Texas History and Cow Dipping

The basic idea behind “Living History” exhibits is of course to present history in a fashion consistent with the inhabitants of the day. We’ve seen quite a few of the country’s best, from Iowa’s Living History Farms to the ultimate living history site Colonial Williamsburg, but we both agreed that the George Ranch Historical Park outside of Houston ranks at the top.

The park’s goal s to connect and teach visitors about Texas history using one family’s struggles in developing a home for themselves beginning in 1824 with Henry and Nancy Jones when Texas was part of Mexico and continuing to the 1930s home of A.P. and Mamie George, direct descendents of the Jones family.

On this particular rainy day, we felt like we were on a private tour. At each home, we were warmly greeted by historical interpreters – some presenting in first and some in third person. But each and every one was thorough, friendly and genuinely excited about the ranch’s history answering as many questions as we could fire at them – and we can fire a few! – before gently guiding us to the next stop.

We visited three of the four homes on the 23,000 working acres: the 1820s Jones Stock Farm, the 1860s Ryan Prairie Home and the 1890 Davis Mansion. Unfortunately, we had a long drive ahead of us, so we decided to only walk around the outside of the 1930s George Ranch and instead save our energy for some steer ropin’!

As we walked toward the stables, we heard the romantic whinnying of a horse and went to investigate. Inside the barn we were greeted by a handsome black man decked out in the finest rodeo wear. From his hat to his hand-made chaps, Cowboy Larry looked as if he’d stepped right of the movie set. But Larry, as he told us, and we would later learn more, is a REAL cowboy, with real credentials. He’s won 25 buckles and comes from a long-line of cowboys and apparently was the second black cowboy to qualify for the Texas State Rodeo – quite impressive.

But you see Larry is not an anachronism, a rare black man in cowboy boots, far from it. Though few realize how vital African Americans were to the cattle ranches during reconstruction. Thousands of freed slaves were hired as trail riders and without the help of these 9,000 or so black cowboys (which made up nearly a quarter of all cowboys in the west) the cattle industry could never have flourished. The black cowboy was actually a vital piece of Texas and all of Western history though you don’t see too many of them in classic southwestern art or even our history books.

Larry spent over an hour with us, first teaching us to lasso a steer at three paces, I’m sure it’s a bit harder atop a hard-riding steed, but if anyone needs us to run up behind a stationary calf (not too big) and rope his horns (or at least one horn), we’re available for hire.

He then partnered with Cowboy James to show us some sorting techniques, many of which I’m sure you’ve seen in rodeo clips. Used to quickly and safely wrestle a calf or cow to the ground to provide medication, brand them or deal with some health emergency, the skill of roping a calf’s horns and back legs was not just for show, but a necessary part of daily ranch life.

They then invited us to step around to the main event – cow dipping! And yes, it’s as cool as it sounds.

In the early 20th century, every cattle rancher in the country drove his cattle to market in Kansas. Cows from Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and other parts throughout the West would converge each year at these livestock auctions. Cows began contracting a disease known as “Texas Fever” that killed 7 in 10 of the cows and ruined many cattle farmers outside of Texas.You see, while the Texas cattle were being driven to market, a tiny tick was catching a ride. Though it did not seem to affect the Texas livestock,  the tick’s bite was deadly to other livestock.

Laws were soon passed that required cows be dipped in a tank filled with diluted arsenic that would kill the tick. Today, this is unnecessary, but the George Ranch retains one of the only working tanks in the US. The process is quite fun to watch, and very interesting – we’ll just show you a video (see below).

The George Ranch Historical Park costs only $10 for a full day of exploration. We would’ve paid twice. For more information click here.