served together on the first grand jury in Palo Pinto County that indicted the famous cattle rancher Oliver Loving for selling liquor to Indian tribes. And in 1908, one of the Metcalfes was a midwife for the Warren woman who gave birth to the fourth-generation owner of the McKinney-Warren Place.
Lou Warren, who continues to work the McKinney-Warren Place with her husband, Randy, said the Ag Department did an "excellent job" putting on the "wonderfully organized" event to honor the hard work of generations of Texas families.
"It's a very nice day," she said. "It's a very meaningful event when you realize and you see these people whose families have held their property and kept it going this long."
Warren said the story of the McKinney-Warren Place – which the family affectionately calls the Home Place or the Old Place – began in 1853 when 25-year-old Letha Caroline Cary McKinney traveled to Texas from Alabama in a covered wagon with her husband, William. They built a log cabin on the land by 1858 – portions of the cabin would stand until 1966 – and acquired a grant for 160 acres of the property in 1859.
William McKinney went to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War the following year, survived and returned home to Palo Pinto County in time to sign up for the first voter registration in Texas between 1867 and 1869. After that, Warren said record of McKinney disappears, and by the 1880 census, Mrs. McKinney had listed herself as a widow.
From then on, Mrs. McKinney took on the unique task of owning and running a ranch on the Texas frontier as a single woman. She raised cattle, with a registered cattle brand, and grew cotton and corn in addition to caring for a small family garden. She also cut cedar posts to sell and use for fencing. Warren said McKinney’s oldest great-grandson described her as a "very stern" woman who "didn't put up with nonsense on the frontier."
"She's very interesting," Warren said. "To have come at age 25 from Alabama to Texas and then to obtain this land and to hold onto it all those years; we're talking through the Depression, world wars, whatever, and they managed to pay the taxes and hold onto this land."
McKinney weathered her share of hardship on the wild frontier.
Although Warren said there was no evidence of Native American raids on the old log cabin, she told a story of how McKinney was attacked by Indians on her way home from Palo Pinto on one occasion. The Indians surprised her while she was riding her pony alone, killed her rooster and proceeded to go through her things. But McKinney managed to escape into the trees with her gun and shot at the indians from a hiding spot in the brush until they left her.
McKinney lost both of her children when they were young adults. According to family lore, famous cattleman Charles Goodnight actually kept a herd across the river from the McKinney-Warren Place and took McKinney's son, Robert, on a cattle drive with him. But Robert returned from the trip with pneumonia and did not survive.
After Mrs. McKinney died, the ranch continued to pass from generation to generation until Randy Warren inherited a majority interest in the property from his uncle. Now, ownership of the 310-acre ranch has passed to Lou and Randy’s sons, William John and Rhett Lee Warren, and Randy’s cousin, Byron Warren, a fifth and sixth generation of McKinney/Warrens.
In addition to Randy, Mrs. McKinney’s great-great-grandchildren still living in Palo Pinto County include Elton Glidewell, Alverine Cluck and Frances Palmer.
Lou and her husband work the ranch for their sons because they live closest to the property, with a house on the Brazos River, south of Mineral Wells. They raise winter wheat, a hay crop, coastal bermuda grass and, of course, a thriving herd of cattle.
Now, with the State's award hanging proudly in her home, Warren said they couldn't dream of selling the property to anyone outside the family. She only hopes that when it comes time for her children to work the land, they can continue the tradition for generations to come.
"We hope that they'll be able to continue the legacy of using the land," she said. It's a legacy with roots as deep as Texas itself.