From Texas Monthly’s inception in 1973, founding editor Bill Broyles saw the magazine’s mission as examining the legends and realities of Texas. A critical part of the state’s mythos was the story of King Ranch, founded in 1853 by steamboat captain Richard King. With no knowledge of cattle, King miraculously grew his initial 15,500-acre purchase of “worthless” South Texas desert land into a colossal, 825,000-acre ranching empire that withstood generations of change.
Even as Texas moved out of the frontier era and into the modern day, Broyles knew the public still maintained a deep fascination with the state’s cattle-driving, cowboy era. “I thought if I could get to the heart of [King Ranch], I could get to the heart of this myth that’s such a persistent part of Texas’s identity,” Broyles said during a recent interview about what drew him to the ranch.
As editor, Broyles quickly greenlit his own assignment focused on the contemporary King Ranch and its fascinating origin story. “I debated whether or not I would accept it, but I finally decided that I would,” he joked.
Broyles had almost 130 years of history to comb through when he began reporting the piece in 1979. King Ranch was the birthplace of the cattle prod, wire-mesh fences, dipping vats, and the Santa Gertrudis—the first American breed of cattle, bred specifically to withstand the sweltering Texas heat. Over time, the enterprise expanded from cattle to oil and natural gas, with its constant evolution central to its survival.
Also crucial to King Ranch’s longevity was the family at the heart of the business. Following the death of Captain King’s wife, Henrietta, in 1925, the couple’s daughter Alice and her husband, Robert Kleberg, inherited more than 800,000 of the ranch’s 1.2 million acres. Across five generations, the Klebergs instilled a strong sense of family pride in the business and their traditions.
The family also presented Broyles’s biggest reporting challenge. Famously closed off to reporters, the members hadn’t granted a writer unfettered access to them since they’d tapped Tom Lea to write a two-volume history of the ranch more than two decades earlier. At the time, the family was in the midst of a major shift. The deaths of Robert Kleberg Jr. and Dick Kleberg just five years apart had prompted the family to look for a new head of the ranch. By 1979, half brothers Belton Kleberg Johnson and Robert Shelton had been passed over as successors and had left the family business, and each had filed a separate lawsuit against the ranch.
Though it was a tense time, Broyles slowly worked his way into the Kleberg family, first by attending Dick’s funeral in 1979. “It was so powerful,” Broyles recalled. “The rituals of the funeral were based on traditions going back a hundred years and more, and all the vaqueros were there. It was tough getting access, but once it gradually opened up, there were very few people that refused to talk to me.”
The resulting 25,000-word piece (“The editor gave me the space,” Broyles laughed) captured not just the ranch’s origins, but also the family’s dynamic and what it meant to them to be descendants of Captain King.
“In my own mind, I still see it as a place that really represents some of the best parts of our history and the hardest, most difficult parts of our history, too,” Broyles said. “Even back in 1980, [the ranch] was a little bit out of time. It was like a magic mirror you walked through. It’s part of the mystery of Texas—it raises more questions than answers.”