Inside the Rock House on the McAllen Ranch, an old building where the ranchers meet every morning at 6:30 to go over the day’s plans, there’s a row of saddles arranged on one end of the front room. The polished leather gleams like it’s just ready for a horse.
Like jerseys hung from arena rafters, these are the saddles from the retired vaqueros who, over the years, held the foreman position at the ranch.
They represent the way life used to be here. The vaqueros — and the horses they rode — are becoming memories as the McAllen Ranch adapts to modern times and James McAllen takes the reins of his family’s business.
He rode many a horse as a child on the ranch, but McAllen recognizes that there are less risks — and greater rewards — for phasing them out of day-to-day operations.
“We’ve been training the cattle to work with us rather than us working with the cattle,” he said. “There’s a lot of good that’s come from it. The cattle are a lot more gentle these days. We can work them on foot now.”
A skittish bull bolts back from the fence of a cattle pen that dates back to 1860 just beyond the house where McAllen and his family live — built by McAllen’s great-great grandfather in 1900, just a handful of years before a city would be named for him. Within sight of the house are an old blacksmith shop and commissary, preserved for posterity.
It’s hard not to think about the ranch’s almost 230-year history when you’re there. But McAllen’s quick to dispel romantic notions about the ranching life. Those stereotypes are better suited to paperback Westerns — or riding off into the sunset on horseback at the end of a movie.
“For us, it’s a lot more about maintenance. We’re fixing fences, we’re fixing water pumps, windmills, we’re trimming trees, we’re digging lines for new water lines and fixing old water lines. Every day is different,” McAllen said. “I’m kind of a glorified maintenance man, so to speak, with a cowboy hat. Not much more than that.”
The ranch still maintains a herd, and everyone there still works cattle. It’s a responsibility that ebbs and flows depending on the time of year. Calves are born in the spring, when they are given vaccinations and identification. They’re weaned in the fall — the ranch’s harvest period. And every two to three months, the cattle are rotated to different pastures.
But cattle isn’t the only business McAllen Ranch does these days. McAllen has worked to diversify and adapt to changing times, looking ahead to what the future might bring to his family’s land even as he remembers a less complicated time for those acres.
The vaqueros’ saddles aren’t the only relics in the Rock House. Every time it rains, history resurfaces, arrowheads, Civil War-era artifacts, and metal elements like hand-forged gate hinges long ago discarded in a burn pile.
McAllen collects everything, preserving them in cases in the Rock House.
“When you start putting this stuff together, it really starts to tell a story,” he said. “And we’re big on history.”
A STORIED PAST
Behind the glass in the Rock House, beside the gate hinges, there’s another important piece of metal. A branding iron bearing the ranch’s distinct “SM” is there, too, registered in the county in the late 1880s. The initials stand for Salomé Ballí de Young McAllen — McAllen’s great-great grandmother.
Spain’s King Carlos III granted Salomé’s family the land here in 1790. Salomé married John McAllen in 1842. Together, they worked in a mercantile in Brownsville, amassing a fortune and investing in land throughout the Rio Grande Valley. They sold a piece of their holdings to some businessmen to build a train depot, and the namesake city of McAllen grew up around it.
Ranching has been a family business for almost 230 years. McAllen himself is simply the latest steward of the land.
“I’m not going to say growing up with my dad and my grandfather and working under them was always easy. It took some getting used to,” he said. “I think we’ve all learned our place on the ranch and what we excel at. I really enjoy working with my dad. He has a very deep knowledge of the ranch and all its parts. Even though I’m 46 years old and I think maybe I’ve got it figured out by now, I really don’t. I always go running back to my dad.”
When McAllen was a boy, the ranch’s operations still revolved around vaqueros.
“It was wilder times on the ranch — of what you would think a ranch would be,” he remembered. “Those are probably some of my greatest memories of some of the people I worked with back then. Unfortunately, a lot of them have passed away, but that’s what they knew. That was their specialty.”
The vaqueros were talented and dedicated. They could gather the herd in the brush without the aid of fencing, read the cattle to tell what direction they were traveling, and even divine the age of a calf just from its tracks, McAllen recalled.
“I think the vaquero culture that I grew up with, I’m lucky to have seen the tail end of it,” he said.
The hyper-specialized vaqueros rode horseback, worked cattle, and dealt with the horses. They didn’t do maintenance work around the ranch.
Now, things are different. The ranch’s past 20 to 25 employees have been whittled down to six or seven, and they’re doing the same amount of work.
“The employees that we have now are very different. Everybody’s got to do everything,” McAllen said. “Not only are we working cattle or on a horse or fixing a windmill, but they’re mowing a lawn. They’re doing all jobs across the board.”
Operations around the McAllen Ranch are streamlined for a more efficient workflow these days.
“We still have very skilled employees, but they have a greater range of things that they do versus something that’s singular,” he said. “We wear lots of hats.”
Though the land has remained in the same family, the ranch has changed to respond to the needs of the times — a two-century weight that McAllen shoulders.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” he said. “To look after the ranch and look after the property, maintain its history for the years to come … that’s getting more and more difficult as the years go by.”
POWERING THE FUTURE
A drive shaft rotates, tilting nearly 7 acres worth of solar panels to catch the sun at the most optimal angle. Inverters hum like bees.
“When you look at projects that can help sustain the ranch for future generations, I really feel like this is it,” McAllen said. “The ranch is a big place. We can afford to set aside 100 acres for a solar array.”
The array is low maintenance, and just as every employee can work cattle, they can also maintain the panels. An added advantage is the array’s low profile — not as noticeable as the wind turbines other properties are leasing land for. You don’t know they’re there until you’re at the fence that surrounds them.
The ranch owns the 1-megawatt array, which has generated power for Magic Valley Electric Cooperative — and money for McAllen Ranch — since the summer of 2018.
Cattle alone won’t sustain the ranch. Not anymore.
“As things go, everything tends to get a little more expensive, whether that be insurance, taxes, just everyday overheads. Everything seems to keep rising in costs,” McAllen said. “One of the problems is I feel that our cattle market is not keeping up with those price increases.”
As McAllen describes it, the scale at the sale barn doesn’t weigh the time, effort, and care that has been put into each cow. The responsibility falls on him to locate that niche elsewhere — where he’ll get a premium for his premium beef. He’s seen some success supplying steaks to local restaurants like house.wine and Salt New American Table, in McAllen, and other various eateries in Austin.
Still, McAllen looks elsewhere to diversify and maximize the dollar per acre he’s able to earn to sustain the ranch. He allows hunting on the ranch — deer and quail. And he’s mulling a phase two of the solar array that would double the acreage for the panels.
He finds the cattle pricing situation frustrating, but, “if I had to paint a silver lining around it, it drives us to go look for other things. To keep our mind open,” he said.
“We’re caring for a legacy that’s been left behind and doing what we can to sustain that. If someday we’ve got to raise guinea pigs, then that’s what it takes, but we haven’t really figured out what the next step is.”
PRESERVING A LEGACY
In spite of his family’s 40,000 acres, a young McAllen used to jump the fence of a neighboring property when he was a kid to explore the two buildings and well there. At 17, he made a bold offer to that landowner, looking to purchase the 9 acres. Just over a decade later, the neighbor contacted McAllen to take him up on the offer.
The land dates back to the 1805 San Ramon Grant. The two houses were built in the early 1800s. The well goes back further, to the mid-1750s. All three stone structures are in disrepair — one home’s lean stopped by posts, the other’s walls opening to blue sky, sans roof.
“What I’m trying to do is restore these buildings correctly, as they once were, and create a place where people can come and learn about early ranching,” McAllen said. “I’m gathering up all the materials because it’s a very tricky process. We’re trying to rebuild things as they were 200 years ago, so you just can’t run out to Home Depot.”
One of his sisters works at San Antonio’s Witte Museum, and put McAllen in contact with a conservator at the Alamo to consult on the materials to use in the restoration. Utilizing their guidance, materials and processes sourced from across the country, and the buildings’ existing beams and bricks, McAllen hopes to have the project completed by the end of the year.
McAllen has also been working with his wife, Katherine Moore McAllen, who is the director of the UTRGV Center for Latin American Arts, on this undertaking.
“What we want to do is create a foundation out here and possibly build a pavilion to where people can come and have possible art exhibitions out here,” he said. “A space where people could come, bring in their artwork, and have discussions about border issues, whether it might be about art, about architecture, immigration, political.”
It’s a conversation — and legacy — centered around the history of this region and its ranching roots that McAllen hopes will continue for years to come.
“I’ve always wanted to be working on the ranch. Of course I have other interests, but my heart is really here and this is home. I grew up here and I love being here,” he said.
Learn more about the McAllen Ranch by visiting mcallenranch.net.
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