Longhorn of the Vanities

How hardy Texas cattle became prestige pets for the rich and nostalgic

On the telephone, Darol sounds less like a good old boy and more like a slick marketer, at one point calling those long horns a "symbol of purity" and, in general, making his cows sound as if they can do everything but program your VCR.

Darol sidesteps the question of whether wild traits are being bred out of longhorns by launching into a discussion of Christopher Columbus, oxen as historical beasts of burden and the Biblical cattle of Bashan. The point seems to be that it's perfectly all right for animals to be adapted to fill the needs of humanity.

There was no longhorn "breed" before the Civil War. There were hardly any breeds of any kind, but rather just cows. Longhorns were mongrels, born of the mixing of wild Spanish cattle--left to fend for themselves after Texan independence--with the English breeds of new Anglo settlers.

The Civil War was important for the development of the breed, mainly because it kept everyone occupied so the cattle could reproduce in peace. When settlers rushed to Texas after the war ended, theyfound the place filled with longhorn cows--some estimates say five million of them.

Longhorns were no beauty-contest winners. "Slab-sided," the ultimate insult that can be hurled at a cow, was regularly applied. They were rangy and bony, with long faces, long legs and a big, goofy set of horns. The came in all colors--reds and browns, black or white, as well as speckled, freckled and spotted like a paint horse.

The creatures were feral, living in the brushy country between the Nueces and the Rio Grande, having adapted the wild animal's policy of laying low during daylight hours and browsing during twilight at morning and evening. Nobody owned them, and all a man needed to start a ranching operation was a branding iron and the patience to round up the cattle.

A few ranchers had already begun trailing the cows out of Texas to New Orleans or the gold fields of California, but the real push came after the war, when the railroad arrived in Kansas.

So much attention has been paid to the exploits of the cowboys who accompanied the cattle drives that the accomplishments of the longhorns themselves have been shortchanged. What they did was extraordinary.

While the cowboys had to pack their grub, the cows lived off the very grass they were traveling over. Longhorns are "thrifty" cattle, willing to eat just about anything that grows, and able to keep their weight up without a lot of it. On the trail, they sometimes had to go days without water, and sometimes had to swim rivers swollen with it.

J. Frank Dobie paid them a wonderful compliment in The Longhorns, his 1941 paean to the breed: "They furnished their own transportation, rustled their own forage, and asked no odds. On their way to the Pacific, they crossed deserts still feared by automobile drivers."

A lead steer always emerged on the traildrive. The most famous of these wasOld Blue, a blue roan owned by Charlie Goodnight who proved himself so valuable he was never slaughtered. If the lead steer crossed a river--even if it required swimming--the rest of the herd followed. Sometimes the hands would fasten a bell to the lead steer's neck. When the cattle heard the bell ring in the morning, they'd stand up, knowing it was time to go.

The heyday of the trail drives was the 1870s. By the turn of the century, longhorns had been replaced by English cows, and cattle ranching had exchanged the open range for fenced pastures and winter feeding.

By the 1920s, longhorns were almost extinct. Even Dobie's book sounds like an elegy to the breed. "The longhorn is of the past," he says flatly.

Today, more than 230,000 longhorns are registered with the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America. That doesn't account for cattle that haven't been registered or have signed up with a rival association. The credit for saving the breed goes to a number of ranchers in Texas, most descendants of early settlers who remembered the longhorns their daddies had raised.

A great deal of credit for the preservation of the breed also must go to the federal government.

In 1927, a Forest Service employee in Arizona named Will C. Barnes convinced the government to give him $3,000, and used it to travel around south Texas looking for the purest remaining specimens of the longhorn breed. The government eventually bought 30 head, which were shipped to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in western Oklahoma.

Over the years, the herd was culled of animals that gave birth to suspicious-looking offspring, and some animals from northern Mexico were added. The animals were blood-typed as recently as 1990, when one with Brahman and one with Durham blood were removed.

"This refuge is here strictly to preserve a cultural and historical resource," says Joe Kimball, the man in charge of the breeding program there.

"Ours are as close to the 1920s animals as possible."
He's trying to make them as close to the original longhorns as possible, too, going so far as to scrutinize pictures of herds bedded down around Dodge City in the 1870s.

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