Cowboying the Old Fashioned Way for a Good Cause
By Lesli Nolen
The Rocker b Ranch in West Texas is a traditional working ranch working for a good cause. While Rocker b cowboys are breaking horses, branding calves and mending fences, the profit of their labor is put to good use in a bright colorful environ ment where doctors are fixing bones, mending hearts and giving children a second chance at life.
The ranch, one of the largest single chunks of ranch land under one fence in the state, is owned and operated by the nonprofit Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas. Sen. William A. Blakley donated the ranch and its interests to the hospital many years ago and since then the ranch has contributed greatly to the operating budget of the hospital. Rocker b also stands as a preserve of the best of ranching and cowboy culture.
In April, RRL editor Gary Cutrer and I were invited to visit the Rocker b where we were treated like VIPs and given the grand tour by ranch manager Dennis Webb. We saw a real working ranch where, as only a handful of other ranches in Texas, they still do a lot of things the old fashioned cowboy way.
I should start describing the Rocker b with a little about its history. Most of the following was paraphrased from a book titled “A Place of Miracles: The Legacy of the Rocker b,” by Sam E. Hilburn. Mr. Hilburn plays an important role in the relationship of Rocker b and the Scottish Rite Hospital. A retired geologist and oil business entrepreneur who attended Tarleton State Univ., Texas A&M and graduated from the University of Oklahoma, Mr. Hilburn served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the hospital and often visited Rocker b Ranch by the invitation of Sen. Blakley.
On the open range in the 19th Century, cowboys trailed cattle from South Texas and the Hill Country ranges, heading north to Kansas and Colorado railheads and better markets. One such trail was blazed by Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving who chose to journey west beyond the North Concho River, moving across the divided Middle Concho and through the old Butterfield stagecoach trail remnants to Centralia Draw and across what is now Rocker b country. Goodnight and Loving and their cowboys are solidly etched as part of Texas history and won’t soon be forgotten, but neither will the cowboys that are on the same land working cattle today.
The history of the Rocker b is a story of real cowboys working cattle on the same dry wind blown land that Goodnight and Loving once crossed. It started when the Sawyer Cattle Company began buying various parcels of land between 1887 and 1906, mostly in Irion, Reagan, Sterling and Glasscock counties. Some of that land was purchased from S. S. Sterrett and George Sherwood in 1871. It consisted of 8,000 acres, a working ranch and 10,000 head of cattle branded with the Bar S with a ladder on the hip. The Sawyer Cattle Company, new owners of the land and cattle, kept the Bar S brand, but dropped the ladder. That’s how the Bar S ranch came to be. And it would stay that way until April 30, 1954 when Senator Blakley would purchase the ranch and change the brand to the Rocker b.
In 1880 one of the first settlers to call Irion county home was R.F. Tankersley, who also owned the 7D ranch near Dallas. His cattle grazed in the open ranch land along with the Sawyers’-- at least until 1884 when they met and decided it was time to divide the land. And that was the end of open range. A fence now divided the Bar S and the 7D ranches. It was the beginning of change. Now more than ever good cowboys were in high demand. Only the top cowboys could work on the ranches. They had to be self sustaining, resourceful, and hard working. They became the hired help and the ranch became a thriving business.
The Sawyers were known for their leadership in the livestock industry. They hired only the best to run the ranch and brought in only the best livestock. After Tankersley passed away in 1918, L.L. Farr took the reins. He brought in upgraded Hereford bulls and began stocking Quarter horses to replace the Mustangs. And in 1930, L.L. Farr Jr. took over where his dad left off. He kept what his past generations had started and then some. Farr Jr. began controlling pest and trapping animals. It took many years to successfully reduce the number of predators. Something that is still in practice today on the Rocker b ranch. The Bar S reputation would continue leaving the imprint of a very successful ranching business.
In 1954 William A. Blakley purchased the ranch. Three years later in 1957 he was appointed by Texas Gov. to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of U.S. Sen Price Daniel. Sen. Blakley served the remainder of the Senate term and was again appointed to fill a senator’s seat when Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson resigned his seat in January 1961 to serve as vice president.
Sen. Blakley continued the tradition of having only the best cowboys and managers work the ranch. He also continued to bring in the best quality of cattle and horses.
Blakley began an aggressive brush control program and improved the pastures by curbing mesquite and other water hogging plants, something ranchers are concerned with today. With rangeland management came new opportunity. The pronghorn antelope had roamed the prairies as long as any one could remember but by the mid 20th Century their numbers in Texas had dwindled to just a few small herds. In 1972 and 1973 more than 1,100 were captured and restocked throughout Arizona, New Mexico and Texas and 55 were released on the Rocker b ranch. Herds began to flourish and the Rocker b today has a healthy and thriving herd of pronghorn.
With the help of modern wildlife management practices on the ranch, antelope are not the only wild game to be seen there. An resurgence of whitetail deer occurred after most of the brush control had been done. Hunting was permitted by invitation on the ranch in 1976.
It was a year later that Senator Blakely would turn the Rocker b ranch over to the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children. With such a gift the TSRHC could expand the hospital’s development.
As impressive as the Rocker b’s history is, what is more inspiring is the work that the ranch’s profits help to fund — the Scottish Rite Hospital’s treatment of sick children. What follows is just a brief summary of the TSRHC’s history and description of its mission, again paraphrased from Mr. Hilburn’s book.
Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children
The Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children was founded by Dr. William Beall Carrell, M.D., in 1921. It was his vision and his passion that made this dream a reality.
It was a time of depression and disease. Polio became an epidemic sweeping across America and no one could hide from it, especially children. The summer months seemed to be the worse. No one knew where the disease came from nor did they know when it would leave. Some blamed it on flies, the heat, or even pollen in the air. The flu-like symptoms followed by weakening arms, legs, and then lungs, was hard on every heart. The paralysis of children affected by Polio was especially crippling to the heart of Dr. Carrrell.
He treated his young patients in his downtown Dallas clinic. He was the first orthopedic surgeon in the area to treat children for paralysis and did so with no charge. Soon his office became too small to see all the children affected by the debilitating disease.
Dr. Carrell began discussing his need and desire to treat these children with polio and to do so without charge with his fellow masons and other civic leaders. It was then that the Masons went to their fellow Masons and were able to raise $20,000 to purchase a hospital for the children.
Knowing the money necessary to staff and run the hospital would have to to come through donations they continued with the plan. Soon Dr. Carrell’s dream became reality and the afflicted children began receiving treatment free of charge at the new facility.
Then, in 1956, word came that Dr. Jonas Salk had developed a polio vaccine.
But even with polio conquered, Dr. Carrell never lost his vision of helping children without charging them. In 1944 his son, Dr. Brandon Carrell, took over his duties. With new visions the TSRHC began offering treatment for a wide range of orthopedic disabilities caused by birth defects, diseases and injuries. Over time, with new treatments came new technology, new patients and more need for funding. And that’s when the gift of Rocker b Ranch played a pivotal role in the growth of TSRHC. In 1977, a new hospital that would cover 400,000 square feet on six levels was built. Today, The Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children sits on 14 acres of land in Dallas.
Most of the patients today treated at TSRHC are orthopedic related. Treatments include those for congenital orthopedic problems, such as scoliosis and congenital dislocation of the hip or spine disorders; orthopedic complications of cerebral palsy and neuromuscular disease such as muscular dystrophy; and limb-length discrepancies and hand anomalies. Spina bifida is the most common birth defect in the country today, and more spina bifida patients are treated at the TSRHC than anywhere in the United States.
The Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children also has a child development division. It’s called the Luke Waites Child Development Center. Dyslexia affects a large number of children, and at the Luke Waites Child Development Center, dyslexic children now have access to educational learning guides to help them, and it’s free.
Research is vital to the TSRHC and plays a very important role in the way the hospital’s doctors and nurses care for their patients. Their ongoing research and cumulative knowledge of scoliosis has resulted in the TSRH Spinal System. It’s used world wide today to correct spinal deformities. The TSRHC has developed a TRUE/LOC system used in the lengthening and straightening of limbs.
The hospital is governed by Freemasons, a worldwide fraternal organization. The TSRHC board trustees are members of the Scottish Rite Freemasonry of Texas. The growth and expansion of this hospital operate on an individual voluntary basis. Financial support of the hospital is operated on the same basis. All children ages birth to 18 years of age can receive medical care from the TSRHC at no charge. All that is needed is doctor referral. No proof of income is required. Services are available for any child with a doctors note.
At press time about 80 children from Tom Green and surrounding counties in West Texas were receiving treatment at the TSRHC. Since 1921 TSRHC has treated 864 children from the San Angelo and surrounding area alone and kids from all over the state receive treatment there.
Visit to Rocker b
When we arrived for our visit to the ranch we were struck by the well ordered headquarters but not a sole was in sight except for a cat and a tough looking dog. We guessed the right building where we were to meet the ranch manager and were given a warm welcome.
Mr. Dennis Webb has been the active manager on the Rocker b ranch for more than 10 years. And upon taking the reins of the operation he made a visit to the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children.
“It was a life changing experience for me, “ Mr. Webb says of his realization that his efforts in running a profitable enterprise on the ranch would help so many children get the medical help they need. Each employee or cowboy on the ranch goes to the TSRHC and meets with the staff of the hospital and gets to see the children who are receiving treatment. “It gives the cowboys a better understanding of what their labor goes to,” Mr. Webb said.
There were nine cowboys working the ranch the day Gary and I visited the ranch. We were able to see what life was like for a day for these cowboys.
On the Rocker b ranch work is done the old fashioned way -- at least to the extent that it can be. Roundups are done on horseback, and with so much country to cover it’s a good way to do it. The day we visited the hands and chuckwagon cook had been at it a week or so, gathering and working cattle. They didn’t go back to the bunkhouse each night on the gather, no sir. They slept at the camp in canvas teepees and gathered and worked cattle all day.
The cowboys, once on the ranch, start by picking their horse from the ranch’s own herd. They must break the horse, which is done with a lead rope, no halters for the horse. They are to groom them, shoe them, and feed them. Each horse on the ranch is freeze branded with an identification number and the Rocker b brand. The horses become the cowboys’ vehicles for the duration of their job which is usually three weeks at a time on different camp sites on the ranch. They begin their day with the cattle they gathered the night before, ranging anywhere between 40 to 60 Angus cows. The ranch is building a quality Angus herd, Mr. Webb explained, though on separate pastures they also graze a lot of commercial stockers that go to slaughter.
Though it was April the weather was brisk as the cowboys worked calves. A man ahorseback would rope a calf and two or three men would throw the calf down. Then a whole crew would advance, one with a hot branding iron, one with a dewormer, one with a vaccination gun and one to castrate the male calves. The cowboys would get it all done in one shot and release the calf.
“When you put your brand on it, it is like putting your name on it,” Mr. Webb said. “We take pride in the work we do especially when it’s going to such a good established corporation.”
Each cowboy is responsible for his own tepee. A young man named Ryan was nice enough to show us his tepee. Inside we saw a sleeping bag, pillow and a large plastic bin. The plastic bin was his suitcase. It was a place to hold his clothing, alarm clock and anything else he didn’t want to give up to the nightly predators.
“You never know what creature will wander around in the middle of the night looking for something” Ryan said.
For three weeks on the roundup their teepee becomes their home away from home. It’s their shelter from the wind and rain, at least at night.
Dealing with the weather “can be the hardest part of the job” Ryan said.
One benefit to the job is being provided three square meals a day, thanks to Chuck Wagon cook Allen Hailey. Mr Hailey said he can cook 14 meals for the boys without repeating the same meal, with the exception of breakfast. That’s pretty good for cooking everything outside in an iron skillet or dutch oven over a fire.
We had the good fortune of sampling Allen’s chicken fried steak, gravy, mashed potatoes and cornbread--down home cooking. I cleaned my plate. A lot of the young cowboys came back for second platefuls, but none of them were carrying any extra weight.
When more supplies are needed Allen returns to the main house to restock and heads back to camp. He sleeps in a canvas teepee just like the cowboys do. When he’s not cooking he’s cleaning. When we finished eating we put our dishes in a tub and Allen poured boiling water over them, let them soak as he started boiling more water to rinse them. It was old cowboy way of living for the day.
For more information visit the website of the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital For Children
Thank you to Mr. Webb, Mr. Hailey and all the cowboys that allowed us to take part in their day. It was truly an unforgettable experience. Also, thanks to Melinda Wenk with the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for the information about the hospital and what all they do. If you would like more information regarding TSRHC or would like to donate please follow the link above.
From the July 2007 issue of Ranch & Rural Living