The Age: The heart of a rancher

William Cade "Bill" White

By Marie Hughes, Chambers County Museum

A lean sturdy young cowboy rides up to his great uncle, Monroe White’s home, in Stowell Texas, and tethers his gray cow pony to the fence.  Clad in boots and chaps, he’s no “wanna-be” urban cowboy, this boy is the real deal.  Eleven-year-old James “Jamie” Taylor White V is as comfortable in his trappings as he is his own skin, for pure cattleman’s blood runs in this boy’s veins.  The crimson thread has been passed down to him from generation to generation and he takes great pride in being the great-great-grandson of the Cattle King of Texas, James Taylor White I.

Jamie nimbly ascends the steps to the balcony porch where the elder Whites are assembled, the jingling of his spurs on each step announcing his arrival.  He settles in, quietly respectful, as the elders recall the days of old — days when the longhorns grazed contentedly on the endless open range sharing their forage with the wild deer and buffalo. 

Bonnie Tom Robinson, a reporter for The Press, hurriedly scribbles the words of Monroe White as White recalls the days when Cherokees would arrive for one month every summer to hunt when the deer were herded together with the longhorns.  Horses and sailboats were the main means of transportation in those days, Monroe states.  Young Jamie sits spellbound as he listens to the familiar family history being recalled once again. 

At the time of this 1930 interview, 30,000 acres remained of the original White ranch, and they had an additional 20,000 under lease.  “How many head of cattle you suppose we have, sonny?” Jamie’s grandma asked him.  James Taylor White V scurried to consult his notebook and reported, “Five thousand.” 

Gone were the days of driving cattle down the well-worn trails to New Orleans, for in the late 1890s the railroad came, and established cattle pens and a passenger-stop named White Ranch.  But as Jamie sat and listened to the old-timers talk of the by-gone foundation days of White Ranch it fueled a passion in his soul.  When his time came to pick up the torch, he did it willingly and used it to ignite a fire in the hearts of his children.

In a 1974 Enterprise Journal interview, two short years before Jamie would draw his final breath, we read: “Jamie White, in the saddle and listening to the lowing cattle, almost since his birth, remembers the long cattle trains that loaded at those pens.  They loaded not just the White’s cattle but those of neighboring ranchers, the Jackson’s, and others.  There were 50 cars to a train headed for Garden City, Kansas.  As a boy Jamie always longed to be one of those two cowboys sent along to tend the cows as they traveled.  He never got the assignment.  Then in 1972 Jamie and Taylor White helped load the last of the cattle shipped from Chambers County pens by rail; 800 head of White Ranch calves was headed for California Imperial Valley feed lots.”

Doing What He Loves

“My dad, Jamie White, was a very, very good operator,” Bill White said in a 2013 interview with Livestock Weekly.  Like his ancestors, he too, lived through some tough times.”

“The Depression years affected the cattle ranch very dramatically.  Some of the White family got a little oil that helped out.  I remember my dad saying the thing that kept the White Ranch afloat was muskrats.” Bill recalled.  They were trapping and I don’t know what they were worth at the time, but it was quite a bit of money, and that cash flow was one of the things that kept things going.”

Bobby Edwards added, “I remember Roy Graham told me he was working for Jim White at the time and the muskrats came in sprees of about five years.  The last big trapping they had was when Jim White was running the ranch.  Roy helped him load that year’s pelts into a rail car and they put 100,000 pelts into one car.  He didn’t say that was all they got off the White Ranch,” said Bobby, “that was just what they put in that rail car.”

“I don’t know for sure what they were worth,” interjected Bill, “but it was probably a couple dollars a pelt.”  “I think three is what comes to mind,” added Bobby.  “Yeah, and $80,000-$100,000 was a lot of money,” replied Bill. 

The Great Freeze

“The great freeze of 1935 was devastating to cattle ranches,” Bill recalled.  “They said you could walk on dead carcasses from High Island to Sabine Pass.  It put a lot of people out of business.”

Bob Kahla added, “My grandpa’s cattle were in Bolivar, and they walked across the Bay, which was frozen because a norther blew the tide out.  The water level was low, and it was fresh water brought in by the storm, which freezes at a higher temperature.   The cows got over in Smith Point and they had to go all the way around across Mud Bayou in High Island to get the cattle and bring them all the way back around, 50-60 miles once it thawed out.”  

“Where the Anahuac Refuge is, is what they call Frozen Point,” Bill clarified, “it’s the furthest south point of land.  The Jacksons’ cattle went out into the Bay because it was warmer than the air temperature and they were trying to warm up.  They did the same thing in the Gulf and everywhere else.  They would come out of the water, and they’d freeze right there on the coastline.  I remember folks talking about the carcasses that ended up across the bay, like where Kemah is now, I don’t know what they called it then.  It was a tremendous problem, you could smell it for a long way.”

Preparing to Take the Reins

After high school, Bill attended the University of Texas, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Kyle.  After finishing only one semester, his mother died suddenly, in 1973.  After her death, Bill convinced his father to let him return home to the family ranch. 

“I was going to school when my mom passed away,” said Bill, “So I made my dad a deal.   I said I’ll go to Lamar University, and I’ll take every business, bookkeeping, accounting, and all that stuff they have.  I don’t need a diploma to hang on the wall because I just don’t need one.  I did that for a year, then my brother, Kyle died in ’74, so I just went to work after that.”

“It takes me and five to seven guys to run this operation,” said Bill.  “One guy has been with me since my dad died, well actually before my dad died.  I also have 3 or 4 guys who have been with me since the late ‘70s early ‘80s.  I’ve been blessed, I’ve had a lot of good help,” he humbly replies.

 “The ranching business is not a very lucrative business,” Bill says.  “I haven’t made much money in I don’t know how long, but I’m doing it ‘cause that’s what I want to do, and I’m fortunate enough to be able to do that.” He smiles.  “The cow business got really good around ’14 and ’15, after the drought of 2011.  They said it was going to last for 4 or 5 years and of course it only lasted two.  I was counting on 4 or 5,” Bill said. 

“Cattle ranching hasn’t always been this bad,” said Bobby Edwards. 

Bill added, “I’d say the first 100 years of the Whites’ Ranch it was a good business.  The expenses were different then they are today,” he continued.  “God help us at the cost of fertilizer and fuel and vehicles and all that kind of stuff, it’s just crazy.”

“My hands could certainly get better paying jobs somewhere else, but they do it for the same reason I do, they’re country boys and they’re doing what they want to do.  They like what they’re doing, and they put up with me,” Bill chuckled, “which is very surprising.”

Salt Grass and “Skeeters”

“I lease a lot of land from US Fish & Wildlife Services,” said Bill.  “Daddy bought all of Guy Cade’s cattle and leased the land before the Wildlife Service bought it from the Jacksons, so we were grandfathered in.  We’ve had it under lease since ’61.”

“About 85 percent of the White Ranch is marsh land. We have some of the most productive marsh country in the state right here on the upper Texas Gulf Coast,” he said in the 2013 interview with Livestock Weekly. 

Paspalum, commonly referred to as “running grass” or “saltwater Bermuda” because it looks like common Bermuda, offers some of the best grazing in the brackish marsh.  The cattle will eat it before they eat anything else.  There’s also three-square or rat grass, a type of bull rush, according to Bill.  

In our recent interview. Bill added, “Some of the areas of the marsh are better than others and there’s a lot of it out there that just holds the world together, just blue sky is what I call it.  I’ve grazed almost everything in south Chambers County and Jefferson County and there’s some of it out there that’s not worth having.  There are places in the marsh better than others and fortunately the better land is where we ranch.”

The Whites still burn the marsh every couple of years in the fall, a practice which began with the Indians and was adopted by the first J. T. White.  Many other ranchers thought he was crazy for doing it but adopted the practice themselves when they saw how much healthier and fatter his cattle were.  The burning increases the production of the grasses putting valuable potash into the soil, which helps benefit new plant growth.  In record time after the burn the cattle are grazing on new supple tender salt grass rich in protein.   

“Another really important part of ranching is you have to raise cattle that will fit the country you’re ranching in,” Bill said.  “This country is high rainfall, poor forage quality, tremendous parasite load and insect problems, and so you have to have brahman influenced cattle.  We run kind of a crossbred cow, then we have a herd of more “bramery” type cattle that are 3/4ths or 7/8ths Brahman that we put Hereford bulls on, and we put Charolais bulls on the crossbred cows for a terminal cross.  We’ve also some half breed Braford cattle we breed to Brahman bulls to get the replacement heifers.  So, we have a 3-way deal and even in that mix we use a lot of half-blood Braford bulls.”  

“The most popular cattle to use everywhere else you go is Black Angus.  When you go south of here there’s not a lot of shade and the black cattle can’t tolerate the heat, so that’s an issue.” Bill noted.  “Their black color absorbs more of the heat and their temperature will run 10 degrees higher than other cattle.”

Bob Kahla added, “They’ll find a pond of water.” 

“That’s right,” agreed Bill, “then you have to go in there and drag them out.” 

“Mosquitoes were always a real problem and still can be in the right circumstances,” said Bill.  “I can’t begin to imagine what it would have been like way back then.  I’ve often thought I’d like to go back a couple hundred years for 20 or 30 minutes,” Bill said laughingly, “if I had a helicopter to get me out.  It can get bad now after a tidal surge, you get a lot of saltwater, then the mosquitoes break out.” 

Sandy Edwards said in the ‘50s, Oneal Monteau used to haul 160-pound timbers in a buckboard to the beach at High Island where they used them to build oil rigs.  Oneal told him the Karankawa Indians were in that area, and you could smell them a half mile away, as they would cover their bodies with fish oil to keep the mosquitoes away.

Reportedly, after the 1900 storm there were no mosquitoes for two years, then they came back with a vengeance.  Bob Kahla said in the ‘50s the mosquitoes got so thick they got in the cows’ noses and smothered them. 

“I’ve seen that in my lifetime,” Bill replied. “They’ll suck so much blood out of a calf they’ll just die from anemia.  It’s cheaper to run cattle in this country but it’s one of those deals you get what you pay for. You can go away from here and take the same cattle and raise a calf that will weigh 150-200 pounds more at weaning than a calf raised here with the same genetics, but that’s the difference in the country and the quality of forage, the insects, excess rainfall, and all the things that go along with it.  So, when you say things are cheaper around here, well they dang sure need to be because what you get in return is certainly going to be less.”

“We work the cows in the spring and the fall,” said Bill.  “Branding, vaccinating, and worming whenever we have them gathered up.  We palpate in the fall and when the cows that palpated bred are brought out of the marsh in the spring, we’ll typically have an 85 percent calf crop. Which is a testament to the harsh country. We calve mostly in January-March.  We want the calves born as early as we can get ‘em because they just do better.  We pick our bulls up so our calves aren’t born past the middle of April.  When you get calves born later,” Bill said, “there’s a lot better chance that the insects will be a problem.  Along about June the insects can be pretty ferocious.”

Swimming the Intracoastal Canal

“We still swim the cows across the Intracoastal Canal,” said Bill, “iIn fact, I’m supposed to be swimming them right now but I’m here talking to y’all.”

“It doesn’t take them long to round up the cows in the marsh to swim them across the canal,” Bill explained.  “They hear these old rattling trailers and if they’re in the marsh they’ll come to the high ground, either on the bank of the intracoastal canal, or the beach.  We left here at 5:30 this morning because you want to get there early while they’re still bedded down. If you get there late, they’ll be out in the marsh, then you might not get them all gathered.  If you get there before they start moving, it’s a lot easier.”

“Once we round them up,” continued Bill, “we part out the cows and calves and pen them up.  We trailer the calves around.  We used to just go down the beach, but that’s become more of a problem.  So, now we go down the Intracoastal Canal banks and go to Clam Lake Oil field on a dirt road and get on Hwy 87.  From there we go to Sabine Pass and around to Port Arthur and get on Hwy 73.  It’s about a 75-80 mile trip.  It takes about 2 hours to leave the bank on the south side of the Intracoastal Canal and travel around to the north side.”

“We’ve been trailering the calves for 10-15 years now.” Bill said.  “We used to swim them, and it was a wreck! When you swim ‘em, the calves will go into the water, and they’ll be doing fine following their mammas.  Then they’ll start hanging back and the cows are out in front.  The cows will go about half way across and then start looking for their babies.  The calves are back there bellowing and then turn around.  These little calves have a mind of their own.”

“They want to go back to where they last saw their mammas and that’s behind them!  Once they ever turn around you’re not going to turn them back again.  It was always a wreck!” said Bill with exasperation.  “If you don’t get them funneled into where you want them to go they’ll head down the canal and up the bank.  They’re like little mountain goats.”

“They’ll go up anywhere on the steep canal bank and it will never be where you want them to go!  When the mammas hear their babies bellowing they turn around and head back too.” Bill said.  “So we started hauling the calves around and swimming the mammas.  The cows swim a lot better without the calves and we usually don’t have real big problems doing it this way.  We have a group of cowboys on horses who hold the cows at the pens until we make the trip around.  We usually move 160-180 head at one time and accomplish the job with about a dozen hands.  We try to only move enough cows at one time where the calves will all fit in the trailers. Otherwise with the trailering taking 2 hours you can run into darkness if you have to make two trips, and you don’t want that.”

“Podgie Hamilton kept some cattle down at Kaplan,” said Bobby Edwards, “he’d drive them to White Ranch every spring.  I went with him, in about ’54 when I was a little kid and the pass wasn’t there.  We just drove them down the beach to High Island and straight up,” he said.  It took pretty much a full day.  In ’55 they dug Rollover Pass through there and put in the bridge and it was grill work all the way across.  We got up there early in the morning and those cows would not go over it.  We had to take them back to the pasture. The next day we started again, but we had a truck load of bales of hay and we scattered it all over the grating.  They went across but they were reluctant.  We didn’t do that again, as it was just too much trouble.”

Hurricane Hardships

“When we know there’s a hurricane coming,” exclaimed Bill, “it’s like a fire drill in school.  We gather cattle up trying not to mix them and gather them into traps around the ranch or in smaller pastures of about 100-300 acres. If we mix them, we have to get it all straight when we head back to the pastures.  We handle these cattle a lot because we’re on top of what’s going on, we’re always watching.  We moved them 4 or 5 miles north during Rita and Ike, but with Ike it wasn’t far enough.”

“We moved 2,800 head of cattle during Ike and lost 300-400 head.  The ones we lost we moved into pasture they weren’t familiar with and they swam into a ditch area and got hung up in the brush.” Bill explained. 

Susan Bollich added, “They lost all the fences, ALL THE FENCES on the White Ranch during Ike.” 

“Yes,” said Bill, “and we still haven’t built them all back. I don’t know what I’d do if I ever had to go through that again. That was the biggest hardship I’ve faced.”

“My grandpa lost 1,500 head of cattle on Bolivar during the 1900 storm,” said Bob Kahla, “and he lost 1,500 head again in the 1915 storm.  He said if he lived long enough he’d get another big herd.”

Let it Rain, Let it Rain

Bill said he would never want to be in a drought situation, but he’s afraid we might be headed in that direction now. 

“Drought is something I dealt with in 2011,” said Bill, “and it affects your psyche, it really does.  You get to the point where you think it may never rain again, and it will mess with your mind.” 

Bill has had a plan on the back burner to build a water system for the cattle.  I asked him if he had a plan to move forward with that and he laughed and said, “Funny you should ask, I think it just got bumped to the front of the list with the lack of rain we’re having.  There’s a water line that runs from Winnie to Bolivar that comes off the Neches River.  I had a deal with the Lower Neches Valley Authority where I could tap into the line, but I have to do some figuring to see if it will be cost effective.  I’d have to run lines and have storage of some sort built.”

My Greatest Blessing

“One of the greatest blessings is I’ve had a lot of help from a lot of different people, older people, great role models.  My dad, unfortunately, wasn’t around long enough.  I learned a lot from him, I just wish he’d been here longer,” Bill said. “I was fortunate to have the help of my brothers and sisters once he was gone and I’ve learned a lot from friends of his that made a big difference in me as a person and kind of how I look at life.”

“The thing that always got me was looking at those scrapbooks,” Bill said, getting misty-eyed.  “It gave me a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose.”

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