Coastal cowboys stay in the saddle as cattle industry changes and pastureland disappears to development
Chance Gardner looks like he was born on a horse. Sitting tall in the saddle, he braces against a bone-chilling wind as night falls on Jack Brooks Park in Hitchcock.
Gardner’s cowboy hat and thick jacket might not protect him from the biting breeze, but that doesn’t seem to bother him much. He’s doing what he loves, honing his cowboy skills at a ranch rodeo.
Gardner and his wife, Heather, are masters at the cutting competition, which singles out calves from the herd. The contest begins with a nudge to Gardner’s mare. Suddenly, his horse transforms into a traffic cop signaling calves to stop, or move in different directions.
As Gardner dismounts from his mare, he calls his sons, 15-year-old Brennan and 16-year-old Haze, to the arena and shares tips about horse skills.
“Even though I can’t make a living working as a full-time cowboy, this is something I just have to do,” Gardner said. “I love this lifestyle.”
Bigger than life
“There’s nothing like cowboy culture in all the world,” said J.P. Bryan, a Texas historian who last year opened The Bryan Museum in Galveston.
Bryan should know. He has amassed a collection of some 70,000 books, documents, artifacts and works of fine art exemplifying the history of Texas and the Southwest at the museum, of which he and his wife, Mary Jon, are co-founders. Among items at the museum are saddles, spurs, antique firearms, rare books and maps.
“We love to say we’re from Texas,” Bryan said. “Everyone knows Texas is big, and cowboys are bigger than life. Men want to be identified with heroic figures like Texas cowboys, who have the courage to take risks and weather the odds.”
But being a coastal cowboy gets tougher each year as development and urbanization encroaches on pastureland. Cyclical beef prices and droughts also make it difficult. The days when Texas families could make a living on ranching alone are fading.
Manuel Betancourt moved to Texas as a political refugee in 1964. Betancourt had been jailed in Cuba for three years for refusing to give control of his ranch to former Cuban President Fidel Castro. Overnight, Betancourt lost everything.
Family friends and a French diplomat helped Betancourt and his family travel from Cuba to Casablanca, Morocco, on a ship. Friends assisted him with passage to New York and relocation to San Antonio. Earl Dicus, the Episcopalian bishop of San Antonio at the time, helped Betancourt, his wife Suzette and children Joe, Rudy and Susana move to Galveston. The couple’s fourth child, Gina, was born on Galveston Island.
When Betancourt arrived in Galveston, he didn’t have a dime in his pocket. Galveston rancher Shearn Moody Jr. offered Betancourt a job as a ranch hand for $250 a month with free rent and paid utilities. Moody provided the Betancourts with an old camp house on 8 Mile Road on the island’s West End.
Betancourt worked for Moody full-time, then part-time. As the ranch declined, he supplemented his income by running cattle for others. After 32 years in Galveston, Betancourt moved to Santa Fe to raise cattle on his own ranch.
“All my life, I’ve been running after cows,” he said. “When you’re a cowboy, you have to be half veterinarian to help sick cows, part carpenter to fix fences and gates, part farmer to drive tractors, and know how to rope, ride a horse and drive cattle. Most of the time, you work by yourself. You have your independence.”
Betancourt, 88, still runs a ranch operation, but muses about the fate of raising cattle and urbanization that has supplanted it. Some of the largest tracts of coastal pastureland in Galveston’s West End and on Bolivar Peninsula and the mainland have in recent years been snapped up for development and other uses.
“In the next few years, ranches may be over,” Betancourt said. “Many cowboys have to work at other full-time jobs, so they can do what they love as ranchers.”
Don’t fence me in
Texas still leads the nation in cattle, but most people now live in urban places and are a part of city culture, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
More cattle run where there are smaller populations of people, Bryan said.
“People still ranch near housing developments, but competition for educating children, building houses and conducting business makes it uncomfortable for full-time ranching,” Bryan said. “To keep the cowboy tradition alive, a person has to look at other enterprises such as a fencing business, milk farming or bee keeping.”
While Betancourt and others still raise cattle full-time in Galveston County, it’s becoming more difficult as rangelands shrink.
Ernie Deats can teach a lesson or two about cowboy culture and the changing landscape. And when the Dickinson resident, cattle raiser, author and retired educator talks about his Galveston County ranching heritage, people listen.
Deats’ great-grandfather, W.C., moved to Dickinson from Deatsville, Ala., after the Civil War and began ranching on 200 acres on Dickinson Bayou. His grandfather, Edwin, extended cattle grazing by leasing another 1,000 acres. Deats’ father, Malcolm, continued ranching and passed his legacy on to his son, who raises cattle at his K-Bar Ranch in Dickinson.
“At one time, Galveston County was the crown jewel of ranching in Texas,” Deats said. “When settlers arrived on the Gulf Coast, they found a sea of grass between Texas barrier islands and what would one day become the city of Houston.”
Galveston County is in two major land resource areas: the Gulf Coast Prairies and the Gulf Coast Saline Prairies, according to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Abundant rainfall and nutritional value of blue stem grass and new salt grass historically made Galveston County good ranching country.
A special breed
“Coastal cowboys have to be hardy, and so do their cows,” Deats said.
He points to challenges with weather, water, insects, parasites and food, which call for cowboy skills.
“Where trees are scarce, hurricanes can push cows into bays and the ocean,” he said. “Humidity and standing water can cause insect problems that can devastate a herd. Cowboys have to watch for parasites like screwworms and liver flukes. We have to supplement cattle feed, because the ground here lacks phosphorous, and we can’t let baby calves eat mature salt grass, or they’ll get sick.”
Beyond maneuvering cattle from trouble spots, administering vaccines, using insecticides and supplementing soil, a key factor in diminishing risks was the introduction of Brahman cattle genetics, Deats said.
“Brahman is a hardy breed that repels insects,” he said. “These cows can handle heat and dampness. We crossbreed them with Texas Longhorns and other breeds for hybrid vigor.”
Along with strength of cowboys and cattle, Deats extols the larger-than-life history of ranching on the Texas Coast.
“Ranchers from the Houston and Fort Bend area moved cattle on two-day cattle drives to grasses near Galveston to fatten them up,” he said. “But, everything changed in 1951, when the Gulf Freeway was constructed. It ruined the cattle drives.”
Spirit of freedom
Chance Gardner chooses to keep his cowboy lifestyle. A plant shift foreman at Marathon’s refinery in Texas City, he raises cattle, is president of the Gulf Coast Ranch Rodeo Association and serves as pastor of Cowboy Ministries Church in Alvin.
“There’s a certain appeal to being a cowboy,” Gardner said. “It’s in your blood. My father had a ranch. I have a ranch, and I’ll pass this on to my kids.”