The National Ranching Heritage Center recently completed its second trail ride, a chance for ranchers and ranch enthusiasts to share company, experience history and ride.
Gerald Nobles spends many of his days on a horse. The rancher from Brady rides to push cattle, watch out for problems in his herd and keep an eye on his land.
Spending more time riding his horse around a ranch doesn't seem like the way he'd choose to spend a weekend away.
“Most ranchers get a lot of horseback riding, so to go out and ride a horse on a trail ride is normally not a thing you would do,” he said. “But when there are people you don't see very often and you're leisurely riding through beautiful country, listening to the history of that country, it makes it worthwhile.
“It's a different kind of ride.”
That's exactly what compelled him to participate in the 2016 trail ride, which the National Ranching Heritage Center (NRHC) at Texas Tech University sponsored. The ride, which was May 13-15 at Collins Creek Ranch north of Albany, took almost 40 participants through Collins Creek and Lambshead ranches and Fort Griffin Historical Site.
Since many of the riders were ranchers and members of the executive council of the Ranching Heritage Association (RHA) Board of Directors, they went to school together, worked together or at least knew of each other. The trail ride was an opportunity for them to share their appreciation of the NRHC with their friends, not to mention a chance to go outside and play.
“It's almost like summer camp for adults,” said Robert Tidwell, curator of historic collections at the NRHC.
A day on the trail
Riders got to the Collins Creek Ranch Friday afternoon, then saddled their horses and rode to the historic Fort Griffin, which includes a mess hall, barracks, officer's quarters and a well. Re-enactors gave life to how the town of Fort Griffin would have looked in its heyday in the mid-1800s – streets filled with buffalo hunters, gamblers, saloon girls, ranchers, clerks, outlaws and soldiers, all contributing to the town's reputation as one of the West's five wildest towns.
After barbecue on Friday night, everyone went to bed in preparation for what Tidwell called the “from dusk ‘til dawn” day. Riders ate breakfast, saddled their horses and hit the trail, traveling all over Collins Creek Ranch and some of Lambshead Ranch, stopping every now and then at some historically significant place or particularly beautiful view. They weren't in a hurry, moving through the land slowly, enjoying the scenery, talking to each other and taking a lunch break followed by a siesta.
“The part I really liked was whenever we had a stop and people were just chitchatting with one another, especially when we stopped for lunch on Saturday,” Tidwell said. “You get to hear all of these people swap stories and tell these tales of adventures and misadventures from their youth.”
That camaraderie, as well as learning the history of the land they were on, was one of the highlights of the weekend for Tony Spears, president of the RHA and a rancher from Gonzales, though he then admitted the whole weekend was a highlight. The two ranches through which they rode were “just stacked with history” from the Comanche Indians centuries ago to the present. The group stopped at Camp Cooper at the Clear Fork of the Brazos River; the camp was the last duty station for U.S. Army Col. Robert E. Lee before he became general of the Confederate army.
The trail riders also stopped at an old cemetery where most of the Reynolds and Matthews families are buried. These families were two of the most prominent Texas ranching families in the 1800s, and their stories are told in the book “Interwoven,” by Sallie Reynolds Matthews.
“Those two ranches are just spattered with historical markers, and it just reeks with history,” Spears said.
Learning the history also was the best part for Betsy Bellah, a rancher who grew up in the area around Fort Griffin and one of the few women who went on the ride. She enjoyed the scenery from a horse-drawn wagon and said the trip was a chance to resurrect old lessons from her seventh-grade Texas history class.
“I loved hearing about the history and seeing where these events took place,” she said. “It was beautiful. The wildflowers were absolutely gorgeous.”
After a long day on the range, they returned to Collins Creek Ranch for a night of dinner, dancing and music from the Randy Brown Band. Dinner was excellent, Tidwell said – freshly slaughtered steaks cooked by gourmet chuckwagon cooks.
“It's a trail ride,” he said. “You have to have steak for your evening meal.”
Building up the mission of the NRHC
Three years ago Spears, a rancher from Gonzales, organized the first trail ride as a fundraiser after a round of budget cuts. That remains one reason for the event, but the bigger purpose is to raise awareness and increase excitement about the NRHC and its mission of promoting the history of ranching and the livestock industry today.
“We feel like we're a gem on the campus of Texas Tech University, and some people don't even know we're there,” he said.
The NRHC is known for the windmill that drivers on Marsha Sharp Freeway can see and the historic buildings that fill the 19-acre historic park. It has a rustic feel to it, and walking through on a windy day can make visitors feel they're in a dusty, Old West town. That is the experience, Spears said, but the NRHC is much bigger, including a museum with artifacts, photographs and western paintings.
“I tell everybody we're a bunch of ranchers who are very passionate about the history and heritage of ranching in Texas, but with an artsy-fartsy side,” he said. “We appreciate western fine art, and we have got a bunch of that.”
Both Bellah and Nobles talked about the influence ranching had on their lives. Nobles grew up on a ranch and knew from a young age that he wanted to follow in his father's and grandfather's careers and become a rancher.
“I was very proud of the heritage I received,” he said, adding both of the trail ride and the industry: “When you get older you learn to appreciate some of the things that went on ahead of you that created things the way they are.”
Bellah said the NRHC is a way to inform people how significant ranching is in Texas and the region and the importance of knowing its history.
“I want people to experience the National Ranching Heritage Center, to learn how precious history is and the importance to the future of where food comes from,” she said. “It's just very dear to my heart.”
To become a member of the RHA, go here.