For many Texas visitors, King Ranch is the embodiment of the Lone Star State’s legacy. Longhorn cattle, vast ranchlands, and genuine cowboys evoke a sense of mystique and grandeur that Texas alone can claim.
The origins of King Ranch, now an esteemed National Historic Landmark, date to 1853 when Richard King purchased 68,500 acres of property that had been Spanish and Mexican land grants. Perhaps its biggest claim to fame is the ranch’s development of the Western Hemisphere’s first strain of beef cattle.
King was also one of the first ranchers to move Texas Longhorn cattle from Mexico to markets in the Midwest, and the innovations developed at his ranch, from cattle and horse breeding and disease control to improving the bloodlines of the quarter horse to well-drilling, earned it the proud title “birthplace of American ranching.”
Today, King Ranch sprawls across 825,000 acres, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. The King Ranch Visitor Center (Hwy. 141 West, 361/592-8055, www.king-ranch.com ) offers daily guided tours along an old stagecoach road past majestic Longhorns, a historic commissary, Mrs. King’s carriage house and home from the early 1900s, and more mesquite trees than you’ve ever seen in your life. Bring plenty of water, since it gets plenty hot out on the ranch. Special tours devoted to birding, native wildlife, and agriculture are available in advance by reservation.
To learn more about the fascinating history of the King’s family and property, move ‘em up and head ‘em a couple miles down the road to the King Ranch Museum (405 N. Sixth St. in Kingsville, 361/595-1881, www.king-ranch.com , 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 1–5 p.m. Sun.). Housed in a historic downtown ice plant, the museum contains impressive 1940s photos of the ranch by award-winning photographer Toni Frissell, fancy saddles and firearms, antique coaches and carriages, and other historic ranch items. One of the most intriguing objects on display is “El Kineño,” a custom-designed 1949 Buick Eight hunting vehicle made by General Motors especially for Congressman R. M. Kleberg, Sr.
Just a few blocks away you’ll find a restored 1904 mercantile store that now houses the hearty-smelling King Ranch Saddle Shop (201 E. Kleberg St., 877/282-5777, www.krsaddleshop.com , 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Sat.). Originally used to supply gear exclusively to the King Ranch cowboys known as Los Kineños (King’s people), the store now offers leather goods and clothing to the world (its website does brisk business). The charming downtown shop also contains exhibits and photos on ranch history and information about the governors, presidents, and foreign dignitaries it has outfitted.