The End of the War & Building A Business
By the end of the war between the states, King Ranch had grown to 146,000 acres – supporting thousands of head of cattle.
Getting these cattle to market was a real challenge, though, as some one thousand miles of dangerous wilderness stretched out between Captain King’s cattle and the midwestern railheads where they could be sold. Captain King’s domesticated longhorns were some of the very first hoof stock to comprise the early northward Texas cattle drives. Around this time, Captain King registered a brand that has since taken on mythic significance in the taming of the West – the famous “Running W”.
Richard King’s sense of adventure was rivaled only by his vision and ability to seize on new business opportunities. In addition to tirelessly working to improve the ranch, he invested in building railroads, packinghouses, ice plants and harbor improvements for the port of Corpus Christi. He was keen on creating the infrastructure that would get his product to market in the most efficient way possible. One of Captain King’s most important contributions to his ranch’s improvement was the outworking of his vision to improve his cattle and horse stock through an aggressive, thorough and studied upbreeding (breed improvement) program. By means of this program, King began to transform the hardscrabble longhorns and wild horses of his lands into the finest cattle and horses in Texas. Scientific upbreeding programs have been hallmarks of King Ranch since its inception, and they have paid off in spades. The upshot of one such program in the years after King’s death would be the development of the Santa Gertrudis breed of cattle – the first officially recognized new breed of beef cattle in America.
Other upbreeding programs led to the development of the country’s top quarter horses and some of America’s most notable thoroughbreds – including 1946 Triple Crown winner ASSAULT. Twenty-first century King Ranch maintains the tradition of meticulous upbreeding that has distinguished the ranch through many generations. The sale of bulls and seed stock are important components of the ranch’s contemporary business.
Rebuffing adversity and taking advantage of opportunities when he saw them, Richard King, along with his indispensable Kineños, tamed the land and revolutionized the ranching business. By the time of his death in 1885, Richard King had created a legacy that would become known, far and wide, as the birthplace of American ranching. The boy who started as an impoverished, indentured jeweler’s apprentice became an adventuresome, hard working and visionary businessman who, by the time of his death in 1885, had made his indelible mark on the landscape and taken his place as a titan among the ranks of the tamers of the Texas range.
Consolidation and Organization
During some legal proceedings in Corpus Christi in 1881, Captain King was so impressed with the opposing counsel that he sought him out after matters were settled. This young lawyer would soon be handling the lion’s share of the great rancher’s legal work. His interest would also light on a lovely young lady in the King household – the captain’s youngest daughter, Alice Gertrudis King. That young lawyer’s name was Robert Justus Kleberg, and he married Alice in 1886, during the year after Captain King’s death in 1885.
Robert Kleberg worked with Henrietta King, Captain King’s widow, to further develop and consolidate King Ranch. Among the many innovations for which he was responsible on the ranch, perhaps foremost among them were his efforts to drill for artesian water. These efforts paid off as Mr. Kleberg brought in a gusher of a water well in 1899, and then another and another – discovering a river of water running under the drought-prone rangelands. This discovery was a welcome end to a decade that started with a drought so severe it was known as “the great die-up.”
Robert J. Kleberg oversaw the building of cross fences that divided the vast acres into managed pastures. He established a concerted program to accelerate the breed improvement of horses and cattle on the ranch. He imported top equine stock and led efforts to develop a breed of cattle that could withstand the hot, harsh South Texas climate. He also initiated an aggressive mesquite-clearing program on the ranch.
The Texas Fever Tick created significant problems for the marketing of cattle from South Texas. Robert J. Kleberg designed the first cattle dipping vats to battle the tick. In addition to all of these accomplishments, Mr. Kleberg built a facility that was, for a time, the largest cattle rail operation in the world.
During this era, Robert J. Kleberg and Mrs. King continued to improve and diversify the assets of King Ranch with agricultural development, land sales, and town building projects. In 1904, their efforts were instrumental in helping to build the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico Railway — as well as several towns along the newly laid track, including Kingsville. Before her death in 1925, Henrietta King had donated land and funds toward the construction of churches, libraries, and school projects (creating an oasis of community development) in this previously untamed land.
The birth of the Santa Gertrudis breed
When their father’s health declined in the early twentieth century, two of the five children born to Robert J. and Alice King Kleberg assumed responsibility for the ranch. Richard Mifflin (Mr. Dick) Kleberg, Sr., who served as a seven-term member of the US Congress, handled the legal and financial aspects of the ranch. Robert Justus (Mr. Bob) Kleberg acted as head of the ranch’s operations and continued as President and CEO for the next fifty years.
It was during these transitional years that King Ranch made its name in animal husbandry. By crossbreeding Brahman bulls, native to India, with British Shorthorn stock, the ranch produced the Santa Gertrudis, recognized as the first American breed of beef cattle and the first cattle breed to be recognized in the world in more than a century. This breed of cattle continues to be recognized throughout the world for its fine beef quality and ability to withstand arid climates. Today, the Santa Gertrudis is the most prevalent cattle breed in Australia.
This era also launched the famed King Ranch horse legacy. Acquiring and breeding superior foundation stallions, the King Ranch Quarter Horse program produced the number one registration (WIMPY) in the American Quarter Horse Association Stud Book and Registry, as well as the youngest horse (MR SAN PEPPY) ever to be inducted into the National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame. It was also at this time that King Ranch acquired the prized Thoroughbred stallions that went on to produce, among others, ASSAULT, 1946 winner of the prestigious Triple Crown, and MIDDLEGROUND, the 1950 winner of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.
For the country as well as the Klebergs, these were challenging years, plagued by debt, taxes, and an economy just emerging from the Great Depression. In 1934, Alice King Kleberg consolidated much of the ranch property into a corporation, with her children as stockholders. During the thirties the family successfully negotiated several long-term leases with Humble Oil and Refining Company (now ExxonMobil) for oil and gas rights to the 1.15 million acres of King Ranch property.
Around the world and back
In 1940, Dick Kleberg, Jr., joined his father, Mr. Dick, and his uncle, Mr. Bob, in managing King Ranch. Together, they initiated a series of innovations that kept King Ranch successful and at the leading edge of the ranching industry.
This era saw the development of mechanized brush control methods and innovative corrals for working cattle. King Ranch also developed new and better grasses and began using mineral supplements to improve animal health. Modern game management and wildlife conservation practices were expanded, and continue to benefit the ranch today.
Oil and gas royalties drove another growth spurt for King Ranch during this period. After World War II, the ranch’s agricultural business was extended, in part to expand the national and global presence of the Santa Gertrudis breed. Acquisitions came through the purchase of property in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and West Texas, and through joint ventures and partnerships in Florida. Management developed ranching operations overseas with land purchases in Argentina, Cuba, Brazil, Australia, Venezuela, Spain, and Morocco. The systematic and ambitious expansion of this period – in agriculture, energy, and real estate, together with expanded retail operations – created the platform for the business segments of King Ranch today.