The Age: Cowboys and Caballos

Ralph Thomas Holmes

By Marie Hughes

The incomparable value of horses in the day-to-day operation of early Texas ranches remains undisputed. They helped to shape this great state and the speed and agility of these noble creatures continues to make them the transportation of choice on many of the larger spreads today.     

Step back in time with me to the Texas Gulf Coast frontier, in the 1800s, and capture the vision of a stampeding herd of magnificent wild horses framed against the panorama of the vast Texas skyline.  These equestrian beauties, their long flowing manes lifted and tossed by the wind, captivated those lucky enough to behold them running wild and free. With nostrils flaring, the pounding of their rhythmic hearts keep tempo with their thundering hooves. Their glistening hides, hot and steamy from the intense Texas sun, reveal the strength and power of their defined muscles propelling them away from their pursuers. 

Despite the beauty of these majestic steeds, they would have been as useless as a well without water and clouds without rain to the newly formed Texas ranching industry were it not for the cowboys following them fast and hard, intent on taming their wild hearts. And tame them they did. 

The Texas mustangs were first introduced here in the 1500s by the Spanish, and by the 1800s, along the Texas Gulf Coast, they were as prolific as the legendary longhorns they would be trained to herd. The Spanish mustangs eventually blended their strength and beauty with the domestic horses of the ranchers and those of the Indian tribes making the mustang in its purest form, almost extinct in this area. 

Early Chambers County cowboys who left their mark

Estus Speights

While interviewing for this article, it was the black cowboys who came to mind whenever I asked folks about memorable cowboys they remembered.  Many of the cowboys on the Texas ranches in the 1800s era before emancipation were black and most had worked the land their entire life.  When given a choice, a majority of them chose to remain loyal to the ranchers and the land they had grown to love and their descendants after them continued in their footsteps. 

Estus Speights

Lester Hankamer said the best cowboy he knew who worked for his daddy was Estus Speights. 

“Estus was a good one,” said Lester, “he was a general good cowboy.  He could rope cattle and he knew how to handle them.  He knew how everyone liked to work their cattle, he didn’t get out and run ‘em to get them in the pens.  He took his time and pushed them like they were supposed to be pushed, he was a good ‘gentle hand’ worker,” he recalled. “That’s the only ‘real’ cowboy who worked for my dad, he was the best one of the bunch.  Rayfield Williams also worked for dad, and he knew how to work cattle.”

Virginia Mayes Loya said of Estus, “He was just so darn sweet you wanted to hug him!  He was a wonderful, wonderful person.  He worked for my Grandma Effie Haynes for years.” 

Jesse Haynes III said, “Estus was just a super nice person. He was one of those people who is always laughing when he’s talking, just a great natured person.  He was one of the strongest men I ever met.  I called him Hercules as a joke, but I was amazed at just how strong he was.  I remember when I was about 12, we were stacking hay in the barn and there were some high school football boys who were helping.  One of them thought he was bad and started bullying Estus, and Estus put him in his place real quick.  Estus was between 50-60 at the time.  He was quite a cowboy, he could do it all,” Jesse said with admiration. 

“We raised all of our horses from colts and Estus would break them and take care of the cattle; he did everything.  One story I like to tell folks is about the day we were penning cows out on the prairie when I was 9 or 10,” Jesse said. “Estus, my dad, and I were all on horseback and this one crazy cow ran off.  Estus and I, with Estus in the lead, were chasing this cow out across the prairie and his horse goes across a knoll with armadillo holes. The horse goes to stumbling and gets down on his front knees.  Now, they’re still running and Estus jumps off the horse and is running beside the horse, and when the horse got his footing Estus was back in the saddle, they never stopped running the whole time.  If I hadn’t seen it, I probably wouldn’t have believed it, but I saw the whole thing. I have a vivid memory of it. To me that was just amazing!”

Fred Johnson

Another well known Chambers County cowboy was Fred Johnson, born in 1883 in Double Bayou, Texas.  Fred worked for James Jackson on the JHK Ranch in Double Bayou for 60 years.  In his book, JHK Ranch, 1940-1963, Jim Bob said of Fred, “He knew the cattle from A to Z and taught me a lot about how to handle them.  When I knew him, he was in his 70s and still very active.  We had a bad ‘Brimmer’ bull that would not stay with the herd,” Jim Bob continued.  “He would run off about a half mile and paw the ground and dare anyone to come near. Uncle James said to leave him alone as he would tear up more men and rigging than he had time to repair.  However, one day Mr. Fred Johnson rode out to bring back the bull. As he approached, he untied his yellow saddle slicker, and when the bull was close, he unfurled it in front of his horse. That bull took an awful fright and headed for the safety of the herd!” 

On another occasion, there was a cow that absolutely would not stay in the herd. 

“As soon as we would rope her and bring her back, she would go out the other side. The next time she was roped, Mr. Fred said to throw her down. When this was done, he took his oak whip handle and beat the bottoms of her feet. When she got up, she was sore-footed and could not run off, but only walk with the herd,” said Jim Bob.

The Wallisville Mare

Fred’s son, Matt Johnson, worked the Jackson Ranch for Ocie Jackson. 

Jim Bob Jackson said of this tough seasoned cowboy, “Matt Johnson could break horses no one else could, he was a Jack-of-all-trades and well-liked by everyone.” 

Goonie Mayes knew that Matt was a good cowboy and Goonie was looking for someone to break the Wallisville Mare, because he had not found another cowboy who could make the ride.  Goonie said there would be two-fifths of very good whiskey for Matt if he would just sap the mare out. He only had to ride her once, but he must stay in the saddle the whole time.

Jim Bob was not there to witness the big event, but he said Matt gave him a first-hand account. 

“Matt Johnson, Bronc Rider,” artwork by Jim Bob Jackson

“Goonie showed up with the Mare and another horse about 2 p.m.  Matt had just finished with his muskrat hides and had on his rubber hip boots.  Matt saddled the Mare with no trouble and Goonie told Matt to mount as the mare would not jump as long as there was another horse next to her.  Matt had forgotten to bring his cowboy boots, so he had to ride the mare with his rubber hip boots.  He pulled them all the way up to his hips and made sure they were fastened securely. 

Matt mounted the Wallisville Mare, and he and Goonie slowly made their way to the soft ground on the edge of the marsh.  Jim Bob recorded that the mare was fine as long as the other horse was next to her side and when Goonie rode off, the mare just stood there frozen. 

He said, “Matt tapped her with his spurs.  She just trembled and shot straight up.  Down she went and then up again.  Matt said that she went so high he could see Monroe City and when she came down, she filled his hip boots with marsh water.”

“Well, Matt rode the Wallisville Mare and got his whiskey, but lost money on the deal.  Each time he came down on the saddle while the mare was jumping, it would roll the rubber right off of the boots and ruined a good pair of $15 boots.” 

Ralph Thomas Holmes, a cowboy’s cowboy

There are certain people in life who leave indelible marks and, from what I have heard, Ralph Thomas Holmes left a pretty big footprint.

Carlton Carrington of Double Bayou shared a few of his memories of this man who was larger than life to him. Ralph was Carlton’s next-door neighbor growing up and the best friend of his grandfather, Cecil ‘Copy’ Carrington. Carlton called him Unk or Uncle Ralph his whole life and it was not until he was grown that he realized they were not blood kin.

He said, “Uncle Ralph was one of those guys who had a commanding presence, sort of the Godfather of their community, a highly respected man of integrity who exuded authority. It was his nature to be frank and up front with all he met, and he called it like he saw it, and by golly, people listened!”

Ralph Thomas Holmes

Carlton said if you were going into battle Uncle Ralph was the man you would want leading the charge. He had the heart of a lion and the virtue of kindness, always willing to lend a hand to any in need. Carlton remembers Ralph as a cowboy’s cowboy.

The following information was taken out of Peter Jenkins book ‘The Untamed Coast’:

“There used to be plenty of tough-as-leather cowboys in the Texas coastal cattle country. There weren’t many left by the time I visited. This rarity was why Ralph Holmes, at age 72, cowboyed for two ranches. He worked a lot for Joe Whitehead.  Ralph had been a professional cowboy since he was 12 years old — and there are few anywhere in the world who could claim that they had been cowboying for 60 years. That’s cowboying on a working ranch, not show-biz rodeoing. Ralph, who was once a champion rodeo calf-roper, knows the difference well. The first time I saw Ralph was from behind. He was walking toward a truck, leading his slim-built white-faced horse. And I could see that the space between Ralph’s legs had been permanently formed in the exact shape of a horse’s midsection, like a Chinese woman’s foot that has been bound to become small. Ralph’s leather chaps had been etched by thorns that slap and gouge; he wore them because he had to. His hat had deep, saturated stains from hundreds of unforgiving roundups. Ralph wore gold-rim glasses now. His gray mustache was carefully trimmed. His arms didn’t swing. He kept them poised at his side, always ready to yank back on the reins, reach for his rope, pull his hat down harder in the wind, or brace for a charging cow.”

“Yes, sir, whenever they need me, I’m here,” Ralph said when he had a moment to talk by a clump of tallow trees. “Anymore though, I just work horseback. I don’t wrestle the calves now, but I can do the branding and such. My old legs and my knees are getting bad; I can’t do a lot of work walking anymore. But on horseback . . . when I’m horseback I can give a man a pretty good day’s work. Ever since I was 6 years old and started going to school, I’ve been riding a horse. You either walked or rode a horse to school. My own first horse, the one that I raised when I was a kid, I called her Pearl. She was a mare. And after I got grown, my favorite roping horse was a big sorrel horse I bought from one of the Jackson brothers. His name was Dude. He was so tall, you could have trouble getting on him. But once you got on him, you were horseback. Some cattle would just as soon attack you as run from you. Some, like these belonging to Joe and Annette Whitehead, are gentle and calm. Their behavior is based on breeding and the manner in which they’re handled.”

Ralph’s horse, “Bald,’ wants to go after a stray, but his rider holds him back. In summer, everything overheats in the incredibly humid coastal ranching country of Texas. It’s so oppressive only the toughest cattle, horses, and people survive. Even then, smart and seasoned Texans work as early in the morning as they can near East Bay, Chambers County.

The ranchers try to control their cattle by building very narrow chutes. Nevertheless, one of Lionel’s wildest cows tries to leap the fence of an almost inescapable pen. Some cattle seemed as wild as African water buffalo, especially after they started to roar.  Ralph Holmes waits for a couple of high-headed, snorting, roaring, overheated cows to settle down. When they get as out of sorts as they were at this working session, the only thing to do is wait for them to calm down.

The Kahla Cowboys

I recently sat down to chat with Bob Kahla of Stowell.  Bob is a well-known fixture in the Chambers County area and affectionately called “Cowboy Bob,” not because of how he dresses, although he dresses the part, but because that is who he is.  His cowboy lifestyle is one that has been passed down from grandfather to father to son and one he has passed down to his children. 

Bob, in his saddle-worn faded Wranglers, pearl-snap shirt, and traditional straw hat, settled back comfortably and proudly shared his Kahla cowboy heritage with me. 

Bob Kahla

“My great-great-grandfather and his wife left Germany by ship in 1847.  He and his Dutch wife were to receive the deed to land west of Galveston.  They landed on Bolivar and my great-great-grandfather died of scarlet fever, soon after arrival.  His son, my great-grandfather, William Kahla, was born either on the ship or on the Bolivar Peninsula.  His mom could not claim the land because she would have to work or farm it, so she married again. She married a German fiddler player, Johann Simon Beckshoft.  My grandfather, William Kahla, grew up to be a rancher-farmer and boat captain in Bolivar.  He acquired 1500 head of cattle by 1900 and they were lost in the great storm.  Then in 1915 he lost another 1500 head in the 1915 storm.  He said he would have another herd if he lived long enough,” Bob said.

“My grandfather, Louis Kahla moved to Stowell after the 1900 storm.  He had ridden the storm out in the attic of a house that floated 2 miles.  He said he’d never stay at Bolivar again during a storm.  He worked on the Grant Cade estate ranch on Bolivar and met my grandmother, Matile Dugat, while herding cattle in Fannet.  He and his brothers would lope their horses from Bolivar to Fannett to dance with the Dugat girls on Saturday night.  He and my grandmother bought a hotel in Stowell that became known as the Kahla Hotel.  Many working men stayed there and ate their meals while my grandfather ranched and farmed,” he continued.

Bob’s father was a rancher and rodeo producer. 

“There were thousands of wild horses and half broke horses all over the prairie, turned out by people who didn’t want to feed them.  During the 1930s, my grandfather, Louis Kahla, and his cousin, Swede Kahla, put on rodeos at Patton Beach at Bolivar Peninsula.  They put on the first rodeo in Southeast Texas.  I remember the arena was still there when I was a kid.  Dad said they snubbed the broncs up to pick-up horses and then got on the bucking horse, because they didn’t have any chutes.  They had wild cow milking, steer roping, and whatever and that was their rodeo.  There was no admission fee.  They barbecued a tough old jersey cow and put a lot of hot sauce on it and sold the barbecue and beer to make a little money,” Bob said.

“After World War II, there were horses everywhere.  They were using tractors on the farms by then, they were still using some horses, but it wasn’t like it was when they used teams of 12 horses pulling the separators. So, they were all over the place and my dad started selling them.  He wound up with so many horses that he started trying them out as bucking horses.  He had a few young guys that wanted to be bucking horse riders, so he’d put them in the chutes and let them ride them.  If they bucked good, he’d keep them and lease them to the rodeos for $10 a night.  If you leased ten horses a night that would be a $100 which was pretty good money right after the war.  In 1955 he got a professional rodeo association card and started putting on professional rodeos. He put on rodeos with his stock as far away as Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi,” Bob remembers.

Bob’s father produced rodeos for about 10 years putting on his last rodeo at the Coushatta rodeo arena in Louisiana in 1964.  He leased out stock after that.     

“I started leasing out stock to amateur rodeos when I was 13 or 14, making me the third generation of Kahla Rodeo Producers.  “I started riding bulls and broncs at that time with my best friend, Buck Hamilton,” said Bob.   “I won the College National Finals in 1971 and the SRA Nationals the same year.”

When I asked Bob if he’d had many injuries, he grinned and said, “I’ve had numerous concussions. In fact it’s amazing I can even sit here and carry on a conversation with you,” he chuckled. “One time when I was about 30, I’d been working wild horses all day and I was tired, hot, and dusty.  I had this one wild one’s leg tied up so he couldn’t kick me so easily.  I walked into the pen and saw he’d gotten his leg loose.  I pushed him over and whop, he kicked me in the mouth and broke my top palate and knocked my teeth out.  I just spit my teeth out and walked to the house.”

Bob tells of one horse that bucked him off and kicked him in the face.  It knocked him out and when he came to, his nose was on the side of his face. 

“I went to the doctor, and he said,” Well, I can set your nose, or you can set it yourself in front of the mirror. The doctor grabbed my nose and pulled it straight, and my eyes crossed,” laughed Bob, recalling the moment. “I kept straightening it as best I could every morning, cause it would have cost me $700 to have the doctor do it.  That’s why it’s a little crooked.”

Bob recalls, “In the 1930s horses were so cheap you could hardly give them away.  A man bought 300 head of wild horses that were running on the White Ranch.  My dad, his brothers, Goonie Mayes, Grady Gaulding, and a bunch of other young cowboys from around here, I can’t recall their names now, went down to Whites Ranch, I’m sure before daylight, and started the horses heading towards Orange.  That’s where they were going, the marsh in Orange, 60 miles away.  They left Whites Ranch headed down 124 and on into Beaumont.  They went right through the middle of town and never met a car.  They let the horses run at the beginning of the drive so they’d be tired and easier to handle when they got to Beaumont.  That must have been a picture to see!” 

I asked Bob if he had worked at any occupation besides the cowboy trade. He said he got a job in construction after he got out of college and advanced to the position of supervisor by the age of 25. It was at that time he won the saddle bronc competition in Beaumont and made the decision to leave his career in construction and return to what he loved – rodeoing and breaking and training horses.  Bob left the rodeo arena in 1978. He continues to train horses and write cowboy poetry at the old place in Stowell, Texas.

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