Spring Branding at the Rocker b Ranch
Article and photographs by Carol Hutchison
Nathan Smith drives the calves into a working pen.
Most Texas ranches seem to have interesting and colorful histories attached to them. The Rocker b Ranch at Barnhart and its cowboys have more than their share.
Last April, I was invited to photograph the Rocker b spring branding. As I approached the ranch entrance, I
passed a nice-looking gate sign, wildflowers and pronghorn antelope. Headquarters are not too far past the gate. They consist of homes, barns, the office, a bunkhouse, a well-appointed lodge and a small lake.
Dennis Webb, who has been with Rocker b for 12 years, the last 6 as director of ranch operations, greets me to
line out our day. Since I'm from an area not known for an over-abundance of snakes, I had to ask. Webb
reassured me, saying, "There are dangers in every environment. In the city, there are many more dangers
lurking that I am unaware of and don't know how to avoid. I know where to look for the snakes on the ranch.
We won't let you get snake bit," and I never saw one during my photo shoot.
The Rocker b Ranch is about a 45-minute drive southwest of San Angelo. It is rich in history and historic sites.
These combine well with the cowboys on horseback, the cattle roundups, the spring branding and working, and
the active chuck wagon to make interesting photographs. It is a privilege to experience ranch work that most
people don't realize still takes place.
Rocker b Ranch was first known as the Bar S Ranch, which was established in 1888. Sen. William Blakley
purchased the ranch and renamed it. In 1964, he donated the ranch to the Dallas-based Texas Scottish Rite
Hospital for Children. The hospital still owns the ranch, and the cowboys and staff at the Rocker b seem to appreciate how fortunate they are to work for the children who benefit from the hospital.
Setting up work camp
The Rocker b runs Hereford bulls with Angus cows. The ranch is primarily a cow-calf operation and runs stocker cattle when conditions are favorable. They sell hunts for antelope, deer, quail, bobcat, coyote, feral hog, javelina and turkey during various hunting seasons.
Pronghorn antelope found on the ranch are rumored to be a Mexican sub-species. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is conducting DNA testing to determine the answer.
Most of the horses on site belong to the ranch, aside from a few owned by day-working cowboys who come out to help for spring branding. The remuda contains all foundation bred horses. The ranch stands 4 studs and practices pasture breeding to the ranch mares. Some of the offspring are sold, and some outside broodmares are taken in, but most are kept for the remuda.
Nine cowboys and the wagon cook, along with office staff, make spring branding run smoothly. The cowboys, cook and Webb camp in teepees at the wagon during branding. The camp serves as headquarters out in the field.
The remuda is kept at camp and cattle are gathered and worked in the pastures, which bear colorful names from the ranch's 1888 beginning such as Rainbow, Emergency and Who Doo.
Webb says he doesn't know the reasoning behind some of the names, but he's used his imagination to suppose.
The branding camp is set up until the work is complete, which is typically 4 weeks. The wagon cook provides 3 hot meals daily, starting the cook fires at 4:30 each morning for breakfast at 6:30.
Cook Rick is from Dallas and is a fabulous cook and a quintessential cowboy. His food was one of the highlights of my trip — fresh bread and pinto beans at every meal, sausage jambalaya, hamburger steaks with mushroom gravy, cherry cobbler and asado, just to name a few.
Chuck-wagon cooking is fascinating to watch, with its specially made pots and carefully arranged coals. This wasn't Cook Rick's first wagon cook job by any means, but was his first for the Rocker b. Needless to say, the cowboys want him to become a regular.
Making our way to camp, I was amazed by the vast views. Webb agreed with me that the average person doesn't see this scenery every day, and most don't experience it in their lifetime. Webb says he is mindful of this and tries to pause daily to reflect on his good fortune to manage such a ranch. He feels that he and his wife, Tammy, were sent to do just that, and he remembers his ultimate goal — to put good beef on the table.
Stagecoach and cattle trails
Between brandings, Webb provided a tour of the ranch with historical side notes. The Butterfield Stage went through the ranch, along the Centralia Draw. The remains of the head of Concho Station can be found on the property. This station had the last dependable water supply on the westward trip until the Pecos River, 141 miles away.
Rocker b employees have also found old mile markers along the route. The Butterfield Stage used this as its southern route until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, but for the short time it operated, it was a great boon to the frontier families in Texas.
It brought more frequent and dependable mail and freight service, visitors and news of the rest of the world, both in newspapers and through the oral accounts of the passengers. According to the Texas State Historical Association, Mr. Butterfield warned his passengers with a poster that read: "You will be traveling through Indian country and the safety of your person cannot be vouchsafed by anyone but God."
The Goodnight-Loving Trail also passes through the ranch, along the same path as the Butterfield Stage. This is a route Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight pioneered to drive their cattle from Belknap, in Young County, Texas, to Ft. Sumner, N.M., and up into Colorado.
Interestingly, James C. Loving, son of Oliver Loving, was one of the founding members of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, and attended the first meeting under an oak tree in Graham in 1877.
It was at this trail that Webb pointed out how the land used to be covered by rolling grass pastures. The brush on the ranch now isn't native to the area. He and his colleagues would like to restore the ranch to its native habitat, which would increase the ranch's livestock carrying capacity.
Jim Hurst, the Rocker b wildlife manager, takes care of the hunting and wildlife management on the ranch. Hurst says restoration will take time and has to be pursued from different angles, with prescribed burns, mechanical and chemical treatments.
Hurst also provided interesting history about the ranch. In the 1860s, 4 cowboys had driven their cattle to New Mexico for sale. They never returned home. The Ninth Cavalry out of Fort Concho, later dubbed Buffalo Soldiers, found their bodies somewhere west of the Middle Concho River on the ranch and contacted the families. The bodies were buried on site. Later that same year, on the point above the site, families of those cowboys constructed a monument — a tower of limestone — to mark the area of the graves. This monument is still there today.
It is believed the cowboys were killed by Indians because paper money was found scattered around the bodies, but hardware or tools were missing.
Good cowboys make up the team at the Rocker b. Some stay for years, but there have been a handful who realized they don't care for living so far out from town. Webb says that if a person wants to do this kind of work, "you have to make up your mind and just do it."
An exceptional group of cowboys has worked together for several years. Mitchell Sawyer is foreman. All are good men, husbands and employees, strong in their faith and just as respectful to each other as they are to the bosses, traits of which Webb and Sawyer are proud.
Webb camps with the crew and shares their meals as often as he can, saying, "If I expect my men to eat it, then I will eat it with them."
Webb acknowledges that rolling out the chuck wagon could be considered nostalgic, but, "It truly is the most efficient and cost-effective way of feeding everyone and getting the job done. The boys are right there and ready to go to work. You don't have to wait for anyone to get there to begin."
The 7 cowboys who work full-time for the ranch live in houses scattered throughout the place. They each are responsible for approximately 30,000 acres and they guide hunters.
Cowboys who have retired from the ranch stay in touch. The ranch hosted a reunion for them in 2004 and the stories were rampant. One retired cowboy recounted a 10-day rain, along with the month and year. Some of the younger cowboys wondered how he could recall the details of a rain. Webb believes it's because they didn't have all of the distractions we have today. He says, "Our minds are filled with so much information. The 10-day rain was the most important and significant thing to him at the time — that's how he remembered it."
After leaving Rocker b and returning to my home, it felt strange to sit in a restaurant in the middle of a large city remembering just hours before, sitting on a bench, holding a plate of asado, tortillas and beans watching a beautiful sunset.
This trip to the Rocker b for spring branding offered a few days of simple life and unique experiences — something I won't forget. Part of taking photographs, for me, is to tell a story. My hope is that I took the photographs and remembered the stories in a way that would accurately convey the history and lifestyle of the Rocker b Ranch, and maybe help to preserve some of it. As I overheard Cook and some of the cowboys repeat, "Charles Goodnight would be proud."
Editor's note: To see more of Carol Hutchison's photographs from the 2010 Rocker b Ranch spring branding, go to chphotography.net and click on "Rocker b" in her portfolio list.
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